Readers on Syria: The Case for Intervention

By James Fallows

Obviously I am very skeptical of U.S. military action in Syria. Yesterday I invited readers who held the opposite view to make the case. Here are the results for now, plus some items worth considering from elsewhere.

1) Ignatius on credibility. David Ignatius, a close friend of mine through most of my life, argues in the Washington Post that "U.S. credibility is at stake" and therefore Obama must make good on his threats. Eg:

What does the world look like when people begin to doubt the credibility of U.S. power? Unfortunately, we’re finding that out in Syria and other nations where leaders have concluded they can defy a war-weary United States without paying a price.

I don't see it that way, for reasons I'll elaborate another time, but David Ignatius knows a lot more about the Middle East than I do, and in assessing the situation you should check out his argument.

2) The chem-bio "norm" must be enforced. From a lawyer:

If we allow Assad to use chemical weapons without painful military retaliation, he will use them repeatedly. Will the Saudis just stand by or will they arm their Sunni brethren in Syria with chemical weapons too?   What if Assad uses biological weapons?   

I absolutely oppose American involvement in Syria in any other situation except Assad or any one else's use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Assad must not be given tacit permission by our inaction to use them as a routine, accepted weapon of war. If chemical weapons are acceptable for Assad to use, they could easily become "conventional" weapons of war in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Will chemical warfare then leak over from Syria to Iraq? And Lebanon? Afghanistan? The Caucasus? 

3) Similarly on line-drawing and credibility from a reader in the Midwest: 

Maybe bombings and missile strikes won't cause Assad to change his behaviour one bit, or diminish his military capability, or loosen his grip on power.  But I agree with [Eugene Robinson of the WaPo] that "The president was right to make chemical-weapons use the 'red line' that Assad must not cross."

And here's the thing: even if you don't believe Obama was right to declare that red line, he did declare it.  That now means his credibility, in front of the whole world, is on the line.  So if military intervention in response to a chemical attack is not a wise policy, the mistake was made when the president made that "red line" declaration.  Now, he has to follow through.

4) Get real. This is a limited operation. From a reader in Vermont:

If the Obama administration is proposing to intervene militarily in the war in Syria itself, I haven't heard about it.  All the very well-reasoned cautionary pieces you link to and emails you've published lay out why that would be a terrible idea.  Good.  I agree.

However, there's no indication whatsoever that that's what the Obama admin. is proposing to do.  In other words, seems to me you all have been doing a splendid job of demolishing a strawman.

What's actually being discussed in Washington is whether or not to do a punitive strike in response to the use of chemical weapons, and if so, how "robust" it should be.  That's it.  Whack whatever part of Assad's military infrastructure can be whacked with cruise missiles and maybe Stealth bombers without incurring too many civilian casualties, then quit.

Could we please discuss the pros and cons of that, instead of the pros and cons of something that nobody (except maybe Bill Kristol) is contemplating?  It seems like a good idea to me, but I'd like to hear a sensible discussion of why it might or might not be, and I'm not finding it.

(I was utterly opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning for all the usual reasons.  I was absolutely in favor of taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan, but then I thought we should get out, leaving behind a stern warning, and let the object lesson stand.)

5) Geo-strategics, and defending norms. From another reader:

As a Political Science grad with an emphasis on International Relations, I have two principle reasons for supporting a strike on Assad.

(1) It is in the material interests of the United States that the war continue.  Assad is a client of Iran and Russia, both of whom have clearly staked out anti-American positions.  At the same time, the majority of his direct opponents are jihadi extremists, imported from Wahabbi hotspots around the globe.  It is in our interest that they continue to kill each other.

Unfortunately, the decisive intervention of Hezbollah (under orders from Iran) has turned the tide for Assad.  Coupled with his continued air superiority, it won't be long before his forces are victorious.  As mentioned before, this is detrimental.

(2) The norm against chemical weapons is incredibly important.  Chemical weapons are materially different than conventional weapons for the continued dangers that they pose to seeming survivors of attacks and on those who aid them.  It is comparable to both targeting medics and using radiation packed rounds.  It is in America's self-interest to prevent the normalization of these weapons.  There is, as of yet, no global government.  Only the collective self-interest of nation-states (however hypocritical) can build positive norms.  Failing to enforce them will lead to their breakdown, as has already happened.  Our previous failures, as with Saddam's Iraq, have led to this.  No further.

Nowhere have I mentioned civilian casualties.  Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent civilian casualties in a war.  People in war zones get killed.  The seeming targeting of a civilian population in the chemical attack is terrible, but not so different, in terms of targeting, then the firebombing of Tokyo or Dresden.

To be clear, I am not advocated a massive intervention in favor of the rebels.  In fact, that would be against our interests.  We have no idea what the results would be.  The best case, Tunisia, looks both incredibly unlikely and not terribly impressive.  I only advocate for a limited intervention that (1) gives time for the anti-Assad forced to regroup and prolong the war and (2) punishes the regime for its violation of international norms.

6) Credibility with Israel.  A reader in the U.S. military writes:


You can imagine that the situation has been extensively discussed hereabouts... A senior officer points out that... "credibility" is about making sure Israel doesn't bomb Iran (where we've been told about "red lines" too). The question is, if a token cruise missile strike in Damascus lowers the imminence of an Israel-Iran war even a little, is that worth it?

Maybe. I hate the question because it seems like there were better opportunities -- maybe in Egypt -- for the US to flex its muscle in the Middle East. And I think that there's a non-negligible chance that al Assad will try to draw in the Israelis if we strike..
 

 In the same vein from another reader:

If the President is shown to be bluffing on chemical weapons in Syria, how does this effect, if at all, the Iranian's calculations on the nuclear issue and the President's ability to walk away from his previous statements - which if I recall correctly you hoped he was bluffing, as do I.

 I'm personally more concerned about military action in Iran than a few days bombing Syria to prove a point. Even though I prefer neither happens.

7) "A half-hearted defense." That was the subject line from this reader, with military experience: 

I agree that war is messy, it's terrible, and that we should move methodically before committing to it. I agree Congress - the entire body - should have a decision making role in whether or not we go. I agree Iraq was utterly mismanaged, and Kosovo was a mess too. While I believe Afghanistan was justified, and I think we truly have done some good there, we've also flushed a lot of lives and resources away there.
 
But there is Libya - Obama's other intervention. Yes, it wasn't particularly pretty. And Congress ought to have said something about it. And the result wasn't exactly as we desired. But at the same time, we were a part of a true international coalition, we played a limited role, we made clear objectives, achieved them, and then backed off. That is how intervention can and should happen. And it did. It still wasn't clean. It can be messier, and I fully expect it will in Syria. But it was done well.
 
Now as to why Syria? IF we are a part of a partnership of shared resources, but with clear roles and a clear chain of command (with a Supreme Allied Commander), AND our President receives Congressional approval, I think the motivation to act should exist for two reasons:
 
1) It is in the United States' national interests to prevent use of NBC weapons
2) It is morally the right thing to do to prevent an army from massacring a civilian population
 
Number two needs little explanation, with only the determination of "what makes Syria different from Egypt/Rwanda/etc.?" And the answer is partially NBC weapons - nuclear, biological, chemical. Why does that make it in the United States' interest? Because with conventional weapons, the US has a strategic advantage. With NBC weapons that advantage is considerably less. And so we make them taboo. And we enforce that taboo in an unstable country surrounded by other unstable countries to prove that we will not tolerate their use.
 
Obviously, I want a lot of things to happen. In addition I'd like it if funding and manning were put in-line with mission requirements (which isn't going to happen with the current Congress). I think that ought to be a pre-requisite to going to war - deciding how you plan to fund it and the rest of the government.
 
But I don't think it's unreasonable for us to go to war in Syria. I am cautious, I am skeptical, but I am open to it.
 

After the jump, a more whole-hearted case for intervention, and a sarcastic one. 

8) "A Strong Pro-Intervention Case. Pretty sure it's the strongest you'll get." That was the subject line on this message. All emphasis in original.

At your invitation, I would like to rebut your anti-intervention stance regarding Syria. 

My take is based on my work in foreign affairs abroad during the time of the Kosovo campaign. All the arguments against intervention now were made then. The only difference is we have the intervening catastrophic misapplication of a good policy by George W. Bush based on lies in Iraq. To argue against intervention because George W. Bush took a good tool and used it backwards is perverse.

First, let us dispense with this notion we are "going to war". Really? No word has suffered from hyperinflation more than the word "war" in the last 12 years since 9/11, thanks to George W. Bush calling literally everything war, begun by Ronald Reagan declaring a "war" on drugs, Lyndon Johnson declaring a "war on poverty", and so many other declaring war on whatever the hell they feel like. 

We do not know war.  You do not know war. My Battle of the Bulge veteran Uncle Joe knew war. Children choking to death on chemicals in Damascus know war. Certainly in the battles on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's war, but I feel, you feel, every other American feels, precisely nothing, zero effect, from them. None. The Founding Fathers imagined war as defined in the Congressional power "to declare war" as state vs. state country vs. country existential conflict. Not lobbing missiles at chemical weapons depots. Not Kosovo. Not Syria. Stop it.

Second, if we do "go to war" (I hate even typing that tripe), it is Assad's war not ours. How cowardly we are if we shout support for peaceful demonstrations and then turn tail and run when they get gassed. I'd love to see your own breathless support of the first marches in Homs. Perhaps our support for Arabs Springing should come with a disclaimer - Valid Unless You Get Gassed.

If it spirals out of control into a titanic conflict over the future of the Muslim world, well, how is that war our responsibility for starting? This region has boiled for decades, and in the last few years, radical Islam is facing off against secular Islam. This has been coming for a long time. America stepping in to defend our interests in our own security against chemical weapons, and defending their use on innocents is not "blood on hour hands". Other hands became far more bloody to set these wheels in motion.

The realpolitik case. Syria has been on the edge of collapse for some time. Assad's days are numbered. America needs to be on the right side when that happens. At the moment, we are seen by the opposition as too little too late, or worse. Several days of air strikes may tip the balance for which we would get a great deal of credit from the good guys. It's a risk worth taking.

This has always been about Iran. Assad is Iran's client state,  it is such a bloodbath because Iran saw the Arab Spring coming and Syria was the last stop on the way to Tehran. Iran already survived such protests once, remember, in 2009, brutally. If Assad fell, Iran was next. Air strikes now send many powerful messages to Iran, its people, and the Arab world more broadly, that America can be on the right side of humanity when it matters most.

Regarding Russia...are you serious? Please. Let's recall that Russia was a far more profound problem in Kosovo than in Syria. In fact, everyone forgets Russian tanks at the Pristina airport nearly began WW3 by mischievously occupying it. That has zero chance of happening in Syria, among much else. Arguing that Russia will somehow insert troops into this situation is ignorant folly. 

And what about Israel? Syria has been THE problem in the Middle East since Assad's daddy. I strongly expect the Mossad to take full advantage of airstrikes and go after Assad under that umbrella. The peace process, long dormant, reviving under Kerry, will benefit immeasurably from Assad's departure.

The "what comes next" argument is not our problem, and in fact even irrelevant to the realpolitik. We are acting to defend innocent civilians from being gassed. It is no more our business what happens after Assad goes than in Egypt after Mubarak went. If Al Qaeda gains ground after Assad goes, we have a policy in place to deal with that. 

This debate is shameful cowardice based on assuming all men are George W. Bush. I wrote a blog post yesterday, criticizing the insipid logic of anti-interventionists. Basically, you forget that not everything is Iraq.  

9) A sarcastic case. From someone in the military:

 I don't want to intervene militarily in Syria. I think. But this makes me stop and reconsider that maybe it's a good idea, and I bet it'll make you reconsider too: Donald Rumsfeld, apparently, thinks that nobody's presented a good reason to do it.

Damn.  Maybe it is a good idea.... And iBolton comes out opposing missile strikes, then I'm on board with them.

I've had my say; I offer these for your consideration. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/08/readers-on-syria-the-case-for-intervention/279183/