So here we are. Americans elected Barack Obama, and now he appears to be within a breath of embroiling us in a military confrontation in Syria. If the most recent polls are a good indication, Americans are strongly opposed to intervening in Syria. Even if there is incontrovertible proof that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people on 21 August, 46 percent of poll respondents last week said they would still strongly oppose a U.S. intervention in Syria.
Bret Baier laid it out in his Fox News broadcast this evening: the opposition to intervening in Syria is by far the highest amount of public opposition to any proposed intervention or other military operation in the last 30 years. The numbers against Syria bear no resemblance to the numbers on anything Americans can remember, whether Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, Somalia, Haiti, Panama, or Grenada. Americans aren’t sold on the necessity or wisdom of a military attack on Syria; in fact, opposition to it, in the absence of conclusive proof that Assad used WMD, is a whopping 60 percent.
The reasons for this are the same reasons that few can find a brief, cogent way to talk about the issue. For the American people, I think – speaking as one of them – the biggest concern is a simple one: ain’t nobody tellin’ us nothin’. What the heck would an intervention look like, and why exactly would we be doing it? Fine, “WMD”; but what would we be doing about “WMD”? Hunting it down? Taking it out? Just punishing Assad for using it? If so, by doing what? Attacking his airfields and warehouses? Blowing up his warplanes? Pumping a few Tomahawks into a presidential palace?
There are brief, cogent things to say about Syria, about the threat its civil war poses to stability, and about the security problem of chemical weapons use by Assad. But no one in the Obama administration, from Obama himself down through his cabinet-level representatives to Jay Carney, is saying them. We literally do not know the administration’s answer to the most basic question about this whole thing: what would we be conducting a military attack on Syria for?
There is a big difference between proposing to punish Assad, with no decisive end-state in view, and proposing to take action designed to shape or at least promote a particular end-state. The different goals would entail different levels and types of military action. Ideally, they would entail different packages of non-military action as well: principally diplomacy, to lay out, sell, and negotiate any end-state we had in mind.
In any case, military action will draw a big reaction from Assad, and a less predictable but potentially more dangerous reaction in various dimensions from Iran and Russia. This will be true regardless of what our goal is, and what level and type of force we use. Syria is not Libya, a point I have made on numerous occasions (e.g., here). Iran and Russia are both too invested there, for immutable geostrategic reasons, to simply stand back and let the Western nations bomb their client until we feel satisfied.
Breaking the peace
So there are a handful of key ways in which to frame the Syria question. One is the way I outlined yesterday: what is the extent to which the brittle peace we have today will be disrupted by great-power action and reaction in Syria? Russia and Iran are warning us about that; do Western leaders see the dangers? Are they thinking about them? Can we detect any assumptions they have in mind, which might be guides to what they’re going to do?
Another way to frame the Syria question is to view it in terms of threats, promises, and credibility. Barry Rubin, inspecting the situation in those terms, asserts flatly that Obama has no intention of using military force in Syria. Promises and credibility don’t mean enough to Obama – demonstrably, based on his record – and the American people are against attacking Syria, at a time when the hazards of doing so promise to be great. No matter what it looks like through the lens of the “drive-by” media, the answer just can’t be that Obama is going to take this step into quicksand. That means the U.S. is headed for a huge loss of credibility.
Rubin may well be right. I would have simply agreed with him a couple of days ago, when the rumors about an impending attack on Assad were first flying. But then, as a counterpoint to the continued bombastic vagueness of Team Obama, Cameron, Merkel, and Hollande began talking in serious and concrete terms about military action. (The latest I’ve seen is Australia’s Kevin Rudd chiming in.)
I am concerned about their categorical approach given the very real hazards of trying to shove an intervention down Russia’s throat – but it defies logic to think that they have all simply lost their minds, and are speaking so specifically and determinedly of an action they have no intention of taking. It looks to me like they really mean it. The drumbeat from Europe sounds similar to the one that struck up in March 2011, prior to the Libya operation.
Of course, if they – and we – draw back now, after bustling about so energetically, the geopolitical egg on our faces will take years to scrape off, and the world as we know it will perish from sheer, embarrassed unsustainability anyway. The cynical pundits are all right about that.
Breaking with rationality in warfare
A third way of framing the Syria problem is in terms of what the main objective could be. Military specialists have spoken clearly about the kinds of target sets we could choose, if our desire is somewhere close on the spectrum to encouraging the demise of the Assad regime. Most analysts are disdainful of the idea of simply punishing Assad, with no larger motive. They rightly point out that, since we would incur the same outrage from Russia and Iran with a small, meaningless strike as with a bigger one, we’d be better off to get what we can out of it. Go for the bigger prize.
But Obama has a joker to play in this hand: the same one he played in Libya. Our passive-aggressive stance there was constrained by the concept of “non-hostile kinetic military action,” which was meant to try and protect innocent civilians, while yet effacing itself from any hint of trying to force a particular political outcome; i.e., help one faction or another win the war. Samantha Power has long been a high-profile advocate of the concept of a “responsibility to protect,” which would basically amount to an obligation on the part of a nation like the United States to shoot, regardless of any other feature or consideration of a given conflict.
That is indisputably a recipe for disaster down the road. But it was essentially the basis on which the Obama administration undertook the intervention in Libya, under the aegis of Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Valerie Jarrett. It is problematic – idiotic? – as a rubric for planning an operation in Syria, where its potential for having any meaning, given how well armed the rebels and the regime both are, is even less than it was in Libya. But as a political mantra, responsibility to protect (or, perhaps, “atrocity prevention,” another banner with the Power stamp on it) is tailor-made for the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack on civilians. There is no reason to imagine that John Kerry or Chuck Hagel will shift the locus of strategic thinking in the administration away from its earlier patterns.
With these three frameworks laid out, we circle back to the problem that the U.S. administration has addressed none of them before the public or Congress. We don’t know how much or if Team Obama, or our eager allies, have thought about what it will mean to the peace to cross Russia and Iran with a military action in Syria. For all we can tell, it has not even occurred to them.
We don’t know what their thinking is on the choice between evils: the evil of intervening or the evil of failing to after defining a red line.
And we don’t know what the driving objective of an intervention would be. That said, we do have an informative (if disquieting) data point from 2011.
Given all these factors, most of us can form a pretty solid opinion of whether we should intervene, and if so, for what purpose. What I have been unable to predict is what Obama is going to do.
Will Obama break his silence?
I’m not as certain as Barry Rubin is that he will take the hard-headed if ignominious route of shrugging and saying, “Oops, forget about it,” sometime in the next couple of weeks. I suspect Samantha Power really, really doesn’t want him to, and that she has important supporters in the administration.
Obama himself has been silent as the Sphinx on what the whole Syria problem might mean to him or the United States, but the rest of the administration is making a tremendous amount of noise having what Charles Krauthammer has called a “moral spasm” over the Syria situation. The frantic pace comes off almost as a campaign within the administration to box Obama in, so that he has to conduct an intervention in some form.
Obama has no geopolitical instincts or judgment whatever; none of it seems to register as real with him, in the way community organizing, ward-heeling, and constituency-tending do. I don’t read him as sure-footed enough in this arena to make independent decisions with confidence. Characteristically, he was maneuvered by many of the same advisors into an unexecutable hybrid strategy in Afghanistan and a sort of anti-strategy in Libya.
He mostly sent out others to announce and explain his policies, as he does on everything not directly related to constituency-tending. But his pattern of actual decisions on national security issues – as opposed to their presentation – has not been predictably cynical, poll-oriented, or even path-of-least-resistance. It has instead alternated between feckless, ideological, and dilettantish.
Obama may surprise us and authorize a military action against Syria. If so, it will probably be another annoying hybrid operation, trying not to be too purposefully forcible while still requiting the sentiments of moral outrage. Doing this would require assuming away the predictions of messiness and manifold consequences that should otherwise, as Rubin suggests, make him throw in the towel.
The European allies may get cold feet, realizing that with America dazed and confused, they are out of position to plan comprehensively for major blowback from Russia and Iran. Then again, they may not. I have been surprised by their air of confidence in the last couple of days. Unlike the days of Libya in 2011, their posture has been neither tentative nor long-building. About a tougher and more multifarious problem, they seem to have fewer qualms.
One factor may prove to be the most reliable clue: the preparations, if any, that Russia makes. It’s not clear how visible they will be. But if the Russians feel it necessary to make new preparations, such as moving military forces into the Caucasus or flying things into Syria, it will be because they seriously expect an organized Western action of non-negligible scope.
My assessment is that right now, they can’t predict either what Obama will do, and perhaps aren’t so sure about Cameron and the other Europeans. A perilous situation – and one that is giving bad actors ideas as I type this, regardless of the outcome of the Syrian chemical weapons event.