Terms of Engagement

Bunker Mentality

As America ponders just how little to bomb Syria, both interests and responsibility are losing out to skepticism.

Photo: USAF/Getty Images
Photo: USAF/Getty Images

In 1993, with Serbian paramilitaries committing mass slaughter in Bosnia, officials in the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton feverishly debated the merits of an intervention. At each discussion, Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, threw cold water on their plans. "When we asked what it would take to free Sarajevo airport from the surrounding Serb artillery," Madeleine Albright, then U.N. ambassador, recalled in her memoirs, Powell responded that "it would take tens of thousands of troops, cost billions of dollars, probably result in numerous casualties, and require a long and open-ended commitment of U.S. forces." Clinton would stay his hand until 1995 and only then discover that he could stop the Serbs with a far smaller commitment than Powell had described.

Now we are here again, with Syria as Serbia and Gen. Martin Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. On Aug. 19, a few days before the devastating chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus that has provoked Barack Obama’s administration into weighing a military response, Dempsey told Congress that the United States should not take sides in a "tragic and complex" struggle "among multiple factions." In July, he stated that even the relatively modest option of "limited stand-off strikes" to degrade Syria’s offensive capacity would require "hundreds of aircraft" and ships and cost "billions." 

Maybe Powell was wrong and Dempsey is right. But I’m inclined to think that the real difference is that while Powell was restraining civilian officials like Albright who felt compelled to act, Dempsey has provided the cover of his authority to officials looking for reasons to act as little as possible. The giant catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan have produced in both the public and senior officials an overwhelming resistance to intervention and above all to intervention in the name of humanitarian protection.

From all accounts, the Obama administration is preparing a brief and extremely circumscribed strike at the military units and infrastructure responsible for the chemical attack — "just muscular enough not to get mocked," as one U.S. official was recently quoted as saying. An intervention this modest will do little, if anything, to hobble the Syrian army’s ability to kill civilians through indiscriminate bombing and rocket fire. Nor would that be the purpose, anyway; the volley of cruise missiles would, rather, send a message that Obama’s "red line" on the use of chemical weapons is not to be flouted. Yet it might not even do that: Because the administration has chosen to overlook a series of earlier, less-egregious chemical attacks, the Syrian military may simply learn a lesson in how far it can go.

There are supremely good reasons to steer as clear as possible of the Syrian whirlpool. We know them well: The United States could find itself in the middle of another Middle Eastern war at a time when the American public is dead set against it; Washington has long since proved that it lacks the capacity to shape desirable outcomes in the aftermath of regime change; and intervention could allow the jihadi and al-Qaeda forces that have been fighting alongside more secular rebels to stake a claim to power should President Bashar al-Assad fall. Oh, and it will cost a lot of money at a time when the United States doesn’t have it.

Yet the administration has been so reluctant to act in Syria, so paralyzed by past failure, that it seems to give little weight to the consequence of not acting. Had the president listened to the senior officials who advised him last year to help the rebels, he might have been able to change the balance of force before al Qaeda affiliates gained their current foothold and before Hezbollah entered the battle on Assad’s side. It’s too late for that. But failing to act forcefully now will carry new dangers: a Sunni-Shiite civil war spreading from Syria to Lebanon to Iraq, sucking Saudi Arabia and Iran even more deeply into the conflict; Jordan and Lebanon destabilized by a vast refugee flight; and the death of tens of thousands more Syrians.

Those are powerful reasons to push back against the worst-case scenarios and the allegedly astronomical costs of action. In a recent analysis, the inestimable Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that General Dempsey has systematically exaggerated the likely costs of action and the probability of failure and has ignored the perils of inaction.

The alternative is not war or even an open-ended commitment. Instead of a punitive action designed to make a point about American resolve, the United States, acting with European and Middle Eastern allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, could reduce the Syrian regime’s capacity to perpetrate mayhem through a much more robust campaign of stand-off strikes on Syrian artillery and airfields, military and intelligence facilities, Assad’s palace, and other key sites. At the same time, they could step up the pace of training and arming the opposition while continuing to pursue the possibility, however remote, of a diplomatic settlement to the conflict.

I recognize that on a strict calculation of U.S. national interest, the arguments against acting forcefully are at least as strong as the arguments in favor and that from the viewpoint of a president rightly consumed with his domestic agenda, the national weariness with foreign adventures tips the scale toward doing as little as possible. But what all these hardheaded calculations leave out is the well-being and survival of the Syrian people. The death toll is over 100,000; roughly a quarter of the country’s 22 million people are internally displaced or refugees abroad. The humanitarian crisis has reached staggering proportions.

This is a president who has endorsed the "responsibility to protect" and established an Atrocities Prevention Board. His national security advisor, Susan Rice, and his U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, both made their reputations as passionate advocates of action in the face of mass atrocities. Yet the United States is preparing to take military action in a way that it knows in advance cannot diminish the violence — indeed, is not designed to do so. I wonder whether either Rice or Power — each the Madeleine Albright of today — is putting up a fight against the latter-day Colin Powell. Neither would be inclined to defer to the bars on Dempsey’s shoulder, but both may feel that he’s right.

The liberal internationalist of 20 years ago did not flinch before the idea that the United States must stand for principle abroad, as it seeks to do at home. That language has now become faintly embarrassing among serious students of foreign policy, at least on the center-left; it’s now the province of conservatives like Sen. John McCain. We are so wised-up now, so hardheaded and clear-eyed. We know better than to confuse interests with values. We know not to tax the patience of the deeply impatient American people. We know that national power begins at home. We know so much that we didn’t know in 1993. It seems that the Syrian people chose the wrong time in history to rise up against their monstrous ruler.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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