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An Even Better Question for Syria Hawks

Dan Drezner remarks [1] on the gap between the outcomes that hawks desire in Syria and the aggressive measures that they want to use to achieve them:

When hawks talk about taking action in Syria, they tend to focus on their desired outcomes: checking Russian and Iranian power, ousting Assad, defeating the Islamic State and ending the slow-motion humanitarian disaster. These are attractive goals that the current administration is not pursuing. Hawks sound very good when they talk about foreign policy outcomes in Syria.

The question is how the foreign policy output of greater military intervention in Syria will achieve those desired outcomes. That’s why Zakaria’s question is important, and that’s why Stephens’s failure to offer a credible answer matters.

Drezner is right that Syria hawks aren’t able to answer this question, but it’s interesting that the hawks still don’t think they need to be able to answer it. Most Syria hawks bang on about the need for a “no-fly zone” or arming a “moderate” opposition as loudly today as they did three or four years ago despite the fact that both of these options have obviously become even less practical than they were when first proposed. They can’t explain how these proposals would produce the outcomes they desire, but they are accustomed to not being expected to do that during previous debates over intervention.


In the Libyan case, for example, interventionists got the military action they wanted without being forced to account for any of the likely negative consequences of their preferred course of action. Some interventionists vaguely imagined that there would be some sort of peaceful, democratic, post-Gaddafi Libya after regime change, but it never occurred to the war’s supporters that they were obliged to explain how regime change and continued instability would lead to that result. In that sense, the outcomes the hawks talk about are beside the point. What matters to them is getting the U.S. to commit to the aggressive policies they want. As far as they are concerned, what happens later is someone else’s problem, and in most debates over direct U.S. military intervention they have been allowed to get away with that.

There has always been a glaring contradiction at the heart of the hawkish argument on Syria that they never address. They cite the destabilizing effects of the Syrian civil war as a reason to intervene, and they frequently dress up their interventionist arguments in humanitarian rhetoric, but at the same time they want the U.S. to carry out policies that will kill and displace more Syrians, create more refugees, and make the country even less stable than it currently is. They frame the problem in Syria as one of continued conflict and instability, but their so-called “remedy” promises much more of the same. It’s as if they see a country mostly on fire and ask, “What can our government do to burn the rest of it?”

The principal hawkish error in Syria is in assuming that the U.S. should be involved in the conflict at all. Drezner describes the outcomes that the hawks seek as “attractive goals,” but it hasn’t ever been clear why they should be attractive for the U.S. The most important question that hawks can’t answer, and which they are almost never asked: “How are American interests protected and advanced by taking sides in Syria’s civil war?” There has never been a remotely persuasive answer to that question, and I suspect that there never will be because no vital U.S. interests were ever at stake there.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "An Even Better Question for Syria Hawks"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 12, 2015 @ 10:28 am

“How are American interests protected and advanced by taking sides in Syria’s civil war?”

The bottom line. I think it odd you are so generous here. It has never ben answered, not materially, not strategically, not politically, not ethically, not even existentially.

#2 Comment By collin On October 12, 2015 @ 11:13 am

When it comes to Syria, I have held refugee support is the only good strategy there because their Civil War is a like a big California wildfire: All you can do is contain the fire until it burns itself out. By offering weapons or support all we are doing is keeping up hope on this stalemate.

At this point, it is really hard to see what Russia hopes to accomplish here but I figure Putin is digging his own grave here.

#3 Comment By Fred Bowman On October 12, 2015 @ 12:02 pm

The American interested being “advanced and protected” are those of the congressional, military-industrial complex. Don’t y’all know war is good for “business?” Sad but very true.

#4 Comment By jsn On October 12, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

This article assumes an intent not in evidence, that Hawks care about an outcome in Syria other than war. The contractors they have shares in, or family working for, hope to work for after manifesting Hawkish all get paid well for war, not for diplomatic resolution or humanitarian outcomes. Until there are negative consequences individually for the advocates of profitable war, they will advocate profitable war.

#5 Comment By Thaddeus On October 12, 2015 @ 6:40 pm

This article assumes an intent not in evidence, that Hawks care about “America’s interests” at all, even as they do care a great deal about the interests of a certain other nation.

#6 Comment By paradoctor On October 13, 2015 @ 12:31 am

Much of America’s foreign policy is explained by the Orwellian dictum, “War is Peace”. And if war is peace, then victory is defeat, so only unwinnable wars are worth waging. The Syrian civil war is eminently unwinnable; hence its appeal to America’s so-called “conservatives”. (Another Orwellianism.)

#7 Comment By sid_finster On October 13, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

“Until there are negative consequences individually for the advocates of profitable war, they will advocate profitable war.”

Neocons and other psychopaths learn only from reward and punishment.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc.. On October 13, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

“Neocons and other psychopaths learn only from reward and punishment.”

I would that any of this accurate. Not only have the interventionists i8n the Republican party seemed to have learned anything. There liberal interventionists having come out of the closet haven’t learned anything despite decrying all that came before that they now seem to embrace.

There are two essential lessons.

1. rare is the efficacy of limited war using supposed interest groups as mechanisms for unnecessary adventures

2. if you use force, in the manner assigned to upend stable systems, you had better dismantle the system completely and then be prepared to own the consequences rebuilding from the ground up.

No one seems to have any comprehension that war as a tool po9litics is not a delicate tool one can finesse.

Creating a no fly zone is a reminder just how unprepared the current advocates of such measures are to implement force for political ends.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc.. On October 13, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

“The Syrian civil war is eminently unwinnable; hence its appeal to America’s so-called “conservatives”. (Another Orwellianism.)”

No. The ultimate and first question is whether we need to engage war at all. We have the ability to win. What happens after makes winning all but useless based on recent history.

We have not needed war to achieve any objectives of the last 16 years or so. Not even in Afghanistan. That could have been accomplished via a much smaller and effective footprint.

I am not sure many commenters fully grasp the might of the US. It really is overwhelming. Our war machines are formidable even at their worst.

But our reliance on said force has actually undermined the veracity of the same. Now we are exposed and that very exposure is pressing fear buttons. Fear buttons are reactionary, which tends to lean on the use of force, and using it in the same inept manner

Iraq was not a failure because of a military defeat. It’s a failure because of what occurred after, while we were still in country.

I cannot stress enough. The problem for the US is not an inability to win. It is whether we should be engaged in these war efforts at all.

#10 Comment By JTMcPhee On October 13, 2015 @ 3:29 pm

This one Vietnam vet asks to be excused from inclusion in that plural pronoun “we” that everyone uses to indicate supposedly preferred collective action. My “We” gets no say in any of the Grand Policy Determinations, much less the sneaky stuff that constitutes the real political economy of “war, the racket.” And I am not so sure about the formidability of the enormous clumsy bureaucratized behemoth that is “our” military-industrial structure, of which it might be said IT owns “US,” rather than the other way around. “We” don’t seem to be doing so well against local folks in their own terrain, 4th Generation style, and “our” own War Games, like Operation Millenium 2000, seem to require canceling the real outcomes and resetting the playing field and declaring victory: [2]

In all of this, no mention of that Sun Tzu collection of wisdom, the tenets of which all these Rulers and generals and stuff, who supposedly study the “art of war,” just blow off from the git-go:


Special attention to Article I, paras 1-17, and then Article II “Waging War,” this:

“1. Sun Tzu said: In the operations of war, where there are in the field a thousand swift chariots, as many heavy chariots, and a hundred thousand mail-clad soldiers, with provisions enough to carry them a thousand li, the expenditure at home and at the front, including entertainment of guests, small items such as glue and paint, and sums spent on chariots and armor, will reach the total of a thousand ounces of silver per day. Such is the cost of raising an army of 100,000 men.

2. When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.

3. Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.

4. Now, when your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.

5. Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.

6. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

And, well, pretty much all of the rest of it. (Note that sneaky-pete operations that might be said to be intended to ‘defeat the enemy without combat’ seem to massively go awry, perhaps because that’s not what the goals are in the first instance?)

#11 Comment By Just Dropping By On October 13, 2015 @ 6:54 pm

Actually, I think the US does at this point have a somewhat legitimate interest in the Syrian Civil War and that is to prevent ISIS from taking over the entire country. However, the only semi-plausible route to achieving that interest is supporting Assad in taking back control of the country (Assad has actually never been particularly antagonistic toward the US or even towards Israel, unlike his father).