Among the many deeply discomfiting aspects of the current Western debate about possible military action in Syria, four arguments stand out as particularly misleading. Policymakers and analysts should do themselves a favor and cut through the nonsense in order to allow for a more serious discussion.
The first irritating statement is the endlessly repeated canard about the use of chemical weapons being a “redline,” the crossing of which would lead to Western sanctions.
In reality, the kind of weapons used in the Syrian civil war has never been a decisive issue at all. If the staggering figure of 100,000 deaths since the conflict began is not morally compelling enough, then why should another 1,400 dead make a difference, just because they were gassed instead of shot, stabbed, tortured, blown up, hanged, or otherwise massacred? Nobody has offered a convincing explanation as to why chemical weapons cause a less dignified death than a mortar grenade. The moral grandstanding about their use is cynical.
U.S. President Barack Obama made a huge mistake when, under pressure but with no real need to do so, he created the artificial redline that now keeps haunting him. If anything is driving him toward intervention, it’s the fear of looking weak, not that the use of chemical weapons has somehow made this war even more horrible than it was before.
The second misleading statement came from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who repeatedly mentioned in a speech last Friday that Syria “matters to us, to our allies, to the international community.” What he meant was that Syria affects us all. But that is simply not how most people see it. Most people feel utterly unaffected by what’s going in Syria—including most politicians and decisionmakers. And that is precisely why Syria was left unattended to for so long.
Very few people are actually outraged enough to really empathize with the Syrian people. Most politicians from across the political spectrum voice their deepest concern but shy away from action. This includes the majority of parliamentarians, as UK Prime Minister David Cameron learned the hard way last week when he lost a vote on the issue in the House of Commons.
What Kerry should have said is that Syria should matter to all of us. That would be more honest and would perhaps fall on fewer deaf ears.
The third and lowest point in last week’s debate, however, was Cameron’s claim that the intervention he favors was neither about regime change nor even about taking sides in the Syrian conflict. This was an exceptionally weak statement by an exceptionally weak leader, creating an exceptional amount of political fog.
Of course an intervention would be about taking sides. How could it not be? Of course it would be about ending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime—perhaps not immediately, but certainly in the medium to long run. No talk of “punishment” or “teaching a lesson” can mask what it means to go to war.
If Cameron really meant what he said, one must assume that the sole political purpose of his initiative was to make him look forceful and decisive at home.
Finally, and connected to the previous point, the whole idea that limited strikes would make a big difference seems particularly dishonest.
The argument that military action could seriously hurt Assad not for the purpose of regime change but to impose costs on him that would force him to reassess the situation is unconvincing. The civil war has progressed far beyond the point at which such a simple cost-benefit analysis is still relevant to a dictator fighting for his survival. This is especially true since many of the costs already imposed on him are liberally compensated for by external players such as Iran.
Nobody needs a surgical strike that has no real effect besides demonstrating how utterly concerned and worried we are. That would not be a show of strength but the exact opposite. It would tell Assad that he can get away with it all. It would not save the West’s face but would cement its reputation of powerlessness and indecision. The Syrians could not be blamed for thinking that it was just cynicism in another form.
If politicians and analysts are really serious about military intervention, they should make a case for a full-scale, sustained, and deadly blow against the regime. If they are not ready to do that, they should not make a case at all.
A military strike without a viable political purpose is self-defeating, as Clausewitz’s timeless strategic wisdom instructs us. Without such a purpose one should not go to war. And, in this case, that is probably the better option anyway.