On August 24, conservative (sorta) author and defense-policy wise man Edward Luttwak published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the optimal U.S. strategy for the Syrian civil war is to let all the parties to the conflict continue to bleed each other. Noting that virtually every element of each side is an enemy of the United States, he argued, “At this point, a prolonged stalemate is the only outcome that would not be damaging to American interests,” even while admitting that continued fighting is “tragic” (though he insisted that most Syrians stand to lose more than they already have should one side decisively win). He even suggested that the U.S. tinker with the civil war in order to maintain an equilibrium: “Arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and,” he suggested, “stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.”
“It’s an open-and-shut thing,” he told me Tuesday. “I don’t view my op-ed as a brilliant intervention. I think it was stating the obvious.”
To describe his outlook as “realist” is almost an understatement; some would say that to call it “cynical” would be far too kind. Even if it is accurate on its own merits, it might be the sort of “hard truth” that there are good reasons for a country—particularly a country, like the U.S., that prides itself on its sacred honor—to reject.
And yet, Luttwak’s formulation—conceived and written, he told me, before the Assad regime’s August 21 alleged chemical weapons attack on Ghouta—possesses an undeniable logic. What’s more, it appears to be the Obama administration’s strategy—very much including the latest development, which has seen the administration back a Russian-brokered solution that would see all of Syria’s alleged (“alleged”) chemical weapons placed under international control.
In his op-ed, Luttwak acknowledged that the administration saw things similarly, noting, “This strategy actually approximates the Obama administration’s policy”; a full-scale invasion and occupation, he said, are “the only possible alternative.”
Indeed, a week later, The Wall Street Journal reported that the CIA has failed to provide even small arms to rebel forces, as had been announced, prompting some to paint a picture of “a White House that wants to be seen as responsive to allies’ needs but fundamentally doesn’t want to get pulled any deeper into the country’s grinding conflict.” The paper reported, “The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn’t want it to prevail.” And on Monday, BuzzFeed’s Miriam Elder reported, “Washington’s latest path out of intervening in Syria’s bloody civil war is anything but a policy failure. This is the success of a tacit, multilateral agreement that blood and fear and death are the acceptable price of keeping two sets of enemies fighting one another.”
Luttwak patiently defended his argument Tuesday. “The greatest disaster,” he said, “is to allow sentiments to contaminate one’s strategic analysis. That leads not to policies but to emotional outbursts masquerading as policies.” Obama, Luttwak told me, “took the very wise view that in Syria the U.S. would do best by doing nothing at all, and view from afar that these enemies are all fighting each other—Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, jihadists, Salafists, al-Qaeda emulators.” (He did say that if Assad’s regime committed a massive chemical weapons attack, there would be a strong argument for a limited U.S. military strike to uphold international norms. But, he added, “I would bet my net worth that the nerve gas attack that killed 1400 people right near Damascus—the area where the regime is fondest and has least need of chemical weapons—given that these were Assad weapons by Assad people, nevertheless did not represent a chain-of-command Assad decision.”)
According to Luttwak, the Russian solution is a continuation of the policy of letting the different sides of the Syrian civil war to continue going at it. “Without chemical weapons, Assad becomes even more sustainable by the Russians, and therefore will continue to operate, and this conflict will continue as it has, with America's enemies fighting each other,” he said yesterday. “If the attack is avoided and the Russian initiative takes place, the Obama policy can proceed as before.”
This is not the first time Luttwak has offered an extremely realpolitik argument. One of his most famous essays, provocatively titled “Give War a Chance,” argued that it is a mistake for the United Nations, NATO, and non-governmental organizations to keep wars, including the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the then-contemporaneous Kosovo conflict, effectively frozen in amber. When he noted, “Wars among lesser powers have rarely been allowed to run their course,” it was a complaint, not a celebration. In a 2011 interview with Tablet, he referred to “the paradoxical logic of strategy… If you want peace, prepare for war. If you actively want war, disarm yourself, and then you’ll get war.” (He added, “Virile and martial elites understand that kind of thinking instinctively,” perhaps suggesting that this kind of thinking applies to other areas of human activity as well.)
He is not arguing quite the same thing here. “In the op-ed, it was nothing to do with peace,” he said. “I wasn’t claiming this is a way of bringing peace to Syria. It’s simply a way of keeping America's enemies fighting each other.” But the bias against outside intervention remains.
I could almost hear him shrug over the phone when I asked him about his argument. “I make no claims for it being original, brilliant, or anything other than prosaic,” he said. “Your enemies are fighting. Let them get on with it.”