With the Pentagon announcement that "major military operations" are winding down, the war in Iraq has been won. The challenge is now to win the peace--to shape the international environment on American terms.
The United States identified Saddam Hussein as a threat to regional and international security--citing the nexus between Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, its support for terrorism and Hussein's own reckless disregard for complying with the 1991 ceasefire requirements--and placed its blood and treasure on the line to effect regime change when it believed no other option could work to achieve these goals. The victory in Iraq creates new opportunities for the United States to pressure other regimes around the world that engage in roguish behavior--of which the most insidious is the apparent ease of the military solution--state sponsorship of terrorism or pursuit of weapons of mass destruction--to cease and desist. And it is appropriate for America to capitalize on fears in Pyongyang, Tehran and Damascus that "they might be next" as a way to change behavior.
At the same time, however, the ease of victory generates a dangerous temptation--the illusion that American military force, applied in sufficient quantity, can "solve" any problem. Realists, in contrast, understand that power has limitations and must be skillfully exercised. Knowing "when to stop" is part of that management. It is not in American interests to recklessly apply force in the region, creating a momentum of instability that eventually would harm rather than promote key U.S. interests.
This is why care needs to be exercised to ensure that the United States does not stumble into an armed confrontation with Syria--certainly not when the North Korean crisis remains unresolved. War is not weeding a garden, where it makes sense to concentrate on clearing one patch before moving on to another section.
Is Syrian behavior troubling? Certainly. For years, overt Syrian support for Hizballah--a way for Damascus to indirectly apply pressure to Israel--has been a major irritant. Syria certainly desires to possess a chemical weapons capability, something they justify as necessary to achieve a degree of parity with Israel's nuclear deterrent. But if Washington chooses to rattle the saber as a way of gaining Syria's attention, it must be careful not to box itself into a position where the United States would have to choose between using force--or risk losing the fruits of victory in Iraq by having to back down.
In the absence of any UN resolutions concerning Syria and the lack of any compelling evidence of a Syrian WMD program, the United States would find it much more difficult form a coalition of the willing to act forcefully against Damascus. Syria threatens no other state in the Arab world; our Arab allies who were willing to offer their territories as staging areas for a campaign against Iraq will demur against any strike on Syria. (An immediate strike against Syria will also only reinforce the opinion of many in the Arab world that American intervention is not designed to promote Arab welfare but advance the political interests of the Sharon government.) Nor would a follow-on campaign solidify trans-Atlantic unity. Turkey has already flatly refused to consider any aid for an American war against Syria. The temporary coalescence between Paris, Berlin and Moscow would in all probability solidify to oppose further American "adventurism" in the Middle East, and, under the current circumstances, a politically-weakened Tony Blair would be in no position to act as America's junior partner.
One must also not forget that the military victory in Iraq was only a first step. Iraq must be reconstructed as a viable state and society in order to continue to maintain the current regional balance of power. This will require years of careful work, not to mention large infusions of funding. Will America's leading partners continue to provide the funds and personnel for Iraqi reconstruction in order to allow a follow-on campaign against Damascus? Not likely. (And let us not forget that Afghanistan remains an unfinished task, and Al-Qaeda continues to regroup in the eastern provinces of the country and in the tribal areas across the Pakistani border).
Let us also not forget that North Korea is the real threat. North Korea has a proven track record of proliferating nasty technologies around the world. It has shown no compunction about selling to any buyer. Yes, the United States could launch a military strike on Pyongyang without any other country's involvement, but the costs of acting alone are high. Why, then, should the United States waste away its political capital--capital that will be needed to forge an effective coalition of actors to deal with "the Beloved Leader"--in order to settle scores with Asad junior?
9/11 provided an opportunity for the United States to deal directly with Syria. Only a year ago, the Secretary of State paid tribute to Damascus' cooperation in the war against international terrorism and stated that Syrian assistance had saved American lives. In contrast to Saddam Hussein, the Syrians have demonstrated a pragmatic side, a tendency reinforced by the ease of the American victory over what was the strongest military power in the Arab world. We want to encourage positive Syrian behavior, not provoke a fatalistic response that says that there is nothing to be gained by further cooperation with Washington.
The United States stood its ground vis-a-vis Iraq, even in the face of the open opposition of some of the world's other leading powers, and brought down the
Hussein regime at a comparably light price in terms of coalition lives and cost. Any damage to the trans-Atlantic relationship is repairable at this stage. Let's not push our luck further. America has skillfully wielded its power, but that power nonetheless has limits. Syria may appear to be the low-hanging fruit, easily harvested--but the resulting stomachache might prove debilitating in facing what is the graver threat to American security.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.