The real case for Syria strikes makes sense, so why isn’t anyone making it?

September 5, 2013

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Early last week, when Secretary of State John Kerry made the Obama administration's first public case for limited U.S. strikes against Syria, he was actually quite clear about why: because strikes to punish the Syrian government would uphold the international norm against the use of chemical weapons, which Syrian forces had allegedly deployed against civilians. Students of international relations can and do disagree about whether that would work, but they at least agree that it's a sound and valid case to make, one consistent with everything the administration has said about how the strikes would work and what they would and wouldn't do.

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 and with the foreign policy of it all getting subsumed by the politics. It's easy to blame this on administration bumbling, or to suggest that maybe they had a secret ulterior agenda all along, but the most likely explanation may be much simpler. The administration's initial case, the apparently real reason it wants to act -- to uphold an international norm with limited strikes -- is almost impossibly difficult to make.

That's not because their case is necessarily wrong. It actually makes decent sense. It's because their case is abstract, academic, probabilistic, hypothetical and thus impossible to definitively prove or disprove. It's also not really about immediately helping Syrians (although that's one possible benefit) and it's certainly not about serving immediate U.S. national interests. And, maybe toughest of all, it requires openly admitting some things we all know to be true but that wouldn't really fly in American politics: war is going to happen, it's going to claim innocent civilians, and while we can maybe make it a little less worse there's nothing that the United States can really do to stop it -- especially not in Syria.

Because the administration won't do it, here is the simplest-possible version of its original argument for strikes, in four bullet points:

1. The world has worked really hard to get basically all nations to agree never to use chemical weapons, but that international agreement (the "norm") is tougher to uphold and more likely to fall apart every time someone goes unpunished for using chemical weapons. So launching a few cruise missiles sends a message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and any other would-be chemical weapons user that says, "The world still doesn't tolerate chemical weapons, so don't think that you can get away with it."

2. Here is the one word that explains why chemical weapons are so terrible: indiscriminate. When a military uses chemical weapons to accomplish some military objective, it almost always ends up killing lots of civilians because the weapons are indiscriminate. In fact, they're actually not very effective battlefield weapons. But militaries still have an incentive to use them if they think launching sarin gas at the enemy might help them win, even it means killing lots of civilians in the process. The only way to stop this from happening is by making chemical weapons so taboo that even a military on the verge of total defeat would not be tempted to use them.

3. The real case for banning chemical weapons isn't because they upset us or because dying from sarin gas is worse than dying from a mortar shell. The real case is that a war where militaries use chemical weapons is going to kill more civilians than a war where militaries don't use chemical weapons.

4. Bottom line, the effect of upholding the norm against chemical weapons is to reduce the chance that chemical weapons will be used in future wars. What Kerry is really promising is that, if we punish Assad with a few cruise missiles, there's a non-zero chance that some hypothetical future war will be less likely to include chemical weapons, and thus will cost fewer civilians their lives. That's actually a sound case and is a potentially low-cost way for the United States to save civilian lives. But it's also impossible to prove, and it requires admitting that the United States can't stop future wars any more than it can stop this one.

Unfortunately, when administration officials have discussed upholding the norm against chemical weapons, they haven't always made the most persuasive case. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned of the threat of North Korean chemical weapons. But that's a bit silly: few Pyongyang-watchers believe that those weapons are anything but defensive, or that North Korea would hesitate for a moment to use them because of international norms, however weak or strong. Again, a more honest case from Hagel might be that upholding the norm against chemical weapons could save hundreds or thousands of lives if war ever broke out between Egypt and Sudan over water rights and one of those countries was tempted to use chemical weapons. That's actually a valid case, but it's also a difficult one to sell politically.

To be clear, this is not an argument that the administration's initial case for strikes is wrong, just that it's extremely difficult to sell politically. That may help explain why Kerry and other administration officials have been pushing other arguments. Some of them, such as a moral compulsion to act because children are dying, are unlikely to convince those who believe strikes would only make it worse. Others, namely that a failure to carry out Obama's implicit threats to strike Syria would endanger "American credibility" abroad, are not only wrong but actually risk locking the United States into unwanted action. The more the administration plays up the "American credibility" case, the harder it will be for it to back down from any future presidential rhetoric, however unwise it might be to pursue.

But maybe the most counterproductive case of all has been that strikes could shape the course of the war, indirectly aiding rebel groups and weakening the Assad regime. The administration was, at first, extremely careful to make clear that this is precisely not what they would want to accomplish with strikes. And Obama has said he doesn't even think a military solution to the war is a good idea. But it's easier to sell, particularly to more hawkish legislators. The problem is that strikes as they've been discussed are unlikely to do this, so what happens when they don't? What happens when lawmakers who thought they were voting for military action to topple Assad don't get it? It might become tougher for the United States to avoid escalating -- something Obama has made crystal clear he thinks is a terrible idea -- if and when that happens.

And that temptation to argue that strikes could fix everything might actually hint at why the administration has been so reluctant to maintain its original case: because it meant conceding that, even if the United States can improve the Syrian war a little around the margins, possibly even with offshore strikes, we can't solve it. The Syrian conflict is simply beyond us.

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Max Fisher · September 4, 2013