Over at Gunpowder & Lead, Brett Friedman has an interesting post where he argues,
This post is certainly not meant to condemn those who feel the US should intervene. Frankly, the desire on the part of many to help the people of Syria is a noble and appropriate feeling. I would hope that all Americans feel a similar desire, especially considering that our nation was born when it threw off another form of tyranny. But one can simultaneously want to help others and realize that helping would be too costly or exacerbate the problem. Indeed, recognizing our higher responsibilities or even just the limits of our ability to lend aid does not absolve us of our humanity.
Look, I don’t know anyone who disagrees with this point. Most of us arguing the moral point on Syria stress that we do indeed have a responsibility to protect innocents, but not necessarily a moral obligation to do so if the costs are too high.
The problem, though, is that opponents of intervention are not properly specifying the cost-benefit analysis, or at least are assuming that costs will inevitably be high and benefits uncertain. In terms of costs, the two pushbacks on intervention are that we would have to deploy significant ground forces either to actually end the killing or in some sort of post-conflict reconstruction mission.
Now, I acknowledge that Syria is a tougher nut to crack than Libya. But this assumption that the Syrian military would hold up against air strikes, for instance, is just that, an assumption. We can play dueling anecdotes forever on this score. I happen to believe that the Syrian military is brittle, that under even minimal outside military pressure it would shatter, and that as a result Assad’s capacity to suppress the revolt would collapse. But I admit, I don’t know that. I wish opponents of intervention would acknowledge that they too don’t know for sure that the reverse is true. But this is a key point. If I am right, the costs of intervention may be quite manageable, and hence there is a stronger case for our obligation. The beauty of my recommended COA — limited air strikes — is that it aims to clarify this issue, while at the same time, in the worst case serves to punish Assad, bolster deterrence against future potential cases of mass killings, and degrades his capabilities.
The post-conflict case is the more difficult one. Yes, there is a risk that a limited intervention would result in one of the following cases: (1) A collapse of Syria as a state, creating a zone of anarchy in a strategically significant region, (2) a spasm of retribution against Alawis replacing one type of mass milling with another.
But look, what are the potential consequences of doing nothing? Well, Syria could collapse as a state and there could be continued mass killing.
See, this is the problem with assuming that we would have to occupy the place in a post-conflict situation. We don’t feel an obligation to occupy the place now when collapse looms and mass killings are occurring, why would we if intervention caused those outcomes?
Well, there is any answer, namely the “Pottery Barn” rule. But look, opponents of intervention claim to have a beef with R2P and/or the “Spider-Man Doctrine,” but really they have a beef the Pottery Barn rule. And on that score, I agree wholeheartedly. The limited use of force does not need to imply an obligation to occupation and reconstruction. We need to have flexibility to use force is a limited and discriminate manner. A good place to work through that strategic logic is Syria.