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Petraeus and Syria

[ 6 ] October 31, 2008 |

I suspect that Eric Martin may be suggesting too much of a distinction here:

ABC News is reporting today that General Petraeus has been pushing for a meeting with Syria’s leadership but the Bush administration has refused…

As Daniel Levy mentioned recently, Petraeus and Pentagon leadership have been pleased with recent overtures from the Syrians, and cautiously optimistic about the potential to build on that cooperation…

But then, despite this progress and the continuation of peace talks between Israel and Syria, the Bush administration went ahead with a cross border raid and airstrikes aimed at targets in Syrian territory. Instead of supporting and expanding the diplomatic process, the Bush administration opted for a show of force.

On Tuesday, Eli Lake wrote:

In July, according to three administration sources, the Bush administration formally gave the military new power to strike terrorist safe havens outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Before then, a military strike in a country like Syria or Pakistan would have required President Bush’s personal approval. Now, those kinds of strikes in the region can occur at the discretion of the incoming commander of Central Command (Centcomm), General David Petraeus. One intelligence source described the order as institutionalizing the “Chicago Way,” an allusion to Sean Connery’s famous soliloquy about bringing a gun to a knife fight.

Eli is Eli, but this certainly seems plausible to me. If it’s true, then it means that it’s not quite right to say that the Bush administration opted for a show of force in the face of opposition from Petraeus, or least that it may not be true; Petraeus may have ordered the strike himself.

This wouldn’t be altogether surprising. As Spencer notes, Petraeus’ efforts in Iraq have involved alternation between talks and the use of force. And as Eric wrote, airstrikes don’t preclude negotiations. Long story short, I’m not convinced that the airstrike and the negotiation stories are connected in the way that’s being suggested here. It’s not necessarily true that the airstrike represents a rejection by the administration of the diplomatic option that Petraeus apparently wants to pursue. I’m quite willing to believe that the administration and Petraeus disagree about the value of engaging Syria, but the airstrike doesn’t imply that the former is an effort to undercut the latter. As we know from our Schelling, military action is diplomacy; there’s no necessary distinction between the two types of effort.

Rather, I would suggest that the crucial insight here is that the administration is restraining Petraeus from undertaking diplomatic efforts towards Syria, while allowing him to use force. This is not a strategy that is likely to work, and it’s an approach that I expect would change under an Obama administration. We may well still see these kinds of strikes, but I expect they’ll be accompanied by genuine efforts at diplomatic accomodation.

…Erin Simpson has some additional thoughts on the subject.

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Comments (6)

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  1. rea says:

    As we know from our Schelling, military action is diplomacy
    Surely we knew that from our Clauswitz.

  2. MikeJ says:

    A plausible reading is that Petraeus has the authority to order strikes but when going into negotiations it is handy to be able to say, “you should really work something out with me, there’s an insane guy back in Washington.”

  3. scott says:

    First we kill you, then we talk to you. How does that work again?

  4. Anonymous says:

    no, first we talk to you. then, when you don’t say things we like, we kill you a bit, and then we talk some more. See under Clausewitz.

  5. Eric Martin says:

    Rob, I’m open to that possibility. No disagreement with your contention really.

  6. Martin Wisse says:

    A recognition of the illegality of what happened would’ve been nice in this analysis.

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