Why the very bad arguments for intervening in Syria matter

September 5, 2013

I spent much of Wednesday reading through the transcript of the Senate Foreign Relation's Committee's four-hour hearing on Syria. All I could think was, "Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance."

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Secretary of State John Kerry lays out the White House position on Syria. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Longtime blogosphere obsessives will remember that line. Daniel Davies wrote it in 2004, in a justly famous blog post about the Iraq War. His point was that if the Iraq war was such a good idea, its proponents wouldn't need to tell so many false stories about why they were doing it and what it would accomplish to win over the public.

Tuesday's hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee raised similar alarm bells. The word "lies" goes too far, to be sure. But over and over again, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the assembled members of Congress spun implausible doomsday scenarios of future chemical attacks on American troops or civilians, or implied that the intervention was motivated by the ongoing massacre and would, somehow, stop it. The need for these implausible stories speaks directly to why the intervention in Syria is having such trouble winning congressional or public support.

Take this bit of committee chairman Sen. Robert Menendez's opening statement:

What message do we send the world when such a crime goes unpunished? Will those who have these weapons use them again? Will they use them more widely and kill more children? Will they use them against our allies, against our troops or embassies? Or will they give them or sell them to terrorists who would use them against us here at home?

The transition between the first two questions and the final two questions is breathtaking. The idea behind this strike is that a limited punishment for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons would deter future dictators from using these arms because they would fear a similar response.

But no one -- not Assad, not Iran, not North Korea -- has any confusion about what would happen if they deployed chemical weapons against our troops or embassies, or if they handed them to terrorists who used them to attack us. They would be annihilated. And our credibility on this score is overwhelming: After 9/11, we invaded Afghanistan, which had given safe harbor to al Qaeda, and then we also invaded Iraq -- just because we were so angry. Pinprick strikes against Assad change nothing about the incentives of using chemical weapons against the United States.

Yet this kept coming up. Hagel said it:

If Assad is prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people, we have to be concerned that terrorist groups like Hezbollah, which has forces in Syria supporting the Assad regime, would acquire them and would use them. That risk of chemical weapons proliferation poses a direct threat to our friends, our partners and to U.S. personnel in the region. We cannot afford for Hezbollah or any terrorist group determined to strike the United States to have incentives to acquire or use chemical weapons.

Sen. Barbara Boxer said it:

So why should we take any targeted action against Syria? Not only is it important to keep North Korea in mind, but also allowing the continued use of chemical weapons to go unanswered makes it much more likely that we'll see it used again in Syria and we'll see it used maybe elsewhere. And terrorists could obtain those and use them on America, or our allies, or our troops -- use them, for example, against Israel and other friends. It makes it more likely.

Sen. Marco Rubio added a slightly odd twist to it:

The choice was made to watch as this thing unfolded, as others advocated that we should just mind our own business. And what we're seeing here now is proof and an example that when America ignores these problems, these problems don't ignore us; that we can ignore them but eventually they grow and they come to visit us at our doorstep.

This problem, of course, is not at our doorstep. We are simply choosing to get involved in a problem on somebody else's doorstep.

The other misleading thread of the Syria argument was that this intervention is somehow a humanitarian intervention, motivated by and responsive to Assad's alleged massacre of his own citizens by chemical weapons. Kerry's statements were careful, but they repeatedly danced around this motivation:

Now, some will also question the extent of our responsibility. To them I say, when someone kills hundreds of children with a weapon the world has banned, we are all responsible. That is true because of treaties like the Geneva Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention and, for us, the Syria Accountability Act. But it's also true because we share a common humanity and a common decency.

But then, does our common humanity and common decency not demand we act on behalf of the thousands of children killed, and tens of thousands of Syrian adults killed, by Assad's conventional weapons?

A recurrent theme in the hearing was that senators wanted strikes that would weaken Assad but didn't want to authorize the kind of strikes that would actually weaken Assad. So the administration repeatedly claimed that these strikes, though not designed to substantially weaken Assad, would in fact substantially weaken Assad. Kerry called this "the downstream impact" of the strikes:

There is no question that whatever choices are made by the president, that [Assad] and his military effort will not be better off, number one. And the opposition will know that and the people in Syria will know that. Already today, just with the threat that action may be taken, defections have gone up and people in Syria are reconsidering whether Assad is a long-term bet.

And again:

I think General Dempsey has made it clear, and I think we believe deeply, as do others who are knowledgeable about this in the region, that there is no way that it will, in fact, be beneficial for him, that it will not translate for him on the ground, that the defections that are taking place now and other things that will happen will further degrade his capacity to prosecute it going forward.

But if the point is to weaken Assad, why not simply launch strikes designed to weaken Assad?

I don't want to be too hard on the hearing. There were times when the administration, in particular, was extremely cautious in explaining its goals. Dempsey, for instance, said very little, and what he said was very careful:

The task I've been given is to develop military options to deter -- that is to say, change the regime's calculus about the use of chemical weapons.

And at another point, Kerry was quite clear about what the proposed strikes are, and are not, about:

There's one objective, and that objective is to make sure we live up to our obligations of upholding the norm with respect to international behavior on the use of chemical weapons. And that is what the president is seeking in this authorization.

But the rhetorical mission creep is real, and it's broad. As WorldViews' Max Fisher puts it, "Since Kerry’s first speech, the administration’s case has gone terribly awry, with officials hinting at all sorts of other claims that can sound better but make less strategic sense."

What comes through in the Senate's hearing is that the desire to intervene comes from the moral outrage of Assad's massacres, and not just the small fraction of them committed with chemical weapons.

But actually putting a stop to the massacres or removing Assad would require a much larger intervention than anyone is open to. Still, people want to do something to somehow respond to Assad's barbarism. Punishing his use of chemical weapons is something. But punishing it in a way that won't stop the slaughters or seriously alter the balance of power in the conflict isn't much.

As Rep. Brad Sherman explained, "The goal here is to deter dictators in 2022 from using chemical weapons on a mass scale against civilians." But no one is emotionally invested in intervening in Syria to stop dictators from assaulting their populations with chemical weapons in 2022. They're invested in Syria because they want Assad to stop killing his people with any kinds of weapons right now.

The problem is that achieving that goal requires a military intervention of a size and length that America is not willing to countenance. So they're increasingly trying to justify the military intervention that Americans might countenance by using the arguments for the military interventions they won't consider.

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Brad Plumer · September 5, 2013