The Supervillain Syndrome
Why dictators like Assad just can't quit while they're ahead.
Not content to slowly exterminate his opposition and continue the massive depopulation of his country, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently felt compelled to launch a blatant chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds, if not thousands. If this sort of supervillain behavior sounds familiar, you’re paying attention. Assad is replicating the same strategic blunder committed by a long list of his fellow tyrants and strongmen.
What gives? Why would Assad do something so provocative, something so stupid, something so obviously designed to trigger an international military response?
The answer is simple. Assad — like former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, and former Libyan President Muammar al-Qaddafi — got so used to poking the great slumbering bear that is the United States and the international community without any response that he assumed he had absolute impunity to do whatever he pleased on the ground.
After all, the United States did not seem inclined to dramatic action even after the U.N. announced that there were a million children refugees from the conflict. President Obama’s initial, forceful declaration that the use of chemical weapons was a "red line" later proved to be rather squishy. Russia and China have maintained a united front in the U.N. Security Council against concerted action, and it is obvious that the United States couldn’t be less eager to engage in another Middle Eastern war on the heels of costly interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
Like Milosevic, Taylor, and Qaddafi, Assad can be forgiven for thinking that there simply was no outrage which would force the United States to get involved. Hadn’t Milosevic successfully engineered ethnic cleansing in Bosnia? Hadn’t Charles Taylor pushed neighboring Sierra Leone into a hellish landscape were rebels cut off the hands of children for sport? Hadn’t Qaddafi engineered the downing of Pan-Am Flight 103 killing all 259 passengers aboard?
Yes, they had.
But Assad, like his deposed brothers in arms, seems to struggle with the idea of moderation in his turpitude. Former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana was once told by a Serbian general that the joke making the rounds within the ranks was, "A village a day, keeps NATO away." That is to say, that if the Serbs only slowly pushed out ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, they would be fine. NATO would respond to massive depopulation of the countryside, but would largely look past a slow burn. This was black humor, but it was probably accurate. Most Western powers were not itching for an intervention in Kosovo, nor are they in Syria.
So Assad, like the others, became convinced he really was lord of all that he surveys. Even after the chemical weapons attack, he declared, "Failure awaits the United States as in all previous wars it has unleashed, starting with Vietnam and up to the present day." Apparently, Assad isn’t much for history, and the last 30 years are littered with the remains of shattered regimes that shared such bravado.
Assad is right in thinking that President Obama desperately wants to avoid military action in Syria. The choices involved in such a decision are so unpalatable that you actually have commentators arguing with a straight face that the best case we can hope for is a prolonged stalemate between Assad and the rebels, shades of the U.S. position on the long, bloody Iran-Iraq war.
But Assad’s great miscalculation is in not realizing that at some point the costs of inaction simply outweigh the cost of action for Washington and its allies. It does not serve the United States, the European Union, or anyone else well to be seen as feckless in the face of such horrors. It undermines the legitimacy of the international order and makes it more likely that other despots will employ similar tactics. At some point, inaction carries higher political costs both domestically and internationally than action. Does Assad really think that secretary of state Kerry, U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, and national security adviser Susan Rice — all relatively new in their posts and all with a strong human rights record — will simply advise the president to sit on his hands?
Bears wake up. At the Pentagon, they are already looking at how to collapse Assad’s entire world around his ears. And when the United States decides that it has no choice but to act, Russian and Chinese diplomats will still make a lot of noise in public, but in Beijing and Moscow they will start to plan for life after Assad. This, as the saying goes, is not their first rodeo either.
The choices in Syria remain terrible, but Assad is forcing the world’s hand, and like the others before him he won’t much like the end game.