In his speech on Aug. 30, Secretary of State John Kerry said that U.S. action toward Syria “is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something.” In a column two days earlier, veteran Washington Post columnist David Ignatius described the consequences of a loss of U.S. “credibility” in dire terms: “President Obama,” he wrote, “needs to demonstrate that there are consequences for crossing a U.S. ‘red line.’ Otherwise, the coherence of the global system begins to dissolve.”
Others have echoed Kerry’s and Ignatius’ claims that the U.S. response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons should be guided primarily by the need to shore up the “credibility” of U.S. power. This is a dangerous and potentially self-defeating claim. Such an action will do nothing to help Syria’s war-ravaged people. It will exacerbate tensions, complicate the search for a negotiated peace and consign Syria’s people to further long months or years of war. In fact, there is no more effective way to undermine U.S. credibility than a unilateral military assault intended to establish credibility.
The whole argument about needing to demonstrate the United States’ military commitment is a canard. No one doubts the lethal and destructive capabilities of the U.S. arsenal — or the willingness of U.S. leaders to use this power under many circumstances. What many people both inside and outside the United States doubt, however, is the wisdom with which U.S. administrations have used it in the past, and with which they may use it in the future. A large proportion of the world’s people — though a smaller percentage here in the United States — also doubt the morality with which Washington employs its military.
Granted, it would be somewhat embarrassing for the president to step back from the “red line” on Syria’s use of chemical weapons that he has reaffirmed over recent months. But the president has made other public commitments that have gone unfulfilled — for instance, the vow he made early in his first term to close the Guantanamo Bay prison within 12 months. That promise has moldered unimplemented ever since, with strong consequences for the worldwide credibility of the United States — not that many government officials seem to have paid much heed.
The Obama administration has made overtures about finding a political resolution to the crisis. Kerry’s speech hit a welcome note when he said: “We know there is no ultimate military solution. It has to be political. It has to happen at the negotiating table. And we are deeply committed to getting there.” When Obama spoke on Aug. 31 he made the same point, but in a more muted way, speaking of “our pursuit of a political resolution that achieves a government (in Syria) that respects the dignity of its people.”
But neither Obama nor Kerry has been able to explain how any, even limited, use of military force against Syria can help bring about the political resolution that they claim to seek. Indeed, if the United States does use military force against Syria, there is good reason to expect further rounds of retaliation and escalation — by the Syrians themselves or any of the many other factions and regional interests involved there — in a continuing spiral of violence that could consume the whole region and pose a grave threat to global peace.
Several commentators have argued that the link between a U.S. military strike and a potential negotiation is that the strike would weaken Assad in order to force him to the table. But Assad’s regime is not the party that has refused the negotiating table. The Russians have secured his agreement to participate in the negotiations called for at the Geneva I peace conference for Syria in June 2012, which is also the basis for the now long-delayed convening of a Geneva II. But meanwhile, just about every one of the myriad branches of the Syrian opposition has refused to participate in any negotiation in which the Assad government is also represented. They argue that Assad has to leave power before any negotiations can start.
In fact, from August 2011 until recently, Washington backed the intransigent stance of the Syrian opposition. In recent months, that position seems to have eased a little — though in his Aug. 31 speech, Obama still insisted on continuing to put “pressure on the Assad regime” and to maintain “our commitment to the opposition.” Washington has continued to aid parties in the Syrian opposition that remain intent on overthrowing Assad, without ever conditioning that aid on the recipients’ taking part in the peace talks.
The Obama administration also assumes that limited military strikes against Syria would weaken Assad. But there is good reason to believe they would actually strengthen his political support among Syrians and others, and stiffen his resolve.
The precedents most frequently cited by proponents of U.S. military action in Syria have been the punitive strikes the Clinton administration launched against the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But it would be simplistic to think the Syrian crisis is comparable to that situation. Syria has plunged into an all-out civil war with many parties and regional interests competing. Its complexity dwarfs the simple outrages of Slobodan Milosevic’s one-sided extermination campaign against Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo.
The world has also changed a lot since 1999. While Russia and China have steadily become more powerful, the U.S. diplomatic position has significantly weakened due to overextensions of military power in Afghanistan and Iraq. So the operative assumption in debates over Syria that Washington can simply repeat a Kosovo-style (that is, non-U.N.-sanctioned) military attack without suffering serious longer-term consequences seems highly questionable. Indeed, the whole concept of a single state taking it upon itself to deliver a military “punishment” to a distant and much weaker country, absent any enabling resolutions from the United Nations, seems like an instance of behavior that the United Nations was set up to prevent.
An American strike against Syria is unlikely to help the Syrian people. And if it demonstrates anything to the rest of the world about the nature of American power, it is most likely to reaffirm to most of humankind the lesson that the invasion of Iraq sent them 10 years ago: that what the United States has in military power, it lacks in wisdom, self-restraint and morality.