America Unhinged

January 2, 2014 Topic: Grand StrategySecurity Regions: United States

America Unhinged

Mini Teaser: The "most secure great power in world history" continues to engage in costly interventions to defend merely peripheral interests.

by Author(s): John J. Mearsheimer

Is the crucial difference that chemical weapons cause a particularly gruesome death when compared to bombs and bullets? This contention dovetails with the White House’s campaign to purvey pictures of Syrians dying or dead from chemical weapons. There is no meaningful difference, however, between killing people with bombs and bullets versus gas.

Regarding the norm against using chemical weapons, it surely is not a powerful one. After all, no country, save for France and the United States, was willing to go to war against Syria this past summer when it used gas against the rebels. And it is hard to argue it is a powerful norm for most Americans, who want no part of a military strike on Syria.

And while Obama may think the norm is formidable, remember that in 1988, when Iran appeared to be on the verge of defeating Iraq in their long and bloody war, the Reagan administration came to the aid of Saddam Hussein and helped his military use chemical weapons—including the lethal nerve agent, sarin—to stymie the Iranians on the battlefield. Washington provided Iraq with information on the location of Iran’s troops, which allowed Iraqi chemical weapons to be effectively dumped on them. And when Saddam gassed Iraqi Kurds at Halabja in March 1988, the U.S. government refrained from blaming him, just as it had throughout the war whenever Iraq used chemical weapons, which it did a number of times.

There is actually a good chance the Obama administration will take the credibility problem off the table with diplomacy. It appears that the Russians and the Americans—working through the UN—may succeed in destroying Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. If that happens, Obama should declare victory and then stay out of Syrian politics. But if that effort fails and Assad keeps some chemical weapons, the president will once again be urged to consider using military force against Syria to uphold American credibility. In that event, the United States should not attack Syria; indeed, the smart policy would be for Obama to ignore the fact that he drew a line in the sand and move toward a noninterventionist policy toward Syria. This approach makes sense for a variety of reasons.

First, the credibility problem is greatly overrated. As Daryl G. Press notes in his important book, Calculating Credibility, when a country backs down in a crisis, its credibility in subsequent crises is not reduced. “A country’s credibility, at least during crises,” he writes, “is driven not by its past behavior but rather by power and interests." Thus, the fact that America suffered a humiliating defeat in the Vietnam War did not lead Moscow to think that the U.S. commitment to defend Western Europe was not credible.

So even if the United States fails to enforce the norm against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, there is no good reason to think the leadership in Tehran will conclude Washington is not serious about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. After all, American policy makers have gone to enormous lengths over the past decade to make clear that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable.

Second, the White House has no viable strategy for removing Assad from power or for eliminating his chemical weapons with force. Actually, it is unclear how committed Obama is to unseating the Syrian leader, given that jihadists dominate the opposition. Moreover, the president is unwilling to punish the Assad regime with sustained and large-scale strikes for fear of getting dragged into the conflict. What this means, in essence, is that even if one believes some damage will be done to America’s credibility by walking away from Syria, it is better to pay that small price rather than engage in fruitless if not dangerous military strikes.

Third, if the United States uses military force against Syria and gets even more deeply enmeshed in that country, it would reduce the likelihood Washington would use force against Iran. It is clear from the recent debate about striking Syria that the American public is tired of war. But if the United States did jump into the fight, even with airpower alone, it would surely make the American people even more reluctant to begin another war against Iran. For all these reasons, American leaders should pay little attention to the so-called credibility problem Obama created when he unwisely drew a red line over Syrian use of chemical weapons.

In sum, no vital American interests are at stake in either Egypt or Syria. Thus, there is no compelling strategic rationale for intervening in their politics. Indeed, it appears that intervention does more harm than good to America’s security interests.

ONE MIGHT CONCEDE this point, but argue instead that moral considerations demand deep American involvement in Egypt and Syria—and other countries as well—to eliminate their ruling autocrats. The underlying logic is that these strongmen deny their people basic human rights and are likely to kill innocent civilians. The ultimate goal, unsurprisingly, is to promote democracy in those countries, not only for human-rights reasons, but also because democratic regimes are likely to be friendly to America.

This line of thinking is not convincing; in fact, it is dangerous. The United States should not be the world’s policeman, in part because it should respect the principle of self-determination and allow countries to decide their own political fate. For good reason, almost every American recoils at the idea of another country interfering in their political life; they should realize other peoples feel the same way about U.S. interference in their domestic affairs. What is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander.

Furthermore, the United States would be deeply involved in the politics of countries all across the globe if it pursued this ambitious policy. After all, there will never be a shortage of nondemocratic regimes to reform, and sometimes there will be the temptation to use the sword to achieve that end. Moreover, the United States has an abysmal track record when it comes to social engineering of this sort. Remember that the Bush Doctrine, which crashed and burned in Iraq, was supposed to facilitate the spread of democracy across the Middle East. Thus, if Washington pursues a policy of toppling authoritarian regimes and promoting democracy, there will be no end to our crusading but few successes along the way.

Another moral argument says the United States should intervene in the Syrian civil war because it is a humanitarian disaster. Many thousands of civilians have died, and the Assad regime has gone so far as to murder people with poison gas. It is deeply regrettable that civilians are dying in Syria, but intervention still makes little sense. There is no compelling rationale for entering the war and no viable strategy for ending it. If anything, American entry into the conflict is likely to prolong the war and increase the suffering.

Syria is in the midst of a brutal civil war, and such conflicts invariably involve large numbers of civilian casualties. That is especially true in cases like Syria, where there are sharp ethnic and religious differences, and where the fighting often takes place in urban areas, increasing the prospects of collateral damage.

Regardless, what is happening in Syria is not genocide or anything close to the systematic murdering of a particular group. Proponents of intervention are fond of portraying Assad as a modern-day version of Hitler and arguing this is the West’s “Munich moment,” implying he will engage in mass murder if not dealt with immediately. This is hyperbole of the worst kind. Assad is certainly a ruthless dictator, but he has done nothing that would put him in the same class as Hitler, who murdered more than twenty million civilians in the course of a ruthless campaign of territorial expansion, and would have murdered many millions more had he won World War II. As noted, roughly forty thousand civilians have died in the Syrian civil war, and the rebels have killed many of the victims.

Finally, Assad’s use of chemical weapons hardly justifies intervention on moral grounds. Those weapons are responsible for a small percentage of the civilian deaths in Syria. Moreover, the claim that killing people with gas is more gruesome and horrible than killing them with shrapnel is unpersuasive.

Not only is there no moral rationale for intervention, but the United States also has no strategy for ending the war. Even when Obama was threatening to bomb Syria this past summer, he emphasized that the strikes would be limited—“unbelievably small,” according to Secretary of State John Kerry—and not designed either to topple Assad or end the civil war. This restricted-bombing strategy is certainly at odds with the claim that Assad is a contemporary version of Hitler who must be dealt with immediately. Of course, the United States is now involved in negotiations that aim to get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons, but not him. In fact, if they succeed, his prospects for staying in power will increase. More important for the point at hand, those negotiations are not aimed at terminating the conflict.

Image: Pullquote: The United States, which is the most secure great power in world history, has been safer over the past twenty-five years than at any other time in its history.Essay Types: Essay