On American Military Intervention in Syria

Dan Trombly, who is always worth reading, had an interesting post Wednesday at Slouching Towards Columbia on U.S. intervention in Syria. Those who have read Trombly will not be surprised by his position on intervention–he’s against it–and, as I noted on Twitter, I expect that many readers won’t agree with all of his points. Such is the price of consistently writing long and broad posts: it gives readers far more to disagree with. Trombly’s post triggered some thoughts of my own on a possible U.S. military intervention in Syria, which I outline here.

First, Trombly is certainly correct that the massacre in Houla and other regime atrocities that have been unearthed do not change American strategic interests with respect to Syria. Horrible as they are, they don’t tell us anything new about the nature of this odious regime. If it was a bad idea to intervene prior to the latest revelations–and in this case, the mode of intervention that Trombly criticizes is Danielle Pletka’s prescription of arming the rebels, giving them air cover, and supporting safe corridors–then it remains a bad idea even despite the recent grotesque news. We should not base our foreign policy around heated reactions to tragedy: doing so is a recipe for error.

Second, I think it’s worth visiting reasons that it seems anti-interventionists often end up losing foreign policy debates–and on Syria, I put myself in the anti-interventionist camp. One reason is that anti-interventionists often fail to put forward competitive options, instead stopping with the case against military action. I agree with that case (at least in its conclusion, though I may differ on some of the details), but analysis should not end there. After all, the Syrian regime is perpetrating atrocity after atrocity on its own citizens, and we all have a natural human impulse, an admirable one, to want to stop massacres if we can. So can those who don’t favor military intervention propose, maybe even come to some rough agreement on, median solutions that can deal with humanitarian concerns without resorting to an air war? When the choice presented in these debates seems to be between military intervention and doing nothing, the choice of doing nothing often loses. While I don’t disagree with Trombly’s assertion that “the average American voter” probably “likes killing terrorists but is sick of war,” the relevant audience here is really foreign policy elites within the administration. They are the ones who must be persuaded not to go to war. Given that Mitt Romney is trying to out-hawk Obama on Syria, a new war in that theater may not be politically costly for Obama.

Another thing that anti-interventionists could do a better job of is specifying what the world looks like without the U.S. militarily involved. I am by no means trying to pick on Trombly–my friend, co-author, and someone whom I deeply admire–on this point. But his post is illustrative of something I see as problematic in the anti-interventionist discourse. He writes, for example: “The only way the Assad regime is going to fall in Syria, short of an Iraq-style invasion, is by prolonging the war and defeating the Assad regime through attrition. In other words, the interventionists’ preferred solution of creating ‘safe corridors,’ arming rebel groups, and conducting airstrikes will only drag out the war without assuring victory.” What does drag out the war mean in this context? Is it because Assad is poised to crush the rebels in the status quo? If so, Trombly–or whomever is making a similar case–should come right out and say that. I think realistic assessments of what a world without military intervention would look like would significantly benefit the debate. Perhaps this world is very ugly; that doesn’t mean the case against intervention fails. As I wrote in Bin Laden’s Legacy:

The sad reality of the twenty-first century is that we cannot respond with full vigor to every perceived threat, or we won’t have the resources left over to address those that are most pressing. The sad reality is that lives will be lost in other parts of the world, like Libya, and we won’t be able to do anything about it. This should give us no comfort, but we must be realistic. When we are facing a crushing national debt, the interest payments for which are projected to eclipse our current defense budget by 2019, we cannot afford to overreact to every terrorist threat and to intervene in every conflict.

A third and final point is that Syria illustrates why I disagree with Jason Fritz’s rather thought-provoking argument that a coherent U.S. grand strategy is in effect useless. Rather than being driven by my perception of a “grand enemy,” my own sense of grand strategy is driven by what I see as the overarching–and, in many ways, interrelated–challenges that we confront as a nation, challenges that I outlined at some length on G&L. The national debt and violent non-state actors are among the primary concerns I listed. It seems to me, based on this view of the world, that a military intervention in Syria is not cost justified–particularly because, as Trombly points out, it’s possible that jihadi elements among the rebels may be strengthened rather than marginalized by U.S. involvement. It is hard to justify a new military campaign when our strategic resources would be better devoted to areas where we have very concrete strategic interests–places like Somalia, Yemen, North Africa, Mali, Afghanistan–and we’d also likely be better off if these resources were simply conserved.

My specific thinking on Syria is, of course, a bit more complex than this. But my point is that a sense of grand strategy shaped around the challenges the U.S. confronts can be useful in approaching foreign policy problems–and, in my view, can accomplish precisely what Fritz is concerned with, avoiding foreign policy mistakes.

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9 Responses to On American Military Intervention in Syria

  1. Alex Zucker says:

    This author puts forth several nonmilitary options for action that I have yet to see any other commentator consider: http://huff.to/JC8O98. In the interest of advancing the debate, precisely as you propose, I would be eager to know your assessment of his eight points.

    • D. Takaki says:

      Far more depth than you may realize until you read the underlying considerations to AM Slaughter’s thoughts. Plan Bravo should afford you the detail behind her reasoning, whereas an article has limited space to elaborate. Anne-Marie Slaughter was and is Prime Interlocutor on these thought pieces since late last summer but as primary author, any gaps or omissions in the text are mine alone. These thought pieces are circulating & while only segment have been seen by Sr. DoS officials and a few WH staffers, are now know to the LCC inside Syria and has informal circulation at CENTCOM, McDill AFB, Fla.

      There is also limited circulation in the Senate and House as well as Arab American Orgs.

      Plan Bravo for Syria
      A Primer on Killing Tanks & other Tracks: Why Syrian Army Armor is Vulnerable

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  3. On anti-interventionist alternatives: I fully agree with you that this is a persistent problem. I would add that this is exacerbated by the fact that some of the very ideas forwarded by anti-interventionists — economic/military sanctions, international marginalization — have been applied to Syria with little effect, at least as of yet. (Introducing peacekeeping forces and sponsoring peace talks, another favored alternative to coercive military intervention, appear very unlikely in the current situation.) The relative ineffectiveness of such measures only strengthens the arguments of the pro-intervention crowd. This, of course, doesn’t mean that military intervention will be effective, but the advocates of such action seem always to be treated as “serious” by the media and among the political class, adding to the dilemmas facing their opponents.

    • D. Takaki says:

      There is an aspect of the Syrian Conflict that seems to have bypassed most so-called serious analysts, much less the hoi polloi of pundit row. It’s the DisInformation War being waged by Damascus. Here’s PArt 3 which the Digital Engagement Team at CENTCOM has seen: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/50296798/Part%20III-The%20Truth%20War%20.doc

      Why do I assert this? All condign power is ultimately based upon belief systems, both personal and collective. This is the reason dictators such as Bashar al-Assad pay close attention to control of the media and the “message” as much as he does the denial of flour and medical supplies to restive areas. In a dictator’s world, the king is ALWAYS clothed. And dissent is crushed where possible. But at the cusp of the 21st century the possible is becoming impossible.

      Even within the DPRK information about the outside world is slowly permeating a country where electricity is shared parsimoniously, lighting Pyongyang at night, and little else. In recent years normal human desires for the hard to obtain, and in doing so reflect the upper elite in a society has broadened North Koreans’ reach. Mobile phones, computers, MP3 players and USB drives have begun to appear among the Pyongyang elites in substantial numbers. The content to fill new devices has a ready market in the DPRK among those who can afford such luxuries. This precursor of connectivity is faint, but the ripples emanating from various geographical locations and content producers, including the citizen with a mobile phone equipped with a camera are the force behind some of those new contours. In the Levant those forces are carving new terrain for the conflict planner to begin studying.

      The operational tempo of USSOCOM’s MIST units, often at the request of a US ambassador, is a reflection of this. The case of Syria presents a completely new set of operational parameters for which US information support dogma has yet to be developed and incorporated.

      Contemporary concepts such as ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power blind analysts to the reality and nature of power. ‘Soft’ power can kill, so that distinction is useless in an operating environment. ‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ are used together in the application of force.

      The study of power in and of itself and its manifestations is requisite, but many military analysts have never taken this fundamental step. Power in the human context is the study of human nature, not strategies or tactics. Those intellectual instruments are derived from a more fundamental grasp of societal power as a condign expression. A more direct route to objectify the application of power is to shift one’s definition of power. The Anatomy of Power by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith sought to classify power as three types:

      • Compensatory power in which submission is bought
      • Condign power where submission is won by making an alternative action’s opportunity costs too
      • Conditioned power in which submission is gained by persuasion and or reliance upon belief

      Anatomy further divided power by source:

      • Personality or Leadership
      • [Control of] property or wealth
      • Organisation

      Galbraith continued in detailing briefs on the use of power, noting the broad arc of history’s angular momentum from condign and then more tightly towards compensatory and then conditioned power, which is expressed by the tactician in aggregate terms, and not normally in the granularity of the individual citizen or soldier. Finally, this paradigm shift is also away from personality and property and towards the organisation. Galbraith details his views that primary power sources today are government, the military, religion and the press. To this the author updates the intervening three decades by amending the power of the press to broaden the scope to the ‘power of connectivity’, which ink and paper accomplished so effectively for humans for centuries.

      Loci of power such as corporations are in this context more effectively viewed first as a prize to be wrested before exercising its compensatory, condign, or conditioned footprint. Corporations are potentially powerful but like armored vehicles, having to prioritize their defenses with the thickest protection ‘in the forward glacis’, leaving numerous vulnerabilities. Relative to the above perceptions of landscape, strategy is a derivative of competitive knowledge of the human terrain as well as the disposition of the enemy’s forces on less elusive topography.

      The competent strategist’s understanding of the technology of the possible with the critical element of application is on the cusp of becoming an actionable requirement. TPFDDs of the near future will begin to reflect the shifting requirements and new partners as this new reality finally penetrates an often too insular process of planning.

      Organized conflict’s human terrain has morphed and today’s war planners are as in June of 1914… the world has changed while most conflict planners view information warfare as primarily mil to mil, ignoring the simple observation that in intrastate conflict the population is the center of gravity and legitimacy is the high ground. The granularity of strategy as illustrated by Flynn, et al in Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan has relevance in this emergent operating environment.

      This observation does not seek to promote the United States seeking such avenues of expression inasmuch as a caution that the landscape the US and NATO is preparing for is not the same as the Fulda Gap. Current inaction on Syria already illustrates how operations in the future will require “joint” co-operation and collaboration between the Department of State and the Defense Department. Lest one prematurely dismisses the observations of thinkers at the periphery of national defense, consider how often in recent military history soldiers paid for their leaders failure to grasp what in disastrous hindsight were fundamental shifts prior to committing their forces to battle.

      Agincourt serves to remind the observer that human history is replete in examples of forgetting to understand terrain, your own forces and to think like the other guy. Shit doesn’t just happen. When it ‘happens’ someone planned or prepared for it and even determined the optimum diet for effect. The foot soldiers’ scatological gripe about the nature of poor planning and leadership has been with warfare since at least the time of Roman deployments.

      Carnage in our civil war was due in large part to officers not grasping that technology had changed the face of war. Combined arms were a sequential exercise in “now its the ____’s turn,” as bugles and drums beating confirmed this for all but the dead and the deaf.

      The Franco-Prussian war saw some tactical adjustment; fire and maneuver and bounding over-watch techniques came out of this conflict before the lessons were lost in the decades leading up to August 1914.

      World War One was wholesale slaughter of soldiers as again officers went in the same old way with square divisions, old tactics, and non-tactics of arithmetic attrition. This inability to reflect at command and staff levels delivered horrific results of no consequence save to the expended and wounded. By the end of the First World War AEF commander General John J. Pershing had determined that the TO&E of a US division would be 979 officers, 27,082 men, or including support personnel, about 40,000 men in total assigned to an immobile division.

      Now in the beginning of a digital century J-Level war planners find themselves in a similar intellectual blind of being behind the technical learning curve, much less the effective application of those technologies. And it has nothing to do with the shift to triangular division, and then devolving further to the combined arms combat teams and maneuver brigades, and today Joint SOCOM’s not insignificant resources are funneled behind ODB components & attached small units moving past an actual line of departure. It is about the shift in the nature of conflict and the lag in operative cognition. The transformation from static square divisions to the expanded Air-Land-Sea-Space-Cyberspace AO of today is a leap in cognition many now take for granted over thinking less than a century distant. Likewise, seeing Information Warfare resources application as primarily ‘mil to mil’ is as quaint as WW I aviators hand tossing small bombs. Even “cyberwarfare” as a perspective fails to encompass the changes in the societal context of everything from the ‘will to win’ to full spectrum “Truth War”.
      Along with the shift in human terrain adapting to a digital communications environment, has been the emergence of old vulnerabilities with new virulent dynamics that can now be exploited, such as the “King has no Clothes” dynamic that, with the application of UW information warfare, uncovers numerous targets of opportunity in a digital environment. United States Forces netcentric assets are in a position to assist the blunting, then flanking Damascus’ War of Disinformation while reaching for the stage ropes that will reveal the Wizard of ‘Oz behind today’s media savvy hegemon.

      Counter-Disinformation operations will in the not too distant future be an integral aspect of the warfighters’ operating terrain and be as familiar to readers as Counter-Intelligence and COIN are today. These assets will be an inevitable task forcing of military and civilian organizations as well as NGOs and other actors with varying degrees of determinative effect. At the same time, concepts such as velocity and focusing of force efforts are as timeless as ever in the arena of human competition and cooperation.

  4. Brendan Appleberry says:

    Forgive my naivety. Why do you say “we have very concrete strategic interests–places like Somalia, Yemen, North Africa, Mali, Afghanistan” but not Syria? It seems to we as anti-interventionist shouldn’t we not be in these wars either? Or is it just too late to pull out of these ones now.

    My second point is from experience, most recently here in China. “and we all have a natural human impulse, an admirable one, to want to stop massacres if we can.” I’m not sure we do all have that impulse. Americans love to get into other peoples business. We have TV shows now showing the atrocity of people NOT reacting to fake senarios of a parent yelling at a child. These are popular not because it happens and we want to change the world, but because we love to watch horrific people, jerry springer style. So Americans feel it is a tragedy, but here in China there is a real video of a real 2 year old being hit by a car laying in the street dying, and people doing nothing. This IS the norm here. A few reasons behind it, but definetly no impulse to stop horrific events. My living in this culture and trying to see the good in all things, I have come to the idea that. Hey, they don’t mess with my business and well maybe I shouldn’t mess in theirs. If they want to pee in the street, ok. If they want to throw trash where they want ok. I might talk to loud, and have a bit too much arrogance. No one is coming up to me and saying be quiet.
    I would suspect if we asked a few countries of the world what they thought of how our use of alcohol is or our freedom to display sexual images they might find it horrific and should do somethiing about it.
    Granted I get that the killing of people is not on par with alcohol or playboy, but my point is that not everyone feels the need to step up and help those in need. It is very much an American cultural thing. We know best. We know who is Luke Skywalker and who is Darth Vader. It’s very obvious to us, and well we are Luke.

    • D. Takaki says:

      If you reckon your short leg is as precious to you as your country, you won’t go sticking it in places indiscriminately, one would hope. Same same for projecting military action. A bit of discrimination
      will avoid a lot of SitReps where the topic is the remaining drip problem after pulling out…

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  6. winged says:

    The writer asks, “what would the world look like without intervention?” Besides the obvious short answer that we do not know, I see a Hobbesian inspired response based on the idea of “diffidence” or motivation-by-fear portending a useful prescription for national health. It is the fear of losing power: wealth, reputation and friends that may well contribute to interventionist policy. To implement the prescription, you then have to resist “nature” and have courage. Yet any politician that raises the issue (in a post- Mahan, post-911 world) is deemed “reckless” and “laughable.”

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