Driving Blind: The Road to “Intervention”

DrivingBlindBradbury545James Mann in the New Republic can’t stand to see President Obama hesitate on war with Syria. “As for his ‘pivot’ towards Asia, all of Obama’s speeches meant to reassure our Asian allies of our continuing and revived interest the region would end up having little impact if our policies in Syrian make it appear as the United States is so wavering that America’s idealism and its power are both on the wane.”

Michael Ignatieff at the Boston Review looks at Syria through the prism of Bosnia and considers how the two calls for intervention compare and differ. “Such an analysis helps us to explain why the anti-Assad opposition has been unable to create a believable government in exile linked both to commanders at the front and to the municipal authorities in the liberated zones. Inside and outside, exiles and front-line fighters regard each other with suspicion. There is no effective national command of the insurrection and hence no shared political claim to defend together. In addition there are a number of fighters, the al Nusra Brigade being only one example, for whom the goal is not the defense of a multi-confessional Syria but the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Arab lands. As Western governments have considered their options since the uprising began, they have found it easier to identify those they want to lose than those they want to win.”

Shane Harris and Matthew Aid, in an exclusive report from Foreign Policy, detail the U.S.’s connection to chemical warfare a quarter century ago. “It has been previously reported that the United States provided tactical intelligence to Iraq at the same time that officials suspected Hussein would use chemical weapons. But the CIA documents, which sat almost entirely unnoticed in a trove of declassified material at the National Archives in College Park, Md., combined with exclusive interviews with former intelligence officials, reveal new details about the depth of the United States’ knowledge of how and when Iraq employed the deadly agents. They show that senior U.S. officials were being regularly informed about the scale of the nerve gas attacks. They are tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched.”

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon argues at Foreign Affairs that the U.S. should leverage the use the off-shore missile strikes to force diplomacy on a political solution in Syria to move forward. “As the White House repeated this Monday, the conflict in Syria will only end with a political solution. In other words, the United States should use the leverage it has, in the form of continued pressure and looming military strikes, to help get all sides to the table. That could involve striking key Assad regime assets related to its chemical weapons program even while dangling offers of negotiations, in the hopes that a bargain can be struck between all the players and the war will end with a transfer of power — no matter how unlikely that may look at the moment.”

An interview with Noam Chomsky about the civil war in Syria from last June. “For a long time, the Arab world and other places have played host to stories and illusions about the supernatural power of the United States, which controls everything through complex conspiracies and plots. In this worldview, everything that takes place can be explained in terms of imperialist conspiracies. This is an error. Without a doubt, the United States are still a great power and capable of influencing events, but they are not always able to manipulate them by means of complex conspiracies: this really is beyond their capacities. Of course the Americans do sometimes try to do this, but they fail, too. What happened in Syria is not outside our understanding: it began as a popular and democratic protest movement demanding democratic reforms, but instead of responding to it in a constructive, positive manner, Assad reacted with violent repression. The usual outcome of such a course of action is either a successful crushing of the protests or otherwise, to see them evolve and militarize, and this is what took place in Syria. When a protest movement enters this phase we see new dynamics at play: usually, the rise of the most extremist and brutal elements to the front ranks.”

Fred Kaplan at Slate outlines the goals and limits of what the administration should hope for with a bombing campaign in Syria. “Given the threat, the humanitarian crisis, America’s standing in the region, and the importance of preserving international norms against the use of weapons of mass destruction, the best option might be to destroy huge chunks of the Syrian military, throw Assad’s regime off balance, and let those on the ground settle the aftermath. Maybe this would finally compel Assad to negotiate seriously; maybe it would compel the Russians to backpedal on their support (as NATO’s campaign in Kosovo compelled them to soften their support for Milosevic). Or maybe it would just sire chaos and violence.”

[UPDATE] — Gregory Djerejian for the Belgravia Dispatch writes, “In short, you might say I could be persuaded the risks of inaction (or, perhaps better stated, long-term implications of doing nothing) could be worse—or at least run neck in neck–with doing something, but I say this frankly extremely torn, very concerned and with tremendous humility looking at our misadventures since 9/11 in each of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and points beyond. This is truly a problem from hell, but I do not believe we can dither from the sidelines any longer, unless we are prepared to more or less wipe our hands of the entire sorry affair.” (H/T greginak)

From Juan Cole, “It is not clear what an American intervention would achieve.  It is likely that Washington will conduct a limited punitive operation, perhaps hitting regime buildings with Tomahawk missiles.  The latter would avoid the regime’s sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, which might be able to fell an F-18 fighter jet. It should be obvious, however, that any such strike would be a form of retaliation for President al-Assad’s flouting of international law.  It would not actually protect Syrians from their government, and it would be unlikely to alter the course of the civil war.”

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

51 thoughts on “Driving Blind: The Road to “Intervention”

  1. What does the plan actually entail? Kill the bad guy? Knock the bad guy off his feet so the Syrian Populists can kill the bad guy? Save face after making a big speech about a red line? Will we be “Nation Building” afterwards or will the (inevitable) civil war be allowed to take place on its own timetable rather than on ours?

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. This is going to earn me scorn but I think the situation about whether or not to get involved with Syria is very morally complicated.

    I have never been an isolationist. Isolationism always reminds me of the anti-Semitic America Firsters during the lead up to WWII. These are people who called WWII a “Jewish plot” and a “Jewish War”.

    What is happening in Syria is also not comparable to the Yellow Cake arguments of Iraq.

    Neither side is necessarily on the side of angels but I believe that Assad has used nerve gas on his own people and that is evil.

    Most Americans are opposed to intervention but just because the majority opposes something does not mean they are right. I don’t know if we should intervene in Syria or not but it is rather bad to simply say it is non of our concern.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I’ll book end you. I’m just exhausted with the middle east. I’ve gotten past the point of caring and wish there were a containment policy available, a pox on all their houses. I know there’s not a good solution but until there is one, I’ll just hide in the mountains and mind my own business.

        Quote  Link

      Report

    • Well, some Tomahawk missile strikes can probably take out Assad’s weapons depots, releasing big clouds of nerve gas, blister agents, and other assorted nasties, teaching Assad about the stupidity of storing such weapons in areas that he controls and perhaps getting him to turn his chemical stockpiles over to Al Qaeda and Al Nusra.

        Quote  Link

      Report

    • I think there’s a moral case for overthrowing Assad, but then there was a moral case for ousting Saddam and the Taliban too, they were brutal despots. Sic semper tyrannis and all that.

      The problem with Iraq wasn’t a lack of moral justification, it was a lack of actionable policy that would improve the situation. Just because there is a case for intervention doesn’t mean you actually have a sufficiently well-designed intervention to implement. And without a well-designed intervention the results will likely be no better than Iraq and Afghanistan.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • The game seems to be rigged in such a way that, no matter what happens, no matter what we do… intervene or not, nation build afterwards or not… what happens will be our responsibility.

        And the arguments for how awesome it would have been had we intervened are much more flattering to our better selves than the arguments for how, seriously, we should have known better than to kick the tar baby after punching it twice. (I have the suspicion that we’re not allowed to use that one anymore. Which one do we use instead?)

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • If it’s innocents suffering, couldn’t we allay your guilt with helping someone else with all the cash that would be one missile? How many Africans or South Americans or Detroiters could we help with the price of even the most limited engagement.

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • Well, over rollcall I said:

        ****

        About the only halfway decent option I see for Syria is for the US to use its ties to militaries throughout the region and convince a number of countries to form an allied coalition under a unified command, to fill the rebel power vacuum with generals and forces from Egypt (though they’re busy at the moment), Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Turkey, the UAE, and even Pakistan, with the aid of NATO or other troops if needed. The goal would be to displace Al Nusra, Al Qaeda, and other jihadist militants while simultaneously displacing Assad, Hezbollah, and the Syrian leadership, basically putting a foot down to stop the civil war and restore public order by removing everyone in charge on both sides. It’s a double-decapitation strategy.

        The region needs to attempt what Europe perhaps should have done to handle the breakup of Yugoslavia, treating it as a failed state and ensuring that any breakup is peaceful, dousing the fires of sectarian hatreds and vengeance by putting a lot of boots on the ground. As evidenced by the flow of money and weapons, neither the Gulf oil states nor other moderate countries want to see a victory for either Assad or his jihadist opponents (who are just going to stir up more trouble back home if they win), which means regional powers might agree to create a stronger third horse and insert it into the fight. They’ve looked for a viable (and moderate) rebel army to back, and unfortunately one doesn’t presently exist, and since it seems no country is willing to stick its neck out and commit troops in a conventional war against Syria, a coalition is required. It would let them share out the blame and responsibilities.

        If such a force insisted that it will fully protect the rights of both Shias, Sunnis, and Alawites, and the sponsoring countries ensured that their deployed forces reflected that diversity (especially at the higher command levels), they might avoid a strong sectarian backlash from Shias in Iran, Lebanon, and southern Iraq and gain broad support from the region’s public, which wants an end to the violence and the threat of a major sectarian bloodbath that might engulf other states.

        If Syrians on both sides are more afraid of their neighbors (and their currently bleak future) than they are of an invasion and occupation from a broad coalition of Muslim moderates under the watchful eyes of the UN, then they might welcome such forces. Of course Iraq argues that this might not be the case, and that despite logic and reason they’ll just welcome a third group of targets to the party.

        Unfortunately, convincing any of the countries in the region to cooperate, contribute soldiers, and agree amongst themselves to a unified command would take a lot of leadership and persuasive power, which the Obama Administration has largely squandered in the region. So I just figure we’ll lob some missiles, cluck our tongues, and moan about the lack of a morally viable rebel army we could support.

        ****

        With Saddam, every country in the region was afraid of his huge army, led by a genocidal lunatic, so the US had to take the lead. Syria certainly has similarities, but if the ragtag bands of rebels have kept him stalemated for this long, perhaps regional leaders would have more confidence in contributing forces toward moving Syria to some sort of post-Assad period while exerting enough social control to avoid chaos.

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • ,

        This is why I said it was complicated but something feels rather bitter and distasteful to me to let innocent Syrians suffer.

        Doubtless, but is there reasonable hope that our actions would diminish the suffering of innocents, vs. maybe shifting which innocents suffer?

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • intervene or not, nation build afterwards or not… what happens will be our responsibility.

        , I think this is a bit self-centered of us. If we don’t do anything, I don’t think people outside the US will be saying 20 years from now “it would have all been OK if the US had done something.”

        In general, I think it is safe to say people hold the bombs we drop against us far more than than the bombs we don’t drop. When was the last time you heard anyone complain about Darfur?

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • The problem with Iraq wasn’t a lack of moral justification, it was a lack of actionable policy that would improve the situation.

        This. Some aspect of the occupation that everyone agrees is an unmitigated good thing. And at least IMO, new constitutions and elections are far from what is necessary; it needs to be something material. My own proposal would be to rebuild the electric grid on a crash basis. Play no favorites; every neighborhood and hamlet gets electricity, no matter which side they were on. Make it clear that anyone who messes with the new grid will be punished. Have people in US military uniform do the work.

        I don’t anticipate that such a policy, or anything similar to it, would ever be supported. It would be expensive, both in terms of the equipment and lives (as it puts US troops in quite exposed positions). The US Army Corps of Engineers almost certainly lacks the bodies necessary to do the job and continue its domestic commitments (dams, levees, etc). Also probably lack some of the skills necessary, so if uniformed people are going to do the work, there would need to be a draft of certain engineer and craft skills.

          Quote  Link

        Report

    • Neither side is necessarily on the side of angels but I believe that Assad has used nerve gas on his own people and that is evil.

      Is this different from the other guy?

      Not that I think you’re morally wrong about Syria. I don’t. I think there was moral justification to invade Iraq (even if it wasn’t the justification we actually used). My issue has more to do with self-interest. What’s good, or not good, for us. Primarily.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  3. There should be aboslutely no military intervention in Syria of any form. Its only going to make a bad situation worse. Randomly dropping bombs isn’t going to do much to hurt Assad or help his opponents. The only military action that we can do that will harm Assad is a full-scale invasion. The reasons why this is a bad idea should be legion. It will cost immensely in lives and materials, we will be responsible for the clean up after Assad falls and there is no way anybody could do a competent job.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. Does anyone see a coherent strategy in the Administration’s slowly building responses yet? Because without a clear set of goals and a defined strategy for achieving them, all we can do is engage in a few random tactical acts that accomplish nothing more than what Jaybird suggested, just feeling like we did something instead of nothing.

    What if we did a SWOT analysis here? What our are applicable strengths? What are our relevant weaknesses? What are the opportunities? What are the threats? My intuitive analysis of those is not positive. Is anybody’s?

      Quote  Link

    Report

      • At this point we couldn’t persuade the Russians to do vodka shots.

        Changes in Iran were looking promising (they appointed a Western educated woman as VP), so the Administration declassified and released a ton of documents on the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup attempt, hoping to give Iranian hard liners more leverage against us.

        One prominent writer suggested that we use the “Costanza Policy”, developed by George Costanza on Seinfeld. The concept is that the administration should do the exact opposite of what their instincts dictate, because their instincts are always completely, one-hundred and eighty degrees, wrong.

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • lol…so silly. When our interests coincide with the russians we will get along just fine. Hate to break it to you, but the CIA involvement in Iran is not new or news. They just gave some more details but it was all known. Their hard liners were going to say what they were going to say no matter what. Their pat robertsons don’t actually need our help to dislike us.

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • Well, was it critically important for us to provide their hard liners with some fresh material at this crucial juncture?

        How can we tell if we have Russian, Chinese, and North Korean moles running our foreign policy if they wouldn’t do anything differently from what the administration already does?

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • Well, if the Russians or Chinese were running our foreign policy it would at least indicate that someone intelligent was making decisions, which would in a way be comforting. Absent that, it means that the decision are coming from a gaggle of delusional spastic morons.

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • Well, I do like Chinese and Russian policies regarding civil liberties, since they don’t have the pervasive surveillance state, partisan tax audit policies, warrantless searches, or naked body scans, and have some checks on executive power and arbitrary rule by fiat.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  5. “The record clearly shows that, in every instance since the Second World War in which the U.S. government has launched strategic missile attacks on foreign soil, our military forces easily targeted enemy assailants with total precision, leaving no civilian casualties, collateral damage, or any long-term negative consequences for the affected country or region, American foreign policy, or international relations as a whole.”

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/experts-point-to-long-glorious-history-of-successf,33642/

      Quote  Link

    Report

  6. Fair points on how it seems like we are morally damned if we do and morally damned if we do not.

    That being said, tar baby is not a term to use.

    A few months ago someone on Kevin Drum’s blog, someone made the case for non-intervention by evoking the prime directive from Star Trek. As a friend pointed out, that smacks of racism by saying that middle easterners are less advanced societies and therefore lesser members of humanity or possibly not even completely human.

    I am deeply suspicious of people who take political cues from Star Trek.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Well, I’m sure you remember the degree to which pro-interventionists were flattering themselves (morally and otherwise) when it came to intervention in Iraq.

      I’m not confident that this is that different.

      I mean, I understand the intuition that says “let’s go in there, kill him, kill his maybe top ten people, and kill his children.” Seriously, I do. If I thought that there would be a good way to do that with a spectacularly well-guided missile, I’d be asking “what are we paying taxes for???” and calling for a spectacularly well-guided missile.

      However… in killing Assad (and his top ten and his children) we’ll be creating a power vacuum and a great deal of uncertainty. We’ll then have to deal with the question of whether we’ll want to midwife Syria through the uncertainty (like in Iraq! Pottery Barn, baby!) or whether we’ll want to leave and see how Egypty Syria’s uncertainty resolution is. Given that I suspect that there is going to be a civil war no matter what, I suspect that the best course of action is to let it happen on their terms/their timetable and let them overthrow their own dictator.

      But I totally understand the argument that Assad (and his top ten and his children) should get the death penalty for the whole “dictator” thing. I just don’t believe that we’ll be able to say “and they all lived happily ever after” once we throw his body (and the bodies of his top ten and his children) to the dogs and the birds. We’ll instead say “and now it’s our moral responsibility to get from B to C. And then C to D. And then to deal with an insurgency. Ingrates.” And so on.

      Let Syria figure this stuff out on their own. Perhaps they’ll have learned from Iraq and Egypt and whatnot.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • There’s already a civil war in Syria, and by the numbers it’s probably killed more civilians than were killed in Iraq since our 2003 invasion. I think the more difficult question is whether having one side win will make things better or worse. Will the killing stop or will it just shift in to a higher gear?

        .

          Quote  Link

        Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *