When the choice you’ve left yourself is between a risky, needless intervention and an irretrievable loss of credibility, you better believe you screwed up somewhere
So here we go again. The history of American military interventions has been running long enough that we must already have passed through both tragedy and farce by now, making this…. what, I wonder? Postmodern meta-comedy? In any case, no one except those of us with a strong appetite for gallows humour is likely to be laughing anytime soon.
We should probably have seen it coming, though until recently it was reasonable to keep hoping against hope that things might conspire to allow the United States to keep treating the dystopian clusterfight in Syria with the sort of wary distance you give a gang who’ve taken to beating seven bells out of each other across the street. Their reasons matter only to them, you won’t be thanked for involving yourself, and there’s always the risk of a stray punch to the face or the nuts.
But in truth, from the moment President Obama opened his mouth and let loose the words ‘red line’ in reference to chemical weapons use, he was in the trap and bleeding. No matter that the colourful, pseudo-definitive phrase was an overstatement that spilled out unplanned during ‘off-the-cuff’ remarks. And no matter that it was sufficiently non-specific to allow some wiggle room when put to the test, as we discovered from the White House’s signally indecisive response to an alleged minor violation in May. The moment he uttered those syllables, the Credibility genie was out of the bottle and the United States’ destiny in regard to this conflict was no longer in its own hands.
Now that there has been a second, larger use of chemical weapons against the population of rebel territory, killing hundreds, and both the White House and Secretary of State have felt obliged to cut to the chase and point the finger at the Assad government, what is the alternative to military action? To tsk and look away? To circulate a note of disapproval for the amusement of Syria’s protectors and enablers at the United Nations? To tell Syria that the United States isn’t angry, just disappointed?
Before talk of ‘red lines’ was a Google-search away from the world’s eyes, a tartly critical non-response of this sort would actually have been very much the right thing to do. What has occurred represents, after all, an escalation only because the United States has chosen to define it as such, in a conflict interesting only for the depths of insolubility plumbed by its underlying causes. But now, this course cannot be taken without rendering the US government faintly ridiculous: a feckless dispenser of threats without substance at the back of them; all hat and no cattle. Given the handful of white-knuckle-dangerous scenarios in the foreseeable future in which the United States may well have cause to deliver ultimatums that need to be taken seriously – to face down countries who actually do possess some capacity to harm the United States core interests, like China, Iran or North Korea – the bankruptcy of the currency of American red-line-drawing can scarcely be permitted. And so Credibility becomes the stake for which the United States is called to fight, and its list of options narrows to one.
Sigh. And so the stupid and the necessary, the pointless and the unavoidable, become awkward bedfellows in US policy. Again. Having the defence of one’s own credibility as the primary rationale for military action means at once everything and nothing; it is simultaneously the most vacuous reason imaginable for launching a military enterprise and the most important reason there could be. No foreign policy, or presidency for that matter, is worth much of anything without it. Yet invoking its defence as the objective in a context such as this is painfully circular: we must do something because we said we would. The bill must be paid this hungover morning because yesterday we indulged in big talk at the card table and our bluff has been called. This is the situation in which the United States has planted itself.
There is now likely no avoiding the necessity of a military response, and yet the creation of that necessity arises entirely from the administration’s own lack of proportion and discipline in publicly parsing the nation’s negligible interest in this conflict. So careful and restrained in so many other instances, here it has has bet its credibility on the defence of a line that should never have been drawn; and condemned itself to take up arms, at great risk, in defence of national interests so far from core that they are barely perceptible. It is a mishap wrapped in an error inside a misjudgement.
But even as we accept the relentless inevitability of this logic as it cranks into gear, let us nevertheless take a moment to indulge ourselves in really giving flow to the annoyance and frustration merited by being put in this situation yet again by those charged with policy. Because let’s be under no illusions: on the merits, as my colleague Stefan Wolff has outlined in exemplary analysis elsewhere, as a substantive exercise aimed at achieving worthwhile political objectives, this is a fool’s errand.
Military strikes against the Syrian government at this juncture, whatever euphemistic short-of-war terminology the administration uses to characterise them, make the United States a voluntary participant in a messy, bloody civil war that shows all the signs of being interminable and has more sides than a twisted Rubik’s Cube.
If, as is most likely under present circumstances, US action stops short of anything capable of actually bringing about the fall of the Assad government, then the operation is from the outset a witlessly futile piece of gesture-militarism. It will only serve to inject new depths of enmity between it and its backers and the United States, while presumably increasing the likelihood that it will use all weapons at its disposal in an all-bets-are-off war of survival that now includes the Western alliance as belligerents.
If, on the other hand, it embraces the overthrow of the government as an objective, then it begins an open-ended conflict of unknowable outcome, in which its actions will be openly opposed by two global powers, Russia and China, with the capability to have their own say in the outcome, and a significant regional player, Iran, which is already making plausible threats to inflict pain if America rolls the dice.
And if, somehow, it should actually succeed in the face of all this in toppling the government, well then the real fun starts. The rebels whose victory the United States will have championed have shown themselves hopelessly divided from the off, and since then it has become clear that major factions wrestling for primacy are committed to radical Islamism and jihadism of a sort antithetical to anything that would be helpful to US interests in the region if empowered. Thus, even in the event of expensive victory, the United States would reap misery and uncertainty as to the identity and alignment of those forces that might rule instead. Sound at all familiar?
And let’s not, please, have talk of the suffering of civilians in the ongoing war as a basis for this intervention. It is undeniably true that their plight is grim. Recent figures have the death toll from fighting cruising past the 100,000 mark without slowing down, and 1.7 million more are displaced abroad. The disruption and pain visited upon the day-to-day life of those still alive within the country’s borders is less readily quantifiable, but hard to overstate. But to tell ourselves that flinging missiles at government installations, much as it might feel to the Energizer Bunnies of hawkish punditry like Doing Something, is pure delusion.
Civilians are suffering in Syria because there is a civil war. Neither side, however much they may lament the death and suffering of their own, really wants a negotiated peace if at the price of compromise; they want victory. Only when one or other side obtains something approximating it, and enough leverage to force the other into exhausted quietude, will this stop. So unless whatever strikes are taken now are part of a broader plan to bring about a final victory for one side, and a stable order arising from that victory, they will make no obvious contribution to alleviating civilian suffering. In fact it seems as likely or more that they will worsen it: if they undermine the government without toppling it, then they prolong the war, which is the underlying cause of the suffering; if the government falls, then the blood cost in reprisals against the currently ruling Alawites is unknowable; and of course, at the risk of stating the obvious, foreign bombs have a way of adding to the body count themselves, however worthy the intentions in which they are wrapped.
So why else do it? To preserve the sanctity of the ‘essential’ international norm against chemical weapons? In a war where a hundred thousand have been shot, blown up or worse, sustaining the idea that the death of a few hundred from noxious gas represents a sudden appearance of uncivilised behaviour will rightly strike many as Jesuitical. Not to mention the fact that its presentation as a horror without modern precedent against which the United States must stand will also require ignoring some very awkward recent history.
To uphold international law? Pfft. At the risk of sounding cynical (which is a risk when your views on a subject are profoundly cynical), international law in a case such as this is pretty much whatever you want it to be. Based as it is on a haphazard cluster of vague principles, contradictory precedents and high-flown wind, international law, such as it exists, can either mandate action against those who kill their own people or protect their sovereignty in doing so. It can be used to insist that the UN should be the sole channel for decisions on action, or – if nebulous concepts such as legitimacy are to creep into play, and if we cherry-pick our precedents – accord coalitions of the willing the moral authority to act in service of humanity, depending on whom you see fit to believe. What different parties to the conflict believe is in turn is a function of what suits them at this moment.
The United States shouldn’t be propelling itself into action in Syria, and the reason for not doing so was the oldest and best for staying out of someone else’s war that there is: it has no core interests at stake, and no viable path to carving out any advantage without first taking on incalculable risk and cost. To strike now makes it a participant in a bleakly horrible little war, with consequences impossible to discern, from which no possible outcome seems obviously to its benefit. Congress doesn’t want it. The American people really don’t want it. Even the president doesn’t particularly seem to want it. But thanks to his red line, now it must be done. All for the sake of credibility. Plus ça change.