Meta-Commentary

Syria (II)

Posted in politics, war by Adrian Arroyo on August 31, 2013

Briefly, there are four cases to be made for intervention in Syria:

  1. The “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)” case. Because Assad has failed to fulfill the basic duty of a sovereign–to protect his people–he is no longer entitled to the protections of sovereignty, and other powers may intervene to end the barbarism taking place within Syria’s borders.
  2. The “credibility” case. If the United States doesn’t react as promised to the news of chemical weapons use in Syria–which President Obama declared a year ago was a “red line” for him–how can our allies (and enemies) have confidence that we’ll honor other commitments in the region?
  3. The “international norms” case. While Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention there is an international norm against their use that must be upheld. If Syria is allowed to buck that norm, then the norm is weaker going forward and other nations may be tempted to use these weapons in the future.
  4. The “security” case. The combination of a failing state, a stockpile of chemical weapons, and violent non-state actors has security implications for the United States that are dire enough to justify a military intervention aimed at securing those weapons.

Each case defines the conditions of victory and gestures at the means needed to achieve it. Given Syria’s demographic layout, an R2P scenario would involve a significant military commitment, either in the form of safe zones or outright occupation. Similarly, securing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile would require–at least temporarily–the introduction of ground forces.

And, while administration sources have checked all four boxes, the main thrust of their argument for intervention centers on cases two and three: credibility and norm enforcement. President Obama said to Gwen Ifill:

We cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows, potentially, chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks. So what I’ve said is that we have not yet made a decision, but the international norm against the use of chemical weapons needs to be kept in place.

In his Rose Garden statement this afternoon, the President reiterated his stance and sounded a note more in line with concerns about American credibility:

Make no mistake — this has implications beyond chemical warfare.  If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?  To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms?  To terrorist who would spread biological weapons?  To armies who carry out genocide?

While Stephen Walt, Daniel Larison, and Patrick Appel have poked holes in the logic of the this position, it’s politically advantageous ground for the administration to make a stand on. Cases two and three afford them maximum flexibility in defining means, ends, and rationale.

If Walt is correct and the Obama Administration finds itself backed into a corner by a red line they drew a year ago, they can launch a strike, claim victory, and depart the field. There are rules, we warned Assad not to break them, he did, we punished him, and now everybody knows we say what we mean and mean what we say. Moreover, they’ll be happy to leave the decision up to the legislature, as it gives them a way to de-escalate without appearing weak. However, if they truly believe in credibility and norm enforcement, we should see a sustained attempt to lobby congress in favor of a strike, combined with a search for allies to buttress the case that strikes are about preserving a rules-based international order in addition to defending American credibility.

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