Yglesias recently reminded us on Twitter of this Eric Martin classic describing the ratchet effect leading to massive blunders:
Step 1: How can the President not at least condemn [Regime X] publicly for its abhorrent actions? A public condemnation is the very least the President can do. It wouldn’t cost much, but it would be an important show of our resolve and support for freedom!
Step 2 (with Regime X still in place): So what, the President condemned the regime publicly with some harsh words and called it “illegitimate.” Words are cheap and inconsequential. We need sanctions and coordinated efforts to isolate the regime. That will do the trick!
Step 3 (with Regime X still in place): Sanctions? Regime isolation? Is that all the President is going to do in the face of Regime X’s perfidy? Those timid jabs will never work, and the President’s dithering will make us look weak and lacking in resolve. Our enemies will be emboldened. The President must use our military to deal a swift blow. No one is advocating a prolonged occupation, just a decapitation maneuver, and then a rapid hand off to the indigenous forces for democratic change.
Step 4 (with Regime X toppled by our military): Now that we’ve committed our military, and brought about regime change, we have a moral obligation to see the mission through to the end. Besides, if we withdraw, chaos will erupt and our enemies will fill the vacuum. We owe it to the locals, we can’t afford to lose face, we can’t show weakness and our credibility depends on staying until a relatively stable, friendly nation emerges from the rubble.
Step 5 (repeat as needed): We’ve turned the corner, shifted the momentum and victory is within reach. The next six months should prove decisive.
Step 6: I was critical of the handling of this military action from the beginning. I would have conducted the operation differently. Regardless, no one ever said it would be quick or easy. But the difficulties encountered don’t discredit the policy!*
The slippage between the steps isn’t absolutely inevitable, but it’s another good reason to be concerned about intervention in Syria.