On Syria, Words Have Consequences

Striking at Assad won’t end the conflict. But it may drag the U.S. into a complex civil war.

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Hamid Khatib / Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter walks on the rubble of damaged buildings near Nairab military airport, which is controlled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo, September 4, 2013.

From the start of the Syrian ­conflict, President Obama has wanted to take two very different approaches to it. On the one hand, he has been disciplined about the definition of American interests and the use of force. On the other hand, he has sought a way to respond to Bashar Assad’s ­human-­rights atrocities. But sometimes you cannot split the difference. The tension between the two paths continues to beset American policy as the Administration prepares the ground for a military strike. Selling the U.S. and the world on the need for action while at the same time keeping its mission limited will prove difficult.

Two years ago, Obama declared loftily that Assad had to go. A year ago, he announced that the use of chemical weapons was a red line. For a while it was possible to keep the juggling act going, talking tough while doing little. But presidential rhetoric creates expectations, and, as I wrote in June, “eventually, the contradictions in U.S. policy will emerge and the Obama Administration will face calls for further escalation.” The recent, horrific chemical-­weapons attack has been the proximate cause, but there would have been others. As a result, we might be inching into a complex civil war, all the while denying that we are doing so.

Just as Obama’s past rhetoric has pushed America more deeply into this struggle, the current efforts to win congressional support are already producing mission creep. At a meeting with House leaders, the President spoke explicitly about a “limited” strike that would “send a clear message.” The same day, his Secretary of State had to assure hawkish members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “this is not sending a message per se,” implying that the strikes would be more substantial. Republicans like John McCain have indicated that they have also been given more detailed assurances of a more intense intervention.

The Administration might want to keep the mission “limited” and “proportional,” as Obama initially promised, but it will be a challenge. In making the case to Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry and his colleagues have described what is at stake in monumental terms—­vital national security, 100 years of international law, core credibility. It is a “Munich moment,” says Kerry. In that case, how could American policy be merely a stiff warning, “a shot across the bow,” in the President’s words? If it doesn’t work, if there is another atrocity—­chemical or otherwise—can the Administration sit back and not do more? After all, the Secretary of State has compared the situation to the road to World War II. (A note on the analogy: it is worth remembering that Adolf Hitler was in charge of the world’s largest army and one of its richest countries and was seeking conquest of Europe and perhaps the world. Assad, by contrast, runs one of the world’s poorest countries and is struggling desperately to remain in control of it.)

What remains unclear in all of this is, What exactly is the goal of this military action? The Administration says it is simply to reinforce a global norm against the use of chemical weapons. But is it really just that? Were the Syrian civil war to continue, Assad to gain the upper hand and tens of thousands more to die—but without the further use of chemical weapons—would the Administration really say, “Mission accomplished”?

The reality is, the U.S. has now put its credibility on the line. It will find it extremely difficult to keep its actions limited in a volatile situation. And were it to succeed in ousting Assad, it would be implicated in the next phase of this war, which would almost certainly lead to chaos and the slaughter or ethnic cleansing of the Alawite sect (to which Assad belongs) and perhaps of other minorities, as happened in Iraq.

Obama has said repeatedly that the President he most admires for his foreign policy is the elder George Bush. Bush’s signature achievement was to manage the end of the Cold War peacefully and without major incident. But he was sharply criticized at the time for refusing to speak out in support of the ongoing liberation of Eastern Europe as the Iron Curtain cracked and crumbled. He later explained that he was always conscious that with hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops still in Eastern Europe, there could have been reversals, crackdowns, even full-scale conflict. He didn’t want to signal American commitments that he couldn’t fulfill. Better, he thought, to have people think he was dispassionate or even cold-blooded. The first President Bush had his flaws, but he did understand that in foreign policy, words have ­consequences.

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