Thus begins the Great Hand-Wringing.  The United Kingdom’s out; Congress is demanding the president explain himself; everyone wants to wait on the UN weapons inspectors before making a decision.  It’s all quite understandable, considering, well, this.  But holding back won’t save anyone.  Here’s why.

This is not Iraq in 2003, for God’s sake

Everyone likes to compare the present to the past.  This is a useful guide, but often confuses facts for concepts.  In 2003, the intelligence community got it wrong on Iraq and the invasion’s main rationale was, in many ways, a lie.  This has led to all sorts of people concluding that since intel was wrong in 2003 on Iraq, it must therefore be wrong in 2013 on Syria.

Again, it’s understandable.  Fool me once, etc.  But conceptually the two places are vastly different.  In 2003, Saddam presided over a husk of a state, hollowed out by decades of sanctions, badly managed wars, and inept governance.  But he was still the only game in town and had created a fragile, but successful, balance of power.  The invasion destroyed this balance, and you’ve seen the results.

In 2013, Bashar al Assad runs a portion of Syria under siege, where the balance of power is already shattered and where the state has devolved into a warlord’s fiefdom battling rival tribes for supremacy.  He remains better armed and better supplied than his enemies, but make no mistake – bombing Syria will not make the situation there worse.  That implies that somehow tossing cherry bombs into a firestorm could ever burn the forest faster than what was already there.

British Iraq War Protest
But there’s no oil this time around. (Photo credit: DJOtaku)

Prior to the (still alleged) chemical attack, America and the West had little strategic interest in the place

Yes, the chemical attack must still be said to be alleged until the UN weapons inspectors file their report. (After all, neither I, nor likely anyone else reading this, was there and therefore don’t count as witnesses).

But if it’s found to be true (as it likely will be), suddenly everyone in the West, as well as the international community, has an incentive to intervene.  Since World War I, chemical weapons have been a big no-no.  Saddam broke the rule and got away with it, but largely because the West believed they could control their monster.  It nevertheless eventually came back to bite him in the ass when the invasion came.

Chemical weapons scare the hell out of the Pentagon

America, as the world’s superpower as well as policeman, stated flatly that chemical weapons were a red line.  This was because to allow chemical weapons back onto the battlefield, after nearly a century of their near-universal moratorium (excepting Saddam), put American soldiers at risk and made the world immeasurably more dangerous.  Under no circumstances could chemical weapons become a norm again.

It was clear up to this point that Obama and the West could tolerate Assad butchering his people using conventional arms.  This was not a moral judgement but a strategic one – none of the weapons used, from T-72 tanks to MiGs, could be turned on American arms or allies and win a war.  The inferiority of these weapons against American ones have been demonstrated again and again.  So there wasn’t cause for overall concern since no dangerous precedents were being established.

But chemical weapons threaten American troops like few other weapons can.  Their usage could tip a war; therefore, they must be corralled, and, if possible, eliminated from use entirely.

Plus, America just said Thou Shalt Not

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text ...
Willing to do anything. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the line is American credibility.  Other regimes will interpret the actions of the U.S. over the next few days.  Does displeasing America result in consequence?  The answer will be given in due course.

But a big power like the U.S. can afford to make a mistake here

It will be a disaster for Syrians to allow Assad the use of his chemical stockpiles without retaliation.  It will mean he will use them again and probably put the rebellion down.  He will, as Tacitus once said, create a wilderness and call it peace.

But such a thing won’t affect America much.  Syria was never a friend and its rebels never proved themselves to be the closet democrats the West hoped for.

Alas, it will result in bad behavior from other less-than-moral people.  All nasty leaders around the world will see they too can do as they like and get away with it.  They’ll test the waters and more people in completely unrelated countries will die.  Chemical weapons may well become a common weapon of choice for dictators.

That means that someday, somewhere else, America will have to sort a bigger, more dangerous enemy

US Navy 030325-N-8921O-024 Fleet Maritime Patr...
Thou Shalt Not Make Americans Wear These. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Invariably, some larger power will break the rules of the American-led international system, believing they, like Assad, can get away with it.  Unlike Syria, this breach will be unacceptable to the United States and the West in general.  The retaliation and war will have a much higher body count than what Obama might unleash in the coming days.

In 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor, annexing this bit of colonially-carved territory and terrorizing the locals until the year 2000.  The West saw no reason to intervene because no vast strategic principles were at stake.  But the precedent was set – dictatorships could occasionally get away with land grabs.

In 1991, Saddam tried the same thing.  This time, the annexation was strategically unacceptable.  The result was two decades of misery for Iraqis.  Had the West stopped Indonesia in 1975, it’s quite likely Saddam would have known that invading Kuwait in 1991 was a bad idea.

Lurking out there, as yet unknown, are other madmen

Failing to bomb Syria will guarantee more dead bodies at the hands of more dictators in the near future.  The international system is not nearly as stable or as just as doves argue.  These people will emerge in the coming years to test the resolve of the United States to enforce international norms.  Bashing Assad now sends an object lesson to them long before they’ve come to power.

No war is easy

Bombing Syria will mean killing people who don’t deserve to die.  There’s no way around that.  But tragically, not bombing Syria guarantees more people, in other places, will die just as horribly.  If one wants to make a decision between two bad choices, the only moral option is to do less harm.  Never mind it’s the only strategically sensible one, too.

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