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.
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?