As someone who has argued for American military intervention in Syria, it might seem strange for me to express doubts about President Obama's plan to finally act. But it is worth pointing out that the "hawks" on Syria were never advocating a policy which would leave the balance of Syria's civil war in ostensibly the same position -- the intended consequence of proposed action.
It is painfully clear that Obama bears no enthusiasm for interfering in the war, despite having declared that Assad "must go" and that chemical-weapons used by the regime would constitute a casus belli. By the time that Obama had articulated the administration's chemical-weapons-centric position, tens of thousands of people had already been killed, Russia and Iran had both aligned themselves on the side of the regime, and the destabilizing refugee crisis emanating from the conflict had long begun. And the danger of Syria's WMD stockpile coming into the possession of Islamists was ever-present, then as now.
These were all reasons for the United States to enter the conflict many months ago. And all of these factors, quite apart from the use of chemical weapons, have worsened as the fighting goes on, which would seemingly make the case for intervention stronger. Yet the Obama Administration remains steadfast in its narrow justification for intervention: namely, that the employment of chemical weapons "for the first time in the 21st-century" mandates action.
Perhaps they're right about that, but the course of response they've proposed is entirely facile. Obama and co. are determined not to involve America in anything that can be construed as regime change, lest they be associated with George W.'s war in Iraq. But military action in Syria is pointless if it doesn't alter the scales in the war.
Yes, maybe Assad won't use nerve gas on civilians again, but that's small consolation to the 100,000-plus people who have been killed with "conventional" weapons, or to the many more who are to come, or to all of those people who have fled out of fear that they will be next. This action also fails to tangibly offset the involvement of external actors on the side of the regime, a critical factor in influencing the outcome.
I'm all in favour of projects like the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), but only if they are able to convince sceptics to support international action which favours the national interest. And that interest, by the way, includes a concern for humanitarian catastrophes, such as the one we are presently witnessing. But the precise following of their analects is no way to conduct entire foreign policies, especially ones as complex and vital as Syria.
Actually, R2P and the CWC are mere legal and procedural gimmicks in a domain that operates according to neither law nor procedure, but rather to power. Even the staunchest R2P advocates such as Gareth Evans and Lloyd Axworthy know that the success of their doctrine depends on the United States' willingness to employ force in the service of noble causes. Nobody confuses Russia's 2008 military campaign in Georgia, for example, as remotely humanitarian, yet we also know that the power wielded by Russia makes any response to such ventures impossible. Countries like Syria, Iraq, and Libya, on the other hand, are in no position to retaliate substantially, which significantly alters the calculation to pursue action.
Even with Obama's careful attempt to frame his intervention in the most altruistic and self-uninterested terms, the usual suspects are saying that irrespective of principle, any action remains illegitimate unless the Security Council gives approval. But if the president were to follow this prescription, it would mean that any overseas action which is opposed by China and Russia (including, say, action to prevent Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon) would be out-of-bounds for the foreign policy of the most powerful country in the world. And the peaceniks, whom Obama has been trying to placate through this whole period, are protesting in droves around America as we speak, deriding him for trite about American "imperialism." Yet if Obama doesn't care about the reaction of either of these factions, whom exactly is he trying to please?
The worst implication of all, though, is that Obama's "small footprint" action will, even if authorized by Congress, likely produce no advantageous consequence vis-à-vis American interests in Syria, but could illicit all of the bad consequences that are inevitably associated with acts of war, including unpopularity and the souring of relations with those who disagree. And all of this is being pursued so that the president can say that he "did something," which may in fact be worse than having done nothing at all. As the sports types say, he should go big or stay home.
This article is also published in the Prince Arthur Herald.