It’s a percussion symphony out there. The drumbeat of stalwart European readiness to strike Syria has become unsteady – boy, that was quick – but now comes the drumbeat of doubt about whether Assad, his actual self, actually ordered the actual chemical attack on 21 August (along with an apparently less urgent doubt that it was the regime in the first place).
FWIW, and up front, I think it was the regime that mounted the attack, and that that’s what matters. (Whether that means we need to bomb air-defense installations and empty weapons storehouses is another question.) Achieving the concentration and scope of toxic effects that we have seen, in both gruesome video and eyewitness reporting, is something the Assad regime is well capable of doing.
The rebels, less so. At least some of the rebels have the capability to mount a small-scale chemical attack using rockets or mortar rounds. But the power and concentration of an attack that would slay more than 1,000 people at once, using discrete chemical rounds lobbed through the air (as opposed, say, to spraying an area with concentrate, which would deliver the toxic compound more surely), is something we would be much more likely to see with regime weaponry and expertise.
So I think the regime did it. Can that be proven beyond a reasonable doubt? Quite possibly not. Could Assad himself be indicted for it by the criteria used for an American grand jury? I don’t know. Doubtful, perhaps.
I do know that a foreign policy that limits its strategic interest to crimes that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt is a paralyzing and unworkable one. The problem here is not one of proof against Assad; the problem is that the United States has no positive, interests-based policy on the post-Arab Spring Middle East.
We should not find ourselves in a corner, being presented with incidents perpetrated by others to which we are bound to react (unless, of course, we can identify an excuse not to). That is the definition of ceding the initiative to the bad guys. It’s why drawing red lines and calling that your policy is always a bad idea. When you limit your policy to red lines, you put the other guy in the driver’s seat and drop the checkered flag.
Red lines are less dangerous if you are actively engaged and prosecuting a positive policy. The entire difference lies in the fact that you are complicating and adding pressure to the interlocking dynamics of the situation. If you have a plan, a red line can be an effective tool. You’re already changing the facts on the ground, according to a relentless initiative of your own.
And that doesn’t mean you have boots on the ground somewhere. You can’t, after all, have boots on the ground everywhere, nor is that a wise or appropriate solution to every security problem. I have yet to see a necessity for American boots on the ground in any Arab Spring conflict.
But I am with John Bolton on the evil consequences of Obama’s policy of passivity, about the whole Arab Spring situation as about Syria. Bolton is right: we’re in a box almost entirely of President Obama’s own making. When you don’t have a positive policy – and on the Arab Spring and Syria, Obama doesn’t – your de facto policy gets forced on you one way or another by others. That’s just how human life works, at the micro- and macro-level. There is no such thing as safe, sustainable passivity or neutrality. Small nations know that only too well, just as the family members of delinquents do.
In the long-ago days of 2011 and 2012, I wrote at some length about what the U.S. could be doing about Syria, diplomatically, and without putting boots on the ground (a big-picture look here, from February 2012). It’s not retrospect that tells me we could and should have done more. It was obvious at the time. Today’s situation was foreseeable: because of our inaction, we are out of position now to do what we could once have done in Syria, without military force.
The choice: passive or positive
But we are where we are, and our choice today is, as it has always been, between continued passivity and adopting a positive policy, even if from an unfavorable and frustrating position. So let’s be clear on this, as the president likes to say. A “limited” strike designed only to punish Assad while offending Russia as little as possible would be a continuation of passivity. It’s not using force; it’s just dropping bombs. An acquaintance of mine proposed this useful analogy: dropping bombs to punish Assad is Obama’s way of voting “present,” as he so often did during his legislative career.
Even this limited action carries high risks with it, of course, which is why the Brits are demonstrating against the whole idea. On the other side, we have the option of adopting a positive policy: in my friend’s analogy, the equivalent of voting “aye” or “nay” on a legislative proposition. One method for this would be the proposal of “hawks” in the United States: to take the post-WMD strike as a pretext to go after Assad. Lop off the regime’s head using a bigger strike campaign, with a view to establishing a strategic relationship with a favored rebel faction, and bringing this thing to a conclusion.
An alternative positive policy
I see an alternative – one I consider preferable – but the caveat for both of the positive-policy options here is that Obama can’t bring them off. He is simply incapable of it, because both would require determination, intimidation, and a steady hand. In the case of a competent president, however, the option would still exist of telling the Russians their boy Assad has to go, and they can be part of the solution, or not: their choice. The use of chemical weapons on civilians, in the egregious and horrific manner of the 21 August attack, creates a reasonable pretext for going more proactive at this late date.
The other reason Obama is unsuited to this task, of course, is that the approach could only work if the U.S. were explicitly bent on keeping the Muslim Brotherhood out of power in Syria. That’s a huge issue for Russia; and Russia is right. Doing it is a U.S. interest, if we define our interests properly, and it is one of two key interests we have in common with Russia, the other being the protection of Syrian Christians, who are taking a terrible beating from some of the rebels. On almost nothing else do we have a common interest with Moscow. But these two things – the radical Islamism factor in particular – are enough to generate chilly cooperation and calculating leverage.
Our task would be to put Russia in a box: remove Assad and retain a hand in the follow-on Syria, or see Assad thrown out anyway and lose Russia’s Mediterranean prize, at least for an inconvenient time. Russia should make a two-fold concession: lose Assad, if not Syria, and therefore lose a measure of control there; and accept the shouldering of Iran out of Syria.
The latter is one of the two primary geostrategic interests of the United States, the other being simply the installation of a relatively moderate, peaceable, Western-friendly government in Syria, one that would neither brutalize its people nor export instability beyond its borders. This other primary interest can sound sentimental or moralistic to some ears, but it is the only reliable basis for regional stability and prosperity, and we ought always to push for it as a core interest of the United States.
A special relationship with Russia is compatible with a moderate, comparatively consensual and liberalized Syria – as long as the United States, Europe, and Syria’s regional neighbors also have access to Syria and the opportunity to develop our mutual interests. What is not compatible with peaceable moderation is Syria remaining a client of Iran, or Syria becoming a fiefdom of the Muslim Brotherhood. These latter two conditions, we should maneuver and intimidate to exclude.
Russia can be induced to throw Iran under the bus in Syria, and fending off the Muslim Brotherhood is one of Moscow’s chief security interests. There is leverage to be had here. The European allies, Turkey, and Arab leaders like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, would have to be at least tacitly aligned with us, so Russia couldn’t use them to backdoor our initiative (or Iran, for that matter). The inducements exist without our lifting a finger to produce this alignment, as long as we are serious about preventing a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Syria.
A concentration of stand-off military force might have to be deployed, to secure Moscow’s cooperation. But it is in the highest degree unlikely that it would have to be used, as long as the American in charge presented the Russians with a cogent and credible ultimatum. Although we should be open about our policy, the right diplomatic touch would help lower the obstacles to Russia’s cooperation. The point is not to embarrass Russia but to get what we want in Syria. As far back as this time in 2011, Moscow indicated that Assad was expendable. The Russian priorities are to retain an interest in Syria and keep out the Muslim Brotherhood.
Regrettably, Obama is neither motivated to nor capable of executing such a policy. Our budgetary woes are such that he couldn’t do it without approval from Congress, which would have to agree to any additional military spending that might be required.
But as we sit here watching Western governments split hairs over who might have ordered the undoubted chemical attack of 21 August, it is well to remember that there have been alternatives from the very beginning, and there still are. A good rule of thumb is that if your policy is going to stand or fall on “slam dunk” intelligence, it’s a bad policy and you need to rethink it.
You will never have a smoking gun until after the trigger has been pulled – and very often, you still don’t have the gun, but only the bullet hole. Criminal justice can be predicated on such limitations, but national security policy, aspiring to a more fundamental, prior control of conditions, requires a more proactive, bigger-picture approach. The good news about such an approach is that, while it is more trouble to put together, you do remain in charge of it.