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The Fundamental Weakness of the Case for Attacking Syria

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I should probably explain further why I think Congress shouldn’t authorize an attack on Syria, piggybacking on a couple of the points raised by Paul below.

The fundamental case for war rests on “red lines,” that the sacred convention against the use of chemical weapons must be defended with force. I think this from Stephen Walt is exactly right:

Yet we now appear to be getting ready to drop a lot of ordnance on Syria — and for a pretty flimsy reason. John Kerry is outraged that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons — or so he believes — but as I’ve noted before, that fact (if true) is not dispositive. Assad’s forces have already killed tens of thousands with good old-fashioned high explosive, which is much more effective than sarin in most cases. Yes, chemical weapons are illegal and yes, there’s a taboo against their use, but going to war solely to reinforce a rather unimportant norm is a poor reason. The fact that Assad is killing innocent people with this particular tool and not some other equally nasty tool is not by itself a reason to get involved.

This argument for attacking Syria is a close relative of the arguments made by the Bush administration for invading Iraq, which at their heart involved a category of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that conflated nuclear weapons with a bunch of other weapons that offered no more killing capacity than weapons you could fashion with materials that could be picked up at any Home Depot. (Even if they hadn’t been lying, the justification was utterly inadequate.) There’s no good reason why the people Assad has killed with chemical weapons represent a better reason to go to bomb Syria than the many, many more people he’s killed with conventional weapons.

But let’s assume arguendo that the norm is finally worth using military means to protect, unlike the previous times the norm was broached. For an attack to be justified, there has to be a good argument that it would produce a deterrent effect that’s worth the substantial human and financial costs. The Drum post that Paul linked below raises one obvious counterpoint: the lesson that future dictators would take from an attack on Assad would be much likely to be “if you want to use chemical weapons make sure your military is strong enough to make a military response to costly” than “never ever use chemical weapons.” And I think the problems with the deterrence argument go well beyond that. There’s a fundamental disjuncture between the proposed means and the proposed ends:

  • Taking the Obama administration at its word that it intends just to spend a couple days launching missiles at Syria without any realistic expectation of fundamentally altering the balance of power in the civil war (let alone regime change), it seems obvious that the deterrent effect is too trivial to justify the attack.  We’re apparently positing a dictator who would be perfectly willing to slaughter his own citizens (with CHEMICAL WEAPONS! Which is much worse than using bullets or bombs because something something) but would be unwilling to do so if it resulted in some people and infrastructure in his country would be blown up without threatening his hold on power?  “Implausible” is the charitable way of putting it.  It’s not clear how this kind of attack strengthens the norm against using chemical weapons in any substantive way, and given that the response involves killing innocent people the burden of proof is on proponents to explain why this is something other than empty symbolism.
  • A military response dedicated to regime change might be a genuine deterrent (although limited for the reasons Drum cites.)  But essentially no non-crazy person believes that the norm against chemical weapons justifies an invasion likely to be a debacle to rival Iraq, particularly since the end result would almost certainly be the replacement of one illberal regime with another only with much more chaos and suffering.  And this isn’t what the Obama administration, for obvious reasons, is proposing.
  • In addition, while the general unwillingness of America’s allies to go along does not in itself mean an attack is unwise (cf. the post-2008 European consensus on macroeconomic policy), in this context a near-unilateral attack would be problematic.  It’s hard to make the case that you’re attacking Syria to defend international norms when most signatories of the convention against chemical weapons don’t believe an attack is justified in response to the breach.

The case for attacking Syria fails on multiple levels.  The best-case scenario is pretty much that a limited amount of destruction is inflicted on Syria pointlessly.  Congress should say no.

…Ezra has more in a similar vein.  And here.

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