Rubin may well be right. I would have simply agreed with him a couple of days ago, when the rumors about an impending attack on Assad were first flying. But then, as a counterpoint to the continued bombastic vagueness of Team Obama, Cameron, Merkel, and Hollande began talking in serious and concrete terms about military action. (The latest I’ve seen is Australia’s Kevin Rudd chiming in.)
I am concerned about their categorical approach given the very real hazards of trying to shove an intervention down Russia’s throat – but it defies logic to think that they have all simply lost their minds, and are speaking so specifically and determinedly of an action they have no intention of taking. It looks to me like they really mean it. The drumbeat from Europe sounds similar to the one that struck up in March 2011, prior to the Libya operation.
Of course, if they – and we – draw back now, after bustling about so energetically, the geopolitical egg on our faces will take years to scrape off, and the world as we know it will perish from sheer, embarrassed unsustainability anyway. The cynical pundits are all right about that.
Breaking with rationality in warfare
A third way of framing the Syria problem is in terms of what the main objective could be. Military specialists have spoken clearly about the kinds of target sets we could choose, if our desire is somewhere close on the spectrum to encouraging the demise of the Assad regime. Most analysts are disdainful of the idea of simply punishing Assad, with no larger motive. They rightly point out that, since we would incur the same outrage from Russia and Iran with a small, meaningless strike as with a bigger one, we’d be better off to get what we can out of it. Go for the bigger prize.
But Obama has a joker to play in this hand: the same one he played in Libya. Our passive-aggressive stance there was constrained by the concept of “non-hostile kinetic military action,” which was meant to try and protect innocent civilians, while yet effacing itself from any hint of trying to force a particular political outcome; i.e., help one faction or another win the war. Samantha Power has long been a high-profile advocate of the concept of a “responsibility to protect,” which would basically amount to an obligation on the part of a nation like the United States to shoot, regardless of any other feature or consideration of a given conflict.
That is indisputably a recipe for disaster down the road. But it was essentially the basis on which the Obama administration undertook the intervention in Libya, under the aegis of Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Valerie Jarrett. It is problematic – idiotic? – as a rubric for planning an operation in Syria, where its potential for having any meaning, given how well armed the rebels and the regime both are, is even less than it was in Libya. But as a political mantra, responsibility to protect (or, perhaps, “atrocity prevention,” another banner with the Power stamp on it) is tailor-made for the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack on civilians. There is no reason to imagine that John Kerry or Chuck Hagel will shift the locus of strategic thinking in the administration away from its earlier patterns.
With these three frameworks laid out, we circle back to the problem that the U.S. administration has addressed none of them before the public or Congress. We don’t know how much or if Team Obama, or our eager allies, have thought about what it will mean to the peace to cross Russia and Iran with a military action in Syria. For all we can tell, it has not even occurred to them.
We don’t know what their thinking is on the choice between evils: the evil of intervening or the evil of failing to after defining a red line.
And we don’t know what the driving objective of an intervention would be. That said, we do have an informative (if disquieting) data point from 2011.
Given all these factors, most of us can form a pretty solid opinion of whether we should intervene, and if so, for what purpose. What I have been unable to predict is what Obama is going to do.