Saturday, August 31, 2013

Facing reality: deterrence is no longer available...

... to the United State as a policy or objective. In Syria or anywhere else.

Following the President's announcement that he would be seeking Congressional approval for a military strike against the Assad regime in Syria, punditry-land is now full to overflowing with articles trying to make the case for bombing Syria or the case for not bombing Syria.

A typical pro-military action piece by William Saletan at Salon:
So why do it? Because if we don’t, things can get much worse. “We cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm,” Obama argued. We “have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable.” This afternoon, Kerry elaborated: 
“A lot of other countries whose policy has challenged these international norms are watching. … They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk. … [If] Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity … there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will. … [Iran] will now feel emboldened, in the absence of action, to obtain nuclear weapons. It is about Hezbollah and North Korea and every other terrorist group or dictator that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction. Will they remember that the Assad regime was stopped from those weapons’ current or future use? Or will they remember that the world stood aside and created impunity?” 
Impunity is a primitive idea. Kerry and Obama are saying that Assad must be punished. Obama calls it “repercussions,” a “shot across the bow,” a “signal that [Assad] better not do it again.” It’s not about saving Syria, much as we'd all like to do that. It’s about inflicting pain.
A typical anti-military action piece by John Hinderaker at Powerline:
First, there are, and have been, many regimes that abuse their people in various ways. Generally speaking, we do not undertake to “punish” them for doing so. While the use of chemical weapons on civilians is evil, it is not clear that it is any more so than the use of machine guns. It seems to me that we should not undertake to punish without a strong, and clearly defined, security interest.

Second, I have no confidence in our ability to calibrate a strike so finely–enough to punish, but not enough to tip the balance of power in the rebels’ favor. It seems highly likely that whatever we do will be either pitifully inadequate, or unduly heavy-handed. As the unfortunate experience of the “Arab Spring” shows, the last thing we want to do is inadvertently bring about an extremist Muslim regime in Syria.

Third, there is a good deal of truth to Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” theory–if we break it, we own it. I don’t see any happy outcome for Syria (or, for that matter, any Arab country) in any foreseeable time frame. Sending a few cruise missiles Assad’s way can’t influence Syrian history in any significantly positive way, but whatever we do, its impact will be exaggerated forever. We will find ourselves being blamed for whatever ills Syria suffers for the next 50 years, no matter how silly such claims may be. And apart from hyperbolic claims, any attack certainly will entail civilian casualties and other undesirable consequences...

In my view, if we are not prepared to bring about Assad’s demise–and we probably shouldn’t be–the best thing we can do is stand aside. Sometimes history is tragic, and there isn’t anything we can do about it.
Both pieces are of course operating under the umbrella of a limited military strike, since Obama has made it crystal clear this will be the only military action on the table. Saletan essentially takes it as a given that such course of action will have a meaningful impact. Why? What is his basis for such an assumption? No doubt it is the same as pretty much everyone else with similar views: "we're gonna blow some stuff up and kill a bunch of people, and that will scare Assad into changing his behavior."

But as I've recently pointed out, these kinds of strikes don't do that, at all. Because leaders like Assad don't really care about their people. And they can just buy some new equipment from the Russians or some other arms dealers. A limited strike now means nothing, aside from maybe some good press and the ability of the President to pretend he's "tough" on foreign policy.

Hinderaker--recognizing the above reality--therefore argues to just "stand aside" and let things in Syria sort themselves out. He laments the tragedy of such an approach, of the loss of innocent life, but accepts this as unavoidable, in a fatalistic way. Why? Because he assumes we cannot and should not be looking to topple Assad's regime.

In both cases--that of a limited military strike and that of doing nothing--however, the United States surrenders to a new reality: it can no longer prevent such things as the use of chemical weapons through fear; the U.S. military is no longer a deterrent to the rest of the world. One might argue that such was the case before this moment, given the failures of Clinton with regard to Iraq. But under Bush--no matter what one thinks of him, personally--the threat of action meant something. Even with the U.S. engaged in a two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan, other rogue nations stayed more or less in line, because frankly, their leaders assumed Bush was enough of a "cowboy" to open a third front without blinking an eye.

But the Bush years were only a brief respite in this regard. The world kept spinning in the same direction as before and we are now fully in a new paradigm, when it comes to international relations and our role as the world's "policeman." Simply put, we no longer have the job. Right now, no one has it. And that's going to make things rough for the entire world in coming decades.

Of course, we could try to take the job back. And if we really wanted to do that, to make it possible again to use the threat of military force to prevent things like chemical weapons attacks, to force countries to reign in their own radical fringe, there's only one possible response in Syria.

But no one in the current government--that I can see--has the balls for that. Thus, we come to the interregnum years, between the Pax Americana and whatever follows.

Cheers, all.