A Dissent on Syria

by Jim Manzi

On Tuesday, this magazine again endorsed military action in Syria. I disagree.

Though it is difficult to know precisely what action is being contemplated, I hope and expect that if the U.S. does launch such an attack, that our military would accomplish its defined tasks, and that we would more likely than not avoid some kind of a disaster. But the risks of a terrible outcome are not trivial, and not worth the putative benefits. 

The most common argument for attacking Syria is that we must maintain our credibility when the sitting president issues ultimatums (even if they are ill-advised).

The problem with this is that while the president of the United States has awesome powers under the Constitution, they do not include declaring war. He can declare “red lines” all he wants, but he can’t constitutionally commit the nation to preemptive military action in the event they are crossed. If this “loss of credibility” means in practical terms that U.S. presidents are less able to make credible insinuations that they can unilaterally commit us to wars, then this would likely result in: fewer such presidential assertions being issued; more consultation and consideration before they are issued; and more reliable delivery on the threats when the situation calls for it. Such a loss of credibility would be a feature, not a bug.

The best argument for attacking Syria is that it is necessary to maintain a credible deterrent against the use of chemical weapons in order to protect ourselves. This argument should carry great weight, but unfortunately we are on the horns of a dilemma.

On one hand, if the attack is not severe enough to force Assad from power, then where is the deterrence? If he is prepared to order (or at least tolerate) the gassing of thousands of citizens of his own country, why would the prospect of losing some soldiers and military facilities deter him or others like him? Even if it entirely eliminated his chemical-weapons capacity, he would still be in power, would have gotten the benefit of using them, and would have shown both that he can take a punch from the U.S. and that he is tough enough to do anything to win. Even after the fact and in full knowledge of such a U.S. attack, he would likely view using the weapons as having a positive net outcome. 

But on the other hand, forcing Assad from power represents a far larger and more uncertain undertaking than has been publicly discussed. 

This is the course of action advocated by the editors: “a broader, longer-term plan to topple Assad and defeat his allies.” Those are smooth words for a rough job. How would we accomplish this? How many people would we kill, and how much public money would we spend? Why do we believe that the rebels would form a government that would not be worse for us? How would Iran attempt to counter such an intervention, since they have an extremely strong interest in the outcome? And so on. The litany of costs and dangers ought to be familiar to anybody after Iraq and Afghanistan. Would you voluntarily take on one-tenth the cost in deaths and money of either of those wars to replace Assad with whatever is likely to follow him? Wandering into that kind of a commitment based on what has been presented to the American people so far would be extremely rash.

In summary, either an attack would be too small to accomplish deterrence against future users of chemical weapons, or it would be a much broader war to force regime change with enormous costs and risks.

In contrast, the arguments against attacking Syria at this time are direct and persuasive:

  • As yet, there are no clearly stated objectives that define victory. 
  • Any attempt to define a vital national interest for America requires extremely dubious extrapolations of the effect of actions in Syria today on some hypothetical future actors.
  • The risks of open-ended entanglement are severe. 
  • We have other means of protecting ourselves against the threat of chemical attack, including deterrence with existing chemical weapons, which proved itself largely successful even against Hitler in the midst of total war. 
  • It is deeply unpopular, and our closest militarily significant ally has declined to participate.

While we should not want war by plebiscite, this last point is important. In movies, dictators and their hive societies are often portrayed as almost invincible war machines. In the real world, free societies since the time of the democracy in Athens have done pretty well for themselves in wars. Partly, this is because the support of the society prior to starting a war leads to sustained support in the face of inevitable setbacks. And partly it is because public support provides very useful information about the wisdom of the war in the first place. You might think that the last dozen years would have taught the most influential foreign-policy “experts” a little humility about their judgment in these matters. Apparently, you would be wrong.