Obama Wants A Little War

by Patrick Appel


Fisher outlines what appears to be the administration’s Syria plan:

[W]hat the Obama administration appears to want is a limited, finite series of strikes that will be carefully calibrated to send a message and cause the just-right amount of pain. It wants to set Assad back but it doesn’t want to cause death and mayhem. So the most likely option is probably to destroy a bunch of government or military infrastructure – much of which will probably be empty.

Drum labels this course of action “useless”:

All the evidence suggests that Obama is considering the worst possible option in Syria: a very limited air campaign with no real goal and no real chance of influencing the course of the war. You can make a defensible argument for staying out of the fight entirely, and you can make a defensible argument for a large-scale action that actually accomplishes something (wiping out Assad’s air force, for example), but what’s the argument for the middle course? I simply don’t see one.

Franklin Spinney argues that this plan relies on the “marriage of two fatally-flawed ideas”:

1. Coercive diplomacy assumes that carefully calibrated doses of punishment will persuade any adversary, whether an individual  terrorist or a national government, to act in a way that we would define as acceptable.

2. Limited precision bombardment assumes we can administer those doses precisely on selected “high-value” targets using guided weapons, fired from a safe distance, with no friendly casualties, and little unintended damage.

This marriage of pop psychology and bombing lionizes war on the cheap, and it increases our country’s  addiction to strategically counterproductive drive-by shootings with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs.

Fallows seconds Spinney:

For 20 years now we have seen this pattern:

1. Something terrible happens somewhere — and what is happening in Syria is not just terrible but atrocious in the literal meaning of that term.

2. Americans naturally feel we must “do something.”

3. The easiest something to do involves bombers, drones, and cruise missiles, all of which are promised to be precise and to keep our forces and people at a safe remove from the battle zone.

4. In the absence of a draft, with no threat that taxes will go up to cover war costs, and with the reality that modern presidents are hamstrung in domestic policy but have enormous latitude in national security, the normal democratic checks on waging war don’t work.

5. We “do something,” with bombs and drones, and then deal with blowback and consequences “no one could have foreseen.”

Larison suspects that a bombing campaign will quickly escalate:

Since almost everyone concedes that the planned strikes are virtually useless, it is hard to believe that the administration won’t feel compelled to launch additional attacks on the Syrian government when the first strikes fail to change regime behavior. There will presumably be increasing domestic and international pressure for an escalation of U.S. involvement once the U.S. begins attacking Syria, and once Obama has agreed to take direct military action of one kind he will have greater difficulty resisting the pressure for even more. There is also always a possibility that Assad and his patrons could retaliate against U.S. forces or clients, in which case the pressure to escalate U.S. involvement will become much harder to resist.

And Gregory Djerejian, who is conflicted over whether or not to intervene in Syria, argues that we “should not simply bomb for 36 hours, and then go away again”:

This would likely prove worse than doing nothing. We need to re-engage in a holistic Syria policy that squarely grapples with broader regional dynamics and that ultimately leads to a negotiated solution, a task we’d shirked, but where Assad’s use of [chemical weapons (CW)] appears to have forced a reluctant President to more forcefully engage. So if we are going in, we’re going in for more than a few Tomahawks so everyone can get a late August pat on the back that ‘something was done’. It’s not quite Colin Powell’s old so-called Pottery Barn rule: ‘you break it, you own it’. It’s perhaps more here, ‘you bomb it, the breakage is yours too’. Are we up to this? Our national security team? The strategic follow-through? The countless hours of spade-work with allies and, yes, foes? I just don’t know.

I am straddling the fence and unsure, but it is one man ultimately who will decide. My thoughts are with him, this may be a more momentous decision than he may wholly realize. I would not begrudge him standing aside, if he feels the ‘roll-in the cavalry’ noises to date have caused Assad to blink already creating a sufficient enough deterrent impact (though this is dubious). He must also ask himself, when he thinks honestly taking his private counsel, whether he believes he and his team really have the appetite and abilities once embarking on this course to actually succeed in it. These are not easy questions. Yet they demand answers and realistic appraisal. As part of that analysis, one must honestly reckon too with the emerging school of thought that we can bifurcate a military action aimed purely to deter on CW, but without enmeshing ourselves in the conflict and attempting to influence broader outcomes. One doubts it could play out so neatly, and such assumptions should be amply stress-tested.

(Photo: A Syrian man reacts while standing on the rubble of his house while others look for survivors and bodies in the Tariq al-Bab district of the northern city of Aleppo on February 23, 2013. Three surface-to-surface missiles fired by Syrian regime forces in Aleppo’s Tariq al-Bab district left 58 people dead, among them 36 children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on February 24. By Pablo Tosco/AFP/Getty Images)