Who’s Responsible For Syria Boondoggle?
Raymond Pritchett longs for the good old days of Tom Donilan, Hillary Clinton, and Leon Panetta.
Raymond Pritchett and I agree that the proposed strikes in Syria make no strategic sense. But, whereas I chalk it up to “doing something” while minimizing the costs of doing so, he’s furious about the leadership failures.
[T]here is no question the reaction so far by the White House to the events in Syria have been mismanaged by national security leadership. It is impossible for me to imagine Tom Donilan, Hillary Clinton, and Leon Panetta allowing this situation to unfold like what we have seen this week with Susan Rice, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel. It is also impossible for me to believe that Donilan would ever go along with a plan like this.
Only someone as strategically inept as Susan Rice would think this is a good idea. Democrats have defended Susan Rice when the evidence has been overwhelming she really isn’t qualified to be top National Security advisor, and her inexperience outside her foggy bubble is on parade right now. Partisans in the US keep making the same mistakes. They get caught up listening to what their political opponents say and don’t pay enough attention to what the career oriented professionals say. The line of non-partisan career national security professionals who have deep respect for Susan Rice for her intellectual capacity of national security affairs is very short, and today may be invisible.
[T]he number of things that can go wrong, in my opinion, greatly exceed the number of things that can go right. Susan Rice does not give me any confidence at all this will end well for core US national interests. With everything going on surrounding Syria this week, my faith in process and execution is solely with the professionals in the military who are on the front lines. Unless there is a brilliant plan that nobody has leaked, which is unlikely given the number of leaks we are seeing right now, my sense is this will come down to the individuals on the front line to make something useful out of the rotten pile of nonsense they are being handed by the administration.
And I hope no one forgets the policy with strategic “ends” defined as “bombing Syria” is taking place on General Dempsey’s watch. Wake me up if that guy ever steps up, because the only thing every new challenge facing the military does is make me miss Admiral Mullen’s leadership as the CJCS that much more.
While I’m by no means Susan Rice’s biggest fan, she’s certainly qualified to serve as National Security Advisor. She’s an incredibly bright and talented woman who has spent more than two decades, going back to her Oxford dissertation, studying and working policy on intervention issues. She’s not an expert on military planning but, then, that’s not the NSA’s job and many of her predecessors have lacked that expertise.
My criticism of Rice is the same as I have for this particular policy: placing too much emphasis on international legal theory and too little on the practical implications. While sending a consistent message is ideal in theory, in practice international security policy must be inconsistent because the costs, benefits, and risks of each situation vary considerably.
Rice and Kerry were brought into the team with Syria as a known problem and their pro-intervention views were well known. (Ditto UN Ambassador Samantha Power.) The president clearly knew what he was getting here.
Hagel is almost certainly, like Bob Gates during the run-up to action in Libya, a voice of caution inside the private conversations at the National Security Council and the White House. He’d almost certainly resign in protest if the president were ordering a serious invasion.
Dempsey, once given the opening by Congress, could not have been more outspoken against intervention in Syria, both because the costs of achieving our strategic goals are too high and because the force can’t sustain another war right now. He’s been overridden, although just barely–a token strike to save face after the red line bluff was called. I suppose Dempsey could resign but that seems unwarranted here given the stakes.
The bottom line here is that, while I believe the policy here to be wrongheaded, the president has been given advice by competent professionals and weighed the alternatives with eyes open. He has, after all, resisted intervention—which is surely his gut impulse given the scope of the bloodshed—for more than two years given the lack of good options. But he’s backed himself into a corner with his “red line” rhetoric and clearly believes doing nothing here is worse than doing something ineffectual. And, yes, I believe he’s fully aware that these strikes will be ineffectual.
You obviously don’t understand the 11th dimensional chess that Obama is playing. Neither does he, but his blindly loyal supporters will be here later to defend his (in)actions whatever they might be.
Who would that be? None of his usual supporters around here are anywhere near as blindly loyal as GWB’s were.
Too bad Presidents don’t come with a mute button. Sooner or later they all say something we are sorry for.
Hubris is a nonpartisan issue. Power gets into everyone’s head and they tune out the naysayers because they know better.
If and when an attack occurs, I really hope we can walk back through all these confident predictions of ineffectuality and outright disaster.
Here’s my prediction: We’ll blow some things up. Assad will not use chemicals again. Then they will resume their regularly-scheduled civil war. We will lose zero Americans. There will be zero boots on the ground (excepting intel.)
And here’s my “out on a limb” prediction: Russia, seeing the potential for this to cause problems for them, will pressure Assad into negotiating. Those negotiations will begin to consider partitioning Syria into (roughly) Shia and Sunni areas.
@michael reynolds: Gas is actually a pretty ineffectual weapon, so we’re doing him a favor if we manage to force him to stick with bombs.
I think disaster is a highly unlikely outcome. More likely, it’ll just be “Meh.” But it’s just bizarre to me to orchestrate a “send a message” campaign when the stated end game is regime change.
I was against Clinton and Bush doing stuff like this, and equally so Obama. We know this is total clusterf*ck in the making and just because I voted for Obama, I don’t give him a pass for stupidity.
I really don’t disagree with anything in your article, except for the title. Compared to some of the messes we’ve gotten ourselves into over the past decade or so, Syria is hardly a boondoggle (yet?).
The fact is, no matter which course of action the President was to take in regards to Syria, there would be some very smart and competent people out there who would be able to make a pretty convincing case that it is the wrong thing to do.
Even when it comes to the chemical weapons “red line”. In hindsight this certainly appears to be a mistake. But at the time, anybody criticizing the administration for not making such a statement would probably have had a valid point.
All I can say is I’m glad that I’m not the one making these decisions. No matter what you do, a fair percentage of people are going to be unhappy about it. And even worse, no matter how much thought you put into it, there’s a nontrivial chance that you could be proven “wrong” (especially in a situation such as this where there’s a very real possibility that no entirely “right” answer even exists)
I sincerely hope you’re right.
Hah, me too.
That’s a pretty bold prediction from someone who is willing to give up half the Bill of Rights because there “might be” some terrorists somewhere.
I would add that Obama’s Syrian adventure would also be another bite or two of the transnational, sovereignty-reducing, Responsibility to Protect (R2P) apple. Inching American thought along the proverbial “Road to Serfdom” so that today’s internationalists can select for us who is to be saved and who is to suffer the weeping and the gnashing of teeth, at our taxpaying expense.
Of course, though, that Austrian-speaking doctor from old Vienna, who convinced himself and quite a few others that adults don’t always know what is really motivating their behavior, might say that Chicago-way narcissists don’t often react thoughtfully to being made to look like a jerk. Flight or fight are the high probability reactions in those circumstances.
And, please, let’s not talk too much about that transnational, sovereignty-reducing International Criminal Court. If there’s one thing worse than a bunch of lawyers, it’s certainly a bunch of internationalist lawyers.
If chem weapons are ineffective then why did Assad risk using them? They aren’t much use in army vs. army assuming you’re talking about a moderately well-equipped army. But if you want to kill a bunch of people sleeping in basements and bunkers where it’s hard to get at them with HE alone, then it’s pretty effective.
Imagine, for historical reference, that Hitler had armed his V1 and V2 rockets with nerve gas. All those bomb shelters and subway tunnels where Londoners hid when they heard the sirens would have been in a lot of trouble.
According to Mr. Kerry this was a carefully-planned attack, not some random hothead firing off chemical shells. So obviously Assad’s people believed they needed them.
An effective punitive strike would alter the algebra there. Chemicals vs. Condemnation? No problem. Chemicals vs. OMG they just blew up army HQ and set off a rebel rally that recaptured some mileage? That’s different.
That’s what we call a non sequitur.
@michael reynolds: Here’s my prediction: We’ll blow some things up. Assad will not use chemicals again.
Here’s a counterprediction I heard elsewhere: we blow up some things. Assad immediately uses more gas, and says that it was released by our bombs/missiles. And suddenly we’re the bad guys.
I want to recommend this, from Andrew Sullivan’s co-blogger, Brendan James who brings together a number of interesting perspective, among them:
He then adds, in his own voice:
I oppose intervening decisively in Syria because I think the risks and cost outweigh whatever benefit would come from choosing to back Al Qaeda over Hezbollah, Sunni over Shia. I think whoever gains power brings horror in their wake with revenge slaughters, ethnic/sectarian cleansing and the usual smaller bore atrocities.
I don’t particularly favor a punitive attack in retaliation for chemical use, but that’s more just a case of not thinking it’s important enough, large-scope, to get into. There are risks, but I don’t think it’s very risky, and overall it gets a shrug from me. We’re a superpower, they’re a mosquito, if we want to smack them down for being barbarians, fine. On balance it’s about how I felt regarding Libya.
But how anyone gets from any side of this issue to feeling smug is beyond me. We are at very best passive observers at a gang rape. We’re not in there with the perpetrators, but we’re not stepping in to stop it, either. That’s not a heroic position to occupy. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy and we are looking the other way. It is a nauseating place to be.
@Todd: I was using boondoggle in the sense of “a useless waste of both time and money.” There are other uses, with connotations of a long, drawn out affair, that obviously wouldn’t apply here.
@michael reynolds: There are limited situations—people in contained spaces—where chemical weapons can be quite effective and may even be the “best” choice. Historically, they’ve tended to be used in open spaces and been inefficient. In both the mass use case of WWI and in Saddam’s use against Iran, the casualties were quite light compared to alternative means that were available.
@michael reynolds: We’re in complete agreement on the last point. Non-intervention is my default position but the sheer level of atrocity here would be enough to have warranted taking Assad out long ago if we had options for doing so in a way that would lead to an end to the violence and a stable postwar environment.
Libya turned out to be a Meh, although there is a lot to criticize about how it was handled. But, even there, regime change didn’t radically improve the situation on the ground.
Hardly. But I suppose in your mind the crazy-azz terrorists just chose this country at random
Hell, this is America, we always have money for wars.
“We know they have them, and we know where they are”…
US history is rife with small conflicts, mostly forgotten. If all goes well for Obama, Syria will be grouped with those, and not far up the list.
The big “boondoggles” are the ones that did rank high in human costs, as well as expenditures.
I really don’t know if Obama made good or bad decisions to get to this point. I suppose it’s possible that choosing “least bad,” and iterating, can lead to something like this. And for him now, a couple cruise missiles might seem “least bad” of the options.
I understand. The thing is, while I agree that a limited strike will be unlikely to have significant strategic impact, I’m not really sold on the idea that launching cruise missiles will necessarily be worse than continuing to do nothing.
Short version: since the military strike we all expect hasn’t even happened yet, I think it might be a little premature to assign value to the possible results. (not discounting the possibility that boondoggle may very well end up being an entirely appropriate word to describe this action, at some point in the future).
@James Joyner: I think you’ve misunderstood Assad’s use of chemical warfare. Their primary purpose is terror, not military efficiency. And if the noninterventionists win this debate, he and other dictators will continue using them.
Ironic, isn’t it? Obama going to get us into a war over the same weapons of mass destruction the Progs celebrated the absence of in Iraq.
Here’s a quick question:
In 2013, with the last 10 years of history, do you think Obama and his advisers understand the risks of boondoggle and quagmire?
Because if you think they do, you can reduce your fear that any intervention presents a ready slide to such big and bad outcomes. Indeed, you start having to come up with a way for them to misjudge, and for a limited response to force a large response.
I think they should make really sure they don’t accidentally bomb the Russian Navy, but other than that …
I think my quick question answers that.
So why is it worth going to war over ineffective chemical weapons but we wouldn’t bat an eye if they’d used machine guns or TNT to kill the same number of people? Is being gunned down or blown up by your government more noble than being gassed like some Jewish citizen of Europe?
President Obama will seek Congressional approval. This should be an interesting debate.
Interesting, when I spoke above about “least bad” options, that one struck me.
That is definitely “least bad” from his personal perspective.
Yes, it will be fun watching all those anti-Iraq war Democrats contorting themselves into pretzels to support this new war.
The concern is that if we weaken international consensus against chemical weapons we effectively suggest their use not only in Syria, but in other countries as well. Chemical weapons aren’t much use on a modern battlefield, but they are damned effective at slaughtering and terrorizing civilians, especially in urban areas. We don’t want to see the Egyptian military, or the Bahraini government, to pick two examples of many, using Sarin against their political opposition. We also don’t want some Hezbollah hothead thinking it would be swell fun to lob one into Israel, because then we really do get a war, a real war.
So we basically send the message that Daddy is watching, and Daddy will punish you if you cross this line. We want to alter the equation so that the means to effect mass murder are not expanded.
Dude, your entire argument rests on the Syrian response being equal in type and scale the the invasion of Iraq.
and who elected us “Daddy”?
Most people write off things like the Reagan era attacks on Libya as scuffles, below the bar for “war.”
You are making the argument that every scuffle is a war, and therefore equal.
BTW … for the record, I’m fine with Congress voting down any military action. It is face-saving at this point, and while I think low level intervention is low risk, certainly no intervention has less risk still.
This is not to say that no intervention is all good. It means “we did nothing” in response to gas attacks on civilians. That is the downside of standing down.
After watching the President’s news conference, I will make a prediction of my own regarding Congressional approval:
After much political posturing on all sides, there will probably end up being a fairly lopsided vote in favor of authorizing military action … although it will be significantly more restrictive than the virtual blank check that was given to President Bush in the lead up to the the Iraq “boondoggle”.
You and me and all the rest of us when we decided to become the sole superpower on earth. With great power comes great responsibility.
It is an inevitable moral truth: if you are able to feed a starving man and do not, you are morally culpable, whether or not you were the guy who burned his crops to begin with. If you are able to stop an atrocity and choose not to, you bear some moral culpability. There is no opt-out of basic human morality.
Well, all you have to do is prove there are no WMD in Syria, and you will have an actual argument. As it is, you are simply blathering about how you don’t like Obama.
The reason Assad used chemical weapons has nothing to do with military efficiency. Assad used chemical weapons to send a message to both his supporters and opponents that a) he can operate with impunity and b) any hope the rebels have of a military intervention by the U.S. and allies ain’t gonna happen. A limited air strike actually reinforces that message. Obama would have been better off pretending it never happened.
Are you enjoying life in 1973? The rest of us are stuck here in 2013…
Then I suppose that North Korea is our next stop?
The Syrians were upset that they could not dislodge rebels from the Damascus suburbs. They were not sending a message. Had they wished to send a message they would not have worked so hard to obscure the use of chemical weapons. One does not send a message of defiance by frantically covering one’s tracks.
Your argument being what, exactly? If we can’t solve 100% of 100% of all problems everywhere we cannot attempt some lesser degree of success? Do you take that same position on domestic murder? If cops fail to solve them all, should they give up on solving any?
Yea, those sissies. Not like the he-man warriors on the right.
Here in the real world, we remember McCain literally wringing his hands during the 2008 debates, explaining that Bin Laden was untouchable if he was in Pakistan, because we might offend someone if we went after him there.
More like 2008.
My point is that there is no national interest at stake, this is none of our business and we ought to stay out of it.
“Then I suppose that North Korea is our next stop?”
We were a part of the 189 countries that signed an agreement against famine? Didnt know that.
@edmondo: Isn’t there a wee bit of a difference between a few air strikes and an invasion with 250,000 soldiers? Someone can oppose one and not the other without being inconsistent.
One would think …
Not a military historian, but the popular books I’ve read about WW1 suggest that the gas attacks turned out to be very ineffecitve, which is why they stopped being used in that war. Presumably the Brits would have done the same in London as they (and everyone else) did along the trenches in WW1 – distribute counter measures (gas masks for instance).
Arguably they might work better against a population in a civil war such as Syria.
If the argument is to go in for humanitarian reasons, there have been several civil wars with much higher death rates in Africa with just a token US and UN involvement – Rwanda and the Congo for instance. Why get involved in this one? And what difference will getting just involved enough to send over a few missiles make, other than increasing the local hatred for America? The only way to really stop the killing is to send in troops, and is there any reason to expect it would better this time than it has in the recent past?
I agree, basically, that we ought to stay out of it. That does not alter our moral culpability as human beings who, seeing horror, turn away because of self-interest or prudence.
@Stan: “And if the noninterventionists win this debate, he and other dictators will continue using them. ”
Domino theory, ‘we have to fight them there so we don’t fight them here’, ‘we don’t want the next smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud’.
@JKB: “Ironic, isn’t it? Obama going to get us into a war over the same weapons of mass destruction the Progs celebrated the absence of in Iraq. ”
Could you clarify this with an actual argument?
I think you mistake me for someone who is pushing for intervention.
I’m sorry to inflict nuance on people, and maybe I’m wandering from the question of action to be taken or avoided, but I’m trying also to look at broader moral considerations. I’m suggesting that we are doing the prudent, sensible thing by avoiding a decisive intervention, but that it is also to some degree at least, the cowardly thing.
One can do the prudent thing without necessarily having to feel wonderful about it.
You’ve shown that Obama is anti-self inflicted catastrophe, not anti-war. Again, here in the real world, Obama has shown little hesitation when it comes to pulling the trigger. What he has not done is create disasters stretching across his administration the way Bush did.
“Clinton, Panetta, Donilan” Ok, not bad. But I prefer General Marshall, Dean Rusk, Mac Bundy, Haig, General LeMay, and General Max Taylor.
@Barry: I repeat, if Bashar al-Assad can use chemical weapons against his own people with impunity, it will weaken international norms against the use of such weapons. If you disagree, tell me why.
@michael reynolds: Was it actually Assad? So far, they’ve just deduced that—probably because that’s who they want it to be.
From a political point of view, I think Obama is in pretty good shape here. The polls said the majority of Americans wanted congressional approval, so he gave them what they wanted. If they shut down military action, and there are more people are gassed, he can say “I was going to act, but Congress tied my hands.”
If he gets approval, and it goes badly, hey, everyone has skin in the game. Moral issues aside, I think he just painted the GOP into a corner, and got himself off the hook at the same time.
Well, there were actual confirmed uses of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein. Plus, some evidence he’d used them against Kurds in retaliation for their misguided alignment with the U.S. in the first Iraq war.
Why is it good to do an ineffective attack not designed to topple Assad now but it was wrong to go after Saddam, perhaps belatedly, but when he was directly supporting active enemies of the U.S. who had not long before conducted an attack on U.S. soil?
Shouldn’t we wait on the results of the UN inspectors? There are even some intelligence services who say the rebels deployed the chemical weapons. Certainly, more uncertainty than the reality that no intelligence service contradicted the belief that there were WMDs in Iraq. Not even the UN inspectors.
Ask Congress. The ball is in their court now.
Where do you come up with this BS? The case for Gulf 2 was based on a supposed threat in the year 2003, not on what happened back in the 80s. Republicans helped Saddam get these weapons, and they sat on their hands when he used them. When there was an atrocity, a Republican President did nothing. When there was a phantom menace, a Republican President responded with a blunder of historic proportions. We will still be paying for it for God knows how many years.
Do you believe in the Easter Bunny too?
You’re conflating the 80’s and the present, two entirely different situations, and two different administrations.
Mr. Reagan evidently did not have a problem with Saddam gassing Iranians (many of them child soldiers), or for that matter cutting and running when 241 Marines were bombed in Beirut, or selling weapons to the Iranians who may well have pulled the trigger on those Marines.
But hey, conqueror of Granada, right?
Don’t forget the benefit of not having to destroy or severely damage the building.
It may be wrong to beg the question of his red-line comments being viewed as mistakes by him. He may have been sure he wanted to say it at the time, and still feel the same way about it now.
Saw Bob Baer say that the Syrian Army is breathing a sigh of relief and planning and immediate counter-attack against the rebs, who have been taking advantage of regime’s scramble to prepare for bombardment. Assad must declare victory, of course, but there is a face-saving way for Assad to communicate to Obama. Issue orders, extremely strict orders, against anyone using chem through their normal mil comms, which he now knows Obama is reading too.
That’s an astute and important comment but I honestly wish that it had occurred earlier since its position at this depth in a comments thread of a post from yesterday will mean it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
I have some questions. Not rhetorical—actual questions.
How do we know that a military communication was intercepted? Might have been an ordinary communication.
How do we know that we intercepted the communication? How do we know it wasn’t, for example, the Israelis?
@anjin-san: @michael reynolds:
International situations are tricky. One cannot always act immediately after an atrocity. There are global implications. But if chemical weapons are a weapon beyond pale, then isn’t a good lesson to demonstrate that sooner or later, a national head who uses them will swing the short rope in the basement?
Reagan could have launched a few ineffective missiles after the use of the chemical weapons, Bush could have pushed beyond the international consensus and Saddam would now be lounging at the some dacha in Russia. And why bring the crime into public debate for the eventual invasion where so many on the Left would equivocate as they do with so many murders and rapists, Che, Polanski, etc.
But murder has no statute of limitations, shouldn’t the use of chemical weapons be held to that standard. There was, recently, a discussion of the hunting of Nazis and how they are all old and aged. But even though luck has permitted them to reach old age that doesn’t mean they should ever feel the peace of not being hunted for their crimes. Shouldn’t despots who use chem/bio weapons also know that someday, their fickle friendships will falter, and they will be hung from a basement beam.
A long way to go to say, if we are not going after to kill Assad and any in his family who had a part in this as well as any in his government, then we should bide our time till such an outcome is possible. The only other reasonable response is to bomb the chem/bio stocks into oblivion if their location can be identified.
Sadly, that is often true. Sometimes there just are no good choices. This I think is one of them.
I’m actually on the “let’s not get involved side.”. I’m especially distrustful of any so-called “evidence” that we get via the Israelis. No one has yet provided us with any evidence that whatever was done happened because of a bunch of young hotheads did something stupid. Too bad we can’t just figure out where all the CWs are, use a lot of sleepy gas, go in and simply remove all the CWs and their precursors. Would be the most elegant solution.
I’m not sure what you mean by “ordinary communication”.
Hell of a good question. Some reports are the Israelis gave it to us, some say we got it ourselves. For now I’m going with an assumption somebody intercepted something for several reasons. First off I’ve seen nothing that indicates it was faked. It may have been, there is no way for me to know it wasn’t.
However, the Israelis would be taking a whale of a risk if they fabricated it and got caught doing so. Our IC people face the same. Ours is still smarting from being bullied into passing on crap and then being blamed for doing so afterwards on Iraq. It’s possible, but for now I think it more likely than not a significant portion of our IC is convinced it’s real and definitive.
How can we know for sure it wasn’t faked? I don’t know of a way. They can’t prove that to me to a degree of “beyond all doubt” in any way I can easily imagine, but then again I haven’t encountered what would be to me a credible reason why Obama would seek to fake this. Seems a highly irrational risk/reward decision. Nevertheless if those tapes, or whateverthehell it is they based their public statements on aren’t released, I’ll be pissed.
Oops, forgot to thank you for the compliment.
By “ordinary communication” I meant something that wasn’t using any sort of security.
The evidence for the communication having been faked is that, apparently, it was only reported by a single source while there are multiple organizations who are listening. Nobody else apparently reported it.
I also think it’s less that the administration has “faked” the communication than that the information came from a foreign source which did.
For me the critical point is that the burden of proof for authenticity must belong on those holding the communication out as evidence. Should we really just assume it’s authentic?
He must declare victory or lose face, and this strikes me as a concession Obama might agree to. Assad is the leader of a country iin the middle a nasty civil war. As a historical analogy, Khrushchev had to take the heat for backing down on Cuba, because he couldn’t announce Kennedy’s concession of the missile bases in Turkey.
On the faking, oh…I’ll add another layer: The Israelis might have been fooled themselves. The Saudis have a lot of money and a lot of money can buy a lot of talent. I’m not convinced.
@edmondo: Correct. Erb as a prime example.