Some things I think are part of the mix.
The quality of intelligence
This is NOT Iraq. There is no ideologically driven clique in the White House and Defense Department committed to the conquest of Iraq as part of a broader scheme to remake the Middle East. There is no cherry picking of ambiguous information. I think the evidence of the use of sarin gas is compelling. I think when the UN inspection team completes its report, they will echo that conclusion. I also think the UN inspectors will not go beyond their mandate to determine if chemical weapons were used to offer an opinion on who used them.
The Long Shadow of Rwanda and Darfur
Arguments that seek a parallel between Syria and Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia are misleading. In each instance the differences are striking, the similarities minimal. I don’t think Obama’s foreign policy and national security advisors are affected by them. But I do think there are two tragedies of the past 20 years that do affect decision making on Syria: Rwanda and Darfur.
In 1994 one side in a civil conflict in Rwanda orchestrated a genocidal assault on the Tutsi ethnic minority that killed as many as a million people in about three months. The Clinton administration, and the rest of the international community, did nothing to stop the killing which ended only when rebel forces took control of the country. The conventional wisdom among scholars and foreign policy practitioners is that the failure to respond to the worst genocide since the Holocaust is a shameful chapter in U.S. history. Many people currently in senior positions in the State Department or National Security Council served in the Clinton administration and were involved in the policy of willfully ignoring the slaughter.
From 2003 to 2010 the government of Sudan waged war on the civilian population of its rebellious Darfur province killing tens of thousands of people and forcing over a million into refugee camps. With the UN Security Council hamstrung by Russia and China’s unwavering opposition to any intervention, and the higher priority given to negotiating an end to the larger civil conflict between the North and South Sudan, the U.S. and the rest of the international community did not take effective action to stop the killing.
The most prominent veteran of the Rwanda decisions is Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Advisor. She was a member of the National Security Council during the Rwanda episode and has been strongly critical of the failure to act. "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required." [Carney, Timothy (2011-03-28) Obama aides find moral clarity in Libya's foggy war, Washington Examiner] The otehr top advisor strongly affected by Rwanda and Darfur is Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations. She is the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” which traces the sad history of genocides in the 20th century. Not surprisingly she has been very outspoken on the need to respond to humanitarian crises.
The Parallel that Dares Not Speak Its Name
While the failure of the international community (in significant part a failure of the United States to provide leadership) in Rwanda and Darfur plays a role, I believe, in key members of the Obama administration’s decisions, I do not think either case is an accurate or useful example in thinking about Syria.
Libya in 2011 does provide a good parallel: civil war, potential assault on innocent civilians, successful use of air power to prevent mass slaughter. But 1) the Libyan intervention was authorized under a UN Security Council resolution with participation from a broad array of countries; 2) the Libyan intervention was not the short, narrowly targeted attack projected for Syria; 3) the pious fiction that the intervention was strictly humanitarian and not meant to affect the balance of power in the civil war was so obviously untenable that no one took it seriously; 4) Benghazi happened. I do not think the Libyan case helps the Obama administration argue for use of force against Syria but neither do I think it is a useful argument against the use of force. After all, it can be plausibly argued that the intervention did prevent a terrible assault on civilians and did play a role in ending the fighting.
What do you do when deterrence fails?
It appears now that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale several times in the past. It seems likely that Obama’s “red line” statement was not a casual comment or unconsidered remark, as some critics have claimed. It seems more likely that it was a calculated deterrent threat. The threat failed ... now what?
When you try to get someone to do something you want by threatening them – my way or else, or by promising them – try it, you’ll like it; there is always a question of what happens next. If you promise good things and someone goes along with you, there is a temptation to stiff them on the reward ... you’ve gotten what you want, why pay off? If you make a threat and it doesn’t work, then what’s the point of punishing them ... it’s too little, too late.
In both cases, the answer is credibility. Unless you come through on most of your promises and carry out most of your threats, you will not be believed when you interact in the future. The word “most” is an important modifier. Credibility does not demand that you keep each and every promise or carry out each and every threat. You don’t have to be a fanatic about it if it really does hurt you more than your target.
The question proponents of military action raise and opponents ignore, is “What do interested observers like Iran and North Korea make of U.S. hesitancy about carrying out a threat?” I don’t know and I don’t believe anyone can confidently assert it is either “The U.S. is a paper tiger” or “The U.S. prudently picks its battles.”
Don’t Get Involved in the Syrian Civil War
That train left the station three years ago. We are involved and striking or refusing to strike will into change that. It is not just that Congress has already authorized expanding our aid to the anti-regime forces to include lethal weapons. And it is not just that our NATO ally Turkey is deeply involved with housing refugees and providing some measure of security along its border with Syria, or that countries friendly to us like Saudi Arabia have been major sources of weapons and supplies for the anti-regime forces.
For the past two years Syria has been morphing from a civil war into a regional war. Conservative Arab regimes and al Qaeda fighters (a classic odd couple) have become major participants on the anti-regime side. Iran has become the major supplier of military goods to the regime and thousands of Hezbollah members have crossed from Lebanon to bolster the Syrian armed forces. Internal Syrian politics and factions are increasingly outweighed by external forces.
Even if a military strike is rejected, it does not mean the United States will not be deeply involved in the future of Syria. I think the future of Syria will be decisively influenced by the success or failure of the United States and Russia to broker a negotiated settlement of the conflict. I am not sure that a military strike or decision to avoid a strike will make much difference in the dynamics of the U.S.-Russia relationship or the constellation of interests that logically should drive both countries to collaborate on an outcome with no clear winners or losers.
Going it Alone
If credibility is the strongest argument proponents of a military strike have, then the lack of international support is the strongest argument opponents have.
In the past couple of decades one of the hottest topics in international relations theory has been norm formation. The idea that there are rules governing relations among political entities even when there is no overarching authority is as old as interactions between separate communities. Enforcement has always relied on a combination of reciprocity and the threat of retaliation. In the last 100 years the evolution of international norms has dramatically accelerated, including rules surrounding the use of force.
Response to the use of sarin gas in Syria invokes two central norms, both codified in international law.
I need to vent a little. Whenever I’ve taught a course on International Law I have had to deal with the cynical “realists” who snorted “All’s fair in love and war” or sneered “No courts, no cops, no law!” on their way to equating international law with Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny ... they give you warm fuzzies but they don’t exist.
For most of us most of the time, compliance with formal laws is NOT based on fear of being caught. The only reason you didn’t knock over a couple of banks today or hot wire a car is that you were afraid of the cops? Really?
Compliance with formal laws is the same a compliance with informal norms: we do it out of reciprocity -- we observe and expect everyone else to do it; or social sanctions -- others will think badly of us or shun us.
In desperation our cranky “realist” friend might point out that states do not always comply with international law, that there are enormous violations. Yes ... and folks rob and murder and cheat on their taxes and rip the tags off their mattress. Does that prove that the relevant laws are but mere suggestions?
The first norm, codified in a 1925 Geneva Convention, prohibits the use of poison gas in warfare. Clearly the Assad regime is in violation of that and related norms that prohibit manufacturing and possessing poison gas, as well as using it.
But norms restricting the use of force in international affairs were explicitly written into the United Nations Charter. In simple terms, the Charter says military force can be used only in immediate self defense, with the approval of the UN Security Council or approval by a regional body such as the OAS, African Union or Arab League.
The United States is, I think, in the awkward position of justifying supporting one norm by violating another. One would have to argue that acting to maintain the norm against poison gas is a higher legal or moral responsibility than complying with the norms on the use of force.
A Way Out?
As I am writing this the apparent Russian proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to international control has just been announced. It seems to me this could be a momentous development.
In the worst case scenario this is a stalling tactic, replacing the high drama of a potential U.S. strike with weeks or even months of tedious, mind numbing preparations for inspections and then arguments and ambiguity about whether everything has been declared and turned over.
it means Russia implicitly admits Assad used gas;
it makes the Russians partially responsible for preventing future uses of gas;
it makes it far less likely the regime will use gas again;
it offers an opening for the U.S. and Russia to resume collaborative diplomatic efforts;
it gives the Obama administration a way of avoiding a crushing defeat when a bare majority (at best) in the Senate OK’s a strike and a large majority in the House rejects it;
it lets the administration claim victory for their strategy by arguing that it was only the threat of a military strike that provoked the proposal.