“Just cruisin’?” Or “Of guided missiles and misguided policy-makers”

Given the latest developments in and around Syria, it’s only fitting that I should bring the blog back from retirement.

As of 2 minutes ago, the latest news reports from major sources (I have no inside track on this) suggest that the United States might soon start to intervene in Syria. Personally, I don’t think that there is a good way to go about doing this even if we accept the moral case for intervention. As Jon Western put it earlier at the Duck of Minerva, Not All Interventions are the Same. Of many bad options, it bothers me that US officials are going for a particularly bad one. Let’s break it down.

1 – Obama and his team are inclined to fire cruise missiles at Syrian bases.
2 – They explicitly say they don’t want to do enough damage to make a “tactical difference” and definitely not with the goal of regime change (directly or indirectly).
3 – They are NOT going to target airstrips that serve as entry points for Iranian and Russian supplies (because that would contradict point 2 above).
4 – They are also NOT targeting the chemical weapons themselves, only their means of delivery.
5 – They acknowledge that there might be civilian casualties from the attacks and that it might provoke further escalation from the Syrian regime or their regional supporters.

So this is either: a) an entirely futile exercise in face saving and point making that might risk more lives than it can possibly save or b) they are hoping that the blowback will be enough to justify further and more forceful intervention (which some, but not many, in the Administration seem to prefer). If the answer is (a), the damage to  Syrian military capabilities will be minimal and the effects on the result of the conflict likely inconsequential (by design). The message sent will be “feel free to kill as many people as you want, and I don’t care who wins out, as long as you don’t use chemical weapons”. Not exactly a strong moral position to begin with, and one weakened by every life lost or endangered in the process.

If the answer is (b) and the Administration is being deceitful or disingenuous, trying to manipulate the Syrian response to further break through Russian intransigence in the UNSC and justify more direct intervention, than we should be thinking ahead and asking, what will that intervention look like and what will its goal be?

From talking to people who know a lot more about this than I do, I get the impression that US intelligence agencies and think tanks don’t seem any closer to figuring out who are their “good guys and bad guys” in Syria than they were a couple of months ago (and definitely less confident in the distinction than they were a year and a half ago). This, by the way, makes me think that officials are being honest when they say that regime change really isn’t the goal and that the answer really is (a).

I tend to be cynical when it comes to these things and every ounce in my political scientist body tells me to never take official statements of intent at face value, but it’s always good to keep in mind Bernard Brodie’s exhortation in his masterful War and Politics: though we might be inclined to attribute others’ behavior to things like greed (and duplicity) we can identify within ourselves, stupidity is just as common as greed and just as likely to be behind policy, if not more. For the US government to pull of the strategic manipulation that (b) implies, it would require a certain degree of forethought and certainty of and coordination around a desired endgame amongst the key decision-makers. Stupidity, or misguidedness if we wish to be less blunt, and a natural desire for political preservation are probably the drivers here.

What am I missing?


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