August 30, 2013

Not a big treatise, but an attempt to quickly organize my thoughts:

* I’m going to once again push a fine piece by Charli Carpenter, who makes the very sensible point that we should separate “protecting the norm against chemical warfare” from “protecting innocent civilians.” They are different cases, and imply different actions, different cost-and-benefit calculations.


President Barack Obama (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

* The case that the administration is making is about chemical weapons. So it should be judged on that basis.

* I agree with those who argue that the United States has a real national interest in upholding the norm against using chemical weapons.

* However, I’ve heard nothing that indicates the administration case for relatively small-scale missile strikes will accomplish that reasonable, worthwhile goal.

* Not only that, but given the particular goal, the means counts. Therefore, the failure to secure United Nations support, or at least a very large multilateral coalition, is a significant weakness of the case for military action.

* Especially since it is unclear why military action is the best plan in the first place, given the apparent goal.

* And, yes, one of the reasons to avoid things like this is because once military action begins, the next steps can be very difficult to predict.

* Nevertheless: We’re not talking about an Iraq invasion or a Vietnam here. The risks and the costs to the United States for military action are real and include some severe downside risks that may not be readily apparent, but it’s still not nearly of the scale of what was planned in Iraq 10 years ago, and it helps nothing to pretend it is.

* It counts, too, that Barack Obama has demonstrated a willingness to accept the risks of disengaging from military action in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan — something presidents including Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush repeatedly failed to do.

Two more things: If what we’re talking about is supporting the norm against chemical weapons, I see no reason to rush the response. And I still think Obama would be smart to go to Congress first.