We’re Going to War Because We Just Can’t Stop Ourselves

I don’t have much to add to my earlier comments on Syria or to the piece I put up today as part of a New York Times "Room for Debate" exchange. But America’s slow-motion entry into the Syrian bloodletting does illustrate how hard it is for the United States to stay out of these nasty ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

I don't have much to add to my earlier comments on Syria or to the piece I put up today as part of a New York Times "Room for Debate" exchange. But America's slow-motion entry into the Syrian bloodletting does illustrate how hard it is for the United States to stay out of these nasty little wars, even when it is not obvious what using force will accomplish, when it is clear that doing a little now will create pressure to do more later, when there is little public support for getting in, and when it is hard to identify a clear or vital U.S. interest at stake.

Yet we now appear to be getting ready to drop a lot of ordnance on Syria -- and for a pretty flimsy reason. John Kerry is outraged that Assad's forces have used chemical weapons -- or so he believes -- but as I've noted before, that fact (if true) is not dispositive. Assad's forces have already killed tens of thousands with good old-fashioned high explosive, which is much more effective than sarin in most cases. Yes, chemical weapons are illegal and yes, there's a taboo against their use, but going to war solely to reinforce a rather unimportant norm is a poor reason. The fact that Assad is killing innocent people with this particular tool and not some other equally nasty tool is not by itself a reason to get involved.

What is most striking about this affair is how Obama seems to have been dragged, reluctantly, into doing something that he clearly didn't want to do. He probably knows bombing Syria won't solve anything or move us closer to a political settlement. But he's been facing a constant drumbeat of pressure from liberal interventionists and other hawks, as well as the disjointed Syrian opposition and some of our allies in the region. He foolishly drew a "red line" a few months back, so now he's getting taunted with the old canard about the need to "restore U.S. credibility." This last argument is especially silly: If being willing to use force was the litmus test of a president's credibility, Obama is in no danger whatsoever. Or has everyone just forgotten about his decision to escalate in Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, and all those drone strikes?

I don’t have much to add to my earlier comments on Syria or to the piece I put up today as part of a New York Times "Room for Debate" exchange. But America’s slow-motion entry into the Syrian bloodletting does illustrate how hard it is for the United States to stay out of these nasty little wars, even when it is not obvious what using force will accomplish, when it is clear that doing a little now will create pressure to do more later, when there is little public support for getting in, and when it is hard to identify a clear or vital U.S. interest at stake.

Yet we now appear to be getting ready to drop a lot of ordnance on Syria — and for a pretty flimsy reason. John Kerry is outraged that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons — or so he believes — but as I’ve noted before, that fact (if true) is not dispositive. Assad’s forces have already killed tens of thousands with good old-fashioned high explosive, which is much more effective than sarin in most cases. Yes, chemical weapons are illegal and yes, there’s a taboo against their use, but going to war solely to reinforce a rather unimportant norm is a poor reason. The fact that Assad is killing innocent people with this particular tool and not some other equally nasty tool is not by itself a reason to get involved.

What is most striking about this affair is how Obama seems to have been dragged, reluctantly, into doing something that he clearly didn’t want to do. He probably knows bombing Syria won’t solve anything or move us closer to a political settlement. But he’s been facing a constant drumbeat of pressure from liberal interventionists and other hawks, as well as the disjointed Syrian opposition and some of our allies in the region. He foolishly drew a "red line" a few months back, so now he’s getting taunted with the old canard about the need to "restore U.S. credibility." This last argument is especially silly: If being willing to use force was the litmus test of a president’s credibility, Obama is in no danger whatsoever. Or has everyone just forgotten about his decision to escalate in Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, and all those drone strikes?

More than anything else, Obama reminds me here of George Orwell in his famous essay "Shooting an Elephant." Orwell recounts how, while serving as a colonial officer in Burma, he was forced to shoot a rogue elephant simply because the local residents expected an official of the British Empire to act this way, even when the animal appeared to pose no further danger. If he didn’t go ahead and dispatch the poor beast, he feared that his prestige and credibility might be diminished. Like Orwell, Obama seems to be sliding toward "doing something" because he feels he simply can’t afford not to.

Sad, but also revealing.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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