What Then?

It appears that I am not alone. Yesterday, in a post over at OTB I wrote:

I think that before taking military action against Syria the president should wait for the UN inspectors’ report, try to secure approval from the Congress, and try to secure approval from the United Nations Security Council.

It seems that the overwhelming preponderance of Americans agree with me, a condition to which I am unaccustomed:

Nearly 80 percent of Americans believe President Barack Obama should receive congressional approval before using force in Syria, but the nation is divided over the scope of any potential strike, a new NBC News poll shows.

Fifty percent of Americans believe the United States should not intervene in the wake of suspected chemical weapons attacks by Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to the poll. But the public is more supportive of military action when it’s limited to launching cruise missiles from U.S. naval ships – 50 percent favor that kind of intervention, while 44 percent oppose it.

at least with respect to the matter of Congressional approval.

In all likelihood Americans may just be sick of war and sick of their country starting wars, especially when the national interest in those wars is ambiguous.

I hope at least some of them are asking the question that presidents should ask themselves more and, apparently, don’t ask themselves at all: what then?

Assume an attack on Syria is unsuccessful in the sense that Assad continues to use chemical weapons after the attack. What then?

Assume an attack on Syria is successful, Assad stops using chemical weapons (he might have done so anyway), but he is able to defeat the rebels without them. What then?

Assume an attack on Syria is successful, Assad stops using chemical weapons (he might have done so anyway), he is unable to defeat the rebels outright, and the civil war just continues. What then?

Assume an attack on Syria is successful and Assad, hamstringed in his attempts to preserve his regime, is ousted by the rebels. The rebels are radical Islamists. What then?

We attack Syria. Syria, Iran, or both retaliate by attacking Americans or American interests in the Middle East using asymmetric warfare techniques. What then?

We attack Syria. An American aircraft carrier is sunk by asymmetric warfare techniques (that’s actually occurred in war games of conflict in the Middle East). What then?

32 comments… add one
  • steve

    Know your goals and understand that there are costs to action and inaction. I think the goal should be limited to stopping the use of chemical actions. I dont think we should take sides on who wins this civil war. Both sides suck. The costs of action include possible actions against us in the future. How high are those risks, especially if it is a limited action? Could it really make relations worse with Iran, especially now that it has been made clear that we assisted Iraq with using chemical weapons against Iran? (Yet another gift Reagan left for us.)

    Against those risks, I think the risk of inaction is the risk of showing that chemical weapons can be used with impunity. If so, will they be used again and will their use spread? If they spread, what is the likelihood that a jiahdist group gains access to them and they use them against us in some way?

    I dont think either of these is highly likely, and I still dont think it clear what was used and by whom. If we can establish it was used by Assad’s troops I still dont think we should act absent support from NATO or the UN and only along with other allies. If Assad persists with these attacks and the numbers escalate, I think we should then consider a series of escalating air attacks. If Assad persists it will be hard for the Russians and Iran to make a case against action.

    Steve

  • I don’t think we can control the outcome of any attack we might make–only whether we make it or not.

  • PD Shaw

    steve, is offering the Bush Doctrine as justification — preventive war against rouge regimes with WMD and ties to international terrorist organizations. I think that’s a stronger argument than the one I hear people in the administration making (not using “threat” language, but “national interest” language). I would probably agree with the justification if the facts were laid out, but then I don’t see how they could use that justification without military strikes aimed at ending the threat — either regime change or destruction of chemical weapons capabilities.

  • Something I might add is that a punitive strike can, in fact, be just but only if there’s a reasonable expectation that it will have the desired effect, presumably in this case making Assad end his use of chemical weapons if, in fact, he is using them.

    Under the circumstances, without Congressional authorization, without Security Council authorization, and given the telegraphing of what the plan is, that would not appear to satisfy the conditions for just war.

  • TastyBits

    @steve

    … now that it has been made clear that we assisted Iraq with using chemical weapons against Iran? (Yet another gift Reagan left for us.)

    The US did not assist Iraq using chemical weapons. The US gave troop location info. Saddam choose to use chemical weapons.

    By this logic, President Obama helped the terrorists in Libya, and therefore, he assisted in killing Ambassador Stevens.

  • TastyBits

    @PD Shaw

    steve, is offering the Bush Doctrine as justification …

    I noticed that also. Russia is going to be shamed into action, again.

  • michael reynolds

    I hope at least some of them are asking the question that presidents should ask themselves more and, apparently, don’t ask themselves at all: what then?

    That’s unsupported by evidence and the delay in acting would suggest that it’s wrong.

    The menu of outcomes can be boiled down to:

    1) We get in and side A (Assad) wins.
    2) We get in and side B wins.
    3) We stay out and side A wins.
    4) We stay out and side B wins.
    5) We get in and neither side wins.
    6) We stay out and neither side wins.

    There is no good outcome. I’d argue that’s pretty compelling reason to keep hands off. Unless of course we want to be ruthless enough to suggest that 5 or 6 – continuations of bloody stalemate are the preferred outcome. In that case it would make sense to intervene if chemical weapons might tip the balance to Assad.

    That strategy fits with our slow-walking of support for the rebels, and it fits with a narrow strike to discourage chemical weapons use and offer a small boost to the B team. It fits as well with a reluctance to explain publicly. It does not fit with Kerry’s very emotional statement. It certainly does not fit with the moral posture of the Left.

    But is it out of keeping for a President who sends drones across national borders or sends Delta teams into allegedly allied nations or puts out a kill order on a US citizen allied to the Taliban? I don’t think so.

  • TastyBits

    @Dave Schuler

    … 50 percent favor that kind of intervention, while 44 percent oppose it.

    I suspect most of the 50 percent do not oppose the intervention. The number who favor intervention is probably much smaller.

    Assume an attack on Syria is successful …

    Taking out Assad’s airfields would slow his progress, but with Russian support, he is still not going to fall anytime soon. To be effective, the US would need to embed aircontrol personnel and “advisors” to be successful.

    … Security Council authorization …

    It should be apparent that the UN is worthless.

    What Then?

    A better question is: If the US leaves, what happens? Why would the outcome be any different this time?

  • Putin’s domestic approval rating has never gone below 60%. President Obama’s has never gone above 54%. Putin’s present approval rating is around 63%. President Obama’s is struggling to rise to 45%.

    Basically, the Russians like what Putin is doing. What’s going to shame him into what course of action?

  • michael reynolds

    By the way, it’s a valid question, morality aside, whether it is in the US interest to see the civil war continue to fester. One could certainly make a case that Hezbollah and Al Qaeda both bogged down in an endless proxy war between Shia and Sunni, Russia and Iran on one side and Saudi Salafists on the other, is not the worst thing for us.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    Your assumptions do not include the possibility of a change in the player lineup. There is a story about the Russians & Saudis discussing a solution. I am skeptical, but it is possible.

  • By the way, it’s a valid question, morality aside, whether it is in the US interest to see the civil war continue to fester.

    Yes, it’s a valid question. I don’t see how war raging from the Algeria-Tunisian border to the Hindu Kush could possibly be in our interests regardless of who the combatants are, we are already far too close to that being the case for anybody’s comfort, and I strongly suspect that we will inevitably be drawn into such a conflict.

    I think that even an objectionable stability is better than chaos. I don’t know what we should or can do but I don’t think we should throw gasoline on the fire (which is, in fact, what the Russians are accusing us of).

  • michael reynolds

    Tasty:

    Certainly there could be backdoor negotiations, but I think this is fundamentally, emotionally, a sectarian war. In fact a continuation of a conflict raging in fits and starts for what 1300 years so far? (IIRC, don’t want to look it up.)

    If Russia and Saudi Arabia are talking it would have to be about partition, don’t you think? Assad takes the seacoast, Sunnis take the rest?

  • BTW, I think you’re going to need to resign yourself to an explanation that’s less favorable to the Obama Administration than this Realpolitik line that you’re advancing. I think that incoherence is much more likely.

    Here’s my evidence: the policy you’re suggesting would be completely and utterly opposed by State. They’ve spent the last 60 years arguing for the opposite of that and by now we would have seen about 1,000 leaks from unnamed sources of what the administration was up to. We haven’t so there is no such policy.

  • michael reynolds

    I don’t see how war raging from the Algeria-Tunisian border to the Hindu Kush could possibly be in our interests regardless of who the combatants are

    That’s a worst case and not in my opinion a realistic one. The neighboring states – Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq are either stable and allied to the US, or a shaky Iraq which is busy with its own issues and in any case attached to the inconvenient Sunni end of Syria, so less likely to suddenly push in.

    If either Assad or the rebels win the victory will almost certainly lead to massive human rights violations — revenge killings, ethnic cleansing, slaughters. So if I’m POTUS and I’ve already accepted that there is no good outcome and atrocities are baked into the pie, why not use the opportunity to hand Hezbollah and Al Qaeda their own little Vietnam? I don’t know if that’s what Obama is thinking, but if it were me looking at the menu of outcomes, I think I’d pick “Throw another shrimp on the barbie.”

  • TastyBits

    @Dave Schuler

    Basically, the Russians like what Putin is doing. What’s going to shame him into what course of action?

    I was being facetious. Before the Iraq invasion, Russia and others were supposed to be convinced when Colin Powell showed pictures of ice cream trucks disguised as WMD vehicles.

    The videos of the chemical attacks are similar. Apparently, a rag over your face is as good as a gas mask. Somebody needs to inform the USMC that they can issue rags instead of gas masks. Bloodless burial shrouds are now proof of chemical attacks.

  • michael reynolds

    the policy you’re suggesting would be completely and utterly opposed by State. They’ve spent the last 60 years arguing for the opposite of that and by now we would have seen about 1,000 leaks from unnamed sources of what the administration was up to.

    Maybe. Assuming you made it policy as opposed to just letting it happen while talking a lot about international norms.

  • I think you’ve got a very bad case of “begging the question” going on there.

  • jan

    The lack of an over arching foreign policy, regarding our interaction in world affairs has led to cross-hatched, confusing and sometimes contradictory actions by us. However, one common denominator has been a continual awkward indecisiveness, on the part of the U.S., since 2009, causing too long of a pause which only has made problems grow worse. Then with a knee-jerk kind of ineptitude we charge forward, even if it means we don’t have our partners or plans yet lined up.
    Consequently, we get situations like a disintegrating Afghanistan, a terror dominated Libya, a shameful Benghazi, a chaotic Egypt, an Iran snubbing our demands to stop their nuclear program, and Syria completely out of control, with us now contemplating a blurry kind of military retaliation. I think it’s not only foolish but wrong to show so little insight and wisdom in how to deal with these problems.

  • As to my “worst case scenario” I think we’re a lot farther along in that direction than you apparently do.

    Tunisia is right on the brink. Egypt is farther along than that. It depends on the MB’s next move but Egypt could lapse into complete chaos.

    Somalia has been in a state of chaos for twenty years.

    Sudan is already there. Libya is already there. Yemen is already there. Iraq is even farther out on the edge of the abyss than Egypt is. The only bright spot there is Iraqi Kurdistan and if the Syrian civil war goes on much longer the Kurds will be dragged in.

    The only thing preventing Afghanistan from lapsing into chaos is our presence and we’ve got one foot out the door.

    That’s a lot of war and instability. More than usual even for MENA.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    Saudis offer Russia secret oil deal if it drops Syria

    In it, there is a link to the full article. I am skeptical, and @Dave Schuler has not seen in the Russian press. If true, it would add a 3rd, 4th, and 5th dimension, and I would expect that Saudi Arabia would move towards being a Russian client-state.

    It is not just you. Americans think with a US centric perspective. There are other players, and there are other scenarios that do not involve the US.

    I agree with @Dave Schuler about President Obama. His actions are those of somebody who does not want to get involved. In Libya, he was trying to stay on the sidelines, but he had to pull the UK’s and France’s a$$ out of the fire. I think he could have handled all of this much better, but it is a pile of sh*t that he did not create. NOTE: This does not mean it is President Bush’s fault.

  • PD Shaw

    Note that the 50% who supported missile strikes were also told that the attacks would be “meant to destroy military units and infrastructure that have been used to carry out chemical attacks.”

    I’m not sure we have the intelligence or capacity to carry out that wish, but it speaks of support for a policy of narrow retribution or incapacitation. I don’t know if we have the intelligence or ability to do what that poll question indicates, and its not quite the approach the Administration is suggesting (extracting a cost for crossing a red line).

  • We also don’t have the ability to prevent mass civilian casualties if we actually attacked the “military units and infrastructure that have been used to carry out chemical attacks”.

  • steve

    “steve, is offering the Bush Doctrine as justification — preventive war against rouge regimes with WMD and ties to international terrorist organizations.”

    Nope. There is a big difference between attacking someone who might have WMDs and who might use them someday, vs attacking someone who has already used them. In a preemptive attack, you are attacking before someone has attacked. In case I did not make it clear, I am not particularly concerned with Syria using chemical weapons against us. What I am concerned about is the further proliferation of chemical weapons since it will be a known fact that you can use them with impunity. Such a proliferation is likely to affect us in the future. That risk needs to be weighed against the risks coming from an attack, like retaliation.

    “I don’t think we can control the outcome of any attack we might make–only whether we make it or not.”

    I agree, and I think it mostly irrelevant. How often can we control the actions of another country in any regard? What we need to do is make our best guess about the risks of action vs inaction.

    “The US did not assist Iraq using chemical weapons. The US gave troop location info. ”

    We knew they were using the intel to deploy chemical weapons. A distinction without a difference.

    Steve

  • TastyBits

    @steve

    We knew they were using the intel to deploy chemical weapons. A distinction without a difference.

    Saddam was a known bad actor. The support was to keep Iran from winning the war. By keeping Iraq from losing, Saddam was able to remain in power. Therefore, the US, specifically President Reagan, is responsible for all the horrific actions he performed. By toppling Saddam, President Bush was able to redress the error.

    I would normally attribute this nonsense to partisanship, but this is just too childish and puerile.

    FYI: This information has been known for at least 10 years.

  • jan

    In response to the half dozen ‘what if’ scenarios Dave posted above — I don’t believe the U.S. has any back-ups to any of these.

    It seems their main goal is delivering a punitive message, following on the heels of Obama’s ‘red line’ threat being ignored. After that it will most likely be another ‘wait and see what happens’ posture.

    In the meantime, the ME pot will have been stirred even more, and what will have been accomplished? Unless, Obama’s attack is a seriously tactically one, it will do nothing but graze the Assad regime’s assets, while adding more fuel to the fire of resentment and disrespect the ME and other countries already have for us.

    BTW, Tasty, I think you’ve made some solid points.

    Also, one repercussion not mentioned is if Israel is brought into the fray, by some aftermath retaliation by Syria or some other sympathizer? And, if Israel goes for the gusto, which they are known to do, and strike back, then what?

  • steve

    “Saddam was a known bad actor. The support was to keep Iran from winning the war.”

    It was known that the support would be used to employ chemical weapons. Reagan is complicit as an actor in the use of these weapons regardless of his motive. I am not sure how Bush removing Saddam makes up for Reagan’s actions.

    “FYI: This information has been known for at least 10 years.”

    Thought to be true for ten years. The official records just released confirm it.

    Steve

  • PD Shaw

    Deterrence requires consistency and predictability. Most of the actors we want to deter believe that America is not consistent, but is feckless and hypocritical. People like Saddam only get in trouble for chemicals when they are not towing the Zionist line. American technology permits chemicals to be planted if they want anyway. Since the actions of Obama are not supported by any other institution (Congress, U.N., NATO, the Arab League), they are transitory and will not extend beyond his term, or perhaps the next glittering object that attracts American interest.

    The general deterrence argument is very weak here. (General deterrence are policies to deter other, future actors, not the specific wrongdoer at issue) Some of this is completely beyond Obama’s control. Presidents have term limits, some of the people to be deterred are not rational actors from our perspective. But not getting a broader domestic or international institutional commitment to the program means that most will consider that this is just a passing phase. And if the action is seen by the world as minor, it would actually have negative value as general deterrence.

  • steve

    PD- I think you have it mostly right. If we want to deter future chemical attacks we need to be prepared to follow up if he attacks again. I am less certain about the feckless part. If anything, I think we are much too quick to launch attacks or go to war. Bin Laden counted on that tendency. But, if we really want it to work, it needs to have some kind of international support. I am not exactly sure that would be since it looks like Russia will veto anything by the UN no matter what Syria does. Absent that support, I dont think we should attack. This is an infraction of an internationally agreed upon convention. If no one else cares, not sure why we must take sole responsibility.

    Steve

  • Cstanley

    Generally I find that this administration places partisan political concerns over real US interests. I think there has been an assumption that being “the anti-Bush” and having some biographical ties to the Muslim world would ameliorate the longstanding distrust of the US. Unsurprisingly, that has proven incorrect.

    Why Obama is now combining Bush and Clinton doctrines is a mystery to me. It certainly does seem like floundering desperation, and dithering to even get to the decisions makes it even worse.

    I also find that the situation seems a bit like JFK being tested, and while I’ve always assumed that seasoned advisors helped JFK out of situations like the Bay of Pigs, it doesn’t appear that we have advisors of that kind of heft anymore. We’re screwed because no one has any idea of an overarching policy so we are making it up (badly) as we go along.

  • jan

    Like you, Stanley, I don’t see the consultants or people surrounding this president as having either much ‘heft’ nor strategic wisdom. Light-weights or amateurs is how I would best describe them. Ever Kerry, who has been lurking in congressional corridors forever, IMO has sustained himself thru puffery and ego. So far what seems to fuel this adminstration is running after political advantage and theatrical rhetoric!

  • A real media-era presidency — a presidency for the sake of the campaign. What a nuisance to be distracted from the central business of holding on to power by the necessity to exercise it!

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