A reader writes:
I’m getting that sickening feeling that you weren’t paying attention when you listened to the president’s statement last week. You last night: “But if we cannot resolve the question without entering another full-scale, open-ended war on the basis of murky intelligence about WMDs, then we should resign ourselves to not resolving the question.” Obama’s statement:
I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope …
Congratulations, you’ve successfully argued against an open-ended war that the administration is clearly and emphatically not proposing.
Read the administration’s proposed resolution. Obama can say whatever he wants. He is not immune to the unpredictable dynamics of war. He can barely handle the unpredictable dynamics of peace – and I don’t blame him at this point in history. But if he thinks he can control something no one has ever been able to control, he really is becoming a second Bush in this particular instance. Another reader:
Enough with the war hysteria. We did not accidentally get drawn into either Iraq or Afghanistan; we went in quite deliberately. So the apt comparison here is not with either of those wars but with Libya, where despite your overblown concerns, we got through it with the loss of four people. That’s a tragedy, but it isn’t exactly Antietam.
The object of a punitive strike is to dis-incentivize the use of chemical weapons. That’s it. Now, as it happens, I oppose this action. But opposing it does not require me to rend my clothing and tear out my hair. We are a superpower proposing to fire some cruise missiles at a vicious little thug who violated international norms by using chemical weapons. That’s it. It’s the kind of thing the Royal Navy used to do on the authority of a given ship’s captain back in the 19th century. It is really not that big a deal. Really. Obama has already proved he can strike without getting entangled. He’s not George W. Bush. And this is not Iraq or World War 3.
The only true disincentive for use of chemical weapons is for the UN to achieve a consensus on that fact and initiate collective action involving all members of the Security Council. And yet Obama has explicitly ruled that out. Another drills down on the Libya comparison:
For my own part, I am deeply conflicted about US intervention in Syria. I had been inclined to side with the administration’s stance, but many of the arguments you made in your post this evening have caused me to reconsider. That said, when you ask whether “anyone else in Washington” learned what you learned “in the brutal decade after 2000,” have you considered whether you might have taken the lessons of our recent Iraq fiasco too much to heart? Whether, having struggled to make amends with your support for that disastrous enterprise, you are now emotionally biased in the opposite direction?
Let me say: I made the same mistake. I took the Bush Administration at their word. I was only a senior in high school at the time, but I was behind the Iraq invasion in 2003. I watched Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN and I was persuaded. I bought it. And, like you, I was eventually forced to face up to my failure in judgment. So I’m not hating, I’m just asking: have you, perhaps, taken your own failure a bit too hard?
Again, I think most of the points you make hit the mark, but I ask the question because of a couple things that I did take issue with. It starts with your characterization of Libya: “[Obama] gave in to the hysteria because of an alleged, planned massacre that never happened.” I mean, at the absolute minimum, don’t you have to acknowledge that it’s at least possible that said massacre never happened because Obama “gave in to the hysteria”?
After all, preventing a massacre was, ya know, kinda the whole point of the thing. Obama had what he judged to be reliable information that Qaddafi was advancing on the city of Benghazi, with its 700,000 or so inhabitants, and was intent on attacking with “no mercy” – the late dictator’s own words. So Obama acted, with the support of NATO, the Arab League, and a UN Resolution, to prevent the massacre – without any American casualties.
But you seem to suggest that because there was ultimately no massacre, the president’s motives and/or judgment are suspect. He acts to prevent a massacre he says is imminent, then there is no massacre, but since there was no massacre, you’re skeptical that it was ever imminent. That hardly seems fair, considering that Qaddafi had already killed plenty of innocent people, had pledged to show no mercy, and had sent a large military force to Benghazi our involvement was limited; and also because we put no troops on the ground, and our military forces suffered no casualties.
That leads to the bigger point: Libya was not Iraq. Syria isn’t Iraq. See Mr. Chait: everything isn’t Iraq.
It’s true; our limited intervention didn’t magically precipitate the formation of a thriving Western democracy, any more than did our full-scale occupation of Iraq. But my point is that it’s possible to deploy our military in the service of good without being inexorably dragged into an endless spiral of wasted money and wasted lives. Limited good is still good.
In Libya, we paid around $1 billion to prevent a murderous despot from deploying his superior military force in the wanton slaughter of a city populated by 700,000 people. That amount of money will almost buy you seven F-35 fighter jets – of which we currently plan to buy 2,443. We didn’t end all the bloodshed. We didn’t usher in an era of peace and prosperity. We didn’t buy ourselves meaningful influence or a powerful ally. But I am persuaded we did good, at a reasonable price, and without sacrificing the life of a single American soldier.
Of course you can still argue that it wasn’t worth it; that the billion dollar price tag was still too high; that the good we did comes with too many caveats; or that you just don’t believe Obama and NATO and the UN and the Arab League were being honest in their characterization of the situation. But the discussion should be on those terms.
And to the extent that it informs our perspective on Syria, I think the example of Libya merits rather more than a curt and implicitly cynical dismissal. I think it lends credence to the idea that we can plausibly intervene in order to advance certain limited objectives that do limited good -but real, true good – without automatically leading us down the failed path of the second Gulf War. This is the part of the argument that speaks to me, and you seem not to engage it, preferring instead to insist on the idea that only the lesson of Iraq is that foreign intervention leads inescapably to hopelessly tragic disaster. What I wonder is whether you still feel the sting of having been wrong – as I was – about it last time.
My point about Libya is not that it was somehow cynical or ill-intentioned. I think it was a genuine concern at a possible massacre. My point is that foreign policy is not about going around the world preventing bad. It is about weighing the interests and values of the United States now and in the long-term. What we created in Libya is a failed state which has helped fuel Jihadism in North Africa. And that may very well lead to more deaths than if Qaddafi were still in power or if the Libyan civil war had not been hijacked by the great powers. Jumping all over the world to prevent massacres is not foreign policy. It’s CNN-driven synapses firing. Another reader references an earlier post:
I’m puzzled. You start out by proclaiming that “the principle of forbidding chemical weapons use against civilians and rebel fighters is a vital one for the future of civilization” and that “to do or say nothing now would have given Assad a green light to exterminate more people without any cost” – but then you explicitly call for the US to do, well, nothing. You want Congress to shoot down the president’s request for authorization, and you want the president to accept that decision.
Like you, I would welcome a better explanation of why Assad used the chemical weapons, and I’d certainly like to know if the US has already undertaken any covert operations in Syria. But no possible motivation (not even the desire to respond to covert US action, if it turns out that’s what happened) can justify the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. President Obama’s argument is the same as yours: something must be done to send Assad – and other dictators – the message that violating the principle of forbidding chemical weapons use against civilians is unacceptable. He has explicitly said that his goal is not regime change – presumably because he shares your worries about what a rebel victory could look like.
So how do you respond in such a way as to deter the future use of chemical weapons without fully joining the war against Assad? A limited military strike. Such a strike might not work, but it would not be merely symbolic, nor would it lack a clear goal. The explicit goal would be to deter the future use of chemical weapons against civilians and rebel fighters. It might not work; the Assad regime might use chemical weapons again. But the US would then have the option of responding again, more strongly, and repeating that pattern until Assad stopped. The only thing guaranteed not to deter Assad from future chemical weapons use is for the US to do nothing.
Listen to yourself: “The US would then have the option of responding again, more strongly, and repeating that pattern until Assad stopped.” So there goes your limited strike! And what of the responses of other actors in the region and world? If Obama misreads the British parliament, then I don’t have a huge amount of confidence he can read the various Jihadist factions in Syria, or the machinations in Tehran or the eery silence from Jerusalem. Another reader notes:
At least one of the senators yesterday made a reference to the possibility that there have been multiple gas attacks, prior to the most deadly one that has garnered the world’s attention. Kerry seemed to confirm it, but then referenced discussing it more during the classified briefing. I have been against any military action against Syria precisely because an isolated lone attack seemed too convenient for the war hawks and too pointless for Assad to have risked the backlash. But if it’s just one of a series of Syrian WMD attacks, and Assad is using these weapons regularly, and we can prove it, then to me that changes the debate considerably.
So why did we not do this when we first had evidence of a chemical attack? The answer is the sheer scale of this one. If the principle is about chemical weapons, period, then the scale should not matter. There is no coherence here. One more reader:
Going to war or striking Syria is not necessarily something that should be put to public vote or sentiment. Public officials were elected to lead and make tough decisions not just reflect public opinion. Sometimes elected officials need to do what is against public opinion because they are leaders.
But entering into an open-ended conflict in Syria without massive public support would guarantee failure.
(Photo: A mosaic of Gaddafi is seen on the wall of a building, riddled with bullet holes on August 29, 2011 in Tripoli, Libya. By Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)