As the Red Queen once put it, “All have won and all must have prizes.” As I listen to the debate over What To Do About Syria, it often seems that they’re all right. They all make sense, from the all-out bombers to the total isolationists. Those who say we’ve got no dog in the Syrian fight sound right, as do those who say doing nothing would be a disaster for the United States, along with those who say intervention would uphold the standards of civilization, and those who say American intervention risks unleashing even greater barbarism on the poor Syrians, and beyond.
Here are the sensible arguments I hear:
The use of chemical weapons should certainly be punished. Otherwise, the long-established taboo against the awful things will be proven worthless, and Assad and others will keep using them. Ergo, it’s right to punish Assad.
On the other hand, punishment might not be good enough. The Syrian ruler presumably used the chemical weapons because he was afraid of being defeated. He’d heard about the “red line,” and he did it anyway. A limited strike that does not threaten Assad’s hold on power is unlikely to convince him to change course. Ergo, he has to be punished in a big way, so that he learns his lesson.
On the other hand again, a big assault might threaten Assad’s regime. Suppose he falls. Will things get better? Plenty of smart people say that things might very well get worse, because Syria might thereby be brought under the control of radical anti-Western fanatics, including elements of al-Qaeda.
Furthermore, both the Russians and the Iranians, both of whom have a lot invested in Assad’s survival, say they will respond to an attack. What exactly does that mean? It’s not altogether clear, but what if an American bomber were shot down by Russian or Iranian forces? The consequences might be horrific (big war — world war, even?). Ergo it’s best not to go down THAT road.
Furthermore again, what’s our national interest in the outcome of the war? We don’t like Assad, but we don’t like a lot of those fighting him, either. Ergo, it’s best to stay out, then try to sort things out afterwards.
On yet another hand, if we do nothing, it seriously undermines American credibility, and therefore American security. No future “red line” is likely to deter anyone, anywhere. Retreat now would encourage Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards to conclude that we won’t do anything in future confrontations. Specifically, our “red line” on Iranian nukes would be erased. Ergo we must act, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s strategically necessary.