To hear many in the mainstream media describe it, the U.S. has been painted into a corner regarding intervention in Syria, where an ongoing civil war continues to devolve into a bloody, sectarian mess. But regardless of whether the ruling government did or did not use chemical weapons against rebel forces, the idea that U.S. airstrikes will alter the fate of the nation are being met with understandable skepticism. Machine gun diplomacy has been an expensive and disastrous tactic in modern history, and there is little about the Syrian crisis to suggest that this time will be any different.
To begin with, the idea of armed intervention has scant support from the American people. According to a poll by Reuters, 56 percent of Americans surveyed said the U.S. should not intervene in Syria, while just 19 percent were in favor of armed intervention (almost identical to a poll conducted two weeks ago, before the President made the rounds trying to sell such an attack). Even if there was irrefutable proof that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, just one in four Americans supported intervention. 80 percent of Americans do want the President to obtain congressional approval before striking Syria. However, a vote of Congressional authorization is still questionable, and though beltway support seems to be growing, there remains the possibility of what happened in the UK last week: a down vote.
Without solid support for a strike coming from Congress or the American people, we should be asking why an attack is being presented as so likely – or, as Conor Friedersdorf pointed out in an excellent piece for The Atlantic, why the press is so eager to present the President as under pressure to deliver forceful action, without ever saying where exactly that pressure is coming from.
After three hours of Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings Tuesday, the testimony from Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, failed to offer a coherent vision for the President's strategy. It seemed much more like the opening of a dialog about what to do in Syria, than a final argument for any course of action – let alone the very grave one being considered. There were a lot of platitudes and moral arguments about why we should be appalled by the actions of the Assad regime, yet precious little about what would happen as a result of launching strikes – which seemed eerily reminiscent of the way the invasion of Iraq was justified at such hearings (the CFRC approved the authorization of force late Wednesday).
Would it impact the outcome of the civil war? What was the possibility of escalation beyond air strikes? To these important questions, there were only vague answers and hopeful assertions. It seemed odd to see Kerry, who once testified before Congress so passionately as a young ex-soldier advocating for an end to the war in Vietnam and later forcefully critiqued the haste employed by President Bush in Iraq, suddenly so comfortable with a bomb now, figure it out later approach.
Americans have every reason to doubt that such a softly articulated plan is good medicine, if only from our recent experience. From Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya, or even further back to Somalia and Lebanon, too many Americans have lived through foreign policy disasters which followed assurances that armed responses to messy regional conflicts would not only be successful, but relatively smooth. Also – and this cannot be stressed enough – it is still very unclear as to what a limited strike would even hope to accomplish. It would be unlikely to tip the balance of power within Syria, or force Assad from power. And remember, there is no unified opposition, rather a plethora of anti-Assad forces that range from military units that revolted to a group aligned with Al-Qaeda, so there's no telling whether things would get better or worse if Assad were toppled.
Yet an intervention like the one we are proposing could ultimately result in a protracted regional conflict that eventually draws in Russia, China and other international players. There are already a hornet's nest of military forces assembled in the region on both sides. Also, a nuclear Pakistan could intervene, while Indonesia (the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation) might align with the Chinese and Soviets behind Assad, meaning this could quickly turn from a Syrian religious civil war to an international conflict, even World War III. Were our strategic objective in Syria to get Assad to secure his stock of chemical weapons and prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists (and stop employing them on his own people, if in fact that is the case) that would seem both strategically sound and operationally viable. But airstrikes don't seem to have a role in such an objective.
At the core of our beltway belligerence, seems to exist an unwillingness to even attempt to talk honestly about what we can do, let alone what would best serve our vital long-term interests. The U.S. can find Assad's behavior deplorable and it can work with the international community to pressure Syria to move toward a more democratic process – and we still might fail, were we to go that route. But that failure seems no more likely than that of the call to arms we are currently contemplating – just far less expensive and with much less chance for ongoing blowback.
It remains very disappointing that we have moved this close to armed conflict, when meaningful efforts at diplomacy have yet to be waged. No one in Washington seems to be interested in leveraging the situation into a result that could actually help to stabilize the region, rather than one that is almost certain to turn it on its ear. As a Muslim state which remains the only nation in modern history to have been subjected to chemical warfare, Iran could be a powerful voice, were the U.S. smart enough to bring them to the table, perhaps at the proposed Geneva II Middle East peace conference. Though they've been staunchly opposed to western sabre-rattling in Syria from the start, engaging Iran through Russia or even Oman would give the country their long-sought seat at the international table regarding the affairs of their region and might reopen dialog on their nuclear ambitions.
If regime change is in fact not the goal, would brokering a deal in which a non-western country – perhaps Russia – took possession of Assad's chemical weapon stockpile be a viable alternative? A sweeping round of U.S. airstrikes before any such efforts are debated, seems likely to ensure a quagmire that sees the United States once again embroiled in a long and costly conflict, in which the terms of success are never even defined let alone attained. Remember, there were beltway forces telling us that air strikes on Iran were a no-brainer as far back as 2006. Does anyone really believe we'd be in a better place today, had we gone that route?