The drums are still beating and the attack on Syrian military targets is imminent, we are told. Even if Congress votes no, the Administration can still make the case that a strike is well within the power of the Presidency, and Obama’s public address might be geared toward just that. The only possible game-changer now is the proposal fielded by Russian FM Sergey Lavrov, by which Syria would hand over its chemical weapons. I think the proposal is daring but unlikely to succeed for reasons that I’ll discuss in a post in the very near future (spoiler alert, it’s not because nobody is sincere about wanting it). Before that, I want to take a minute to highlight some of the most egregious claims that are being made concerning the objectives and nature of the attack and the likely consequences of action or inaction in the absence of a deal.
Deterrence, Compellence, and Punishment
The first thing I want to nag about is that some people keep mistakenly framing it as a compellent strategy. At this point, after a deterrent threat (a threat of punishment to dissuade an actor from engaging in a specific course of action, like “don’t use chemical weapons or we’ll get you!”) has been made (more than once) and failed (chemical weapons were used), an attack would be best characterized as the fulfillment of the threatened punishment for the sake of establishing the credibility of future threats. These future threats can be either deterrent (like “don’t use chemical weapons again or we’ll get you!”) or compellent (“give up power” or “stop killing civilians”). Punishment for failing to comply the first time around in this case is directly tied into the deterrent threat that seeks to dissuade the Syrian army from using chemical weapons again in the future. But it is not meant to compel anyone to do (or stop doing) anything. This is not just a scholastic or semantic quibble. Whether one is using these terms in conscious reference to Schelling’s framework or not, it matters greatly whether the goal is deterrence or compellence, because the requirements for effective threats and signals will differ, as will the general prospects for success.
Credibility is on the line
The question then becomes one of whether it is necessary to follow up on the threat to make future threats credible or whether threats are made credible or incredible by the nature, capabilities and interests of the actors involved in each particular case, not the past behavior of a state in a different context (reputations are tricky and they matter less than capabilities and interests). The jury is still out on this one, though I tend to agree with Jonathan Mercer and others who argue that reputation concerns are often misplaced. If you’re a Middle Eastern leader and you’re skeptical of American capacity or willingness to bomb your country you’re obviously not paying enough attention to your surroundings anyway. You might also have reasons to believe that, good or bad, but in any case bombing Syria most likely won’t change your mind. If you think Assad will infer from US failure to make good on their threats this time means that he can do something really crazy like attack Israel or Turkey (or France!!) you are underestimating Assad’s grasp of US strategic interests and/or the strength of different normative commitments. Violating a weak norm that the US has shown time and again to be ambivalent about is one thing, to violate norms that are more entrenched (though still quite often ignored) like sovereignty is a whole different ball game. If we think of international norms as following a hierarchy of sorts (a lexical order in Rawlsian terminology), protection of civilians against chemical weapons is definitely second (or fifth, sorry human security advocates…) to sovereignty, especially if we’re talking about the sovereignty of a friend or ally. Assad knows that quite well.
What will Iran think??
Along these same lines, if you happen to believe that “all options are and should be on the table” with regards to the Iranian nuclear program or that it is (way past) time to attack Iran and that the US has a strong normative and/or strategic interest in non-proliferation, then you shouldn’t worry too much about Iran making the wrong inferences either. Leaders in Tehran know the stakes are higher for both parties (the US definitely places nuclear non-proliferation higher than protection of civilians in the aforementioned hierarchy of norms) and that the context is very different. Some might have their doubts about US willingness to follow through and bomb their nuclear facilities or worse, but is hard to see how that could be inferred from US inaction in Syria. As lessons from history go, officials in Tehran are probably still more impressed by Osirak and Operation Orchard, when Israel took out Iraqi nuclear facilities in 1981 and Syrian in 2007, and by Saddam’s and Qaddafi’s ultimate fates–one who failed to develop nuclear weapons, and another who eventually gave away their pursuit in exchange for rapprochement with the West. Before the war, Libyan diplomats negotiating concessions from the US complained that the limited carrots they had received in turn for abjuring nuclear weapons were reason for mockery from their Iranian interlocutors.
The first claim being made by most proponents is that the attack is about saving lives. However, in its current form (as it is being sold to the American people and the international audience) the attack is not about saving lives at all, it’s about making sure that people don’t die in a very specific way. Is it an especially horrific death? Yes, compared to expertly administered lethal injection (also technically a chemical weapon if you think about it) or even to a bullet in the head. Not necessarily, compared to having your limbs torn off from the nearby detonation of a mortar (or cruise missile, for that matter) or being shot in the gut and then slowly bleeding out (as in the classic Saving Private Ryan scene), or compared to burning or suffocating to death from white phosphorous or other incendiaries (the latter is also frowned upon, but used relatively often, including by US and their allies in recent and ongoing conflicts). Anthony Lang, to his credit, pledges agnosticism on this question, but fails to realize that a negative answer invalidates the moral case for punitive action altogether and even an inconclusive answer makes the moral case very weak.
This will spiral out of control!
The last problematic claim concerns the consequences of a limited attack. As noted by a thoughtful former Administration official that shall remain nameless, some opponents of the attack have suggested that attacking Assad will not only do no good but also inevitably invite retaliation from Syria (or Hezbollah). The problem, he noted, was that there is little logical reason to believe he would do that. If faced with a limited US action that is not meant to upset the overall balance of forces on the ground it would be irrational for Assad to then do something that would precipitate further US aggression. This would explain why Syria has refrained from retaliating Israel’s repeated strikes against Syrian weapons convoys and shipments from Russia and Iran. The problem, of course, is that while there is good reason to suspect Assad does not have incentives to escalate even further, there is always the possibility of inadvertent escalation. Beside friction, the fog of war (complexity and uncertainty leading to mistakes) and mission creep, one other possible way this might play out is that if Assad places high strategic value on chemical weapons (precisely as deterrent against Israel and the US), there is the risk that the threat of wiping out his delivery capabilities would put him in a “use ’em or lose ’em” situation that favors preemptive use. While I find this unlikely, it’s not a risk to be taken lightly. We now know that impending NATO attacks led Milosevic to accelerate the ethnic cleansing campaign, and the prospect of a NATO intervention seems to have had a similar “last ditch” effect on Qaddafi. Defenders of both operations argue that the eventual removal of both tyrants probably saved many more lives, but that’s a debatable proposition. In any case, if the US isn’t ready to escalate to the point of producing regime change and stepping in to secure the peace, then it definitely should not take that risk.
In short, doing nothing is unlikely to affect US credibility, and doing something shouldn’t really make Obama, liberal hawks or humanitarians sleep better at night. Doing something will not inevitably mean doing more and more and still not doing enough, but it very well might.