Monday, September 2, 2013

Syria - My response to five non-interventionist arguments

First, please check out my latest column at The Week - Obama goes to Congress on Syria: Big mistake.

In a democracy, very few issues demand more scrutiny than debates over the prospective use of military force.

Yet, just as the opponents of intervention in Syria should spare no quarter in their critiques, so too must their analysis meet reciprocal consideration. To facilitate serious discussion, a debate must necessarily involve more than one argument and one rebuttal.

So, in that regard, here are my criticisms of some of the non-intervention arguments that have been made over the last week.

Matt Lewis, ‘A clear red line, the paper tiger… and how we get dragged into warThe Daily Caller 

Matt Lewis, a columnist I greatly respect, suggests that we’re allowing ourselves to be ‘’sucked’’ into an unwarranted conflict. Lewis posits that the focus on upholding the ‘red line’ is dangerously misguided. Instead, he argues, we should consider the merits of military intervention without the polluting influence of perception centric considerations. Lewis further suggests that it could be a positive future circumstance, if Iran and co. falsely perceive American weakness, but later find that assessment painfully mistaken.

I disagree.

From my perspective, Lewis is disconnecting two fundamentally interdependent elements of US foreign policy. Credibility is interwoven with our direct, immediate interests. America’s enemies; though variable in ideology, nonetheless tend to have one thing in common. They’re totalitarians. When America is perceived as weak, the cause of peace is hampered (see Iran). In that scenario, American interests eventually and inevitably become directly involved.

When you’re dealing with people who believe that political discourse involves blowing up playgrounds, you better be sure that they understand your resolve. For America’s word to have any meaning, for our power to be real, we must back up our words with action.

Joshua Landis, ‘Stay out of Syria’ Foreign Policy

Landis centers his argument in two themes. First, that ‘U.S. intervention in Syria will likely lead to something similar [to the 2003 invasion of Iraq]: civil war and radicalization.’’ Second, ’with America's economy in the dumps, its military badly bruised, its reputation among Muslims in tatters, and its people fatigued by foreign wars [intervention would be a mistake].’’ I have problems with both these statements. On the first point, does Landis genuinely believe that Syria’s present situation is amenable to even a semblance of long term stability? As I argued earlier this week, while a US intervention in Syria is indeed fraught with risk, our failure to intervene likely portends one of two terrible outcomes – Syria’s descent into a Salafi terrorist dominated political wasteland, or, an Assad victory that would be perceived (and acted upon) by Iran as a theologically ordained victory over the United States.
           On the second point, I believe that Landis is making the archetypal mistake in terms of identifying anti-US sentiment in the Islamic world. Ultimately, America isn’t hated because of what we do, we’re hated because we lack policy consistency and because we’re unwilling to confidently articulate the rationale for our actions. Oh… and though it certainly wouldn’t be a cakewalk (and shouldn’t be considered flippantly), there’s also no question that the US Military possesses the capability to intervene against Assad in a meaningful way.

Ramesh Ponnuru, ‘A dissent on Syria National Review Online

Ponnoru’s main contention: ‘’This is not a military action that we are undertaking to defend ourselves from attack or to protect a core interest. The congressional power to declare war, if it is not to be a dead letter, has to apply here.’’ I fundamentally disagree. Even by the standards of the War Powers Act (see sixty day deadline), a law which I have vigorously defended, the decision to apply limited action against Assad rests with the Executive… aka the President. In this vein, Obama has made an awful miscalculation in requesting approval from Congress. In addition, I don't see how it's possible to honestly argue that the US lacks a ‘’core interest’’ in Syria. Constraining Iranian influence, opposing the massacre of civilians, preventing the emergence of a de-facto terrorist caliphate, reinforcing the deterrent posture of American ‘red lines’… the list of compelling US imperatives is both long and substantial.

Matthew Yglesias, ‘The case for doing nothing in Syria’ Slate

Yglesias suggests that instead of using military force (it’s too risky…), we should ‘’work at the United Nations to get wrongdoing punished.’’ He doesn’t seem to be joking.

Look, I get that intervention isn’t a simple proposition. I’m also fully cognizant of the great risks that are involved. But to suggest that UN action poses a viable alternative? Ludicrous. Yglesias is using the false aura of au-naturel UN legitimacy to defend his argument against its inherent weakness – the continued slaughter of civilians, the destruction of WMD deterrence and the evaporation of America’s word. His defense of a ‘’rules based’’ international system that precludes responsive action is at once morally pathetic and intellectually defective. In short, what use are rules if they permit the unrestrained gassing of children?

Incidentally, I’m always shocked by the striking and unrepentant hypocrisy of the American left in their understandings of morality.

Conor Friedersdorf, ‘A brief case against war in Syria The Atlantic

Friedersdorf’s argument is pretty simple – ‘'Intervening in Syria could have catastrophic consequences for America and for the region. Non-intervention would pose no threat to us….’'

Wrong. I outlined the awful risks of non-intervention in my response to Matt Lewis, however, Friedersdorf’s suggestion that intervention ‘’could have catastrophic consequences’’ is below him. Of course intervention is risky. That’s conflict. Nevertheless, Friedersdorf is using Moltke’s general law (the application of military force is inherently unpredictable) in order to make a strategic argument against one particular intervention. The only way that Friedersdorf can honestly subscribe to this supposition is by adopting a position of absolute pacifism. Regardless, Friedersdorf speaks to a general (and as I see it far too casual) theme amongst those opposing intervention. In the aftermath of Iraq, scrutiny of US military deployments has increased. That’s a good thing. Nevertheless, using the social hesitancy born of Iraq as a foundational strategic argument against Syria isn’t tenable. It allows the non-interventionist movement to make non-interventionist arguments that offer little beyond ‘it’s risky so we shouldn’t do it’, whilst simultaneously locking interventionist arguments into an inherent catch 22 – ‘if it doesn’t go perfect, you were wrong.’ Sure, we need a plan for intervention. But the non-interventionists also need to address what is likely to occur if we don’t intervene.

In the end, the intervention versus non-intervention discussion should be characterized by a reciprocal debate. One vested in the balancing of facts and the consideration of risks in the context of America’s long term humanitarian/strategic interests.

But those of us who support intervention also need to play a responsive role. We shouldn’t be afraid to critique those arguments that challenge ours.

If interested, check out my related writings.
Obama and the Red Line on Syria


  1. I don't see how your arguments apply to the strategy as proposed. The President's plan, to lob a few missiles and not aim for anything more, would do nothing to prevent a Salafist and terrorist dominated government.

    I think that regardless, even if we do intervene, there are two likely outcomes: Syria’s descent into a Salafi terrorist dominated political wasteland, or, an Assad victory that would be perceived (and acted upon) by Iran as a theologically ordained victory over the United States.

    Nothing in what has been proposed so far makes either of those two outcomes less likely, and I think that on average intervening would increase the chance of civilian casualties.

    1. John, thanks for your comment. When I talk about intervention - I personally include these steps (, which I suspect (to some degree or another) we're already taking. As you say, by the confines of their tactical capability and pursuant to the President's ''limited'' strategy, a missile attack can only hope to achieve WMD deterrence. However, I also believe that collaboratively, these variable steps would be able to exert pressure on Assad to reduce his civilian bloodletting.

    2. Thanks, Tom for responding.

      I'd like to think so. But I also worry that limited escalation against Assad-- without committing to getting him out of power-- could cause him to increase the ferocity of his (conventional) attacks by increasing the severity of the war.

      Suppose that the only two outcomes are the Salafi terrorist allied groups winning, or Assad. From a geopolitical standpoint of the US, stalemate might be preferable. From a civilian standpoint, a continuing civil war might have higher civilian casualties than either side winning, however. So I'm afraid that it's possible that the USA's strategic interests are not the same as those of Syrian civilians.

      In any case, intervening calls for a high level of engagement, higher than the Administration is willing to announce in public (though I hope that they're doing so in private.) There's certainly no guarantee that Salafists wouldn't take over after the civil war ended, as in the experience of Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion ended. So I'm reluctant, like Ramesh, to endorse a plan when some of the most important aspects the Administration is unwilling to endorse publicly, and we're left to "suspect" that it's doing them.