Daniel W. Drezner

Two takes and one prayer on Syria

Two takes and one prayer on Syria

My take on what to do in Syria has drifted from agnosticism to skepticism over the last week.  This authorized DoD leak New York Times story by David Sanger and Eric Schmitt about what the Pentagon is planning to do in Syria ain’t helping:

President Obama directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar Al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.

Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria— to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.

For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved….

Mr. Obama’s instructions come as most members of Congress who are even willing to consider voting in favor of a military response to a chemical attack are insisting on strict limits on the duration and type of the strikes carried out by the United States, while a small number of Republicans are telling the White House that the current plans are not muscular enough to destabilize the Assad government.

Senior officials are aware of the competing imperatives they now confront — that to win even the fight on Capitol Hill, they will have to accept restrictions on the military response, and in order to make the strike meaningful they must expand its scope.

“They are being pulled in two different directions,” a senior foreign official involved in the discussions said Thursday. “The worst outcome would be to come out of this bruising battle with Congress and conduct a military action that made little difference.”

Officials cautioned that the options for an increased American strike would still be limited — “think incremental increase, not exponential,” said one official — but would be intended to inflict significant damage on the Syrian military.

There are two ways of thinking about this story.  The positive spin is that this is the DoD’s equivalent of the Federal Reserve’s "forward guidance" — a signal to both allies and adversaries alike about what will come to pass.  In monetary policy, forward guidance is a way of crafting stable expectations about the future — not that this works all the time.  In this case, one wonders whether these leaks are trying to signal to Assad and his great power benefactors the wisdom of sitting down and negotiating with the rebels rather than trying to grind out a military victory.  At the risk of setting off the Bad Analogy Detector, this is akin to how both Bosnia and Kosovo played out — and if the Syria outcome matched either of those cases, the after-action assessment would be that this would be a foreign policy triumph for the U.S. and A Good Thing for Syrians. 

The negative spin is that, contrary to the Times reportage, Obama’s decision to go to Congress is actually leading him to expand rather than contract his policy aims.  It had seemed that the initial goal of this operation was to deter Assad (and other possible chemical weapons users) into not using WMDs again.  Going to Congress for a few symbolic missile strikes, however, seems like an awful lot of political capital to expend for very little return.  In order to curry favor with both the liberal internationalists on the Democratic side and the neoconservative sympathizers on the GOP side, the administration needs to expand its goals to include intervening in the Syrian civil war.  Which means this is less about the norm against chemical weapons use and more about trying to bring an end to Syria’s conflict. That’s a noble cause — I’m just not sure if it’s doable. 

We’re in the middle of Rosh Hashanah, and at services yesterday, I noted that the siddur at my synagogue had a petty apt prayer that seems worth repeating here: 

We pray for all who hold positions of leadership and responsibility in our national life.  Let Your blessing rest upon them, and make them responsive to Your will, so that our nation may be to the world an example of justice and compassion


[You’re resorting to prayer?!–ed.  Given how this Syria debate is playing out, yes, and given my updated Bayesian priors on how well the United States executes foreign policy in the Middle East, you’re damned right I’m resorting to prayer.]