On Friday, I proposed a limited intervention in Syria that would consist primarily of using airpower against Syrian military assets. The goals would be two-fold: (1) To punish the Syrian regime for its use of force against its own citizens, and additionally increase coercive leverage to push them to stop the repression, and (2) to test our assumptions about the reliability and resilience of the Syrian military.
I’ve received several criticism, and there were also a few published pieces this weekend that I wanted to address.
You find it impossible to believe that the Syrian military would respond in precisely the same way the Libyan military did just a year ago? What happens if they drop their uniforms, leave their combat vehicles at home, and disperse among the population on foot and in civilian vehicles? What if they park their vehicles and barrack their troops in urban areas, in hospitals and mosques and apartment buildings?
I don’t actually find that impossible. Indeed, I think that is their likely response. That would also be good news. First, it would give the Syrian resistance more of a fighting chance since it would even up the battlefield. Second, the Libyan military was defeated. So I don’t consider it a particularly damning criticism to note that my approach might transform the situation in Syria into one that looks like Libya. I would consider that a move in a positive direction, no?
Gulliver’s criticism is based on the same fallacy that Dan Byman demonstrated in his Washington Post piece this weekend. Byman wrote:
To be of any value, an intervention must end the bloodshed, or at least diminish it dramatically. Syria also must remain an intact state capable of policing its borders, stopping terrorism and providing services to its people. It should not fragment into a failed state, trade Assad for another dictator or become a pawn of foreign powers such as Iran.
Wow. End the bloodshed, keep Syria intact, prevent state failure. Okay, maybe. I mean, I get those. But how does one prevent another dictator from emerging or becoming a pawn of an outside power, and for how long?
Byman’s argument is, essentially, if you can’t fix it completely and forever, then you shouldn’t do anything. I think this is precisely wrong. Byman’s argument is exactly the sort of logic that got us a massive escalation in Afghanistan. If you insist that any use of the military must achieve maximalist goals, then you inevitably end up with recommendations for massive interventions, state-building, and the like.
Instead, we need to be thinking about limited objectives and limited means. There are three reasons:
(1) While raising the bar on intervention may seem cautious, it really isn’t. It forces policy discussions into an all-or-nothing logic, when in the final analysis neither one is acceptable. The more we talk about massive intervention as the only option, the more likely that becomes because as the violence continues in Syria, pressure to “do something” will mount. Some people argue “all or nothing” because they think “all” is too much and so won’t happen, and the result will be “nothing.” That is a dangerous game.
(2) While it seems sophisticated to talk about comprehensive solutions, and some people will claim that a strategy is incomplete if it lacks a clear “end game,” neither of those beliefs is true. The reality is that strategy is not always (indeed rarely) about grand schemes. Yes, you need to know your preferred end state, and you need to have a sense of how important the issue is to you in order to bound commitments, but the reality is that the world is complex, that the goal of strategy is what Dick Betts calls “strategy without confidence.” Or, more prosaically, the realization that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Strategy often involves taking steps that you believe move you generally in the direction you wish to go coupled with a willingness and ability to adapt to circumstance. This is, by the way, my main criticism of the Powell Doctrine. There are times when limited uses of force in uncertain circumstances can make sense, even if you can’t a priori specify the endpoint, much less all the intermediate steps and linkages to get to that endpoint. The real issue in these cases is “how do you keep it limited?”
(3) In this case, there are indeed intermediate steps that are worth pursuing, including punishment and coercion. This is not just empty theorizing either. One thing we know is that one of the most potent coercive tools is indeed the attritions of a regime’s military capacity (see Pape’s Bombing to Win). Yes, I want all the things Byman wants. No, I am not willing to argue that any proposed intervention must be able to affect all of them immediately.
Argument #1 against intervention. Also #2-7 RT @BernardFinel: The usual, a messy and likely unsuccessful effort to transition to democracy.
But again, can the goal of every use of force be a successful transition to democracy? At the risk of trivializing the issue, when did some sort of confidence about post-conflict democratization become the sine qua non of use of force decisions?
Gulliver added another practical objection:
What about the fact that we would first have to wage a counter-air-defense campaign before we could safely undertake the sort of air campaign you’ve recommended (which suddenly looks considerably less “limited”)?
Indeed. And I’d like to see more discussion of this issue instead of crazy schemes involving Turkish armored thrusts. I could certainly be convinced that my recommendation is wrong on the basis of some serious analysis of Syria air defense capabilities. But, considering the Israeli destruction of a Syrian nuclear site in 2007, I have to wonder how serious an objection this is.
From my perspective, the biggest issue is the one Mark Lynch raises in relation to arming the FSA. He writes:
Fifth, what will we do when the provision of weapons fails to solve the conflict? Arming the opposition is held out as an alternative to direct military intervention. When it fails to solve the crisis relatively quickly — and it most likely will fail — there will inevitably then be new calls to escalate Western military support to airstrikes in the Libya-style. In other words, what is presented as an alternative to military intervention is more likely to pave the way to such intervention once it fails.
The issue, in short, is how do you keep a limited intervention limited, particularly if it does not seem like repression is slowing?
I don’t have a good answer for that. I mean, I do have a proposal, but I doubt it would be adopted or work. My proposal is that if we go down the path of airstrikes, that the president should request a very limited grant of authority from Congress. Something along the lines of a 30 day authorization to use force that can only be extended if the president certifies that mass killings and repression are continuing. This would give the president both a legal obligation and political cover for ending the air strikes if despite them Syrian forces crush the opposition.
But in reality, President Obama wouldn’t do that because he established a precedent in Libya that extended airstrikes don’t require Congressional approval. And anyway, we nowadays like to give open-ended authorizations.
So yes, I do worry that once we go down the airstrikes path, it will be very, very hard to stop, and that it is possible we’ll end up with an open-end Northern/Southern Watch type situation. But on the other hand, we might end up with even worse if we do nothing and let pressure build to the point where a massive intervention seems more attractive.
At this juncture a limited intervention with limited objectives that nonetheless may transform the situation strikes me as the best we can do.