Foreign Policy Sifter

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by Zach Lowe

Pessimism and Realism: Not the Same


Happy birthday, Death, Destruction, and Post-war Mayhem! World War I’s hundredth anniversary is right around now. Everyone wants to talk about the “lessons” from the Great War, and there’s nothing wrong with asking, “What can we learn?” But attempts to look to the past in order to illuminate the future are most often characterized by cherry picking, misreading, misquoting, and drawing exactly the wrong conclusions.

Roger Cohen’s piece on World War I is well written and thought provoking. Unlike some pundits, he gives a welcome nod toward international-relations theory—Realism—to back up his premise:

As John Mearsheimer observes in his seminal The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, “Unbalanced multipolar systems feature the most dangerous distribution of power, mainly because potential hegemons are likely to get into wars with all of the other great powers in the system.”

Unfortunately, Cohen misunderstands the policy implications of Mearsheimer’s brand of the theory. He is right to equate pessimism with Realism to some extent. Mearsheimer has explained the theory much the same way.[1] But although Realists are in general pessimistic about the prospects for international cooperation and human-rights-based intervention, the theory is not called “pessimism.” It’s called Realism because it calls for a realistic assessment of the international context and each state’s relative power and strategy. Cohen writes,

In this context, nothing is more dangerous than American weakness. It is understandable that the United States is looking inward after more than a decade of post-9/11 war. But it is also worrying, because the credibility of American power remains the anchor of global security. The nation’s mood is not merely a reflection of economic hardship or the costs of war; it is also determined by the president’s decisions and rhetoric.

See the shift here? Cohen talks about “national mood,” individual “decisions,” and “rhetoric.” This is directly contrary to the tenets of Realism, which tells us not to focus on feelings and intangibles. Perception is important in realism, but credibility is based on intelligence, strategy, and hard power. Everyone knows that the United States is the most powerful nation in the world militarily and it’s going to remain that way for some time. It’s precisely because we’ve been beating our own chests for so long that countries like Russia and China don’t believe us when we announce our peaceful intentions. Intentions change. Leaders lie.

Cohen is completely correct in his pessimistic assessment of the global context. But he makes the common mistake of being too pessimistic about U.S. military power relative to everyone else while being overly optimistic about what words and individuals can accomplish on the international stage. The United States is still powerful when its leaders do not use military force or engage in rhetorical brinksmanship in places like Syria and Ukraine where there is little in America’s national interest at stake and much for other states. Perhaps Cohen could have written something about the lessons of World War I and unintended consequences (see Libya, for example).

[1] In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer writes, “In contrast to liberals, realists are pessimists when it comes to international politics” (17). 


He Who Hath the Largest Straw Man


James Kirchick built not one, but two, humongous exaggerations for his recent Daily Beast article on Ukraine and US foreign policy. And two, friends, is better than one. 

The Ukrainian situation has thrown Washington’s literati into a tizzy, and rightfully so.[1] Practically everyone has to weigh in on an issue that involves NATO, great power politics, righteous protesters, ethnic conflict, invasion, and Vladimir Putin’s weird loss of the ability to conduct a coherent press conference. There’s a lot of virulent opinions, and almost as much ignorance.[2] Like this one.

James Kirchick’s recent piece in the Daily Beast titled “How the ‘Realists’ Misjudged Ukraine” definitely was not his finest. Kirchick, who was until recently a journalist for Radio Free Europe, took the route of least resistance: Regurgitate and simplify a very old ideological conflict and essentially make up one side of the debate to give that conflict meaning. The result won’t make his “Best of” portfolio.[3]

Kirchick’s fallacies, in fact, come right at the beginning. The deck reads: 

The paradox at the heart of foreign policy realism, is that the same, all-powerful West which is capable of overthrowing governments with the flip of a switch is incapable of confronting Russian hard power.

Current “realism,” like “neoconservatism,” is impossible to discretely define, but a straw man is being built here using 1970s Kissingerian overthrows of peripheral governments to define the operational ideas of those who attempt to divorce geostrategic interests from moral missions and consider the prosperity and security of Americans to not always be at odds with unsavory situations abroad. 

What current (and, frankly, past) realists—at least those in the few publications cited by Kirchick—believe is definitely not that the West is “all-powerful” and capable of coups at the “flip of a switch.” They often discuss the relative decline of the US and the need to accept a less unipolar world. Frequent critics of more activist roles in the Middle East and elsewhere, realists of today tend to focus on the difficulty of removing a regime and how the costs usually outweigh the benefits. In line with their essentially conservative (gradualist) outlook, realists relatively rarely call for harsh rhetoric or other minor antagonistic actions that may make coming to an agreement based on mutual interests more difficult. A quick and dirty summation: They can be closer to non-interventionists than hawks. 

The reason for this is a belief that major powers dictate the general security situation. Other issues, such as as terrorism and middle powers such as Iran, remain important, but the extraordinary strength of the US renders these issues containable and unworthy of the major commitment of resources involved in changing the situation—the opposite, we contend, of overthrowing governments willy nilly. In the case of Iran, the magazine Kirchick cites as the “premier realist journal,” The National Interest, is definitively against attacking that country because, for the most part, its writers believe it to be a poor strategic choice that also happens to be illegal under international law. They also typically contend that Iranian influence on the region is malign and should be countered. Kirchick conflates realists noting the extent of US power makes the country very secure vis-a-vis much weaker states with the idea that Washington should simply “knock off” whomever it pleases. In fact, realists come to the opposite conclusion.

In his own simple-minded worldview, Kirchick also fails to understand how realists approach ideology and world politics. Although realists contend that ideology does not play a major role in driving foreign policy decisions, they do believe that (1) ideology can exacerbate tensions, misperceptions, and threatening behavior and (2) the most powerful ideology in international relations remains nationalism—precisely the ideology at stake in Ukraine. This is not Catholics vs. Orthodox or Democracy vs. Totalitarianism. The problems in Ukraine are directly related to how Ukrainians and Russians imagine their ties to each other (obligatory hat tip: Benedict Anderson).

What is wrong with Stephen Cohen’s widely panned piece in The Nation is not realism, if he is a realist. Cohen’s problem—like many specialists—is that he sees the situation from Russia’s point of view. But however problematic Cohen’s apparent apologetic for Russia, it remains paramount that we understand Putin’s worldview if we are to deal with him. Thus Cohen’s work cannot simply be dismissed. Russia’s offenses here are easier to spot and more egregious, but plenty of Ukrainians have been using the opportunity to engage in some pretty shady behavior. For some thoughtful analysis, check out Tim Snyder’s posts at the New York Review of Books. Jack Matlock also seems to have thought about the problem carefully.

Briefly to the second straw man: There is nothing about realist thought that prohibits its adherents to present options for “confronting Russian hard power.” The theory is not naturally deficient; rather, its proponents simply do not see compelling reasons for the US to heavily involve itself in the Ukraine with the maximum possible public profile and vigor. Short of risking nuclear war, there has never been anything that Washington could do to counter Russian military action in Ukraine if Moscow believes it to be in its interest. If the Russians want to pick at the sore spot of Ukrainian nationalism it can only end in disaster for them. What President Obama and Secretary Kerry should be doing is somehow find a way to convince Putin that the costs outweigh the benefits. We’re far from the first people to point out that framing the debate as Ukraine choosing between Europe or Russia is a false dichotomy, or that tinkering with missile defense and expanding NATO irritates Moscow to no end and for no good reason.

Pundits like Kirchick misunderstand the concept of international credibility. Realists know that President Obama’s credibility is at stake, but it has little to do with the wildly different and particular problems in Syria, Iran, China, or North Korea. Empty threats—as they must be in regarding Ukraine—are useless and even harmful. What is the point of publicly doing everything possible to force the Russians to retreat when the United States and its allies have no willingness to follow through on extreme economic sanctions and some military action? Such a policy lacks credibility, and let’s hope the Obama administration doesn’t pursue it. 


[1] We could have titled this “Carcosa” or “The Yellow King” to get cheap clicks from all of the True Detective freaks, but everyone knows you’re holed up in a bunker trying to tease out the final episode. Go with God, friends, and watch that dental hygiene.

[2] Just look at the last couple of weeks' worth Washington Post op-eds!

[3] Look no further than his “Steve Walt is an anti-Semite” cheapshot for an idea of extent of Kirchick’s lazy writing here.


Who Upended What? Strange Outlooks on Israeli Security


The Israeli anti-missile system “David’s Sling.”

A recent New York Times article detailing Israeli actions to the changing political landscape of the Middle East is one of many. Still not at peace with two neighbors and with no true regional allies, how the geographically isolated but powerful country deals with democratic revolutions, reactions, and civil war has been an obvious discussion point since the Arab Spring began in earnest in 2011. According to the piece, Israeli leaders are embracing a “castle mentality” in which they wait out the turmoil in a defensive posture. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bluster on Iran aside, the Jewish state does not want to intervene in sustained ways in the region. The government’s line on Iran is a major exception, but that country is not in the midst of a (real) revolution. 

A fortress posture should serve Israel well, given that it possesses ever more sophisticated anti-missile systems and has seemingly no way of knowing which revolutionaries want to change the status quo should they gain power. They could try to befriend the non-jihadist sorts fighting in Syria somehow, but such involvement might turn others against Israel-supported rebels and any military aid risks being turned over to terrorists. In this sense, the “arm the rebels” debate is quite different compared to that in the U.S. Though probably not well liked by Syrians, it’s safe to say America is more highly regarded than Israel, and U.S.-supplied weapons couldn’t really be turned directly against Americans. Not so for Israel. With the stunning rise of extremist groups in the Syrian morass, Netanyahu and the IDF must deal with a problem, as Israeli academic Jonathan Spyer put it, “without an address.”

Thus, the article posits that Israel’s strategic situation appears quite dire: major civil war on one border, instability after an anti-Islamist coup on another, heavily armed terrorists to the north, and Hamas still in tact. In Syria, the ascendant rebels do not seem like the bargaining type, reinforcing this blog’s long-held claim that from beyond Syria’s borders, the Assad era was relatively pacific and at least simpler.[1] Following this point, the NYT reporter Jodi Rudoren wrote that many Israelis are convinced “that the region will be unstable or even anarchic for some time, upending decades of strategic positioning and military planning.” (Italics added) 

To say that decades of planning suddenly capsized because of uncertainty is a nice narrative, but the IDF’s arsenal is far too diverse to succumb to such a claim. The Israeli military is still the most powerful regional force by a wide margin, and the country’s generals have the dual advantage of an increasingly sophisticated defense system (David’s Sling, Iron Dome) as well as the benchmark Israeli capability of massive, quick offensive strikes. Even in a larger campaign against Hezbollah and whatever Syrian elements might join in, the IDF should not need its reserve component for an indefinite period of time. Such a campaign would tax the country—maybe even more so than the 2006 stalemate—but one should assume that the Israelis would win out, though maybe not completely. If anarchy in Syria has undone Israel’s plans so dramatically, how have they repeatedly and successfully interdicted advanced weapons from reaching Hezbollah? The Times quotes an active duty general who admits that though he does not “have a contingency plan to destroy global jihad,” which comes off as either a bad translation or weird hubris, his intelligence capabilities are increasingly robust. 

What might Israel’s enemies offer to tilt the balance? As mentioned above, the Syrian military might transfer chemical weapons or better rockets to Hezbollah—or the homemade jihadists might lob them over the Golan—but we still wonder how this “upends” previous policies. To the contrary, at least regarding Syria and Lebanon, Israel long ago went after the ability to become a “fortress,” whether it knew so or not, while maintaining its offensive superiority; as a result of this foresight, strategies demand tweaks, not wholesale change.

As far as we can tell, the somewhat opaque concern rests with the perception that a radical government bent on destroying Israel might take hold in Syria and that a sort of perpetual war would result. Jihadists are hardliners, to be sure, so one cannot debunk this worst case scenario, though we would stress that Hezbollah managed to negotiate a ceasefire, as has Hamas occasionally. A radical Syrian government would be worse, but very weak

The Times article builds towards the issue clouding most Israeli political discussions: how the indefinite regional uncertainty affects negotiations on the Palestinian Territories. The piece quotes right-wing politician Naftali Bennett listing violence from Afghanistan to Lebanon and then sarcastically saying, “A really excellent time to divest ourselves of security assets.” The eastern flank, Mr. Bennett and the prime minister agree, is vulnerable. A former general and peace negotiator adds that the chaos “highlights the need for solid security arrangements.” (emphasis added)

What security assets are so critical in the West Bank that the regional uncertainty requires a delay in the admittedly moribund peace process? For obvious reasons, this is not easy to figure out, but most major IDF bases are in Israel proper. (Nor would the Golan Heights’ status be negotiated with the Palestinians.) The borders of a new Palestinian state would be closely monitored by Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, three states highly sensitive to Islamism as well as strongly supported by Washington. Almost all “serious” peace proposals have required a demilitarized Palestinian state, further increasing the IDF’s ability to hunt terrorists extraterritorially. At the moment, the notion of connecting regional instability to the Palestinian issue seems little more than a rhetorical tool to reinforce previously held positions.  

Despite the gloomy tones of many assessments of the “new” Middle East, the basic structure of Israel’s defense policy is proving rather resilient: robust offensive capability combined with a budding anti-missile net along with preemption and just enough unpredictability to dissuade regional opponents from aggressive actions. While the turmoil around the country may be nerve racking, multiple generations of Israelis have lived through actual war, death, and destruction. Their country is not under immediate or catastrophic threat, and, therefore, letting the mavens of worst case scenario drive the discussion on Palestine unnecessarily adds another obstacle to an important process that already lacks vitality.


[1] Given how Byzantine the intrigue became in Lebanon and the brutality within the country, this statement is meant to show how ridiculously complicated the Syrian Civil War is, not to imply that pre-war Syria was a beacon of transparency and peace. 



The ripple effects of what we do in Syria will also extend far beyond the Middle East. In Asia, for instance, U.S. acquiescence in the face of Assad’s aggression would send the unambiguous message to long-standing allies like Japan and South Korea that Washington can no longer be counted on to stand with them against threats from North Korea and China.

Former Senators Joe Lieberman and Jon Kyl in the Wall Street Journal

It’s important to note that sanctions, arming the opposition, condemning the use of chemical weapons, and repeatedly stating that a dictator “has to go” is not “acquiescence.” It isn’t everything within the president’s power, but cannot be remotely defined as ”nothing” either. The message South Korea and Japan might take from any Syria decision the U.S. government makes is actually ambiguous, but one would have to assume that decades-old treaty allies—meaning Washington is obliged in writing to come their aid if attacked, no ambiguity—that host thousands of U.S. military personnel are not as worried about this as Lieberman and Kyl. Extraordinary aggression from China and, in particular, North Korea would threaten American lives and security interests. One cannot assume that whether or not the U.S. decides to bomb Syria over a dumb threat made a year ago will then cause enemies who are significantly weaker than the U.S. to start “attacking” places where American troops live. What U.S. allies has Syria attacked or threatened recently? Indeed, Japan and South Korea might be relieved that we’re not planning on bombing North Korea in the event that Dennis Rodman’s chunky new best friend decides to keep talking crazy and torturing his own population. Though we cannot be sure of what motivated Lieberman and Kyl to make such an asinine point, the paragraph quoted above exists in a parallel reality most cannot access.


Smashing! The Streak Is Over

After decades of success batting behind the world superpower, Great Britain’s streak of being involved in, or supporting, every major U.S. intervention since Vietnam might be over. And with the U.S. backing operations in the Falklands and Libya, the taste for playing second fiddle in beating the crap out of lesser powers was mutual. But alas, like stinky cheese and Lisa Loeb’s career, all great things must come to an end. 

In an extraordinary session of parliament last week, the illustrious MPs from comically British places, such as South Warginghamshite and Anton’s Gout (one of those places is real), left little doubt that they preferred the Navy and Air Force not interrupt its patrols of the Royal Crib in order to obliterate Syria. Prime Minister Cameron expressed his disappointment thusly,
I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. … It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.
There are a number of interesting questions here, and we don’t mean that in a perplexing way as many of them have reasonable answers:
  • Why Libya and not Syria? Was it the aftermath in Libya? Or the unintended consequences vis-à-vis China and Russia? Or our preference: the relative ease of intervening in Libya?
  • Does this mean NATO is coming back home? What does this do for the “leaders must lead" school of thought? Prime Minister Cameron wants to do something, but the British clearly don’t. Forget all this "respect" for the "views" of the people crap. Can’t he just CONVINCE them HARDER?!
  • What will the U.S. Congress do? They are, as usual, divided on the issue. However, they are divided into anti-intervention vs. kill Iran/pro-humanitarian intervention factions that don’t cut neatly down party lines. Finally, change we can believe in!
  • Will President Obama now bomb Britain? We predict the U.S. will refrain from a show of force against Big Ben, though holding Andy Murray hostage is still “on the table.”
When the British surrendered to the Franco-American forces at Yorktown in 1781, their band played “The World Turned Upside Down” as soldiers laid down their arms. We doubt something so dramatic will ever occur again in the history of man, though one must wonder, as the U.S. ponders its next move, if the decision of British MPs to vote against a conflict might truly affect President Obama’s ever-changing “calculus.”
Operationally, we assume allied support is not necessary for a retaliatory strike. However, whether or not domestic politics demands more “credible” partners (i.e., more than France) remains to be seen. Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan a decade ago, said, “Having our closest long-term ally opt-out of the mission would make selling this idea here at home and around the world immeasurably harder for the President.” Public polling indicates a near even split for limited intervention among Americans, with 80 percent demanding a congressional opinion. (Don’t you always ask for the opinion of people of whom you disapprove?)


We hope this Onion quote isn’t true: “’The president has conferred with his top advisors and is currently considering everything from authorizing missile strikes against Syrian regime targets, to taking out Syrian regime targets with missile strikes—nothing is off the table at this point,’ said White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, noting that the president would ‘take all factors into consideration,’ … before settling on his only option.”

For us earnest folks, President Obama heard the people’s ingenious idea: “Let the infinitely wise legislature weigh in! Yes We Can!” For us more cynical types, he said, “Screw it, let these morons try to come to a decision. If the American people, Congress, and the 2007 version of myself think that Congress should weigh in on Syria, enjoy that Gordian knot.” 
Presidents are loathe to give up power, and we surmise that allowing the legislative branch to get in on this mess made some political sense: Particularly with the Brits being MIA, a congressional resolution is a nice stamp of legitimacy for what the public deems a questionable operation (somewhat similar to the 1991 decision to get congressional approval for Desert Storm). By seeking and attaining congressional approval for some sort of limited retaliatory strike, they spread the blame for problems; by seeking and not obtaining congressional approval, the administration can probably continue more intense versions of its ongoing, preferred policies (diplomatic efforts, arms to rebels, etc.). Rejection is a possibility, and would be embarrassing, but with the events of August 21, President Obama seems like a true believer in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons.
There is little doubt that there was a chemical attack and that it was heinous. But the case that Obama needs to make is why this matters to the United States. If it is, as the New York Times reports, merely to reinstall a “blurred” red line in order to shore up American credibility in the international sphere, then it is awfully theoretical and risky (or not-so-theoretical—we have plenty of demonstrable evidence, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, that in fact shoring up U.S. credibility with poorly thought out military actions in places where people hate us is a terrible idea). There is little empirical or theoretical evidence that specific actions translate into general perceptions of credible threats.
The administration already missed the “credibility boat” when it failed to cut off funding in the wake of the military coup in Egypt even as they released the former dictator from prison. Surely it is easier to cut off funding than it is to launch a military strike? And you can bet the backlash of not responding to the latest events in Egypt combined with another U.S. attack in the Middle East will be palpable and long lasting. Yet all of that is regardless of whether the strike even succeeds (questionable at best) and whether the attack ends up drawing the United States into another poorly planned, risk-filled intervention in an already screwed-up part of the world where nobody trusts it. 
After all the talk of game changers and red lines, the basic math remains the same: the U.S. can still destroy Syria, a limited strike will basically be just destructive rhetoric with little military value, there is no compelling strategic logic for Washington to involve itself in this war (a topic for another post), and the French are likely to be even less useful than our erstwhile mates across the Channel. Though we could always sit back and hope that France’s recent penchant for cleaning up its former colonies (see Mali) continues in its former playground of Syria (thanks to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, also known as the “gift that keeps on giving”).


So far, Obama has been the Avoider-in-Chief when it comes to Syria. But the latest use of chemicals by Assad—perhaps their most extensive deployment since Saddam Hussein killed thousands of Kurds in Halabja—mandates a response, no matter how ineffective or risky it proves to be.

Aaron David Miller

Do two negatives make a positive? Is malicious disregard for human life only preventable through malicious disregard for human life? Is it wise to follow through on a questionable threat without even considering the possibility of your credibility falling further? Screw it, warm up the Tomahawks!

More to the point, we dare anyone to come up with a better example of inane Washington groupthink.


The One Place in the World We Cannot Care About

If one believes inside the Beltway chit-chat, it is entirely possible to think every speck of Earth’s surface is of critical interest to the US. Let’s rundown the list:

*Western Hemisphere: This was handled centuries ago. The Monroe Doctrine may be interpreted poorly, but the Roosevelt Corollary is down pat inside I-495. It’s our job, after all. God said so. Stay out of it, Jay-Z!

*Western Europe: Fought a big war for this (didn’t you see Saving Private Ryan?) and they’re our biggest trading partner. Definitely part of the national interest. Nothing can go wrong here—unless it has to do with banking, in which case Washington has nothing to offer.

*Eastern Europe: Having already kicked Soviet (and Serbian) ass, Americans would prefer to see this area of the world become placid, continuing to develop a cheap tourism industry while maintaining its “character” (read: shabbiness). We can’t spend all 14 days in Paris!

*Russia: Thousands of nukes, lots of energy (in the hydrocarbon sense, not the demographic one), and quasi-global ambitions. We have to deal with Russia, and keep an eye on them. In case you think the Kremlin represents a midde-rate power trying desperately to influence its immediate surroundings, we forgive you for not noticing it’s part of a new axis.

*Central Asia: There’s some oil here, the dictators are hilarious, and it’s near Afghanistan. Crucial.

*Middle East: Since Americans consume 18.6 million barrels of oil per day, it is a US burden/duty to keep this large region functioning as part of the global economy. But every pundit wants to spread democracy there, too. Sort of. And let’s not forget those roguish Persians. Or our “staunch ally” the Israelis. Or our Saudi frenemies. Or Al Qaeda-plagued Yemen. Or…

*Northern/Eastern Africa: The place where Bush’s Freedom Agenda finally flowered (cough, cough) as Washington’s dictator friends fell with dizzying rapidity. Intervening in Libya ensured that America would be heavily involved for decades to come after it led (pretty much directly) to civil war in Mali involving yet another franchise of Al Qaeda. And don’t forget the Navy SEALS swashbuckling with pirates off the Somali coast, or the special ops base in Djibouti, the pronunciation of which has unleashed a thousand chuckles. You still can’t find it on a map, can you?

*East Asia: One of the largest and certainly the most populous area of the world. The US is pivoting like Wilt Chamberlain in that direction. President Obama calls it the future, undoubtedly true if not for those painfully nostalgic North Koreans (they’re nothing if not retro-chic). Anything that happens in this area will be monitored, so be prudent in Thailand.

*Pacific: Connected to East Asia and therefore totally untouchable. Stay the hell away! It’s in the middle of the Pentagon’s pivot!

The red circles indicate vital US interests. Leave no stone unturned in your search for something “non-vital”…

*South Asia: With the US legacy on the line in Afghanistan, actual threats emanating from Pakistan, and the Indian economic/Dell call center relationship, not to mention the whole “nuclear war” thing between New Delhi and Islamabad, this area is of vital interest.

*Arctic/Antartica: In a veritable race to the bottom, Washington can’t trust the Canadians to hold the former (tricky bastards), while the latter provides vital evidence that we are destroying the planet. Gotta keep ‘em safe!

*Southern Africa: By virtue of South Africa’s inclusion in the BRICS, this is a crucial area of the world where America must retain strong alliances or whatever. Plus, America’s own Morgan Freeman used to be president.

This, of course, leads us to the Central African Republic. More on that later.


To Chem Or Not to Chem

What would papa do? Bashar al-Assad has some very lethal weapons and probably the will the use them. But as the world rings its hands over the issue, does the murderous dictator himself even think it would be wise to use them?

*Authors’ Note: We were obviously wrong in our conclusion that the Syrian regime would not use chemical weapons on a large scale. However, in noting the risks of doing so, this piece did reflect the basic reaction after the attacks. 

The role of chemical weapons in Syria is certain in only one respect: Each aspect of the problem is connected to the others. For the West, not “doing something” does leave open the possibility that chemical weapons will be used against rebel forces in either a broader offensive or some sort of last-ditch effort/retreat. Non-interventionism also leaves open the possibility that the attrition of Assad’s forces will eventually see certain bases fall to the rebels who might gain access to the big, bad WMDs. Staying removed from the conflict might give the US and others less chance of working with rebel groups to safely destroy these arms. We should emphasize chance because the punditry seems obsessed with the notion that, against massive historical evidence to the contrary, the United States will be able to play the Syrian opposition groups it deigns to work with like a fiddle. This will likely not be the case.

Of course, there is nothing about intervening that forecloses on the possibility of chemical weapons use. So “doing something” also risks a rapid regime collapse wherein the chemical weapons stores would be even more vulnerable to takeover and pilfer. The great fear is a jihadist group obtaining such weapons through theft or purchase. Even this is not a dangerous as it sounds. They would then have to develop the expertise to mix the chemicals to create anything more effective than a very local chem attack (like the Al Qaeda in Iraq chlorine bomb attempts).

The Syrian chemical stockpile remains a bit of a mystery. Most reporting indicates that VX, sarin, and mustard gas make up most of the arsenal, though others are suspected. The few instances where chemical weapons have been used left journalists and State Department officials confused, to say the least. Neither the circumstances nor the goal made themselves obvious in these suspected cases, and we won’t even go into their effectiveness (or lack thereof).

While John McCain and Joe Lieberman lament the lack of US military action in Syria, at least regarding chemical weapons, the tactical and strategic situation militates against the Syrian government using the weapons. Rebel forces are geographically dispersed and they have no central command structure. We haven’t heard much recently about the “retreat to Alawite territory” option, though chemical weapons as an area denial tool may come into play should this occur. On top of these issues, there is strategic risk: Losing the non-approbation of China and Russia; potential direct responses by the US; more foreign sympathy for the rebels. It seems a silly gamble, given the drawbacks. General Dempsey agrees.

This makes the Obama administration’s decision to trumpet a “red line” over chemical weapons a rhetorical mess. Thus far, possible chemical weapons use has been localized and small scale, as one might expect. After a suspicious incident last December, to avoid the “toxic” words “chemical weapons,” administration spokesmen evoked the Shakespearean term “misuse of a riot control agent.” The casualties that night amounted to less than those of a large artillery barrage or assault on a populated town. Wisely, the administration has decided against making such all-too-frequent events red lines, yet they might have to jump through more hoops to avoid sounding feckless if a confirmed minor chemical weapons attack occurs. That, or (dubiously) upping US involvement.

In short, both circumstances and international support for the rebels will likely continue to dissuade the Assad regime from using chemical weapons. While doing more to unseat that regime could possibly mean improved preparedness to disarming Syrian WMDs, bombing the bad men will not eliminate the potential for chemical weapons use. Could it be true? Are we not mistaken?! Is the UN’s position really the best option?