- By Paul D. MillerPaul D. Miller is assistant professor of international security studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He served as director for Afghanistan on the National Security Council staff under U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Here we go again.
President Obama has reportedly asked for military options in Syria, including "humanitarian airlifts, naval monitoring of Syria and the establishment of a no-fly zone, among other possibilities," according to the New York Times.
If the Syrian people are morally justified in fighting against their own government, then it is permissible (though not necessarily prudent) for the United States and other international actors to come to their aid. That is why the United States is and should be at least rhetorically and diplomatically on the side of the protesters and rebels. Further assistance might take the form of humanitarian assistance and money, with training and weapons a next step. But should it include a U.S. military deployment?
It’s a hard case to make. Just because the Syrians have a just cause doesn’t make it our fight. It becomes our fight if intervening in Syria a) would further U.S. national security interests, b) at an acceptable cost, c) with a reasonable chance of creating a situation in Syria better than the present one.
We certainly have a greater national security stake in Syria than we did in Libya, but is it enough to justify an intervention? Here’s the best case I can make: we are fighting a 30-year Cold War against Iran, and anything we can do to contain and limit Iran’s influence is good. Toppling the regime in Syria eliminates Iran’s main regional ally and a major transit route for weapons and Hezbollah. Therefore, we should take advantage of the unique opportunity that the Syrian uprising affords us and make regime change in Damascus official U.S. policy. Fellow Shadow Government contributor John Hannah made a similar argument last year.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that’s a sufficiently vital interest; I’ll revisit it in a little bit. We still have to ask if an intervention is achievable and cost-effective. Here the argument for intervention becomes even harder. There is no international coalition supporting an intervention in Syria, making it harder to assure the Syrians of the benevolence of any intervention. The split in Syria is alarmingly along sectarian lines, suggesting there would be little chance of forming a national unity government after the fall of Assad and risking a replay of the 2006-7 Iraqi civil war. The nature of the fighting in Syria makes an outside intervention harder: rebels control no territory, a no-fly zone would be simply irrelevant, a no-drive zone would be tantamount to invasion.
Furthermore, Obama showed in Libya that he is willing to topple a regime and then walk away, leaving the hard work of peacebuilding to others and casting serious doubt on the future of post-Qaddafi Libya. That precedent bodes ill for a post-Assad Syria. Additionally, the domestic political pressure to reduce U.S. spending makes it hard for Obama, or any American policymaker, to push for the kind of large-scale reconstruction and stabilization assistance that a post-war Syrian would need. In short, there is a sadly low probability that we could overthrow Assad, replace him with something better, and avoid chaos.
More broadly, I doubt that we have the kind of political will necessary to make an intervention of this sort effective. I admit this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy (the more we write about how little political will we have, the less political will we have). I especially hate it when this kind of argument is leveled against the intervention in Afghanistan, a place where we have demonstrated astonishing political will for more than a decade. And I dislike the argument because it implies a defeatist, pessimistic take on American capabilities. I tend to agree with Robert Kagan that the stories of our decline and fall are greatly exaggerated.
Nonetheless, some realistic pessimism is appropriate in this particular case. Does anyone think the Obama administration, or the American foreign policy establishment generally, has what it takes to do a Syrian intervention right? I want to believe that we can do this because it is almost a textbook-perfect case of where our interests and our ideals have aligned with rare harmony. But if I, the last champion of nation-building, am skeptical, is anyone else going to believe it is possible?
Now let’s return to our interests at stake in Syria. Our involvement in Syria would essentially be a proxy fight in our broader campaign against Iran. But there is a danger in choosing to make Syria a battlefield. We might sink time, money, troops, and energy into regime change in Syrian; meanwhile, Iran successfully completes and weaponizes the nuclear cycle. Syria would be a pyrrhic victory. We run the risk of confusing a sideshow with the main event. The main event is Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Will intervening in Syria prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Who is an intervention most likely to slow down: Iran, or the United States?
Given the difficulty of doing a Syrian intervention right and the fact that it is not the primary U.S. interest in the region, I am not currently persuaded that an intervention would be good U.S. policy. (I know it is heretical to say that anything that happens in the Middle East is not absolutely vital to American interests. But I am increasingly convinced that this particular emperor is naked.) That may change if, for example, the Syrian uprising demonstrates much greater capacity and unity, if the international community begins to coalesce around an anti-Assad position, or if Assad himself starts to look for a way out, the achievement of which should be the focus our diplomatic strategy. Until then, masterly inactivity might be our best military strategy.
Meanwhile, take a moment to reflect: Syria is precisely the sort of mission we should be able to do, but Obama’s decision that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" effectively takes it off the table. The fact that we lack the capacity and the will to act when it would be both in our own self-interest and in defense of humanitarian ideals is one of the most damning things that can be said about Obama’s defense strategy. That he is now asking for military options for Syria suggests he knows it.