Belmont Club

Joining the Howitat

Max Fisher, writing in the Washington Post says that if you’re worried about war breaking out in Syria, don’t. “Obama wants to punish Assad, not win the Syrian civil war.”  Obama will only pretend to military action. In reality he will just be sending expensive smoke signals. Fisher writes:

Every signal so far suggests the United States is planning something very limited, most likely a series of finite cruise missile strikes against Syrian government infrastructure, perhaps some aircraft strikes, as well. One criticism you will hear over and over is that this sort of response is unlikely to change the course of the war in Syria, which President Bashar al-Assad appears to be slowly winning. And that’s correct. But it also misses the point.

If the Obama administration does go through with these strikes, then its goal, as both Kerry and White House press secretary Jay Carney made clear, is not to shape the course of the war or force out Assad. Its goal is to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons, both as a deterrent against using then again and as a warning to any future military leaders that they’d better not use them, either.

It’s a public relations exercise. But as always in these cases the question must be asked: what could go wrong? First, here’s the specific message Fisher thinks Obama is trying to send. Dit da dah da, only this time spelled out by Tomahawk missile impacts.

The Obama administration also wants to uphold the norm against any nation’s use of chemical weapons. The idea is that, when the next civilian or military leader locked in a difficult war looks back on what happened in Syria, that leader will be more likely to conclude that the use of chemical weapons isn’t worth the risk.

Gary Gambill at the Middle East Forum describes the analytical framework behind this messaging.  Gambill says the whole point of sending arms to Syrian rebels, indeed the of bombing Assad to this point is to create peace. According to this point of view peace is in outcome of making victory impossible. You don’t want your enemy to win. Neither do you want to win either. You want a draw. Victory is an evil to be avoided at all costs. Gambill writes:

As the Syrian civil war rages on with no end in sight, many advocates of U.S. intervention are claiming that an infusion of Western arms to carefully vetted rebel factions will help bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Though hardly the first time that tools of war have been recast as instruments of peace, this curious proposition has gained unprecedented currency across the ideological spectrum, from liberal internationalists to conservative hawks.

Unfortunately, the magic bullets theory doesn’t hold much water. Arming the rebels might bring the war to a close sooner by helping “good” guys kill “bad” guys more efficiently, but there’s no compelling reason to believe it will entice them to stop fighting.

The superficial logic of arms-for-peace is elegant, to be sure, rooted in the classic diplomatic axiom that a political settlement to an armed conflict is possible only when, for all relevant players, the expected utility of a negotiated peace, E[u(p)], is greater than the expected utility of continued war, E[u(w)]. There are several arguments as to how a calibrated infusion of arms into Syria will help produce this rare condition (presumably absent from the large majority of civil wars in the modern era that ended in the military defeat of one side or the other).

People in the modern peace business are familiar with this logic. For example when the Tamil Tigers were on the verge of complete defeat in Sri Lanka, Marie Colvin, writing in the UK Times described how tragic that development would be. “Now that their military hopes are dashed, the fear in western capitals is that the Tamil Tigers will again turn to terrorism. If the Tamil leadership goes ahead with their threats of suicide will there be anyone left to negotiate with? ”

People from the Old School may scratch their heads, but their befuddlement is easy to explain. They are not yet enlightened. So we must sit at the feet of the Master and consider the coming chastisement of Assad as simply another “teaching moment” in the President’s illustrious career.

What none of Fisher’s arguments address is the possibility that Obama’s Syria strategy is fundamentally wrong.  Hence any messaging based on an error is also an error. Suppose the use of chemical weapons is viewed, not as a result of Assad’s hard headedness, but as a sign the region is falling apart? Then we come to a completely different interpretation of what may follow the strike.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States were never great fans of doing things Washington’s way. The Kingdom never supported the invasion of Bush’s invasion of Iraq but opposed to it. “Saudi Arabia has warned the United States against a possible war against Iraq in an exclusive interview with the BBC.” Nor was the KSA ever part of the Coalition of The Willing. Indeed, part of Obama’s critique of Bush’s approach was that it was not invented in the Islamic world, and therefore doomed to fail. Obama may then have concluded that his Middle Eastern policy should essentially be written by partners in the region. That is, he would let the Gulf States and the Kingdom, and possibly Turkey craft it.

It avoided the high-handedness ascribed to Bush, but that outsourcing of policy created a separate set of issues. The virtue of Bush’s hegemonic approach was that it did not existentially divide the region. But by giving his Arab patrons their head, Obama let them get into trouble. Allowing the Saudis and Gulf people to dictate policy and thereby settle their ancient quarrels with Obama’s imprimatur may have ignited a civil war in Islam and across the region. Remember the Saudis and the Gulf people are themselves faced with the same schisms at home. Obama essentially let them export their ambitions under an implied flag and it’s blown back.

That may have been a fundamental “miscalculation” on Obama’s part. He Arabized and Islamized American foreign policy. And now he’s caught up in the tribal and sectarian quarrel; trapped in a vise of his own making with each increasingly more desperate attempt to extricate himself tightening the screw one more turn.

Firing purposely ineffectual missiles into Syria to send a message may or may not be immoral (a good nihilist doesn’t believe in morality) but it indisputably stupid. If Fisher is right, the administration’s military actions are being designed to be intentionally useless, crafted to do nothing significant. Thus they have a huge downside without the slightest upside. Does this make sense? It does in a world where logic is not required and the Narrative rules all, then it may make sense.

But Obama is trapped in maze of his own making and he’s too vain to even admit that he’s lost. In the film “Lawrence of Arabia”, TE Lawrence resolved the question of civil war by acting as the hegemon. But that was back when acting on your own behalf was OK.

T.E. Lawrence: The Law says the man must die… If he dies, would that content the Howitat?
Auda abu Tayi: Yes.
T.E. Lawrence: Sherif Ali. If none of lord Auda’s men harms any of yours, will that content the Harith?
Sherif Ali: Yes.
T.E. Lawrence: Then I will execute the Law. I have no tribe and no one is offended.

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