Over a 100,000 people dead is both heartrending and deplorable. This fact alone is enough to generate the desire to intervene in Syria. The recent use of chemical weapons creates a legal justification for intervention. The question is whether there is any good to be accomplished through an intervention besides the venting of justified moral outrage against the Assad regime. I am deeply skeptical. Here’s why.
Let’s be clear about what could be accomplished with the awesome might of the U.S. military. The U.S. could topple the Assad regime. First, this would require the use of U.S. ground troops in Syria, which the American public would not suffer post-Iraq/Afghanistan. Moreover, as both Iraq and Afghanistan have recently demonstrated, restoring any political order would not be easy or cheap, or necessarily possible—especially anything resembling democracy and the rule of law.
Second, the U.S. could do what the Obama Administration says it has planned: a limited, remote strike. Secretary of State John Kerry said in congressional testimony that the administration means not simply to “send a message” to Assad, but to degrade his ability to use chemical weapons in the future. Given that the U.S. is unlikely to be able to actually target chemical weapons facilities, it is unclear what this degradation might mean. Would Assad’s conventional weapons be targeted? With all this prior warning, Assad is likely to have dispersed his assets, reducing the impact of any limited strike. Moreover, would undermining Assad’s ability to defend himself using conventional weapons only increase his sense of desperation and recourse to chemical weapons? Maybe. Indeed, Senator Rubio pointedly asked General Dempsey if he knew of a limited strike capable of deterring Assad from using any and all means available to prevent his overthrow. (The calculus is simple for Assad: overthrow and possible death versus a strike from the U.S. which is limited in duration and not aimed to overthrow.) This was and is a good question. The general’s (non)answer does not inspire confidence:
Furthermore, given the Hobbesian dilemma presented in Syria, weakening Assad may not be such a great idea. Most analysts have concluded that extremists currently predominate in the Assad-opposition. Thus, it is difficult to contemplate how the U.S. could significantly weaken Assad without strengthening the hand of extremists within Syria. In congressional testimony Secretary Kerry’s (non)answer on this point was equally uninspiring.
These simple observations cannot be lost on the Obama Administration, which suggests that this proposed strike is little more than a message—a well-deserved message of moral outrage and condemnation, but a mere message all the same. In a world where these signals did not cost billions of dollars added on to a large budget deficit with fiscal battles looming, I would applaud such a message. In this world, as a matter of policy, I find the President’s proposed strike on Syria hard to justify.