Four Questions for President Obama About Going to War in Syria

The benefits are minimal. The costs could be great. Why on earth would we do it?

Well, it sure looks like America is going to go to war in Syria. President Obama, who rose to presidential plausibility as the anti-war alternative to Sen. Hillary Clinton, is about to commit U.S. troops to combat — again — in pursuit of blurry goals using half-committed tactics. How could it not end well?

There are lots of questions Americans should be asking—and getting answered — as we prepare to commit blood and treasure to yet another Middle Eastern country. Me, I have a four-part test I pose when trying to decide to support U.S. military action abroad:

Does the party against whom the United States is considering military action threaten the security of the U.S. or its allies? Not at the moment. There’s no direct danger to the United States itself. The Syrians could spend 100 years battling each other and it would make little difference to the everyday safety of nearly every American in the world.
Now, it’s true that Syria’s civil war could spill over into Israel or Turkey, America’s allies. But that hasn’t really happened much yet—and Israel, at least, has proven itself capable of taking care of its own problems in that regard. From a security standpoint, then, there’s almost no reason to intervene.

Is the party against whom the United States is considering action committing genocidal-levels of violence, such that even by the standards of war the conscience is shocked? This is trickier territory, and at first glance it appears this might be a good reason to go to war in Syria. After all, there’s growing evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in its war against the rebels. That’s a weapon of mass destruction, in theory an act that puts a government beyond the pale.

Only …

I always thought the problems with WMDs was the “mass” part — that they could be used to commit those aforementioned “genocidal levels of violence.” The problem? One estimate puts the number chemical attack deaths in Syria at 1,300 people. That’s awful. But roughly 100,000 people have died in Syria since the beginning of its civil war. If we’re to intervene, we should’ve intervened based on the scale of carnage already, not based on the type of weapon used to kill a small minority of the casualties.

But OK, let’s say the scales are starting to tip toward intervention now. There are still a couple of questions to answer.

What is the desired end state of U.S. military action? A return to a previous status quo? Regime change? (Put another way: What does “victory” look like?) There’s not a clear answer to this. Leave the Syrian regime in place if it agrees not to use chemical weapons anymore? Then you’re essentially giving the government permission to keep on killing as much as it wants, so long as it does so conventionally.

Knock the regime from power and let the rebels take over? There’s plenty of evidence that the rebels aren’t exactly good guys, either, at least not from a “going to develop a peaceful Jeffersonian democracy and ally with the United States in the Middle East” perspective. And as the New Yorker’s George Packer points out, if you attack the government, you’re implicitly helping the rebels. We should only go to war if we’re ready to see them take over. I’m not so sure that’s the case.

What is the worst-case scenario that could develop from U.S. military intervention?  What is its relative likelihood compared to victory? Aside from replacing one set of bad guys with another, there are plenty of bad outcomes. U.S. involvement could end up doing more to drag Israel and Turkey into the war than the current policy. It could encourage Iran to take a more confrontational approach to the U.S.—and gosh, are we ready for that war? Right now, events in Syria pose a minimal threat to the U.S. and its allies. Going to war changes that equation entirely.

So: The benefits are minimal. The costs could be great. Why on earth would we go to war in Syria?

As best I can tell, it’s in order for the United States to demonstrate its “credibility” — and, perhaps even more importantly, to show “leadership” on a tough problem that begs to be solved. It just won’t do for a situation to play out without the U.S. leading the way, will it? Those are flimsy reasons to risk American lives while possibly expanding the field of carnage in the region.
And we haven’t even talked about Congress’s proper role in deciding to go to war.

The truth is, Syria presents no good options. The U.S. has a history of choosing the “do something” bad option instead of the “do nothing” bad option. Either way, bad options tend to produce bad results.