Something must be done. Or so we’re hearing from many quarters, including now the White House. Count me skeptical.
The first thing to say concerns the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. This is being treated as a bright-line violation of global norms that in itself requires retaliation. Requires? One of the principles of just-war thinking is probability of success. It does no good—and would be morally culpable—to launch strikes that are unlikely to achieve a good outcome, which in this case means the thorough defeat of the Assad regime. For only that outcome would create a deterrent for the future use of banned weapons.
I think that outcome very unlikely. The Obama administration’s approach to Syria—indeed, the entire Middle East—has been like police departments in major cities in the 1970s. Sure, officers patrolled neighborhoods, but they stayed in their cars because, well, because it was pretty darn scary on the mean streets. I see no reason to believe that the administration will do more than fire a few shots out the police cruiser window, so to speak, which means symbolic rather than real action that has actual consequences for the conflict in Syria.
I’m no pacifist, not even close, but I’m opposed to symbolic killing. I’m opposed to launching cruise missiles in order to “show resolve” or “send a message.” If we’re going to do something in Syria, then it needs to be part of a plan that aims at consequences that makes sense as part of a larger strategy of imposing at least the negative peace of an end to conflict in Syria.
It’s this larger strategy that I don’t see in the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East. Maybe I’m too cynical, but the best sense I can make of the administrations decisions requires me to presuppose the predominance of (1) dreamy human rights internationalism, and (2) cynical efforts to keep the Middle East out of domestic politics by doing whatever it takes to kick the various cans down the road.
Without an Obama administration strategy for achieving some sort of order in the Middle East—I’m open to lots of different options on that score—I can’t see how the use of force in Syria by the administration can be justified. The President is the commander-in-chief. He and not his proxies needs to explain that vision of order, the strategy for getting there, and how sending in cruise missiles or flying bombing sorties fits into that strategy.