So here we are. Americans elected Barack Obama, and now he appears to be within a breath of embroiling us in a military confrontation in Syria. If the most recent polls are a good indication, Americans are strongly opposed to intervening in Syria. Even if there is incontrovertible proof that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people on 21 August, 46 percent of poll respondents last week said they would still strongly oppose a U.S. intervention in Syria.
Bret Baier laid it out in his Fox News broadcast this evening: the opposition to intervening in Syria is by far the highest amount of public opposition to any proposed intervention or other military operation in the last 30 years. The numbers against Syria bear no resemblance to the numbers on anything Americans can remember, whether Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, Somalia, Haiti, Panama, or Grenada. Americans aren’t sold on the necessity or wisdom of a military attack on Syria; in fact, opposition to it, in the absence of conclusive proof that Assad used WMD, is a whopping 60 percent.
The reasons for this are the same reasons that few can find a brief, cogent way to talk about the issue. For the American people, I think – speaking as one of them – the biggest concern is a simple one: ain’t nobody tellin’ us nothin’. What the heck would an intervention look like, and why exactly would we be doing it? Fine, “WMD”; but what would we be doing about “WMD”? Hunting it down? Taking it out? Just punishing Assad for using it? If so, by doing what? Attacking his airfields and warehouses? Blowing up his warplanes? Pumping a few Tomahawks into a presidential palace?
There are brief, cogent things to say about Syria, about the threat its civil war poses to stability, and about the security problem of chemical weapons use by Assad. But no one in the Obama administration, from Obama himself down through his cabinet-level representatives to Jay Carney, is saying them. We literally do not know the administration’s answer to the most basic question about this whole thing: what would we be conducting a military attack on Syria for?
There is a big difference between proposing to punish Assad, with no decisive end-state in view, and proposing to take action designed to shape or at least promote a particular end-state. The different goals would entail different levels and types of military action. Ideally, they would entail different packages of non-military action as well: principally diplomacy, to lay out, sell, and negotiate any end-state we had in mind.
In any case, military action will draw a big reaction from Assad, and a less predictable but potentially more dangerous reaction in various dimensions from Iran and Russia. This will be true regardless of what our goal is, and what level and type of force we use. Syria is not Libya, a point I have made on numerous occasions (e.g., here). Iran and Russia are both too invested there, for immutable geostrategic reasons, to simply stand back and let the Western nations bomb their client until we feel satisfied.
Breaking the peace
So there are a handful of key ways in which to frame the Syria question. One is the way I outlined yesterday: what is the extent to which the brittle peace we have today will be disrupted by great-power action and reaction in Syria? Russia and Iran are warning us about that; do Western leaders see the dangers? Are they thinking about them? Can we detect any assumptions they have in mind, which might be guides to what they’re going to do?
Another way to frame the Syria question is to view it in terms of threats, promises, and credibility. Barry Rubin, inspecting the situation in those terms, asserts flatly that Obama has no intention of using military force in Syria. Promises and credibility don’t mean enough to Obama – demonstrably, based on his record – and the American people are against attacking Syria, at a time when the hazards of doing so promise to be great. No matter what it looks like through the lens of the “drive-by” media, the answer just can’t be that Obama is going to take this step into quicksand. That means the U.S. is headed for a huge loss of credibility.