I have learned over the years that if an editor wants to kill one of my stories, he can always find reasons. Similarly, if a foreign policy official wants to reject a policy, he can always find reasons for doing that. The Washington Post reports today that “experts” are warning against a “U.S. strike” against Syria’s Bashar al Assad.
The argument is based on the failure of “limited interventions” by the Clinton administration in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Sudan in 1998. But the failure in these cases had most to do with flawed intelligence that failed to connect means with ends. The missile attacks against Iraq were supposed to discourage Iraq from concealing weapons of mass destruction, but as we’ve subsequently learned, Saddam Hussein got rid of his arsenal in the early ‘90s. In the Sudan, as Spencer Ackerman and I later reported, the Clinton administration, relying on flawed intelligence from George Tenet’s CIA, hit what was supposed to a bioweapons factory, but turned out to be a pharmaceutical plant. In Afghanistan, the U.S. inadvertently tipped off Osama bin Laden that a strike was coming. If the Obama administration is relying on flawed intelligence about Assad’s use of chemical weapons, then the result could be a similar fiasco, but none of the experts is claiming that the Assad and Russian version of events—that the rebels were responsible for the attack—is correct.
It’s worth remembering that everything that the United States can do in these circumstances can have good and bad consequences. The question is whether one thinks that the good will outweigh the bad. Among the good: the enforcement of an important international norm against the use of chemical and biological weapons; the indication to the Russians and Iranians that the United States will not tolerate an all-out assault by Assad against his own citizens. The latter might lead these countries to encourage negotiations to end the war, which is the only reasonable resolution—given the political disarray among rebel forces—devoutly to be wished. Among the bad consequences of not acting: the utter destruction of America’s ability to use its power to prevent international atrocities. And given that the U.S. is one of the few states capable of doing this, its loss of credibility would have global consequences.
What are the potential bad consequences of acting? We could be drawn into a greater war if Assad then ups the ante by using chemical weapons again and again. That’s the prospect that the Post’s experts hold out, but I consider it unlikely. The best case for that happening is probably Ronald Reagan’s bombing raid against Libya in 1986 in retaliation for Libya bombing a West German disco frequented by American army personnel. Libya’s terrorist actions did seem to quiet afterwards, but two years later, after the November 1988 election, Libyan agents pulled off the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103. Iran was initially thought to be responsible, but by 1991, Libya’s role in the bombing had become evident. The UN passed sanctions against, and the US adopted economic sanctions of its own. The upshot was that Libya’s acts of terror steadily diminished and then stopped. Libya’s acts after 1986 were also based on the premise that Libya’s role could be concealed and Libya could therefore avoid any retaliation. Assad does not have that luxury. Yes, the U.S. could be forced into further retaliation, but the threat of such a retaliation is likely to create a deterrent. That’s why it makes more sense than not for the U.S. to strike against the Assad government in response to use of chemical weapons.