The Real Syria Problem

Listening to those who cry "do something!" could be a tragic mistake.

Some truths about the use of force: one, it is easier to start than to finish; two, public support for military operations wanes quickly; three, force is not a policy; fourth, military operations always have unintended consequences.

A solution to the massive tragedy of the Syrian civil war will not arise from a foreign-policy establishment banging on about the need to “do something.” A torrent of predictable comments from predictable sources is propelled by hand wringing about refugees, civilian slaughter, and prolonged brutality, but is very light on specifics.

A recent proposal by a highly respected establishment member seemed to suggest cruise-missile attacks on chemical weapons sites. That surely could not be serious. There are close to a dozen and a half such sites and, once dispersed, the aerated chemicals might have the unintended benefit of crippling the Taliban in Afghanistan, among others, along the way.

For those who did not discover this around 2003 in Iraq, the nature of warfare is changing. All the nuclear aircraft-carrier task groups, long-range bomber wings, and big army divisions, so characteristic of military power in the Cold War, have little to no effect in irregular, unconventional conflict. This is frustrating to members of Congress who found support for these force structures a convenient measure of commitment to national “strength”.

We may choose to punish Assad for using chemicals on his own people, though I don’t recall that we did so to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, and it will make us feel better. But it will solve nothing in the long run. Unless we want to kill a great many people, and remain in Syria for much longer than in Iraq or Afghanistan, we cannot determine the outcome of this civil war. In neighboring Lebanon, a similar war raged for almost two decades.

If there are Syrian military targets isolated from urban concentrations, bombs away. But for most of these, including military-command facilities such as ministries of defense, expect heavy civilian casualties—widely reported on the evening news throughout the world. That always has the salutary effect of driving the “do something” experts off the cable talk shows.

Among those not in evidence on the cable shows are former or existing senior military commanders. Senior commanders in uniform are appropriately reluctant to advise the commander-in-chief in public. But their colleagues now in retirement are rarely so reluctant. Yet few, if any, are heard to demand that we “do something.” And their silence is often a quality indicator of the thinking of their colleagues in uniform with whom they maintain close ties.

Unlike Senator John McCain, few members of Congress have earned the credentials to demand military action. Yet even he has been notably vague about what realistic options exist. And most self-appointed members of the Military Hawks Caucus will be the first to condemn the commander-in-chief when the “something” they so vaguely urge turns out badly.

The use of force is not a policy; it is a substitute for policy. Faced with few if any policy options, many foreign-policy “experts”, even those keen on the Iraq invasion, are among the first to call for military action. Lack of access to intelligence, facts on the ground, or military options never seem a deterrent to opinion from the establishment. In fact, the less intelligence, facts and expert opinions, the stronger are their convictions. It often boils down to the famous quote: “What's the point of having this superb military...if we can't use it?”

Criminal conduct must be punished and if we can find a way to punish Assad for his criminal conduct, without further adding to the misery of his citizens, we should do so. But it would be well if the means and timing of punishment were left to those who know what they are doing and what the long-term consequences of “doing something” will be.

Gary Hart was a member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee from 1975 to 1987.