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My Reluctant Opposition to the Syria Campaign

I'm pro-intervention in principle, but Obama hasn't sold me on it

I’m not remotely an expert on foreign policy in general or Syria in particular. At best I’d call myself a semi-informed lay-person. I read the New York Times coverage, the excellent things my colleagues at TNR write, a few trusted pundits and bloggers (like this guy and that guy), and that’s about it. I don't do any reporting on the subject, or peruse think tank papers. I haven’t even listened to ex-generals pontificate on cable. Still, with the bombing of Syria creepily imminent, there are probably a lot of us semi-informed lay people out there with deep ambivalence about where we’re headed. So what the hell, maybe this will help articulate what other people are thinking, too.

My anxieties are roughly encapsulated by today’s terrific Times piece about everything that could go wrong, except that I’d frame it this way: The administration says the objectives are to enforce an international norm against the use of chemical weapons and protect our national interest (since the weapons could be used against our allies even us). This is good—I’m strongly in favor of enforcing the norm and protecting ourselves and our allies. Meanwhile, the administration also insists the mission will be “limited” and “narrow.” This too is good—I really like the sound of limited and narrow.

The problem is that the second doesn’t logically follow from the first. Enforcing a norm and ensuring that Assad doesn’t use chemical weapons against our allies do not sound to me like objectives that can be accomplished with a limited and narrow operation. I mean, maybe they can. Maybe we’ll hit Assad in a limited and narrow way, and he’ll throw in the towel and that’ll be it. But the odds seem high to me that he does the opposite—that he gases his own people again, and on a wider scale. (The odds seem somewhat lower, but not zero, that he’ll hit Israel or Turkey, but I guess you can’t dismiss that either.)

At that point, of course, the ball’s in our court again. If we don’t match Assad’s escalation, we will have done the opposite of enforce a norm—we will have emphatically not enforced a norm. We will have said that if you want to use chemical weapons, and you’re willing to use a lot of them and repeatedly, we will do nothing. It’s only if you use them in a limited way that we will do something. So be prepared to use them on a very large scale. That sounds like a bad message for us to send.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m actually open in principle to intervention. As I say, I think the norm is worth enforcing. (And while the national interest rationale seems a lot weaker to me, I’m not prepared to say it’s nothing.) To me the flaw in the non-intervention position is that I think Assad is going to escalate even if we don’t intervene. He appears to have gassed 1,500 people, on top of the 100,000 he’s basically responsible for killing since this whole terrible war started. If he gases another 5,000, will the non-interventionists be comfortable sticking to their principled opposition? What about another 50,000? At some point the escalation problem makes it really hard to be a non-interventionist, too.

Still, while I support what the administration is trying to do here, I’m really starting to freak out over the means. From their public statements, they don’t seem to be anticipating that this is at best going to be a two-stage proposition, with them bombing and Assad escalating, and probably a many-more-stage proposition. They seem to be hoping that they do their initial bombing and that’s the end of the story, which seems absurdly optimistic and pretty negligent to me. Of course, that’s probably unfair. I’m sure they’ve thought beyond the initial campaign. They’ve probably thought quite a bit about it, even if they have to sell the mission as limited and narrow to win public support for it, or at least to avoid a massive backlash.

But my own memory of these things—and I’m obviously talking Iraq here—suggests that what governments say publicly about the ease and duration of a military campaign tends to be a not crazy reflection of how they think about it internally. Yes, they’re aware of what can go wrong, and all the decisions they may face after the initial effort. But when you construct a narrative for the outside world and repeat it again and again, it seems to at least subtly corrupt your private thinking, too.

So, yeah, I’m really ambivalent here. I think we’ve got to do something about this war and this horrific gassing business. But before I can get on board, the administration needs to show me they’ve thought it through a lot better. And the more they tell me the mission is going to be limited and narrow while at the same time touting an objective as ambitious and amorphous as enforcing a norm, the less I’m convinced they have. I just can’t sign on until that changes.  

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber