The Eight Questions

At the risk of going all-Syria, all-the-time here, I thought this article was worth a post. You remember the Powell Doctrine? These were eight questions that Colin Powell asked about foreign interventions before we engaged in them. They are not definitive and this isn’t a game where if you get answers to five of them, you can go ahead and bomb. But they do a very good job of clarifying the thinking about a war. Foreign Policy goes through all eight with Syria. I’ll add my comments but also contrast them against the motivations of the War in Iraq. Note that my answers to the latter will be based on what we knew at the time rather than what we know now. I think you could make the argument that the case for the war in Syria is weaker than the one we had for Iraq.

1. Vital national interests at stake? Hardly. The United States hasn’t cared who governed Syria since 1970, and it did business with Bashar al-Assad’s regime whenever doing so suited it. … Nor is defending the norm against chemical weapons a “vital” interest, given that other states have used them in the past and they are not true weapons of mass destruction anyway.

I agree with this. By contrast, Iraq had a supposed vital national interest of Saddam’s WMDs and the concern that they would be turned against us or Israel. That concern turned out to be bogus (as might this one). But at least it was a legitimate one. Saddam was also a sponsor of terrorism, paying out bounties to the families of Palestinians who blew themselves up in suicide bombs.

2. Clear obtainable objective? Nope. If you can figure out what the Obama administration’s actual objective is — defend the chemical weapons norm? reinforce U.S. credibility? weaken the regime a little but not a lot? send a warning to Iran?, etc. — you have a better microscope than I do.

Agreed. By contrast, our objective in Iraq was regime change and the destruction of the WMDs. Goal one happened, although it didn’t as well as we’d hoped. Goal two had already been achieved.

3. Costs and risks analyzed fully and frankly? Well, maybe. I’m sure people in the administration have talked about them, though it is hard to know how “fully” the risks and costs have been weighed. But let’s be generous and give the administration this one.

I won’t be generous. The supposed costs and risks are being hand waved. No one is really talking about the risk of a broader conflict or a terror response. Obama is talking about how this will be a “limited action” but the Syrians may not agree to limit it the way he wants to. This isn’t a game of Civilization.

In this case, this a flaw that the Syria debacle shares with Iraq, where I don’t think the risk of a full-on civil war was accounted for. In fact, if you read Cobra II, you’ll know that Rumsfeld made it a priority to fight the war on the cheap and over-ruled concerns from the State Department about the long term problems.

4. Other nonviolent policy options exhausted? Hardly. As I’ve noted before, there has been a dearth of imaginative diplomacy surrounding the Syrian conflict ever since it began. Oddly, the administration seems to have thought this whole issue wasn’t important enough to warrant energetic diplomacy, but it is important enough to go to war.

Agreed. By contrast, we spent a decade trying to find a peaceful solution to Iraq including pressure from within the Arab world.

5. Plausible exit strategy to avoid entanglement? Not that I can see. Barack Obama, John Kerry, et al. seem to recognize the danger of a quagmire here, so their “exit strategy” consists of limiting the U.S. attack to airstrikes and cruise missiles and maybe some increased aid to the rebels.

This is the one point where the Syrian issue scores over Iraq. It never was really clear what the endgame in Iraq was and we did become bogged down in a sectarian conflict. Our footprint in Syria is likely to be orders of magnitude smaller. Once we stop bombing, that appears to be it.

For now.

6. Have the consequences been fully considered? It’s hard to believe they have. Whacking Assad’s forces won’t do that much to restate any “red lines” against chemical weapons use, and as noted above, that’s a pretty modest objective in any case. But military action might also help bring down the regime, thereby turning Syria into a failed state, fueling a bitter struggle among competing ethnic, sectarian, and extremist groups, and creating an ideal breeding and training ground for jihadists. It may also undercut the moderate forces who are currently ascendant in Iran, derail any chance of a diplomatic deal with them (which is a far more important goal), and even reinforce Iran’s desire for a deterrent of its own. Is there any evidence that Obama, Kerry, Rice & Co. have thought all these things through?

Nope. By contrast, the theory behind the Iraq War was that we would frighten other nations into abandoning WMD programs (which worked with Libya) and turn Iraq into an ally against other gulf regimes. The latter did not work out and it turned out our post-war planning foundered on the rocks of incompetent management from Bremmer and Rumsfeld. But there was a lot of thought into what was going to happen after Iraq.

7. Support from the American people? No, no, and no.

By contrast, our intervention in Iraq had the initial support of 50-60% of the public. The public has apparently learned their lesson.

8. Genuine and broad international support? Not really. The British Parliament has already voted against military action, and Germany has made it clear that it’s not playing either. Russia and China are of course dead set against. America’s got the French (oh boy!), the Saudis, and (quietly) the Israelis, along with the usual coalition of the cowed, coerced, or co-opted.

The Left mocking Bush’s Coalition of the Willing but we had a lot more support for that than Obama does for Syria.

Now, I am comparing apples and oranges here. Iraq was a full-scaled invasion and a ten-year occupation. Syria is “just” a police-action bombing, similar to what Clinton did to Iraq in 1998. But run Clinton’s bombing through that list. Clinton’s bombing had goals (I mean, besides attracting attention away from the Lewinsky scandal). We attacked the WMDs and destroyed almost all of them. We’re not doing that here. We’re “sending a message” that we don’t like the use of chemical weapons. In that sense, the Syrian attack is basically Hans Brix’s strongly worded letter taped to a Tomahawk missile.

But the point is that this action has not been thought out, is not the result of a long involved policy decision and is attracting — at least within the beltway — very little debate.

I always harp on about process — following the Constitution, following the rules, following procedure. The reason I do is because I think that if you create a good process you will, more often than not, get a good result. The problems in our country are mainly a result of a “do something, anything” mentality and a tendency to defer to government power and action in any crisis. It’s very clear that the process within this Administration when it comes to war is haphazard, sloppy and politicized. This time, it may only cost us a few billion in treasure, a few hundred Syrian lives. It may cost us a lot more.

How much will it cost, though, if we ever a real foreign policy crisis?

Comments are closed.

  1. Mississippi Yankee

    I agree with this. By contrast, Iraq had a supposed vital national interest of Saddam’s WMDs and the concern that they would be turned against us or Israel. That concern turned out to be bogus (as might this one). But at least it was a legitimate one.

    If Saddam didn’t have WMD’s then where did Assad get his WMD’s?
    And was that satellite video of several hundred trucks leaving western Iraq headed into Syria with a Russian escort, was that bogus too? And that’s not to mention the ones we DID find.

    For the record I’m perfectly fine with Sunni-vs-Alawites (Shiite) to the death. And as in every war women and children will always be hit the hardest. It’s the nature of the game.

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  2. Thrill

    She is so right, but couldn’t make a dent. It’s a mystery to me why McCain loves war so much, given how much he suffered from it himself…

    Can’t he just hurry up and retire now?

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  3. stogy

    On these points, Hal, I completely agree with your analysis. Particularly as we are being sold the whole package as a choice been bombing and not bombing. There are a whole range of options that aren’t getting any airtime at all. I always get suspicious when someone says we only have two options (“You’re either with us or against us”).

    My suggestion is that we threaten to bomb the crap out of any group that doesn’t agree to take their chemical weapons to a specially secured zone for removal and destruction. They’ve all said they’d never use them (despite someone actually using them). So let’s hold them to that. Make them show their hand.

    This time, it may only cost us a few billion in treasure, a few hundred Syrian lives. It may cost us a lot more.

    The Syrians are supposed to have a much better air defence system than anything US forces have gone up against in recent decades. If a lot of planes do get shot down, then it is possible that the US could get dragged further in…

    MY:

    If Saddam didn’t have WMD’s then where did Assad get his WMD’s?

    The Syrians have had a chem weapons program since the 80s. This fact has been around for some time – confirmed by both the US and Israeli documents – historically (i.e. not something that they has been made up in the past couple of months). They didn’t need Iraqi WMDs. The fact that you really want to use this as evidence showing Saddam was lying to the end about the WMDs doesn’t make it true. There was virtually nothing to gain for him in passing them on to Syria.

    For the record I’m perfectly fine with Sunni-vs-Alawites (Shiite) to the death. And as in every war women and children will always be hit the hardest. It’s the nature of the game.

    What emerges from this could destabilize the entire region, create new more powerful and extreme groups that have access to even more chemical weapons, lead to the overthrow of democratic states that are actually our friends, and send millions of hungry refugees into Europe and beyond. That would really threaten Western interests. Yeah. Let’s do that.

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  4. Mississippi Yankee

    Russia mostly. Their program dates back to the 1980′s.

    Of course they got them from the Russians…probably in the same time frame that Saddam got his weapons. But that still doesn’t change that fact that HUGE amounts of Iraqi shit traveled from western Iraq into eastern Syria during the build-p to the evil Boosh Gulf war.

    And you honestly believe that the Baathist regime in Syria had no dealing or quid pro quo with the Baathist regime in Iraq in the 1980’s?

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  5. Section8

    Looks like Reid is setting up the Senate Syrian vote to be on 9/11. Could this get more tasteless? Anyhow, at the very least it looks like the House will say no if it comes to it.

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  6. AlexInCT

    Looks like Reid is setting up the Senate Syrian vote to be on 9/11. Could this get more tasteless?

    Considering how much the left loved to tout that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, a connection made by the left and then peddled as coming from the Boosh administration which had actually made the point that while Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11 he had now been shown how he could get away with letting others use his WMDs, one has to wonder if this reversal is now an admission on their part they were full of shit then? I mean, WTF does Syria have to do with 9/11? No, really…..

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