Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Rip van Winkle and a War of Choice

ThinkingEnemy is back. Unexpected personal and academic responsibilities interrupted my production of this blog for 90 days. Thanks to those who contacted me to say they missed it.

            I feel like I have awakened to find myself in a future that looks like some weird version of a bad dream from the past. The Secretary of State is standing before the world proclaiming he has no doubt that a foreign leader has chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction and is willing to use them – actually has used them on his people. And we MUST act against this moral outrage. 
            Except the foreign nation did not use WMD against us, and has not threatened to do so. And no independent source has confirmed the incident or who did it.
But the Sec State has the “slam dunk” intelligence – really – if we will just trust him. Surely no pressure on the Intel community to “cook” any answers, right?
            And the Secretary of Defense is saying that the military is ready to go – except it is not clear what the military would do. “Punish” a dictator fighting for his life and that of his minority tribe and allies? Which, in this case, includes indigenous Christians, and the Russians, and the Chinese.  Who would ever think we could get those three groups to cooperate . . . against us?  Quite an achievement.
Is the intent of our action to shift the balance of power in the war?   In favor of which side? The collection of lunatics and thugs who oppose the dictator?   This is not about supporting brave French Resistance fighters trying to oust  their enemy and ours, the Nazis. Or even helping Afghans of questionable pedigree against our Cold War enemy, the Russians.  This is more like the Bloods and Crips, skinheads and Black Panthers, white supremacists, anarchists, drug cartels, and Al Qaeda all dividing into two sides to fight each other, and asking us to support one of those sides. What good thing could possibly happen next?
Of course, there are some differences between the last bad dream and this one. For example, when the US attacked Saddam, we had a fully prepared, fully equipped, and fully funded force. The mightiest military in the world hit Saddam with the strongest blow it had, short of nuclear weapons.  That effort ultimately failed because America did not understand the mess we would inherit if our plan succeeded. This time, however, we are bearding the lion and his allies in his den with a much depleted force. Two-thirds of our flying squadrons were grounded last summer.  Most of our Army has been told to plan for a permanent reduction in readiness.  And the Navy has no carrier to commit to this fight today because it had no money to send a battle group to sea three months ago. So the message we seem to be sending Assad is:  “You better fight this war and lose under our rules, or else . . . well, just don’t you make me say what else!”
Another difference between this “war of choice” and the last is that in 2003 our UN ambassador was ready to explain to the world how the dictator we opposed threatened us and the world order. This time our UN rep has said . . . well, she hasn’t said anything.  In fact, where is our UN representative? Do you really believe the lame story that she is touring Ireland with family? And the world press is unable to find her – and doesn’t want to because she deserves her privacy? Where are the paparazzi when we need them?
Whether you agree with her or not, you must admit that Representative Samatha Power’s entire life has been devoted to establishing and maintaining international norms to prevent atrocities against civilians. So in the crowning moment of her life – with the US about to use its military to enforce international norms she has championed -- she is on vacation?   I don’t think so. I suspect that our UN rep is somewhere negotiating something with someone in secret. Why doesn’t that make me feel better? 
Maybe in the best possible case, UN Rep Power will step forward from behind the curtain (from where we are leading), and announce Assad’s peaceful departure. Surely the rebels would not commit any “moral obscenities” that require our severe frowning as they take control of the country. Surely they would not make Syria a base to project the hate they have spewed toward the US and Israel in the past.
A final weird thought floating though this waking-dream is that maybe Congress might have a role in the decision to launch a military attack against a foreign regime that has not attacked us. I’m not going to trot out the old “War Powers” argument, which the different political parties invoke when it suites their political ends, and ignore when it does not. Actually, I suspect that many in Congress are happy not to have their fingerprints on this one. If it works, great – they called for it.  If it doesn’t – tisk, tisk, they didn’t vote for it. Congressional involvement would delay any action until Congress opens after Labor Day, or require Congress to convene early for this specific issue.  But I am not proposing any specific Congressional response, I am just asking, for the good of the country, should the President really go out on a limb like this without the support of the nation’s elected officials? In what sort of a dream world is that a good idea?
Now here is the last bizarre twist in this bizarre dream, where we threaten an act of war against a country that has not threatened us, and that fact is secondary news behind the shaking of Hanna Montana’s furry underwear. Russia and China must be scratching their heads over our behavior. We do nothing in response to a million deaths by machete in Rwanda, and take no action when our Ambassador is murdered in Benghazi, but commit an act of war in response to an unproven use of chemicals by somebody in an incident that touches no American life. I understand that there is an academic logic in calling for collective action in support of international norms. But there is a long stretch between that theory and the reality of sending troops and killing people on the other side when no direct national interests are involved. If I were Putin, I would be looking at the US the way the US looks at North Korea.  What will the Rogue State do next?
(The logical response for the Russians, by the way, is to build more military force, draw brighter “Red Lines,” and fire the occasional warning shot. I suspect the era of “resetting” relations with Russia is over.)
I guess I am fully awake now. And that means I have to deal with one more reality of this situation – Assad’s response. Every action against an opponent generates a response – sometimes a preemptive response. The best case, or course, is that Assad resigns and departs. He would have to leave behind his fortune and his people to the tender mercies of the worst of the rebel opposition. (Remember the rebel who killed and ate a Syrian soldier on YouTube?) And he would have to trust someone’s guarantee that he will not end up in the dock facing war crimes prosecution in The Hague. I guess it could happen.
More likely, I suspect, would be a decision to double down his bet, maybe even using whatever chemical weapons he has on hand before he loses them. He is winning now. He knows that the cost to America of a serious, long-term intervention is high. And there are plenty of players on his team who might even strike back at us and our global interests directly. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has suggested, there will be unanticipated consequences to any American action.
So . . . here we are. Our own dreamers with theories about collective action and policies that create international norms have backed us into a corner where we must put up or shut up. It is a life or death moment for our decades of talk about chemical weapons treaties and humanitarian behavior in war. And that makes it a life or death moment for Assad and his regime and his friends.
           There is no “win-win” solution to this mess. This is not a strategic dream.  It is a nightmare.