Syria and the Fog of Or Else

by Bob Schwartz

Rhetoric is no substitute for reasoning. Or strategy.

President Obama may soon be undertaking a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons or going to Congress with the case for such a response.

His speculation yesterday that Syrian chemical weapons might end up in an attack on America, therefore implicating our national interest, is far-fetched. But it is a necessary thing to say, given the way that matters have developed.

The U.S. stood by as President Assad brutally attacked his own people so that he could maintain power in Syria. Despite the fact that the U.S. has always tried to steer global events subtly or not so subtly, intervening in the internal strife of sovereign nations is a “red line” that we are reluctant to cross. This doesn’t mean we haven’t crossed it. It just means that if and when we do this, we do our best to make a colorable, principled case for acting under exceptional circumstances.

There are three other reasons why we’ve held back in Syria, now and over the past two years. There is our very shaky track record of Middle East intervention. There is a book-length list of potential consequences of such intervention, starting with a more violent and destabilized Syria and ending with a more violent and destabilized region and world. Finally, we have no express idea of what we want and how we want to accomplish it, without which ill effects are all the more likely if we do choose to act.

Hints of chemical weapons allowed Obama to employ his own red line: no chemical weapons—or else. Because of world history and established international agreement, certain weapons of mass destruction are deemed so out of bounds that action is semi-automatically called for. That is, using chemical weapons trumps sovereignty. The international community might stand by for the internal slaughter of thousands, no matter how inhumane, but it is quasi-obligated to answer when certain civilized conventions come into play. In other words, the chemical weapons would offer a license to act, even if the other inhumanities didn’t

A license to act—if we knew what we could reasonably achieve, if people believe that it is worth losing lives to enforce the ban on chemical weapons, if it is actually about chemical weapons, if acting doesn’t make matters worse, if we knew exactly what we planned to do and how we would deal with all the possible aftermaths. None of which is clear now. None of which is likely to be clear anytime soon.

Welcome to the fog of or else.