Pretend Syria is a three-dimensional chessboard: military, diplomatic and ideological. On the military dimension are those who rally under the banner “Do Something.” In most cases, the “something” is never defined. But, when pushed for a definition, the “do something” advocates range from arm the insurgents, to no-fly zones, to active air cover, to chemical-weapons removal, to boots on the ground (though the latter rarely rises above a whisper in the post-Iraq and near-post-Afghanistan era).
The American people have finally let it be known that we’ve had too many boots on too much ground for much too long to add another venue to the mix, especially in the Middle East. Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes studying military history, force structures and capabilities, and strategy, tactics and doctrine knows that military intervention is never as easy as anticipated.
In some ways we are all still plagued by what might be called the Madeleine Albright syndrome, as encapsulated in her famous question to General Colin Powell: “Why do we have this big army if we’re not going to use it?”
To the uninitiated, the simplest mission would be neutralization of the chemical weapons. Who can object? Only those who are initiated and who understand that securing upwards of nineteen different depositories mostly scattered throughout the western half of Syria, then neutralizing the arsenals on the spot, or removing them to a neighboring country willing to host them, is an undertaking requiring massive amounts of manpower (boots on the ground) and materiel. Some have estimated as many as seventy-five thousand troops and all their heavy equipment would be necessary to carry out the mission.
One option would be to airlift the hundreds, if not thousands, of metric tons of highly toxic chemicals to special treatment laboratories in Russia. But that still requires securing the arsenal sites, getting the heavy cargo planes in and out and, most of all, the cooperation and good will of a compliant Russia. It is beginning to dawn on us, much too slowly, that the Russian bear does not rush to be helpful after having been repeatedly poked in the eye by us.
A rather longer treatment is required to explore the implications for U.S. involvement in a regional sectarian war in the Middle East involving not just Sunnis and Shiites but also intricate tribal and ethnic national networks spanning the region. This is rightly Americans' greatest fear.
This is the political dimension of the chessboard, and it is even more complicated. Half the governments in the region want the Assad government to prevail, and half want the insurgents to prevail. But it is becoming increasingly clear that all the insurgents in the stew are not Bunker Hill freedom fighters longing for democracy and free elections. Many secretly follow the Kissinger doctrine in the earlier Iran-Iraq war, when his policy wish was for both sides to lose.
The politics of the situation would be massively simpler if the insurgent rebels were angelic patriots rushing into battle waving the U.S. Constitution and the writings of Jefferson and Madison. They are not. There is every promise that, even after the fall of Assad, civil war and a long struggle for power would take place in the back alleys of Damascus, if not also in the wide boulevards.
As we did not learn from the French in Vietnam nor the British (and the Russians) in Afghanistan, so a political tip-toe into the bitter social divisions of Syria, even in the worthy humanitarian cause, is perilous. Any regime that unites Christians and Hezbollah in its support is onto a balancing act of considerable dimensions.
Which, as always, puts the mirror to the American face. The ideologues are all over the place on Syria. Liberal interventionists now join conservative interventionists, some of whom call themselves “Wilsonian” to muddy the matter, while traditional isolationist libertarians join liberal noninterventionists in opposition to intervention.
Since the end of the Cold War, and more accurately beginning with the end of the Vietnam War, ideologies have switched places. Conservatives who favored the island nation fortress became the war party and, given the dispersal of terrorist cells, supported a global war on terrorism. Where and when and under what white flag is that supposed to end? Liberals, who until Vietnam bore the brunt of the war-party allegation (Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson), became the peace party after Vietnam.
But then tribes, clans and gangs in the postcolonial world began to resurrect ancient grievances and be mean to each other, and we were left to ponder whether and how to intervene in difficult areas such as Rwanda, Kosovo and Darfur—where, more often than not, slaughter was carried out with the most primitive of weapons, the machete. Religion and ethnic nationalism were no replacement for fear of communism.
When the heroic general Romeo Dallaire wrote about “shaking hands with the devil,” he was not talking about Joseph Stalin.
Which brings us back to the Syrian chessboard. Still unanswered are these questions: How can we ensure that the military action we are expected to undertake will not lead to intervention escalation? How do we pick and choose among the disparate rebel groups to identify and support our friends without also aligning with some pretty bad people? What is the least costly way to isolate, secure and demilitarize highly dangerous and scattered chemical arsenals? What is the guarantee against an unending quagmire (a la Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan)? Is there any policy short of miracle that would assure a stable, democratic government in Syria?
In case you perceive a pattern forming, one might say welcome to the twenty-first century.
Gary Hart, U.S. senator from Colorado (Ret.)
Hart is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.