In June 1967, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli
vessels, blockading Israel's access to Asia and Africa. Knowing that this meant
imminent war, the Lyndon Johnson administration asked Congress to support a
multinational flotilla to break the blockade. But Congress wasn't buying. Secretary
of State Dean Rusk explained congressional reluctance with one word: "Tonkinitis."
Having been lured into a raging land war in Asia because of one maritime
confrontation, Congress was not going to be lured into a Middle East war
because of another, especially one not of their making.
It could be argued that an analogous condition is evident in
current U.S. policy deliberations. But to be clear, if the United States is
suffering from a latter day Tonkinitis, driven by America's unsuccessful
venture in Iraq, that is not a bad thing. At this stage, the Obama administration is
wise to resist calls for engaging more directly and intensively in Syria's
civil war or Iraq.
The use of the comparative on Syria here is essential,
because the United States already is engaged in the Syrian conflict. Washington
took the Syrian opposition's side immediately, mobilized international support
in the form of the Friends of Syria, imposed the harshest possible economic
sanctions on the Bashar al-Assad regime, supplied non-lethal assistance and
funding for the political opposition beginning in 2011, reportedly facilitated large
shipments of weapons on behalf of Saudi Arabia in 2012, began to supply arms
covertly in 2013, according to
published reports, to the armed wing of the rebellion, and emerged early on as
the world's largest source of humanitarian aid by a very wide margin. There
should be no question about whose side the United States is on, or whether Washington
should get involved. It already is.
Although Washington's preferences regarding Syria are clear,
it is at least an open question whether it is even possible to secure those
preferences. This would a thorny issue no matter what, but in this instance the
deliberative process is burdened by an anterior problem: The inability of proponents
of more muscular intervention to explain how American strategic interests in
Syria would justify the costs and risks of escalation. These voices have become
increasingly -- and rightly -- anguished as the toll in Syrian lives has risen.
Yet, what they really have been arguing for is America's "responsibility to
protect" vulnerable noncombatants against violent assault. The outrage is real.
It is thought that 200,000 people have perished. With 6.5 million people
displaced within Syria and nearly 3 million refugees in neighboring countries,
the scale of the disaster is nearly incomprehensible. As the horror has
unfolded, U.S. humanitarian assistance has grown. Thus far, U.S. spending -- about
$1.7 billion -- dwarfs donations by the EU, Russia, China, and the Gulf states.
And that number will certainly increase further in the coming years.
There is a vital need to articulate the link between means --
the direct and indirect costs of intervention and our available resources -- and
ends -- our strategic stake in Syria. It
has been the instinct of successive administrations -- at least since the
Balkan wars of the 1990s -- to require clear strategic interests and objectives
for military intervention, or actions that could put the nation on a path to
it. (The George W. Bush administration was, concededly, a large exception.) Thus,
proponents of intervention in Syria have
cast their arguments in terms of four overlapping Considerations: spillover;
reputation; rollback of Iran; and the jihadist challenge. These factors, they
argue, make intervention imperative.
The first category concerns spillover. The conflict, it is
argued, will inevitably overflow Syria's already blurred borders to destabilize
America's friends and important regional
actors in which the United States has invested heavily. Victims will include
Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, and Iraq. Although the precise process of
destabilization is rarely spelled out, in part because the process can often proceed
in unpredictable ways, the scenarios generally involve large refugee flows
taxing the capacities of these states while masking the movement of terrorists
aiming to bring down their governments, which have been weakened economically
and jeopardized politically by the ongoing crisis.
Judging from its response thus far, the United States seems
to assess that states bordering Syria will be able to cope with these perils, or,
as in Iraq, have recourse to both U.S. and Iranian advisors, material
assistance, intelligence data and, if rumors are accurate, small detachments of
Iranian Quds force personnel. Although the Iraqi conscripts in the north
clearly panicked, the sheer size of Iraq's army, its superior firepower, the fielding
of elite formations, and the presence of outside powers with a strong interest
in the stability of Iraq are significant assets to be mobilized against Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
For Israel, whose prime minister recently praised the
administration's approach to the crisis, the war has been an opportunity to
strike important targets within Syria without fear of blowback. Chaos in Syria
raises the possibility of jihadist infiltration or cross-border fire, but it also
renders the Syrian state ineffective as a strategic adversary for years to come.
Moreover, it has forced Hezbollah to defend two fronts simultaneously,
presumably to Israel's advantage. And
Israel has quietly suspended its distribution of gas masks to the public
because the only plausible large-scale chemical weapons threat will be removed
by the Russian-brokered deal -- assuming it's fully implemented -- to dismantle
the Assad regime's chemical arsenal.
Ankara has faced an influx of refugees, several cross-border
artillery strikes that killed five Turkish civilians and the loss of an
aircraft to Syrian missile defenses, but overall has contained the challenges
posed by the Syrian civil war to its security. At the same time, Western
observers have tagged the Turkish intelligence service as responsible for the
relatively unfettered access to Syria that jihadists have thus far enjoyed.
Indeed, Ankara has been pursuing its own goals in Syria, at times seemingly at
odds with American objectives. As for more overt forms of intervention, Turkish
voters have made clear that they are not interested. It's difficult to cast
Turkey as vulnerable in this context, especially given NATO's rapid response to
Turkey's request for the deployment of Patriot air defense batteries over Christmas
of 2012; there are now six batteries -- Dutch, German, and American -- securing
In Jordan, voter perceptions of chaos to the North combined
with the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have dampened
enthusiasm for vocal protest over the King's governing style. With over a
billion dollars in American aid, subventions from Gulf States and a substantial
International Monetary Fund loan, Jordan can probably manage the large numbers
of refugees washing over its border with Syria and its armed forces will
confront ISIS intruders from Iraq.
Lebanon meanwhile is holding its own; on a recent visit to
Beirut I heard both Lebanese officials and foreign observers agree that the
influx of refugees, about 1 million and still growing, would not tip Lebanon's
intercommunal political balance toward civil war. This is a remarkable
accomplishment for a country with a population of 4.25 million and without a
functional or permanent government. Jihadist
assassination attempts on the interior minister and speaker of parliament
unquestionably show that Lebanon is a target for destabilization. However, its
compact geography, Sunni antipathy to radicals, Hezbollah's self-interest, and
the pervasiveness of the security service make it a hard target. In any case,
the United States disavowed a vital interest in Lebanon since 1984, when the
Reagan administration decided to withdraw American troops following devastating
attacks against the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut. Intervention in Syria to relieve pressure on
Lebanon would therefore be unlikely.
So the pivotal issue isn't spillover, despite the costs it
so clearly imposes. And even in the case of Iraq, the battles that just erupted
there are part of Sunni insurgency that had been brewing long before the Syrian
revolt. The issue, rather, is spill-in, as Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar,
Turkey, the UAE, the Kurds, and Kuwait all try to manipulate the Syrian civil
war to advance their perceived interests.
One phenomenon contributing to spill-in is the increasing
independence from Washington of wealthy Gulf States that have acquired the
self-confidence and clout (and cash) to press their own, frequently competing,
foreign policy agendas. This is a trend that Washington -- committed to the
security of these countries, reliant on their oil, and wary of Iran -- has
tried to counter, but its leverage is not unlimited. Russia, incensed by the war against Libya, is
convinced that Assad is the best firebreak available against jihadism and is determined
to impede what it sees as American self-aggrandizement is probably beyond reach
at this point; Iran's strategic stake in the Assad regime's survival should be
A second argument for intervention is the need to protect America's
reputation. For proponents of this view, the U.S. failure to intervene in Syria
has already had a profound worldwide effect on American credibility -- among
other allegations -- and it supposedly encouraged Russia's seizure of Crimea
and the covert destabilization of eastern Ukraine.
This allegation is farfetched. Russia clearly understood
that the disparity between American and NATO interests in preserving the
territorial integrity of post-Soviet Ukraine and Moscow's interest in
controlling Crimea and the port of Sevastopol. The disparity of interests was so large as to
guarantee that the West would not react militarily to Russia's ill-advised
takeover of the peninsula. Russia is paying and will continue to pay a price
for these actions, but NATO is strengthened, not weakened, by Russia's thuggish
behavior. There is, of course, considerable damage to international legality
and certainly to Ukraine's governance and sovereignty. But the notion that it
is all part of a general deterioration of American will and reputation is a
figment of the hawkish imagination.
More broadly, the notion that adversaries in a crisis assess
each other's resolve on the basis of what they did or didn't do last year is
not all that compelling. In a crisis, adversaries weigh each other's stake in
the outcome and capacity to defend it as the current dispute is playing out. Track
record is not a significant factor. Moreover, it isn't clear how a country's
reputation can suffer if it doesn't intervene where it doesn't claim to have a
vital interest. A sense of proportion when weighing vital interests is more
often admired than ridiculed. Credibility suffers most when countries intervene
where vital interests are not threatened and their adversary's stake is far
greater than their own.
By not striking the regime at the outset of the civil war, so
the argument goes, the United States foreclosed a golden opportunity to knock
the pins out from under Iran's only sovereign ally in the Arab world and cut
off Hezbollah from Tehran's life support. This would unquestionably be a
desirable thing. It would remove Iran from Israel's northern border and further
Yet precisely because it would so seriously damage Iran's
interests, the fight would
necessarily escalate as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fought back. Meanwhile,
American efforts to dominate the escalation would implicate Washington more and
more deeply in the fate of Syria without guaranteeing any sort of favorable resolution
of the underlying political crisis. And even if the United States "won," the
result would probably be an Alawite stronghold the size of Lebanon along the
Mediterranean coast that would still provide Iran with its strategic requirements
vis a vis Hezbollah. That the United States would be prepared to lay siege to
such a canton and hand its population over to vengeful Sunnis is at least debatable,
if not absurd.
The fourth category of argument advanced by proponents of
intervention concerns the terrorist threat posed by Sunni extremists now
incubating in Syria and running rampant in Iraq. Such militants are unquestionably
a problem within Syria -- for both the regime and the opposition -- and
certainly for Europe, where a reservoir of jihadist volunteers who might carry
out attacks upon their return from the battlefield. Whether the majority of
fighters in this conflict are focused on the United States or Western targets is
open to question. At this stage not enough is known about the orientation of
the majority of fighters in Syria. Numbers are also in dispute, in part because
the intelligence is sketchy, and in part because outside observers often bring
their own interests into the calculation, resulting in skewed numbers.
This uncertainty is compounded by the fact that many rebel
fighters have affiliated with jihadist groups for tactical, as opposed to
ideological and especially anti-American reasons. Because the jihadists win
their fights more often than other opposition groups -- and, in some areas, are
better equipped and led -- they tend to attract non-jihadists to their banner.
officials who have emerged as the voice of the interventionists contend
that had the United States moved decisively against the Assad regime early in
the conflict the jihadists now swarming over Syria would be at home warming
their feet before the fire. This seems unlikely.
What we know from the wars in Iraq and Libya is that Western
intervention is an additional spur to jihadist activism. Militants began
flocking to Libya virtually as soon as NATO announced its intention to depose Muammar
al-Qaddafi. (To be fair, they were motivated to do so even in the absence of Western
boots on the ground.) We also know that despite NATO's military success, or
perhaps because of it, these radical fighters have become entrenched in Libya,
where they now preside over large population centers.
Iraq offers a more dramatic example. The presence of U.S.
troops was an irresistible lure for jihadists -- many from Libya -- delighted
that Washington had sent Americans over there. Indeed, it was U.S. involvement
that triggered the counter-mobilization of jihadist forces. The current US strategy toward the latest
outbreak of jihadism in Iraq - enhancing the capacity of Iraqi forces to deal
with the problem while perhaps preparing the ground for eventual dynamic
targeting via drones - is therefore more sensible than dealing with jihadists
in Iraq by attacking the Assad regime in Syria.
The difficult fact is that jihadism is a problematic feature of the
Middle East and South Asian landscape at this historical juncture. Muslims
animated by jihadist ideology are eager to fight for it and have a number of battlefields
to choose from. Regime change in Syria, assuming it's even feasible, will not
reverse this trend.
Moreover, given the shape of the opposition at that early
stage of the war, the claim that it could have marched on Damascus following U.S.
airstrikes to reconstitute a functioning government is also implausible. The Syrian
Army might have cracked in anticipation of a U.S. invasion or even a sustained
air campaign against the regime. But regime supporters have proved quite
resilient with their backs to the wall and fiercely sectarian paramilitary
elements of regime forces would no doubt have continued to fight for their
survival. The what-if-we-armed-the-rebels-earlier argument is an interesting
counterfactual, but not a compelling one.
In thinking about the best approach to the jihadist
challenge, it would be well to remember that U.S. counterterrorism capabilities
have improved considerably since 9/11. That they are imperfect goes without
saying; the Times Square bomber clearly demonstrated persistent defects. And it
is true, as the saying goes, that terrorists only need to get lucky once. Statements
by U.S. counterterrorism officials regarding ISIS planning to attack Western
targets should not be disregarded.
But the fact is that America's defenses are far better than
they once were. Making the Department of Homeland Security work was said a
decade ago to be a 10-year project; it has now been 10 years and the results
are in. In combination with the vast increase in global U.S. communications
surveillance; the sweeping provisions of the USA Patriot Act; much improved
coordination between U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies; deployment
of many more agents overseas; improved ties between the U.S. intelligence community
and its foreign counterparts; and a stupendous financial commitment to
countering terrorism, the case for "fighting them over there so we do not have
to fight them over here" is far less forceful than it once was.
* * *
Left with an essentially moral case for intervention,
proponents argue that the best way to stop the killing is to ramp up the war in
the hope of toppling Assad or, as Amb. Robert Ford told Christiane Amanpour, to
"increase the pressure on Assad" -- presumably by doing more arming and
training than the United States is currently doing. This will create additional
pressure, but not on Assad, and it will not topple him.
The pressure instead will be on Iran and Russia to increase
their already impressive support for the regime. This in turn will transform
the conflict into a bidding war with Iran that the United States will be feel
compelled to win once it has committed itself (cf., "reputation" above). The
pressure at the end of the day will be back on Washington.
The final destination is a cul de sac: no amount of arming and training the weakest faction in
Syria will enable it to inflict enough damage on the other two much more
powerful players -- the regime and ISIS -- to force decisive concessions in the
meaningful future. When Ambassador Ford joins Amanpour in saying that the
administration's strategy "isn't working" he isn't using the term "strategy" in
the way it is normally used. The fact is that U.S. strategy is working well
enough, to the extent that it entails staying out of asymmetric engagements in a
civil war in a country where American interests are limited, while taking steps
to buttress allies at risk and minimizing the suffering of non-combatants.
The situation is even more complicated because outside aid to
splintered rebel movements tends to encourage further division as factions
compete for resources. Nor does the moderate opposition necessarily have the
grip to hold on to what it gets. We've already seen evidence of this as ISIS has
seized shipments of non-lethal aid from mainstream rebels. Thus, it's at least
debatable whether a U.S. intervention sufficiently decisive to topple Assad
would produce less suffering and be more practicable than the massive humanitarian
aid program and reported efforts to arm and train opposition fighters that are now
What about the intermediate steps between inaction and boots
on the ground that President Obama's critics claim to exist? These critics are
offering nothing especially revelatory or innovative from the administration's
perspective. The full range of options was defined and elaborated on early in the
Syrian crisis and, if reports are true, is under more or less continuous administration
review. The kinds of measures contemplated, whether arming or training insurgents,
boosting the political opposition, or taking the sort of direct actions that
would degrade an adversary's ability to operate militarily have all been
employed by the United States in recent years in Iraq, Afghanistan, and
elsewhere. Some of them have already been applied in Syria. The problem with multiplying
and expanding the scope of these intermediate steps is that they don't get you
where you want to go, if where you want to go is a political solution that
results in a rapid end to the violence.
The issue has never been what could we do, but rather what
happens after we do it?
This brings us back to today's Tonkinitis. If the United States
were to take ownership of this civil war by trying to intervene in a decisive
way, it would ineluctably be held responsible for Syria's reconstruction and
stabilization. The bill for Iraq and Afghanistan is $4-6 trillion, according to
a recent study by Harvard economists, and nearly the whole sum was seems to
have been borrowed. It is now estimated to be about a fifth of our national
debt. The cost -- and immense difficulty -- of reconstituting Syria's state and
economy would be less imposing than it was in Iraq because it wouldn't include
the personnel and materiel lifecycle costs of large-scale multi-year
deployments, but it would still constitute a serious burden when added to what
was spent in the two earlier wars. Perhaps
if some of America's friends and allies who occasionally clamor for
intervention could persuade Washington that they might be counted on to finance
the costs and contribute the highly trained personnel, including Blue Helmets,
to manage the aftermath, there might be more of a U.S. willingness to do more. Unfortunately,
post-war conditions in Libya have demonstrated only too clearly that these
allies lack the will and capacity to follow through. They have their own problems.
The claim of intervention advocates -- that if only the United
States exercised "leadership" an international coalition could be mobilized to
depose Assad and end the conflict -- simply does not ring true. If London had
not backed out of its commitment to join Washington in striking the regime last
August, the attacks would almost certainly have been carried out. But the
British did back out because Parliament - the British people -- decisively and
acidly rejected the government's case. The Elysee's rhetoric about taking
Britain's place was widely derided within France by those, ironically, who
thought that President Francois Hollande was too eager to be Washington's
poodle and, from the other side, by skeptics of French capacity to follow
Pressures to intervene in Syria, or Iraq, or both will grow
as frustrated diplomats, among others, take their case for deeper intervention
to the media - as they should -- and as the administration's political adversaries
weaponize their pleas to exploit an increasingly poisonous political process. The
administration will probably respond with incremental steps toward the creation
of a more effective moderate opposition force in Syria, while confining its
military involvement in Iraq largely to counterterrorism objectives. But with Tonkinitis
in the background, and only vague American equities in the future shape of the
Syrian state, expectations of a step change in policy are not only unrealistic
but out of sync with American strategic interests.
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images