A Good Way to Weigh Bad Options

Steve Saideman on why seriously examining the tradeoffs and costs involved in intervening in Syria is a good thing.
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July 24, 2013
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The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, made news when he informed Congress of the options facing the U.S. for addressing the Syrian civil war.  He did not cite my definition of the Mideast as the Land of Lousy Alternatives or my argument that saving Syria will take a super-hero or ten.  Instead, he went through the various options, enumerating their costs.  In a time of austerity and sequestration, merely specifying the potential budgetary impact of military action in another Mideast conflict is probably sufficient to kill the intervention ambitions of most (although Senator Lindsey Graham seems impervious to this type of thinking), The military’s conclusion that the Syrian situation really does present few alternatives for outsiders to make a difference is important on its own, but it’s also significant for what it tells us about the U.S. military’s current outlook on intervening in civil wars generally, and civil-military relations in the U.S.

Dempsey wrote this letter to Senator Carl Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, in the aftermath of his confirmation hearings (for a second term as Chairman) to explain the stance he took at the hearings.  He went through the options:


  • Train, advise and assist the opposition

  • Conduct limited missile strikes

  • Set up a no-fly zone

  • Establish buffer zones, most likely across the borders with Turkey or Jordan

  • Take control of Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile (NYT)

Dempsey pointed out the costs of each option, but also that “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”  In other words, none of these would lead to a rebel victory; any first step would probably require additional steps.  This is not the “Powell” doctrine of only fighting conventional wars with popular support against feeble opposition but rather the informed experience after Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya that regime change is a pretty difficult exercise that has not just costs but heaps of consequences. 

A few words on each option. Training and equipping the opposition did work in the case of Croatia in that it helped tip the balance in Bosnia, but the general circumstances in the Syria case are not the same – ­the opposition here is fragmented and includes many actors that are very hostile to the U.S.  Limited missile strikes are just that: limited.  They might make folks in the U.S. feel good, but they will not change the circumstances on the ground in any appreciable way.  A no-fly zone would only have a marginal impact because Assad, like Hussein of 1990s Iraq, has plenty of repressive capacity on the ground.  Buffer zones are a nice idea but so were the “safe havens” in Bosnia that became killing fields. Finally the effort to get Assad’s chemical weapons would require a war.  So, even if one does not think of the costs and consequences, the tool box is largely empty of tools that would make a significant difference. 

The second “revelation” in this letter is that the U.S. military is not chomping at the bit.  The reality is that the U.S. military has never been a big fan of intervening in civil wars–its leadership pushed hard against intervention in Bosnia.  People like to think of American soldiers as Rambos looking for some place to do some killing, but they knew before Afghanistan and Iraq – and they know much better now – that getting involved in other people’s civil wars is not only bloody, it is also incredibly hard to be successful.  Even if Assad’s government was taken out, the conflict would not be over.  Whatever arrogance existed in 2003 about the day after “victory” is gone now. State-building is a very hard business that the U.S. military would like to get out of.  I do believe that Dempsey’s opposition here is far more informed and nuanced than Powell’s in the early 1990’s, but that really does not matter too much.  What matters here is that the forces for intervention do not have an ally in the U.S. military.  Sorry, John McCain, but it looks like you will have to intervene on your own.

The third part of this story is how incredibly healthy American civil-military relations can be at times.  Sure, you have a fairly passionate set of hearings for the re-confirmation of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but what happens?  The relevant body in the legislature, the Senate, gets to ask some pesky questions and put the Chairman’s feet to the fire. The Chairman provides additional information to the committee to reflect his thinking about the advice he is going to give to the President.  As a result, he has a better understanding of what the senators are thinking, and the senators have a better idea of what the Chairman is thinking.  Better understanding does not necessarily lead to happiness and singing kumbaya, but it fosters better oversight.  The key point here is that the process (aside from the holds that some senators may place on a nomination) works.  The public is now better informed about the reluctance of the administration to intervene in Syria. 

Not all countries have legislative processes that provide greater transparency about what the military’s stance is on key questions of the day, or that equip legislators with the tools they need to conduct oversight. The American process is hardly perfect, but we should take note when U.S. political institutions work as they were designed to do.  It should not be so exceptional either in the current American context or in the comparative context.  Yet it is.