Washington's Weak Case for War in Syria

By Justin Logan

To listen to the Obama administration, or its hawkish supporters in the commentariat, one might think that countless reasons exist to go to war in Syria. Advocates for war regularly throw out three, or five or another number of justifications. The problem is that many of these reasons -- including those offered by the administration -- conflict with one another, or would at least call for very different military campaigns. When advocates for war can't agree on why a war is needed, there's a problem.

The Obama administration's position for more than two years has been that "Assad must go," but, apparently aware of reticence to replay Iraq or Afghanistan, they have insisted that a military attack against a man they say "must go" has nothing to do with regime change. Rather, they have outlined two main rationales: defending an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, and defending the president's credibility.

The norms argument holds that since more than 98 percent of countries have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the use of chemical weapons violates a norm against their use, and thus warrants an American bombing campaign.

This is a curious definition of "norm," and a dubious political rationale as well. The dictionary defines norm as "a principle of right action binding upon the members of a group and serving to guide, control or regulate proper and acceptable behavior," but says little about what punishment, if any, should be meted out for violation. And the CWC is a treaty, not a norm, that specifies only that redress of violations should be "in conformity with international law," which presumably would preclude a unilateral U.S. bombing campaign. Further, by not signing the CWC, Syria made clear that it was not part of the group bound by the convention.

The United States once again finds itself standing nearly alone in defense of a principle it swears is shared by a vast majority of the globe. If other nations cannot be roused in defense of the principle that chemical weapons should not be used, perhaps the norm is not so strongly held after all.

The administration has also argued that since the president laid out a "red line" insisting that Bashar al-Assad not use chemical weapons, the country's -- and, indeed, the world's -- reputation and credibility are on the line. More fanciful extensions of this argument have suggested that Iran will conclude that Washington is not so concerned about its nuclear program. (The Israel lobby group AIPAC is reportedly preparing to push this argument on Capitol Hill.) Taking this argument to the extreme, leading GOP national security thinker Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) declared last week that "chemical weapons in Syria today means nuclear weapons in the U.S. tomorrow."

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However, history teaches us that credibility doesn't travel in this fashion. Iran's leaders understand that intervening in Syria's civil war poses different stakes for the United States than does an Iranian bomb. For them to think that Washington backing down on intervention in Syria means that Washington would similarly acquiesce to an Iranian bomb -- to say nothing of Graham's absurd warning of a nuclear strike on the United States -- overlooks the fact that the stakes are totally different. Iran knows that its nuclear program means more to the U.S. foreign policy community than the manner in which 1,400 of the roughly 100,000 Syrians killed in the civil war died.

In addition to authorizing war on Syria, the bill that passed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee contains a passage making it U.S. policy to "change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria." Thus, some are hoping for an intervention that will escalate into a larger campaign to help the Syrian rebels in their fight against the Assad government.

A recent report in The New York Times suggests that this political desire has expanded the prospective mission in Syria. According to the report, the Pentagon has been tasked with expanding the target set "to put more emphasis on the ‘degrade' part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria -- to ‘deter and degrade' Mr. Assad's ability to use chemical weapons." And, of course, the mission in Libya was to protect civilians, not unseat Muammar Gaddafi -- that is, until the administration decided that the easiest way to protect civilians was to be rid of Gaddafi.

As shown above, each of the arguments for war wilts under scrutiny, but an under-appreciated fact is that interventionists have thrown together a hodgepodge of objectives, slathered them in moral outrage and deployed one of the oldest American justifications for war: something must be done, this is something, therefore this must be done. Even if one is persuaded by one or more of the arguments for a war, if its advocates can't clearly lay out the reasons and connect them to a particular sort of campaign then they likely haven't made the connection in their own heads. And if that's true, then America is headed for big trouble.

Justin Logan is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

(AP Photo)

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