Fear of Enemies, Trust of Allies

It is very clear that weaponized gas has been used by Syrian governmental forces. Tom Nichols of The War Room blog wrote an excellent article about the strategic reasoning for action and my colleague Rabbi Fred Guttman wrote similarly about the moral and ethical reasoning. Secretary of State John Kerry and US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power both have Tweeted concerning their outrage.


Jeff Jacoby wrote in an article today:

“Can this really be happening? In the 21st century?” exclaimed the Israeli columnist Ari Shavit as news broke last week of the latest chemical-weapons attack in Syria. “No decent person can ignore what’s happening.”

That’s what we always tell ourselves when “never again” turns into “yet again.” But man’s inhumanity to man is no more unthinkable in the 21st century than it was in the 20th. Decent people can and usually will ignore what’s happening, and the indecent count on their apathy.

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler is said to have remarked in 1939.

We should not enter a conflict without strategic goals. What could reasonably be our goals? One answer is provided by Tom Nichols. He said:

I think in the first phase of this conflict, we should aim for two achievable goals: (a) no more chem use, and (b) prevent Assad’s forces from exercising control (read: killing thousands) over large swaths of Syrian territory.

The first goal we simply cannot enforce. We can discourage the regime from using chemical weapons, something that would require a long term presence with a mandate to respond to future attacks. That said, unless we are going to remove the regime from power, the decision to use or not to use chemical weapons will be theirs alone. Worse, they could respond, “Back off or we’ll use them more.”

While you are considering saying, “They won’t dare.” Think about the fact that they have used chemical weapons multiple times over the past year. While you are considering saying, “Bring it on!” Think about the fact that first off, this administration would never say that, second, Syria could make Afghanistan look tame, and third “bring it on” would likely result in an escalating conflict that would involve Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and potentially Iran. Might Assad want to avoid such escalation? Hopefully. But hope does not a foreign policy make.

A second question regarding Nichol’s pair of initial goals is whether we desire to “Prevent Assad’s forces from exercising control over large swaths of Syrian territory.” This goal is one that could lead directly to regime change, but it could also lead to anarchy or both in turn. Nichols is talking about preventing Assad’s forces from exercising control without putting in place any other controlling authority. We’re not thinking invasion. Who would be controlling the territory that we force Assad to abandon? If we can get the Free Syrian Army to have enough strength to do it, this might be a reasonable goal. If we’re going to have rebel groups led by Al Qaeda affiliates do it… This is then a very problematic goal and requires vastly more commitment to the conflict than we most likely have.

Our goal is realistically to encourage the regime to stop using chemical weapons by using the one option at our disposal, namely modest military action. Don’t kid yourself, diplomacy has no chance of working if there is no realistic threat of military escalation much less action. Diplomacy might work after military strikes, but has no chance of working before them. Sanctions? Don’t even bring them up. Syria and Iran are flat out calling President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron’s bluff–while laughing. The question now is whether we simply fold or we play our hand. Let’s hope our hand is better than Assad thinks it is.

What about the bigger picture? Will we abandon red lines that we have set? What about the promise that “Containment of a nuclear armed Iran is not an option?” What about promises made to our allies in the Gulf about their defense? If we do not act now against Syria in some substantial fashion, our enemies will not fear us, our allies will not trust us, and the use of weapons causing intentional widespread civilian deaths will proliferate not just in Syria but around the world. “Never again” will become again and again. The stakes are very, very high.

The United States may well have no choice but to respond to the use of chemical weapons by Syria for both moral reasons and to advance strategic foreign policy interests. There are many ways that we can respond. May our President and his advisors choose effective ones.

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