Bunker Mentality

As America ponders just how little to bomb Syria, both interests and responsibility are losing out to skepticism.

In 1993, with Serbian paramilitaries committing mass slaughter in Bosnia, officials in the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton feverishly debated the merits of an intervention. At each discussion, Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, threw cold water on their plans. "When we asked what it would take to free Sarajevo airport from the surrounding Serb artillery," Madeleine Albright, then U.N. ambassador, recalled in her memoirs, Powell responded that "it would take tens of thousands of troops, cost billions of dollars, probably result in numerous casualties, and require a long and open-ended commitment of U.S. forces." Clinton would stay his hand until 1995 and only then discover that he could stop the Serbs with a far smaller commitment than Powell had described.

Now we are here again, with Syria as Serbia and Gen. Martin Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. On Aug. 19, a few days before the devastating chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus that has provoked Barack Obama's administration into weighing a military response, Dempsey told Congress that the United States should not take sides in a "tragic and complex" struggle "among multiple factions." In July, he stated that even the relatively modest option of "limited stand-off strikes" to degrade Syria's offensive capacity would require "hundreds of aircraft" and ships and cost "billions." 

Maybe Powell was wrong and Dempsey is right. But I'm inclined to think that the real difference is that while Powell was restraining civilian officials like Albright who felt compelled to act, Dempsey has provided the cover of his authority to officials looking for reasons to act as little as possible. The giant catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan have produced in both the public and senior officials an overwhelming resistance to intervention and above all to intervention in the name of humanitarian protection.

From all accounts, the Obama administration is preparing a brief and extremely circumscribed strike at the military units and infrastructure responsible for the chemical attack -- "just muscular enough not to get mocked," as one U.S. official was recently quoted as saying. An intervention this modest will do little, if anything, to hobble the Syrian army's ability to kill civilians through indiscriminate bombing and rocket fire. Nor would that be the purpose, anyway; the volley of cruise missiles would, rather, send a message that Obama's "red line" on the use of chemical weapons is not to be flouted. Yet it might not even do that: Because the administration has chosen to overlook a series of earlier, less-egregious chemical attacks, the Syrian military may simply learn a lesson in how far it can go.

There are supremely good reasons to steer as clear as possible of the Syrian whirlpool. We know them well: The United States could find itself in the middle of another Middle Eastern war at a time when the American public is dead set against it; Washington has long since proved that it lacks the capacity to shape desirable outcomes in the aftermath of regime change; and intervention could allow the jihadi and al-Qaeda forces that have been fighting alongside more secular rebels to stake a claim to power should President Bashar al-Assad fall. Oh, and it will cost a lot of money at a time when the United States doesn't have it.

Yet the administration has been so reluctant to act in Syria, so paralyzed by past failure, that it seems to give little weight to the consequence of not acting. Had the president listened to the senior officials who advised him last year to help the rebels, he might have been able to change the balance of force before al Qaeda affiliates gained their current foothold and before Hezbollah entered the battle on Assad's side. It's too late for that. But failing to act forcefully now will carry new dangers: a Sunni-Shiite civil war spreading from Syria to Lebanon to Iraq, sucking Saudi Arabia and Iran even more deeply into the conflict; Jordan and Lebanon destabilized by a vast refugee flight; and the death of tens of thousands more Syrians.

Those are powerful reasons to push back against the worst-case scenarios and the allegedly astronomical costs of action. In a recent analysis, the inestimable Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that General Dempsey has systematically exaggerated the likely costs of action and the probability of failure and has ignored the perils of inaction.

The alternative is not war or even an open-ended commitment. Instead of a punitive action designed to make a point about American resolve, the United States, acting with European and Middle Eastern allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, could reduce the Syrian regime's capacity to perpetrate mayhem through a much more robust campaign of stand-off strikes on Syrian artillery and airfields, military and intelligence facilities, Assad's palace, and other key sites. At the same time, they could step up the pace of training and arming the opposition while continuing to pursue the possibility, however remote, of a diplomatic settlement to the conflict.

I recognize that on a strict calculation of U.S. national interest, the arguments against acting forcefully are at least as strong as the arguments in favor and that from the viewpoint of a president rightly consumed with his domestic agenda, the national weariness with foreign adventures tips the scale toward doing as little as possible. But what all these hardheaded calculations leave out is the well-being and survival of the Syrian people. The death toll is over 100,000; roughly a quarter of the country's 22 million people are internally displaced or refugees abroad. The humanitarian crisis has reached staggering proportions.

This is a president who has endorsed the "responsibility to protect" and established an Atrocities Prevention Board. His national security advisor, Susan Rice, and his U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, both made their reputations as passionate advocates of action in the face of mass atrocities. Yet the United States is preparing to take military action in a way that it knows in advance cannot diminish the violence -- indeed, is not designed to do so. I wonder whether either Rice or Power -- each the Madeleine Albright of today -- is putting up a fight against the latter-day Colin Powell. Neither would be inclined to defer to the bars on Dempsey's shoulder, but both may feel that he's right.

The liberal internationalist of 20 years ago did not flinch before the idea that the United States must stand for principle abroad, as it seeks to do at home. That language has now become faintly embarrassing among serious students of foreign policy, at least on the center-left; it's now the province of conservatives like Sen. John McCain. We are so wised-up now, so hardheaded and clear-eyed. We know better than to confuse interests with values. We know not to tax the patience of the deeply impatient American people. We know that national power begins at home. We know so much that we didn't know in 1993. It seems that the Syrian people chose the wrong time in history to rise up against their monstrous ruler.

Photo: USAF/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Last Hope

The one place the Arab Spring hasn't gone to hell.

Last week Tunisia seemed to be heading for the whirlpool that has sucked Egypt down. The secular opposition had taken to the streets to demand that the Islamist government resign. The National Constituent Assembly, charged with writing a constitution, had been shut down. The state was paralyzed. This week, all the warring parties are talking to each other. The spirit of compromise could evaporate, but my impression, from talking to people on all sides over the last few days, is that Tunisia has a decent chance of avoiding catastrophe. Why is that?

My Tunisian interlocutors did not appreciate the analogy to Egypt, which they view as a giant cauldron of extremism and unreason. And yet Tunisia's politics have been almost as fractious and paralyzed in recent months as Egypt's. Opposition leaders charge that the government, led by the Islamist Ennahda party, is incompetent and unaccountable. The assassination of two opposition leaders earlier this year, apparently by Salafi extremists, has produced a pervasive sense of insecurity and drift. The economy has collapsed: Standard & Poor's recently downgraded Tunisia's credit rating to near-junk level, predicting continued low growth and high unemployment. "The government is paralyzed," says Abdelwahab El Hani, leader of the secular Al Majd party. "We need a new government of nonpartisan experts."

The secular opposition views the Islamists with the same apocalyptic suspicions that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood government provoked. Although Ennahda rules in a coalition with two non-Islamist parties, Zied Miled -- a former member of one of those parties, Ettakatol, and now a leading opposition figure -- says that the secular partners are window-dressing for an Islamist takeover of the state. And though the government has, belatedly, taken steps to curb extremist violence, Miled insists that "Ennahda and the Salafists are one and the same." In fact, he says, the government has its own "extremist wing" of Salafists along with an "an armed wing" staffed by security forces operating under the Interior Ministry along with vigilantes from the so-called Leagues to Protect the Revolution.

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, hyperbolic rhetoric has poisoned the political climate. And the demand that the government and the constituent assembly dissolve themselves, as well as the resort to mass demonstrations and dire predictions of chaos in order to force the issue, demonstrate that the opposition is not much more willing to trust to democratic processes than the government is. Michael Bechir Ayari, the International Crisis Group's representative in Tunisia, noted in a recent article that both sides have their "non-democratic factions" that must be marginalized if Tunisia is to avoid the "Egyptian scenario."

And yet whatever dangers Tunisia now faces, there is virtually no possibility of a military coup followed by a state-sponsored war on the Muslim Brotherhood, as in Egypt. And this is so because of what may be the most salient difference between the two countries, at least in regard to their political trajectory: Egypt has an overwhelmingly politicized and intrusive army, and Tunisia does not. "None of the generals want a coup d'état," says Adnen Hasneoui, an activist close to the ruling Ennahda party. "The only group which could carry out a coup would be the national police, and Ben Ali" -- the former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali -- "designed the organization chart so that the police don't have the power." Indeed, Ben Ali's inadvertent gift to Tunisia was to keep the military weak -- Tunisia has only 27,000 very poorly equipped troops -- and to exercise firm control over the Interior Ministry police.

Tunisia's republican army not only largely precludes the possibility of a coup, it alters the political dynamic among contending forces. In Egypt, both the now-deposed Islamist government of Mohamed Morsy and the opposition appealed to the army to take their side against the other. Morsy appointed the apparently sympathetic Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi army chief of staff in the hopes of co-opting the military; the opposition called for the military to join it in overthrowing Morsy's government. Neither felt they had to talk to the other in order to advance their interests.

That's not an option in Tunisia. The opposition does argue that Ennahda has co-opted the Interior Ministry into a wing of the party. Amine Ghali, program director at the Kawabiki Democracy Transition Center in Tunis, says that "whoever controls the Interior Ministry controls the deep state." But Ghali adds that Tunisia's security forces do not constitute "a state within the state," as Egypt's massive, and massively privileged army, does. They cannot serve as the deus ex machina of political struggle. Tunisia's leaders continue talk to each other in part because they have no alternative.

Last week, with the fever chart of national crisis spiking, Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda's leader and co-founder,  met quietly in Paris with Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of the secular Nida Tounes party and one of his most bitter critics. Returning to Tunis, Ghannouchi conferred with the leader of Tunisia's largest union, the UGTT. The two agreed to hold a "national dialogue" led by the union. The UGTT insisted on a series of pre-conditions, which included the dissolution of the government, thus holding out the possibility of resolving the crisis.

Tunisia has not yet paddled into the clear. In his talk with Essebsi, Ghannouchi offered to give the opposition four ministries -- to expand the government, not to end it. As of this writing, Ennahda was insisting that the dialogue occur before the government agrees to step down -- a condition that the opposition has rejected. Larbi Chouikha, a professor of journalism and the former director of Tunisia's first electoral commission, says that Ennahda seems to have made a decisive choice to break with the Salafists and accept a "rapprochement" with civil society and secular forces. Others are much more skeptical, and see the deal as a delaying tactic which will only deepen the crisis.

The opposition will also have to make concessions. Just as replacing the current government with a committee of technocrats has become a non-negotiable issue for them, so retaining the national constituent assembly, which had been laboring over a constitution for 18 months but has been suspended since August 6, is a bedrock issue for the government. Ameur Larayedh, the head of Ennahda's political bureau (and the brother of the prime minister, Ali Larayedh), says that dissolving the assembly would constitute "a coup against the will of the people." The assembly is an elected body in which the Islamists enjoy a plurality. There appears to be room for compromise here if Ennahda agrees to appoint a committee of constitutional experts to propose changes to the current draft, among other measures.

Tunisian politics really is less polarized than Egyptian politics, though of course that's not saying a great deal. The Islamists are certainly less Islamist. Mohamed Morsy was a narrow-minded functionary, while Rached Ghannouchi is a leading Islamic philosopher (and a former member of FP's Top 100 Global Thinkers). Ennahda agreed from the outset that the new constitution would not stipulate sharia as a source of Tunisian law, and removed offending passages about women's rights and "the Zionist entity" after they provoked an outcry. The chances of a rapprochement in Tunisia are thus greater than they ever were in Egypt.

But what is also true is that a failure of political courage or foresight may not be fatal in Tunisia, as it has been in Egypt. You cannot undo a coup, or the death of over 1,000 people, or the burning of churches, or all the hatred which each of those things has engendered. When supposedly democratic forces use the military as an instrument of political struggle, they are in fact wielding a weapon against themselves. Egypt's secularists have deluded themselves into believing that they have captured the army for their side; the army, in fact, has recaptured the state. Egypt has a war on its hands; Tunisia has only a war of words.