1. We really do not want the opposition to win. It’s true that we don’t want Assad to win either, but giving the opposition the keys to the chemical weapons is asking for disaster. As the New York Times recently pointed out, the opposition is brutal. Both McCain and Kerry seem to take comfort in the apparently large numbers of moderates in the opposition, but the most effective forces among the opposition are not moderate. The Nusra Front, in particular, is extremely disciplined and militarily effective. Like many Islamists, it also has a strong charity wing that wins public opinion. The moderates have noticed. Reuters:
But a second official, who also asked not to be named, said moderate rebels may have lost strength rather than gained it in recent months. Due to their relative lack of weapons and organization, they are beginning to make alliances with better-armed Islamic radicals, whom they see pursuing more effective actions against Assad’s forces, the official said.
2. This will not be a short involvement. Let’s think a bit about the Iraqi Civil War and the bombing campaign we are anticipating here. First off, Syrian air defenses are going to be much superior to Iraq’s or Libya’s. Even after they are overcome, bombing alone does not end civil wars. It took how many forces on the ground in Iraq to end its civil war? How many are still in Afghanistan?
Ezra Klein quoted a paper (see previous diary) that points out that many times an external intervention causes the regime being attacked to increase in brutality, to kill even more civilians. Cornered, Assad is not going to fight more nicely. So what happens? U.S. bombs Syria. The regime commits more not fewer atrocities. U.S. bombs more. The regime commits still more atrocities. When does this end?
3. “Military” and “humanitarian” are incompatible Thus far, we’ve seen very few cases in which a military intervention has reduced casualties. The word “surgical” as applied to bombing appears constitutes a sort of false advertising. All bombing has killed civilians and a lot of civilians. Even the intervention in the former Yugoslavia, as jconway has pointed out, had a large element of excessive and gratuitous force.
Clausewitz got it right: war is meant to achieve political aims, but there is no political aim we mean to achieve here. We’re not trying to replace the Syrian government. One doesn’t fight wars to make people “feel sorry” because the use of the military is lethal.
4. The norm against poison gas has actually been pretty effective. The previous use of poison gas was by Iraq during the time of the Reagan Administration. Saddam Hussein was not sanctioned internationally for that. The next use of them is, what, 30 years later. So clearly, the world has no crowd of tyrants clamoring to drop canisters of nerve gas. It’s doubtful that North Korea would take very many things as a disincentive.
Consequently, there is no hurry to enforce the red line. We can wait for the World Court to catch the perpetrators.
Ross Douthat in the New York Times argued that enforcing the norm, for the sake of the future, was very important. By his view, we have to recognize that the U.S. is the world’s only super-power and the only force capable of enforcing this norm. Reading his column, though, we find much more concern for norms than for Syrians. He doesn’t seem to think a military intervention will be good for the people who live there.
This seems like a morally suspect argument then. We are going to kill — or cause to be killed — extra Syrians in order to save some future group of people from being gassed to death in a world where militaries rarely use poison gas. This doesn’t sound like the “greatest good for greatest number” to me.
5. This is a diplomatic mess. Iran has lots of men who survived Iraq’s gas attack. Iran finds the whole use of poison gas quite abhorrent, because they lived through it. With a new leader in Iran making some somewhat promising noises, now is a productive time for diplomacy.
Further, the best outcome of the Syrian conflict would be a national unity government. This would have to be a negotiated settlement where the participation of external actors will be crucial. An intervention by the U.S. makes the rebels more intransigent since they can always angle for a greater U.S. involvement. It hardens Russian and Iranian resolve. By increasing the level of violence, it makes a national unity government harder to attain.
6. It would violate international law. We really do not want a world in which every nation is a law unto itself. International law is quite clear: force is only permitted for self-defense or with U.N. approval. This intervention is neither. We are not intervening to stop the killing: if so why wait until a specific kind of weapon is being used. We are not intervening for self-defense: we do not border Syria. We certainly lack U.N. approval.