Even assuming that they actually take place, which after the vote in the British parliament effectively barring UK participation is no longer certain, it is highly unlikely that the air strikes and missile attacks that the Obama administration seems about to launch at Assad regime targets in Syria in retaliation for the atrocity in East Ghoutta using chemical weapons will satisfy anyone.
That those, like myself, who believe that the United States should not have the right, and certainly does not have the obligation, to take upon itself the responsibility of “punishing” Assad for his crimes, will of course see an air campaign, however brief or long it proves to be, as a pointless act of moral hubris and geostrategic stupidity, should go without saying. But if anything, those who instead believe that the radical evil of a Bashar al Assad must wherever possible not be allowed to go unpunished or their crimes to go unavenged, are likely to be even more frustrated by the limited military campaign that the administration has made clear is the most it is willing to take. As Leon Wieseltier has written in these pages, if Assad is to be punished but left in place, this means that in reality he will be unpunished.
The use of the word “punishment” by those urging action has been all but universal across the political spectrum, from President Obama and his supporters to his severest critics, including Wieseltier and other signers, such as William Kristol and Bernard-Henry Levy, of the recent open letter to the president published in the Weekly Standard. And yet it is a curious word, open to a wide variety of interpretations. Used by the president it sounds more like “six of the best” with a cruise missile. Used by the signers of the Weekly Standard, capital punishment is more likely to be what comes to mind. But in either case, the word seems profoundly misplaced because, however attractive it may be as moral shorthand, it is too profoundly apolitical to be useful either in understanding what has taken place in Syria or in figuring out what can and should be done in response. Orwell famously said that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Posing the question of how to respond to the Assad’s regime’s use against its own people of the most terrible weapon that exists, apart from nuclear bombs, in terms of punishment is a prime example of this.
Such metaphors are prophylactics against thought. The United States is neither the world’s parent (much as the idolators of an American-dominated global order sometimes write as if it were), with the unwelcome but necessary responsibility of administering a spanking to a delinquent child, and still less is it the world’s judge, jailer, or, to judge by the Weekly Standard letter, what some Syria hawks would wish, its executioner, tasked with putting the Assad regime to death. It is, of course, still the greatest military power on earth, but despite what hawks like to say, the decline of American power is not, as Wieseltier puts it, “in part the wish that America be less powerful.” Quite the contrary: it is a fact. Whatever else one can say about President Obama, who, on foreign policy questions seems largely out of his depth and gaffe prone, as the statement that has now come back to haunt him, that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a ‘red line’ amply demonstrates, he actually seems to understand that the U.S. cannot act in 2013 as it did in 1995 in Bosnia and in 1999 in Kosovo and as it could have done in Rwanda. The difference between that period and can be understood by considering the old military adage that in war the enemy gets a vote. For in Bosnia and Kosovo, this was not the case: there was little the enemy, in this case the Milosevic regime in Belgrade, could do. But Syria is another matter entirely.
This does not mean the Obama administration cannot launch an aerial punitive expedition—and perhaps using an updated version of the old imperial usage might be the beginning of clarity—which, because it is limited in scope and effect, is unlikely to provoke a significant reaction either from the Assad regime or from its Iranian and Hezbollah allies and its Russian patron. Despite a bit of Saddam style bluster from Damascus, it is clear the intention there is to weather the bombardment and then get back to trying to crush the rebellion. What it does mean, though, is that the Obama administration cannot do any significant harm to the Assad regime with the kind of cost-free half measures the Clinton administration could employ successfully in the 1990s when it to chose to, and that would have worked in Rwanda as well. In reality, President Obama has only three choices in Syria: do nothing, which was what it was trying to do until the atrocity in East Goutta; do something symbolic, a short-ish retaliatory air campaign, which is what seemed certain until Ed Miliband threw a spanner in the works in Westminster and forced the Cameron government to stand down; and do regime change.
I remain entirely convinced that the correct course would be to refrain from any military action against the Assad regime. Law and morality are scarcely the same thing, but the fact that the attacks Washington seems to be planning are illegal, seeing as they have both no UN sanction and no other legal warrant (supporters of the attack are grasping at legal straws when they invoke the Responsibility to Protect doctrine; contrary to what they are claiming, it confers no such authority) is not insignificant. But the president’s hawkish critics, liberal and neo-conservative alike, are entirely right to insist that a limited military action is doomed to failure, and, from a moral standpoint, highly questionable since if it will not radically alter the situation on the ground in Syria, nor even seriously deter other regimes from using chemical and biological weapons in the future. And while the choice they would urge is the polar opposite of the one that I believe to be the right one, surely they are also correct when they challenge the president to face up to that his only serious choices in terms of both morality and effectiveness are doing nothing militarily or else committing the United States to regime change in Syria.
But plainly the Obama administration is not prepared to make either of the choices that, wherever one stands on them, are morally and operationally coherent. Instead, it will play at war, with no end state in mind, no attainable one, anyway, and will end up as being seen as a murderous bully by some and as a hypocritical weakling by others. And while war-making for show and to salve one’s own conscience is by no means the worst thing governments do when they take military action — compared to East Goutta, it pales into insignificance—it may well be the most contemptible.