Voice

You Got a Better Idea?

The case for bombs, talks, and everything else in Syria.

I would like to believe -- or maybe I would just like to pretend for a moment that I believe -- that the many congressmen and foreign-policy sages who flat-out oppose President Barack Obama's plan to bomb Syria in response to the regime's use of poison gas have an alternative in mind. Surely they don't think, "Let those crazy Muslims kill each other," or "It's none of our business." That would be callous. It would be un-American.

But since very few of the critics have actually bothered to say what they would like the president to do instead, I will propose what I imagine to be their alternative in order to examine whether Obama is, in fact, making a colossal mistake. 

If the United States should not be resorting to force to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from killing his people, wrecking his country, engulfing his region in chaos, and releasing the genie of chemical weapons, then he should be using diplomacy. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says that "we should avoid further militarization of the conflict, revitalize the search for a political settlement." The International Crisis Group has echoed this sentiment, as has Alex de Waal, the Africa scholar who now runs the World Peace Foundation at Tufts.

One of the strongest arguments against military action (though Sens. Rand Paul and Tom Udall and other Obama opponents left and the right haven't bothered to make it) is that it may preclude a political settlement. Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, has said that a U.S. strike would "put the planned Geneva-2" peace conference "a long way back or even kill it altogether." I asked Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the publication Russia In Global Affairs, whether he took Lavrov at his word, and he said, "It may seem strange, but there is a widespread belief here that if America is allowed to settle every conflict by intervening in other countries, sooner or later it will come to Russia. This is a very, very deep belief." The foreign minister, says Lukyanov, is not bluffing.

That's a serious problem. Secretary of State John Kerry has been pressing Russia for months to participate in Geneva-2. The draft Senate resolution authorizing hostilities in Syria states that "It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict..." But maybe the resolution is self-defeating: since no political settlement in Syria is even imaginable unless Russia puts pressure on the Assad regime to compromise with the rebels, bombing Syria may not hasten a political settlement but rather make it unattainable.

The International Crisis Group makes precisely this argument in proposing that the United States stay its hand in order to help foster a political settlement which allows Assad to stay in power, though not "indefinitely," while an inclusive transitional process moves forward. ICG spelled out the plan in detail in an earlier document: outside powers must demand that the Syrian antagonists on both sides lower their expectations, and then press the rebels and the regime to form an interim government with an inclusive committee to establish broad constitutional principles. Core institutions like the army must be reformed and preserved. Power should be devolved to the governorates in order to ensure that all major communities feel included. And Iran must receive guarantees of a future role.

So why is Obama bombing instead of talking? Has America's arch-diplomat lost faith in diplomacy, as Vali Nasr charges in Dispensable Nation? Maybe he has. In the spring of 2012, when the U.N. was trying to organize a political settlement, Russia might have been able to bring Damascus to the table if the United States and its allies had pressured the rebels to accept a gradual political transition rather than Assad's immediate ouster. They didn't; Assad looked doomed, and the rebels were in no mood to compromise. That moment may come to be seen as one of the war's many could-have-beens. But we're not there any more. It's hard to see any reason why Assad would now accept his own demise; why the supremely embittered rebels would agree to let him stay, but not "indefinitely"; why Iran would stop shipping arms to Damascus and call off Hezbollah. And it's hard to foresee any settlement, at all, short of dismembering Syria and distributing the pieces to the antagonists.  

I called the ICG to ask why they thought a political settlement was not only necessary but possible, but the organization declined to make an analyst available. But you can understand the logic: If war is not going to lead to diplomacy, and if diplomacy is the only way to end the current savage stalemate short of an outright defeat of the rebels or, much more improbably, the regime, then the answer is Geneva-2. That may be impossible, but everything possible will only make the situation worse. Delusory hope may thus be the least bad option.

But it's fundamentally specious to argue against U.S. airstrikes in order not to jeopardize a diplomatic option which has long since disappeared. If Syria should not be allowed to use chemical weapons on its citizens, and if the United States can not permit its "red line" to be so grossly violated -- whether or not Obama should have drawn it in the first place -- then it makes no sense to oppose the attack on the grounds that it precludes diplomacy. This is functionally the same as saying that the U.S. shouldn't use force -- even sharply limited force -- to prevent mass atrocities or punish proliferation.

There is, however, a harder question for those of us who believe that the United States should mount a campaign to not just cripple Syria's ability to use chemical weapons but to reduce its capacity to kill its citizens through conventional means, as well. The ultimate goal of such an effort would be both to protect Syrians and to force Assad to negotiate. This is what Kerry means when he talks about changing Assad's "calculus," and it is the principle which Sen. John McCain has embedded in the Senate resolution, which also speaks of aiding the Syrian political and military opposition.

But is that as remote a possibility as negotiations today would be? That's what Lavrov says, and perhaps he means it. In the aftermath of an attack, Russia and Iran will double down on their support to Assad, and the regime itself will be convinced that it must win or die. The ICG asserts that the regime is an "inseparable whole," and thus that no one part will turn against another even as its fortunes dwindle. There will be no military "tipping-point."

That may be so; there's no way of knowing for sure in advance of the event. All choices in Syria are not simply bad but discreditable; that's why doing nothing seems so appealing. Those of us who advocate doing something are all left with our possibly delusory hopes. Perhaps the best answer is to try everything: degrading the regime's capacity and enhancing the rebels', talking to Russia and Iran, even shaming the government, as Thomas Friedman recently suggested. Will all that, taken together, make a political settlement of any kind at all more rather than less likely? I don't know. It's the best answer I can come up with.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

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.

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