The administration has called for Assad to step down and imposed some additional economic sanctions. Is this “mostly harmless,” as Dan Drezner says? Probably, but only because everyone seems to understand that there seems to be very little that the U.S. can or will do to bring about the outcome that it says should happen. If I were the type to worry about diminishing American “credibility,” I might wonder what purpose is served by calling for Assad’s departure when we all understand that this call will be ignored like all the others. However, I normally find most arguments that appeal to “credibility” to be the last resort of those with no real argument, and this is no different.
Calling for Assad’s departure is also most certainly a form of meddling in Syrian affairs. It is fairly mild meddling right now, but it is meddling all the same, and we have seen how similar “mostly harmless” gestures can become traps for the governments that make them. It’s worth remembering that it was just two weeks between saying that Gaddafi “must go” and the start of the Libyan war. Before long, the administration was making policy on Libya based on just such a “harmless” statement. Back in early March, intervening in Libya seemed absurd. Almost everyone was convinced that it wasn’t going to happen. The administration was sending many signals in public that it wasn’t going to happen. Then the war of caprice began. That was almost five months ago.
It is apparently the case that Libya has taught the U.S., Britain, and France not to do the same thing again anytime soon, and Libya may make it practically impossible for some of these governments to do anything, and we all know the many differences between Libya and Syria. Everything we think we know tells us that intervention in Syria can’t happen, that it’s irrational and impossible, and that our forces are already overstretched as it is. Then again, that is just what we thought before the bombing of Libya began. Back in March, it seemed nearly impossible that Western governments would attack Libya. Libya wasn’t even a hostile state! How stupid would we have to be to attack a relatively friendly government? Besides, surely the experience of Iraq would have chastened Western governments? It didn’t. Surely they would have learned from the long slog in both Iraq and Afghanistan that launching another military campaign would turn into a much longer, more costly mission than the one they expected? Nope.
The arguments against intervention in Syria are very strong. Even the Syrian opposition doesn’t want outside intervention of the Libyan kind. An attack would probably help the regime at least in the short term to turn everyone’s attention to the attacking governments. The regional consequences of attacking Syria and the dangers of a wider conflict are so many and grave that it is doubtful that any of the governments currently bombing Libya would be mad enough to try it. On the other hand, a person would have already lost a lot of money this year betting on the good judgment of these governments. When the leaders of several major Western military powers start issuing imperatives to other governments about what they “must” do, we can’t ever fully rule out that they will commit a new blunder by taking military action. In the very recent past, just such a blunder began with what initially seemed like a throwaway line, an empty rhetorical nod to a popular uprising, and that war is still going on.