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“Sending A Message” To Iran Is Not A Good Reason To Attack Syria

map-syria-iraq-iran

A common argument that one is hearing from advocates of military action against Syria is that doing so, or failing to do so, will supposedly have some kind of impact on the behavior of the Iranian regime. At it’s most basic level, the argument asserts that, because Syria is an ally or “client state” of Iran (the term varies depends on who’s making the argument), anything that harms Syria will harm the Iranians. In addition to that argument, many advocates of the President’s proposed military strikes against Syria argue that Congress must approve the strikes because failure to do so will be seen by the Iranians as a sign of weakness and a sign that they would have a free hand regarding their nuclear program and their proliferation of weapons to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. In the L.A. Times, Benny Morris does a failure good job of representing this argument:

But Obama’s Saturday announcement sent a contrary signal: Clearly, he and America are irresolute and hesitant about launching a short, limited strike against Assad’s government, and they can be expected to be much more irresolute and hesitant when it comes to tackling the far greater threat posed by Iran’s nuclear project. That could require a weeks- or months-long campaign against a more powerful enemy than Assad’s Syria and might involve the United States in extended challenges around the globe, given Iran’s allies in the Middle East and its terrorist proxy networks around the world.

The administration’s spokesmen have been careful to declare that the president could launch a strike against Assad even if Congress voted against taking action. But this is probably hogwash. Having called on Congress for endorsement, as Prime Minister David Cameron did with Britain’s Parliament, does anyone seriously expect Obama to strike Syria if Congress votes no (a vote that reflects current U.S. public opinion)?

No matter how Congress votes, Obama’s maneuver has clearly signaled Jerusalem that, at the very least, Obama can be expected to vacillate when it comes to the Iranian nuclear installations, and to turn to Congress then as well — and Congress, one may assume, will be even more chary to issue a green light, given the far greater challenges posed by the Iranian issue. Israel’s political and military leadership has surely come away from Obama’s Hamlet-like zigzagging with a sense of shock and, even more important, with a sense of isolation in the Iranian context — one that won’t disappear, even if the U.S. finally delivers a slap on the wrist against Assad.

There’s really two parts to this analysis, and I think they’re both wrong on many levels.

First, there’s the assertion that how the United States ultimately treats Syria, or how Obama has acted in response to the situation in Syria over the past two years, tells us anything about how the United States in general, or this President in particular, would react in response to aggressive moves by the Iranians. What this argument seems to ignore, however, is the fact that Iran is far more strategically important to the United States and the West than the question of what happens in the Syria civil war. While the Syrian situation does have the potential to impact American national interests, Iran’s position in the Persian Gulf region and the Straits of Hormuz makes it, and any action it may take, far more significant for the United States than anything that happens in Syria. If the Iranians think that American hesitancy regarding Syria, hesitancy that I would argue is very wise, tells them anything about how we’d react if they started taking aggressive action in the Gulf, the Straits, or against our Gulf region allies, they would likely soon discover that they were horribly mistaken. Thus, the argument that we must be aggressive with Syria to “send a signal” to Iran is just fundamentally absurd. Our policy toward one nation has nothing to do with the other.

The second part of this analysis is the, usually unstated, belief that Iran would be chastened by aggressive American action against the Assad regime. As Daniel Larison notes, this seems to involve a fundamental misreading of Iranian actions and intentions:

It doesn’t seem to occur to them that attacking Iran’s ally would increase Tehran’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, or that an illegal and unilateral attack on Syria would undermine both negotiations with and international support for sanctions on Iran. While pretending that this attack makes Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons less likely, they are supporting action that will make it more so. Unfortunately, because I fear the U.S. will attack Iran in an attempt to prevent that outcome, this means that war with Iran also becomes more likely. Of course, for some Syria/Iran hawks, that conflict is what they want, but I suspect many of them simply haven’t thought things through very well.

An additional possibility is that an attack on Syria will drive Russia, and to some extent China, and Iran closer together.

The biggest mistake with this kind of reasoning, though, is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea that we should attack one nation for the purpose of “sending a message” to another country. Notwithstanding the arguments that the President’s advisers have made this week, there’s no evidence that Syria poses a serious threat to the United States, specious reasoning for the argument that the United States should be the enforcer of supposed international norms against chemical weapons, and no evidence that any action we take will do anything other than make a bad situation worse. The issues between us and Iran are far more complicated, and require far more nuance, than the simplistic analysis that this argument makes. If there is a good case to make for attacking Syria, then it should be made without raising the specter of a nuclear Iran. If you can’t do that, then there is no good reason to attack Syria.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Dave says:

    Amen. I’ve been waiting for this aspect of the debate to get more light. I think it’s a far bigger factor than many have realized. The administration is absolutely terrified of getting the “wimp” label attached to it in regards to Iran. Although to be fair, conservatives are desperate to do so and will use any excuse.

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  2. @Dave:

    Also, many of the people on the right supporting Obama, or arguing that he should be going further (i.e., John Bolton) have been at the forefront of the movement for U.S. military action against Iran.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I just don’t get this. If we don’t act against Syria, Iran will go ahead and develop nuclear weapons. Guess what, N. Korea did anyway. And what did it get them? We can not invade them without the risk of massive loss of human life. So what? We don’t want to invade them. If NK uses them in an offensive manner, NK will cease to exist. Point, period, paragraph. (goes for the leaders, too) Same for Iran. So we can not afford to invade them if they get nukes. We can not afford to invade them if they don’t have nukes. Nothing changes except for the small but real increase in an accidental nuclear strike.

    Some how or other, I do not think the mullahs are suicidal.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  4. James Pearce says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    If NK uses them in an offensive manner, NK will cease to exist. Point, period, paragraph. (goes for the leaders, too) Same for Iran.

    Yeah, that was how the thinking used to go.

    Then Syria used chemical weapons and everyone shrugged. “I guess that ‘cease to exist’ stuff was a joke.”

    Guess it was…..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 4

  5. @OzarkHillbilly:

    Some how or other, I do not think the mullahs are suicidal.

    The idea that they are is at the center of the arguments here in the US from the right in favor of action against Iran, as well as the arguments advanced by Israel. The thing is, though, that an examination of how Iran has acted in relation to the outside world since the 1979 revolution does not really support that argument.

    I’m no fan of the mullahs, and I’ve met many Iranian ex-pats who hope for the day when Iran is actually a free and prosperous nation, but that day isn’t going to be hastened by starting a destructive war.

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  6. Todd says:

    Whether the argument about Iran has merit or not, I think it does illustrate that in any matter of foreign policy for the United States, there’s always more to the picture than just the specific action being considered.

    It’s not simply a case of “should we or shouldn’t we?”, where one answer is “right”, while the other is “wrong”.

    There are very plausibly nearly as many unknowable consequence of not taking action in Syria, as there are if we do launch a few cruise missiles.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Exactly Doug.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. al-Ameda says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I’m no fan of the mullahs, and I’ve met many Iranian ex-pats who hope for the day when Iran is actually a free and prosperous nation, but that day isn’t going to be hastened by starting a destructive war.

    We agree on this issue, Doug.

    All of this brings to mind the caution one should exercise when it comes to assessing “the enemy of your enemy” – be careful and be circumspect, the enemy of your enemy may not be your friend. Also, not that we need reminders of what our ongoing active presence in the region means to Syria and Iran – we looked the other way when Iraq waged a 10 year war against Iran that resulted in the death of nearly 1 million Iranians. At this time we have no good reason to take counsel from guys like John Bolton and initiate yet more hostilities with Iran.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  9. @James Pearce:

    The idea that Syria crossed some kind of unprecedented red line in using chemical weapons is not supported by history.

    Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons both against his own people and against Iran in the Iran/Iraq War and suffered no immediate consequences.

    The Vietnamese used chemical weapons in their war against Cambodia back in the late 70s (anyone remember the “Yellow Rain”????) and suffered no consequences.

    Egyptian leader Gamal Nassar authorized the use of chemical weapons by Egyptian troops in their support of the rebels in Yemen’s civil war back in the 60s/70s. Nothing happened to him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Pearce:

    Then Syria used chemical weapons and everyone shrugged. “I guess that ‘cease to exist’ stuff was a joke.”

    Guess it was…..

    Yes James, it was. For the record, my old man was a radar operator on a B-29 and took part in the fire bombing raids of Tokyo during WWII. THAT was chemical warfare (napalm is a chemical, is it not?) During Vietnam we repeatedly used Willie Peter (White Phosphorous) on the the VC and VA and many innocents.

    In other words, “Hi Pot, I’m Kettle, you’re black!”

    And for what it is worth, I hate war in all it’s guises, but I refuse to climb up on a pedestal, and what is more, I refuse to pretend that our forms of warfare are somehow or other, more pure and decent than others.

    We kill people. What is more, we maim many more. End of story.

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  11. Al says:

    The Vietnamese used chemical weapons in their war against Cambodia back in the late 70s (anyone remember the “Yellow Rain”????) and suffered no consequences.

    Actually, the the evidence suggests that yellow rain was pollen rather than chemical weapons.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. James Pearce says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Saddam Hussein….Vietnamese …..Egyptian leader Gamal Nassar

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    For the record, my old man was a radar operator on a B-29 and took part in the fire bombing raids of Tokyo during WWII. THAT was chemical warfare

    Got any post 9-11 or post Iraq examples?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  13. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Good analysis, Doug. I agree 100%. These analysts/pundits making this argument remind me in their amorality of those who argued running up to Iraq that it was better for us to fight the terrorists there, rather than fighting them here, regardless of the total lack of evidence that there was any connection between Iraq and Al-Qaeda.

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  14. Stan says:

    I find Doug’s arguments to be unconvincing. If poison gas is no more effective than other ways of killing your opponents, as claimed in other posts, and using poison gas provokes attacks by the US on your military installations, than a rational dictator won’t use poison gas. And whatever you can say about the Assad dictatorship, it’s rational.

    Regarding Iran, if it now regards the United States as weak, it seems to me that defeat of the administration’s proposals in Congress would make the administration seem even weaker.

    I’m not defending the President’s proposal to attack Syria in this post. The strongest elements opposed to Assad appear to be Islamic extremists of the type that took over Afghanistan after the Russians pulled out. It may be that in the Mideast the only alternatives are religious fanatics or military/monarchial dictatorships. It this is the case, then we should hold our nose and back the dictatorships if they aren’t too bloody.

    I can’t make up my mind about what we should do about Syria, and the present post by Doug M isn’t very helpful. I hope he can overcome his knee jerk opposition to a military strike and actually think about the situation a little.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. PD Shaw says:

    @Stan: “And whatever you can say about the Assad dictatorship, it’s rational.”

    I don’t believe that. As the British intelligence assessment indicated, “[t]here is no obvious political or military trigger for regime use of CW on an apparently larger scale now, particularly given the current presence in Syria of the UN investigation team,” or I might add given Obama/the world’s red line. He may not be rational at all, or he may be acting rational within the context of wholly alien set of assumptions or priorities than ours.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  16. Robert C says:

    @James Pearce:

    Chemical weapons don’t equal nuclear weapons….you are fearmongering…..

    Plus..we still do not have conclusivevproofbthatbthisbis not a false flag operation…

    Robert C

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  17. Robert C says:

    @James Pearce:

    Post 9-11 examples of war crimes.

    US using white phosphorus in Faluja.
    Israel using cluster bombs in Lebanon in 2006.
    Israel using white phosphorus in Gaza operation Cast Lead.

    Robert C

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  18. Robert C says:

    @Stan:

    So what if Iran thinks we are weak…it is an impoverished third world country.

    Robert C

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  19. Robert C says:

    @PD Shaw:

    PD Shaw….maybe, just maybe Assad isn’t responsible for the Sarin attack. Maybe the UK intelligence is correct…why would Assad use CW now…he has been winning….maybe we have a Gulf on Tonkin….

    Robert C

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  20. dazedandconfused says:

    It’s plausible they decided to use a bit here and there to clear those concrete apartment buildings without losing as many men or doing as much damage to the buildings. The defenders have all the good cards in urban combat. Strategically stupid? Yes…IF you get caught…..

    The hope is that Obama already decided Assad has “got the message” by the posturing and will now cease and desist on the CW. His allies may have worked hard to do that. We can’t see back-channel communications, and it’s fair to assume there’s been a lot of that.

    Fits with the called of Congress to vote on AUMF, which no one who was hell-bent on lobbing some bombs in there would do. Fits with being so tight with the “evidence”, as proving Assad a war criminal paints him into a corner. Convincing him he has nothing to lose would hardly be helpful. Convincing his allies that our real intention is to intervene on the rebels side in this war wouldn’t be very helpful either.

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  21. cleverboots says:

    There is no good reason to attack Syria except to show he can. To do so is foolish and unsupported by Americans and the international community.

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  22. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: For the record, my old man was a radar operator on a B-29 and took part in the fire bombing raids of Tokyo during WWII. THAT was chemical warfare (napalm is a chemical, is it not?) During Vietnam we repeatedly used Willie Peter (White Phosphorous) on the the VC and VA and many innocents.

    In other words, “Hi Pot, I’m Kettle, you’re black!”

    Actually, the actual definition of “chemical weapon” is a weapon that kills through a chemical process other than combustion. So napalm is not a chemical weapon, and — I think, but I’m no chemist — neither is white phosphorus.

    The prohibition of white phosphorus as a weapon is not based on its properties, but that the military has better tools for hurting people than WP. Want heat? Thermite. Want nasty smoke? Tear gas. WP is good for light.

    It’s kind of like telling troops not to beat the enemy to death with their shovel. We have better ways to kill the enemy, and better uses for the shovel. Plus, the shovel might not be as good at digging holes after it’s been used as a club.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  23. Rafer Janders says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The Vietnamese used chemical weapons in their war against Cambodia back in the late 70s (anyone remember the “Yellow Rain”????) and suffered no consequences.

    Actually, the “Yellow Rain” episode has since been disproven — it was bee droppings, not chemical weapons, hard as that may be to believe. Radiolab did a very good episode examining how the tale of Vietnam’s supposed use of chemical weapons was spun by the US government for (obvious) political motives and how the scientific evidence was mishandled. We know now that it never actually happened.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  24. Rafer Janders says:

    @Stan:

    And whatever you can say about the Assad dictatorship, it’s rational.

    I’m broadly rational. But that doesn’t mean I don’t also do many stupid and self-destructive things every so often. The same is true for regimes.

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  25. Robert C says:

    To all those who continue to claim firing missiles into Syria is “not an act of war”, consider the following. If a ME immigrant (citizen or not) set of three grenades in a movie theater in the US and yelled as he was arrested “Allah save Assad forever”…. Many Americans, including most of the blowhards in the US Congress would be screaming “this is an act of War”. Because that is what we do is the country.

    Robert C

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  26. Rob in CT says:

    @James Pearce:

    Because chemical weapons are not nukes, and he gassed his own people, not somebody else’s. That’s why. You don’t have to like it, but you can’t pretend equivalence.

    MAD applies with nukes. If NK, Iran or any other state uses nukes on someone, they get nuked in return. It’s pretty hard to imagine a state using nukes within its own borders, and frankly I’m not sure what people would make of that. MAD is about use against other states. Given fallout, even using a nuke inside your borders against rebels or something would likely trigger a response.

    Sending a message to Iran… screw that. How’s this for a message: do what you want. If you get nukes, you damn well better keep them safe and not even think about using them. If you do, we’ve got a lot more nukes and ways of delivering them. Have a nice day.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  27. Pharoah Narim says:

    @Robert C: Ever since I was a kid I looked at it this way: You can think or even say whatever you want… But if you want to test your assumptions…you are more than free to step up and get your ass whooped. The President…nor anybody in this country shouldn’t care what those other people think about the strength of America. They are more than welcome to get man-handled however, if they decide to threaten outside of their borders. Quite frankly, those folks AREN’T thinking about us…they are doing their own thing.

    The punditry in this country rises to level of insecure high school beauty pagent contestants… “They think Im fat! I’ll show em (barf, barf)”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. Matt Bernius says:

    @PD Shaw:

    He may not be rational at all, or he may be acting rational within the context of wholly alien set of assumptions or priorities than ours.

    I think it’s the latter. One of the arguments is that Assad is (a) willing to do anything within his power to hold onto power, and, most likely, (B) does not believe that Western powers will actually invade or escalate the conflict to the point of regime change.

    @Robert C:

    why would Assad use CW now…he has been winning…

    Not in the way that you think. Assad has, at best, been holding onto power and the majority of Syrian territory. But if one defines “winning” as exiting the conflict with as much, if not more power, than one had going into the conflict, then he’s far from winning. The fact is, he has a slight advantage in a more-or-less stalemate position. This conflict has been going on for years and — barring hard outside intervention on either side — it will be years before anyone controls a unified Syria.

    That type of situation does not lend itself to fully rational leadership — especially in a western democratic sense. Further, it also destabilizes the chain of command to the point where pro-Assad forces could also act independently in seemingly irrational ways.

    The entire “is it/isn’t it a false flag” thing is a largely useless discussion. What is far more productive is the “so what?” or rather “should we/shouldn’t we?” discussion. And I’ve yet to see a convincing argument for “we should.”

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  29. James Pearce says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Actually, the actual definition of “chemical weapon” is a weapon that kills through a chemical process other than combustion. So napalm is not a chemical weapon, and — I think, but I’m no chemist — neither is white phosphorus.

    Exactly.

    And furthermore, I wasn’t asking for examples of supposed “war crimes” by the US and Israel. What I was asking –basically– is how one can think in a post 9-11 world that the US would do nothing about a middle eastern dictator, who was already on our shit list, using sarin gas on civilians?

    I get that we’re war weary. The prospect of limited air strikes should assuage that a little.

    I get that there’s a big non-interventionist streak amongst the population of the United States, but that view is barely represented in our government and furthermore is contrary to decades of US foreign policy.

    I get that we have no commercial interest in Syria, but we do have an interest in monitoring and indeed influencing its civil war.

    I get that people would love to scale back our blithe willingness to go to war, would like us to be less interventionist, less involved in Middle Eastern conflicts. On a normal day, I would be in agreement with all of that and probably more.

    But if we’re really going to upend the status quo, is this the best time? Shall we send sorties against Milosevic, Hussein, Bin Laden, and Gaddafi but stop at Assad? Can we even pretend to be serious about WMD if we do nothing about its use?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  30. Matt Bernius says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The idea that [the Mullahs are suicidal] is at the center of the arguments here in the US from the right in favor of action against Iran, as well as the arguments advanced by Israel. The thing is, though, that an examination of how Iran has acted in relation to the outside world since the 1979 revolution does not really support that argument.

    The problem is that the people who advance this argument are not swayed by facts. They are completely basing their beliefs on a ignorant understanding of Islam (the cartoonish “World-wide Caliphate or Die” meme so popular in Conservative Media) and looking at rhetoric versus actual action (or history).

    As Steven commented once — they do not know and do not care to understand (“Quod nescis aut non libet cogitare.”)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  31. Matt Bernius says:

    @James Pearce:

    I get that we have no commercial interest in Syria, but we do have an interest in monitoring and indeed influencing its civil war.

    If that’s the case then we should say that is the case. But that’s called — “bombing to initiate regime change.”

    But as long as it’s “we want to bomb them just enough to not use chemical weapons again” then it just doesn’t make sense. Because we’re already telegraphing the level where we’re going to stop. It’s an ultimately empty threat — unless we’re willing to go so far as boots on the ground — which at that point, see my first sentence.

    But beyond all of this, again, looking at our track record in the Mid East and Near Asia region, what actual evidence is there that there is a better than 50% chance that our intervention will (a) make conditions on the ground better, and (b) in the long term serve our strategic interests?

    Or put a different way, neo-cons and liberal interventionists, what is the “argument for doing something” beyond making ourselves feel better? And what is the extend of doing something that you are willing to go to (or commit our military to do)?

    Especially as it seems that a lot of people who normally attack conervative war-hawks for sending other people off to fight their battles are suddenly getting all hot in the pants about send other people off to fight their own battles.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  32. Rob in CT says:

    Food for thought:

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2013/09/among-syria-islamist-fighters.html

    Anybody want to lend them our airforce?

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  33. James Pearce says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    If that’s the case then we should say that is the case. But that’s called — “bombing to initiate regime change.”

    Is it, though? Bombing to degrade Assad’s CW capabilities might result in regime change, it’s true, but the proposed limits (airstrikes, the timeline) indicate that regime change by itself is not the goal.

    A tasty side benefit, sure, but at this point it would be unfair to assume that’s the secret reason we’re contemplating intervention.

    what is the “argument for doing something” beyond making ourselves feel better?

    The argument is there. Hezbollah’s benefactor used chemical weapons on civilians. Something must be done. (Here’s my idea: Send in the warplanes.)

    If anything, the argument that’s about making ourselves feel better is the “do nothing” argument. We get to feel all virtuous for being “anti-war,” which to be fair is not the worst default position to take.

    However, there’s a glaring problem with the “do nothing” argument in this case. It accepts the deployment of CW against civilians. It says, in no uncertain terms, “Go ahead and use that sarin. No one will stop you.”

    It’s almost as if the “do nothings” have been repeating only the first two lines of the serenity poem:

    “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
    The courage to change the things I can”

    Missing this crucial piece:

    And the wisdom to know the difference.

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  34. Matt Bernius says:

    @James Pearce:

    Shall we send sorties against Milosevic, Hussein, Bin Laden, and Gaddafi but stop at Assad?

    This is a #LogicFail on multiple accounts.

    First, if we are recalling history, we should also recall all of the acts of genocide and war crimes during civil wars that we did not intervene in. All those areas ultimately turned out more-or-less ok.

    Second, it sets up the notion that because we acted in the past, we have to act now, WITHOUT actually analyzing the context/results of those actions. Remember the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

    Frankly, of the four, the only one we can really even start to judge was the action we took against Milosevic — which BTW included a not insignificant number of boots-on-the-ground soldiers as part of the peacekeeping force. Kosovo more or less turned out OK, but was different to begin with — prior to the genocide there was already a country set up that the refugees could go to (remember that the story begins with the subdivision of Yugoslavia into multiple smaller countries) and the fact that there were neighboring stable nations that were prepared to help.

    Libya is far to recent to make any decisions about the long term effects of our intervention, but it’s still a very different situation than Syria.

    As for going after Bin Laden, let us remember that in the course of that exercise we ended up taking over Afghanistan, kicking out the Taliban, and now more than 10 years later, leaving the country while the Taliban begins to move back in. At best things ended up “neutral.”

    As for Iraq and Sadam, do you really want to go there? Is Iraq honestly better off for our intervention? It’s infrastructure is still gutted and it’s population has shifted from being fairly integrated to displaced ethnic and religious communities (setting up conditions not unlike what happened in the Baltics that led to our intervention there). And what were the ramifications for the region? — in particular in terms of how the Iraq war ultimately ended up propping up Iran versus destablizing it as originally promised by the Neoconservative architects of that invasion.

    Again, can anyone say that there is at least a 50% chance — if not better than 50% — that, based on our history of interventions in the Middle East and Near Asia region that any US military or covert intervention will actually *help* people on the ground?

    Frankly, I’d rather live with the guilt of not doing anything in Syria than the guilt of fucking up the situation even more than it actually is right now.

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  35. Matt Bernius says:

    @James Pearce:
    Please define what:

    Bombing to degrade Assad’s CW capabilities…

    However, there’s a glaring problem with the “do nothing” argument in this case. It accepts the deployment of CW against civilians.

    The counter argument is that for the “do something” argument to work, we need to be committed to boots on the ground from the beginning or it’s an empty threat. Are you committed to “boots on the ground” and all that follows based on our recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq?

    Pretending that this doesn’t have a strong potential to lead to boots on the ground is buying into the same sort of “best case scenario” thinking that led to people believing that the Iraqi people would welcome us and peacefully and immediately transition to a Western style democracy.

    BTW, just a reminder Kosovo wasn’t just bombing — there were a significant number of boots on the ground there.

    Would you be willing to suit up (or send your blood) to suit up and die in order to “do something?” We ask that of Conservative War Hawks all the time. It’s time to ask that same question of Liberal Interventionists.

    And the wisdom to know the difference.

    The issue is, all I have seen from the Interventionist crowd so far is “emotion” — point me to actual “wisdom” backing up the argument and I’m willing to reconsider my position.

    The emotion of “fear” got us into Iraq. I made the mistake of getting caught up in that myself. If I’m going to claim to have learned from the past, I can’t allow the emotion of “anger” or “guilt” to lead me to support symbolic actions to make us feel better.

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  36. James Pearce says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    This is a #LogicFail on multiple accounts.

    Let me clarify. I did not mean to imply that we bombed these guys so we have to bomb this guy too.

    I mention it only to point out that the “do nothing” approach is a deviation from how we usually do things. I’m not unsympathetic to the idea that our usual approach should be re-examined.

    I just don’t think that a sarin gas attack on civilians in Syria is the perfect occasion to do it. If we’re going to talk about norms, the “we’ll bomb you if use CW” norm is way better than the “sure, you can use your sarin” norm so many well-intentioned people are trying to create.

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  37. Rob in CT says:

    It’s almost as if the “do nothings” have been repeating only the first two lines of the serenity poem:

    “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
    The courage to change the things I can”

    Missing this crucial piece:

    And the wisdom to know the difference.

    Well, since you have the wisdom to know the difference and it tells you to intervene, you can hop on a plane and head on over to Syria, James.

    It is funny how the liberal interventionist and neocon pro-war arguments meld together.

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  38. Rob in CT says:

    To be a bit less harsh, James, in response to this:

    But if we’re really going to upend the status quo, is this the best time?

    Using this, there never will be a best time, James.

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  39. James Pearce says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    Are you committed to “boots on the ground” and all that follows based on our recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq?

    Absolutely not. I’m only supportive of the Syrian strikes to the extent that they are relatively painless to us. No infantry, no occupation, no ground battles.

    Just airstrikes.

    BTW, just a reminder Kosovo wasn’t just bombing — there were a significant number of boots on the ground there.

    The boots on the ground came after the bombing brought Milosevic to heel. And American boots only arrived after all the UN peacekeepers from other countries proved to be completely useless five years in.

    Would you be willing to suit up (or send your blood) to suit up and die in order to “do something?”

    Absolutely. If I were a trained fighter pilot, this is exactly the kind of mission I would like to have. Much better than flying over football games, that’s for sure.

    point me to actual “wisdom” backing up the argument and I’m willing to reconsider my position.

    Punishing the use of chemical weapons is pretty wise. Deterring their use is wiser still.

    Doing nothing may yet be wise, too, but it is less wise than the alternative.

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  40. James Pearce says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Using this, there never will be a best time, James.

    March, 2003 would have been a good time….

    But the anti-war side lost that argument. To people who warned of this very scenario.

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  41. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Rob in CT: I’m afraid you’re pretty much on your own in that definition of WMD, Rob. Just think NBC — Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical. That’s the standard definition used around the world. Or, as I once read, a nuke is a bug is a gas.

    The last redefinition was to expand “nuclear” to “radiological,” to include “dirty bombs” that disperse radioactive material without a nuclear reaction. But they are considered largely interchangeable when you’re talking WMDs.

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  42. Rob in CT says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    That’s nice. I think that’s wrong. I understand this is a minority position (I wouldn’t say “alone”).

    I see significant differences in lethality and I think that matters.

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