With a U.S. military attack on Syria now being discussed in the media as a question of “when” rather than “if,” let us devote more honest thought to the “why.” I am not referring to any official rationale but instead to the actual political and emotional dynamics in the United States that have gotten us to this point. Even if, as it appears, this train has left the station and has gotten beyond the point of being able to apply well-reasoned assessment of likely consequences to well-founded objectives, maybe by being above-board now about what is propelling the train we will be better able to make sense of what happened once we survey whatever mess is left by our actions and people have moved on to the stage of recriminations, second-guessing, and lessons learned.
A major part of what is happening is that the heartstrings of non-Syrians, including Americans, are being tugged by the suffering of Syrians caught in Syria's civil war. When what appears to be an especially grisly episode occurs in this war, the heartstrings are yanked even harder. And so there is a constituency and domestic political market for “doing something” about what's going on in Syria. But the satisfaction of that constituency's yearnings is unaccompanied, at least so far, by an explanation and analysis of how something like an attack by U.S. air power would alleviate the Syrians' woes—bearing in mind that any such analysis would have to take full account of responses by both the Syrian regime and the opposition, responses of outsiders, and effects on the overall tempo and trajectory of the civil war. We should admit to ourselves that the objective is more about lessening the tension on those heartstrings and inducing a warm feeling in the tummies in the same torsos, than it is about actually improving the condition of suffering Syrians. That objective is not nearly as noble as its surface manifestation makes it appear.
Supposedly the one event that most got us to where we are today regarding policy on Syria was a reported use by the Syrian regime of chemical weapons. But the basic question of why this particular battlefield development and choice of a weapon should drive U.S. policy toward somebody else's civil war—even to the point of forcefully intervening in that war—remains unanswered, just as it was unanswered the first time the regime reportedly used such a weapon and President Obama declared that any such use by Assad's regime would be a “game changer.” Why should this one reported incident be given so much more status than the non-chemical warfare, by both sides in the civil war, that has killed a hundred times more people?
What we are seeing here is partly an effect of a popular fascination with all types of unconventional weapons, because they are more intriguing than plain old bombs and bullets and they provide better material for spell-binding scare stories. It is this fascination that underlies the persistent tendency to refer to chemical agents as “weapons of mass destruction” on a par with nuclear or biological weapons, even though they aren't that.
There is a more serious concern about chemical weapons that is expressed by what is generally known as the arms control community. That community is not usually known for belligerence, but in this case at least parts of it believe forceful action in Syria is appropriate for the purpose of deterring future use of chemical weapons. That concern leads to many other important unanswered questions. In particular: even if protecting a norm of non-use of CW is a worthwhile goal, since when did that goal become such an overriding priority, among all the other much greater U.S. interests at stake especially in the Middle East, that it would be given determinative weight to the point of impelling intervention in somebody else's civil war?
The norm about non-use of CW that the arms control aficionados want to protect has not been as sturdy as some would suggest. There has been repeated use of chemical weapons since the World War I experience that led to international conventions on the subject—by Egypt in Yemen, probably by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and most notably by Iraq inside Iraq. That last instance was noteworthy partly because the United States turned a blind eye toward this use of CW at a time when it was tilting toward Iraq and against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. Especially given that well-known precedent, an attack on Syria will be seen less as a deterrence-upholding blow in favor of a non-use norm than as a use of the CW issue as an excuse to bash a regime the United States doesn't happen to like.
It is hard to see how Bashar Assad himself will be deterred against use of any particular weapon in his arsenal when he is fighting for his regime's and probably his own, life. It is even harder to see that happening if the reported use of CW that triggered the latest surge of threats was an unauthorized action taken below the top level of the regime, as may have been the case. And what will happen, and how will deterrence supposedly be upheld, if Assad follows up with not just increasingly lethal non-chemical operations but even with additional chemical attacks? How will it be upheld, that is, without the United States getting drawn even more deeply into the Syrian war? Oh, but the sort of air strike being talked about isn't supposed to draw the United States in like that, is it?
Much of the propulsion for the train heading for an attack on Syria is coming from elements who have wanted all along for the United States to get involved in the war there, and for whom this business about chemical weapons is just a serendipitous selling point. These elements include those of the neoconservative persuasion who never met a U.S. military intervention they didn't like. Their position leaves unanswered even broader questions: What exactly is the U.S. national interest in this sectarian civil war? What reason could there be for favoring one side or the other when both sides are dominated by those holding values that are anathema to those of the United States? How could the United States bring about a particular outcome of the war even if one such outcome were clearly in its interests? And where does this all lead, and where does it all end?
For this part of the pro-intervention crowd, the chemical weapons issue would be, just as with the Iraq War, a rationale rather than the actual motivation for going to war. And just as with that earlier war, all the attention to did-he-or-didn't-he questions concerning unconventional weapons are irrelevant to the matters that will prove most important after the United States resorts to military force.
As has been pointed out often, a big difference between that earlier war and the current situation regarding Syria is that the incumbent U.S. administration is not itching to go to war. Far from selling others on the idea of military action, the Obama administration is worrying about how to deal with pressure from others to take such action. Perhaps the president and his advisers correctly see that a victory by neither side in the Syrian war serves U.S. interests, and the best thing to do is to let the sides bash each other. As Edward Luttwak observes, the Obama administration's policies to date have appeared well designed to do that.
The president's reluctance to get dragged into this war has, however, boomeranged on him regarding the CW issue. As of several months ago it may have seemed a convenient way to resist the pro-intervention pressure by saying in effect, “Not now, but if they use chemicals then I'll do something.” Now we hear lots of talk about how given Mr. Obama's earlier statements on this subject, he has to act to uphold his, and the country's credibility. That is another misplaced motive, because the historical record demonstrates that governments simply do not assess the credibility of other governments that way. But even if the notion about upholding credibility were valid, for this to be a reason to launch a military attack on Syria now would not be a case of two wrongs making a right. It would instead be an example of an administration compounding a mistake and digging itself into a deeper hole.