Israel, Syria and American Moral Hazard

Why do Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others clamor for an intervention they could carry out themselves?

Israeli critics of President Barack Obama have been attacking him for delaying the planned response to the alleged chemical attacks by Syria, and for not doing more to stop the slaughter in that country and oust its leader Bashar Assad.

But President Obama’s detractors in Israel who have accused him of being a “softy” on Syria “should ask: Why hasn’t [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu acted on Syria,” suggested Aluf Benn, the editor of Haaretz in a commentary recently.

Until not too long ago, Netanyahu quietly backed Assad, viewing him as “a shield against radical Islam in Syria,” Benn noted. “Now the mood has changed,” and the new spin of the Israeli government and its supporters in Washington is that “Assad has become the new Hitler, and the world is silent, just as it was during the Holocaust.” And something has to be done ASAP to punish him.

But then, as Benn points out, the solution is clear and simple. After all, Israel has a strong army and air force. “If its leaders wanted to, they could easily use it to hit any strategic target in Syria, after years of precise intelligence monitoring and detailed operational planning,” he proposes, noting that the Israeli air force has already hit several targets in Syria this year, with precision and with no Israeli casualties. “Thus our leaders could order the planes to take off; the pilots know the route and the targets,” Benn stresses.

That Netanyahu has not ordered the IAF to bomb Assad’s regime and military targets, including his chemical weapons, reflects the calculations of the Israeli national-security establishment that the costs of such a move, including the potential for a regional military escalation, attacks on Israeli civilian targets, and the strengthening of radical Islamist opposition forces, would be much higher than the benefits that would accrue to Israel by hurting an ally of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

But as Benn and other propose, there is no risk that Washington would condemn such as Israeli military action that would destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and devastate its military forces. In fact, Washington would probably give a green light to such an Israeli move and would veto any condemnation of Israel by the United Nations Security Council.

Indeed, a scenario along these lines did take place in September 2007 when Israel launched an airstrike on a suspected nuclear reactor in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria. In his memoir Decision Points, President George W. Bush wrote that then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had requested earlier that the United States bomb the Syrian site. But Bush refused, despite support for the idea from Vice President Dick Cheney, saying the intelligence was not definitive on whether the plant was part of a nuclear-weapons program. Bush claimed that Olmert did not ask for a green light for an attack and that he did not give one. Olmert may have acted alone and did what he thought was necessary to protect Israel. But at the end, Washington didn’t complain.

So why isn’t Netanyahu doing now what is supposedly necessary to protect Israel and attack Syria’s chemical sites? A similar question could be posed to two other major Middle Eastern players, Turkey and Saudi Arabia that very much like the Israeli leaders have been pressing Washington to “do something” in Syria and use its military muscle to oust Assad and his Ba’ath regime from power, and express dismay over the supposedly weak military and diplomatic posture that the Obama administration has been exhibiting in Syria and in the entire Middle East.

In the case of the Saudis and the Turks, their criticism of American policy in Syria gives a bad name to the term chutzpah. After years of providing military assistance to the anti-Assad rebels in Syria and creating the conditions for the widening of the civil war and the increase in the number of casualties, the Turks and the Saudis are complaining now that American inaction is responsible for the widening of the civil war and the increase in the number of casualties.

In a way, the behavior of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel in Syria exemplifies more than just another case of free riders that expect to benefit from the security protection provided by the hegemon without paying for the costs. These governments recognize that what happens in Syria, with or without American military intervention, would affect their national-security and foreign-policy calculations. They count, however, on the United States to be responsible for dealing with the consequences of the collapse of the balance of power in Syria, including through direct military intervention to help protect their interests there.

In a way, American global military intervention, in general, and in Syria, in particular, tends to encourage foreign governments and groups ally with it to engage in risky behavior whose costs end-up being paid by American soldiers and taxpayers, and could therefore be considered a case of “moral hazard,” not unlike the way that bailing out financial institutions encourages risky lending in the future since those taking the risks end-up operating under the assumption that they will not have to pay the full costs of future losses.

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