Syria: Some Arguments for Intervention, and a Response

"It is easy to talk ourselves into an exaggerated sense of our own purity."

Please read the American Futures post I put up late last night, with an intro (and beer reference) here. Then ... back to Syria. Here are a few of the pro-intervention messages that have come in, some of them in the spirit of the man at the right. I'll quote them as is, then make a brief reply at the end.

1) Five Points Everyone Gets Wrong. That was the subject line on this message from a reader:

Obama didn't draw the "red line," the world did.
     The entire civilized world has long drawn a red line against using chemical weapons. Obama was merely repeating what the world has already decided. If we attack Syria, it won't be to defend America's (or Obama's) credibility. It will be to defend the entire world's credibility in saying that chemical weapons are  absolutely unacceptable. If we don't respond, it will be open season with chemical weapons anywhere, anytime.

It's just as important to know what people thought about the First Iraq War as the Second.
     Just as the opinions of hawks who argued for the Second Iraq War are discredited, so are the opinions of doves who argued against the First Iraq War. I've rarely been more embarrassed by my fellow liberal Democrats as when they opposed such a slam-dunk case for going to war. They turned out to be just as wrong as the hawks (liberal and conservative alike) who got us into Iraq. The people I want to listen to are the ones who aren't reflexively pro- or anti-war, but those who look objectively at the facts of each case. Remember, the whole idea of opposing "dumb wars" is that not all wars are dumb.

We're talking about an "act of war," not "going to war."
     As sympathetic as I am to the military wife who's tired of her husband being sent to fight dumb wars, it's irrelevant. Absolutely no one is talking about boots on the ground. While it's true that acts of war can easily spiral out of control, the situation in Syria is just as likely to spiral out of control without any American intervention as with it.

Great Britain doesn't decide our foreign policy.
     Frankly, I'm glad that Cameron was embarrassed by his Parliament. He was trying to rush his country to war just as Tony Blair did. But that should have absolutely no affect on our own decisions. If attacking Syria is the right thing to do, it's just as right with or without Great Britain at our side. 

"Signalling" is the dumbest act of war at all.
     Using military action to make a point is a longstanding bad habit of American presidents of both parties. Assad is not going to be swayed by symbolic actions. If we're going to attack Syria, it should have a true military impact. The best case I've read is to put their airfields out of service, not only so they can't use air power against the rebels but so they can't receive new supplies from Iran. That can't be done with a missile or two, but with a serious effort that is maintained over time.

2) "We will have lost our moral compass." Another reader:

I'm totally with you on avoiding dumb wars. I'm no fan of war.


Do we do nothing when a government uses chemical weapons against its own population?

If about 1,500 civilians died horribly from sarin or some such equivalent, would taking out a few expensive jet fighters really be that bad?

The goal: to make chemical-weapons use "not worth it" in Assad's head.

If the US does nothing, I'll feel we've lost our moral compass in the world.

So, if there's a good alternative to a limited strike of some sort, I'm all ears! 

3) And, on "credibility":

I don't know about you, but I've been impressed by poli sci arguments that "credibility" is myth. Here is, I think, an important counter to the reading of that research from Jon Western, an academic:
It's pretty clear that the primary objective here is to punish the Syrian regime and deter a future chemical weapons attack in Syria. The Obama administration is focused on a very limited strike and doesn't want to see an outright rebel victory. The logic of this strategic objective makes sense to me.

I am persuaded by Daryl Press and Jon Mercer's respective works that precedent effects, reputation, and credibility concerns are often overstated. But, their works look at how third-party leaders infer or read other actors' responses elsewhere -- not at how actors respond to bluffs in a particular case. It seems pretty clear that if the U.S. does not punish the perpetrators of this attack, these same perpetrators almost certainly will calculate that they can act again with impunity. And, as we've seen in the past week, the use of chemical weapons quickly changes the international political dynamics.

In other words, if there is no action now, there will almost certainly be events on the ground that provoke international action later. It's probably not a question of whether, but when, the international use of force happens.  

Let me respond to the main theme that runs through the "we must draw a line" / "the entire civilized world agrees" contentions. Their premise is that the use of chemical weapons is so heinous and unprecedented that, if allowed to go unpunished, it will change world relations in a disastrous way.

Minor response: If this is so clearly true, then presumably someone outside the U.S. Executive Branch will agree. Starting with: the U.S. Congress, the U.S. public, NATO, the Brits, the Australians, the Canadians, the European Union, the Arab League. Someone in the civilized world.

Major response: The United States has not acted previously as if chemical-weapons use was an end-of-history, line-drawing occasion. Study carefully, please, these recent CIA documents demonstrating -- apparently in a non-disputed way -- that during the Iran-Iraq war of the late 1980s, the U.S. knew that Saddam Hussein was using nerve gas on civilians and did nothing in response.

Nerve gas was hideous then. Chemical weapons are hideous now. America and other nations should use their enormous might and influence to deter, discourage, and punish their use anywhere.

But the idea that in Syria we face an unprecedented challenge to a previously unbroken "norm" -- and therefore have a moral duty to plow ahead regardless of Constitutional procedures, strategic prudence, or the value of assembling international support (as in the first Gulf War) -- that idea just not does stand up to historical examination. I am not introducing a view of the United States as always scheming and hypocritical. I am suggesting some caution about this moment's black/white, "where is our moral compass?" views.

I have learned to be wary of American international policy in its "we alone must teach the world a lesson" moments. Overall our country has been an enormous force for good, but it is easy to talk ourselves into an exaggerated sense of our own purity. Proceed with caution.