December 10, 2013
Too quick on too many triggers
The Mark News
Misjudged use of force can have bad outcomes
The Mark News
“Bombs away!” It’s almost become a mantra for US governments over the past five decades. As the Obama administration considers its response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons, the cry seems to be ringing out again.
Check the record. Since 1963, the United States has launched a significant assault on a country every 40 months or so. It’s as if every time a country (that is weaker and smaller than the United States) doesn’t do what we want it to do, we take military action.
Forget about that old-fashioned, time-honoured tradition called diplomacy, which has often saved lives and produced lasting results. It seems we’ve almost forgotten how to do it. We’ve forgotten how to talk. We’ve relied on a military response so often that we’ve allowed whatever diplomatic skills we once possessed to get rusty.
The ill-considered, misjudged use of force, however, can lead to really bad outcomes. Take, for example, the current Syria/chemical weapons crisis.
The Obama administration painted itself into a corner with its rather inept use of the phrase “red line.” All of a sudden, after two years of slaughter in Syria, US Secretary of State John Kerry played the humanitarian card. Yes, chemical weapons are hideous, but conventional weapons are not pretty either, and have already killed at least 100,000 people in the Syrian civil war. Beyond that, intelligence sources are sure chemical weapons have been used dozens of times in the past year with no firm evidence as to which side used them.
There’s also evidence that if the Syrian government did use chemical weapons this time around, it was not on President Bashar al-Assad’s direct orders, but rather the decision of one of his field commanders, whom Assad subsequently rebuked.
It’s hard to discern the truth: however you look at it, the evidence is ambiguous — certainly not the kind of intelligence to drop bombs over.
Suppose we do drop bombs, though. Suppose it’s a very limited, constrained strike — a slap on the hand because Assad has violated international norms. Frankly, such an action probably wouldn’t have much impact on the continuing conflict.
On the other hand, if we carry out a big strike package — one that lasts for days, or even weeks, and contains a lot of munitions — it could do real damage to Assad’s regime, and potentially shift the balance of power in the civil war.
Some people worry that a constrained strike could stir up more conflict on the periphery. You can be sure a major strike would prompt a negative reaction by everyone concerned.
The question everyone should be asking the White House is, “If we strike, what next?” In the limited strike scenario, what will we do if Assad essentially takes his licks and shrugs his shoulders and the war continues as before? What will we do next when it becomes clear we’ve essentially done nothing?
And what if we strike with a bigger, more robust package? If the balance suddenly shifts and radical al-Qaeda elements in the opposition are triumphant, what next? Or, if Assad decides to wage war with a vengeance, deploying all his conventional military might and killing people left, right, and centre, how will the White House respond?
Nobody in US President Barack Obama’s atrocity-preventing team has really thought this through, and, until Russia’s recent effort to have Syria’s chemical weapons put under international scrutiny, the administration had all but abandoned alternative approaches.
There are three things the United States should do. First, we need to spend some money to help relieve the Syrian refugee crisis. Refugees are destabilizing Lebanon, doing considerable damage in Jordan, and not being taken care of in Turkey. We need to give the refugees some hope.
Second, we need all invested parties — including Iran — to become involved in whatever political or diplomatic process we can engineer to bring pressure to bear on states that are providing arms and making the conflict worse.
Third, and in conjunction with the diplomatic process, we need to let Assad know that he has a way out. It could be an interim or shared government, or some political solution that is acceptable to his Alawite community, which, as it reasonably fears, might be slaughtered if we let Assad fall the way we let Muammar Gaddafi fall in Libya.
All of this will be difficult, but will be made less so by the pause that is needed to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. We need to pour smart diplomacy into that pause. We are much more apt to produce positive results this way than by dropping bombs and adding to the already brutal violence in Syria.
What perplexes me is how the calls for Congress to rebuff President Obama are empty of moral outrage. The civil war in Syria has cost more than 110,000 lives. It has produced a humanitarian calamity —well over two million refugees. Bashar al-Assad has massacred his own people by conventional means and is accused of using poison gas several times, most recently on August 21, when his military murdered 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.
Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired US Army Colonel and former chief of staff to US secretary of state Colin Powell. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.