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Killing Syrians for Ukraine (III)

Taylor Marvin makes a good point in response to last week’sposts on Slaughter and Syria:

But ultimately the entire discussion is silly. Strikes in Syria can only be expected to influence Moscow’s calculus if they prompt a reassessment of the punishment Russia could face for further action. American resolve has no bearing on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, because everyone — Obama, the EU, Putin, the Ukrainians, everybody – knows that the United States is not going to go to war or even meaningfully threaten war with a major nuclear power. Striking Syria as a proxy demonstration of American resolve just makes this more obvious. If America is so committed to facing down Putin in eastern Ukraine, why is it striking Syria then? Because the United States cannot credibly threaten to use military force against Russia.

That’s right. That’s why it is also silly for other people to complain that the U.S. has ruled out the use of force in Ukraine. This pretends that it is even slightly possible that the U.S. would use force in this crisis, but no one involved, especially the Russians, believes that this will ever happen.

Marvin goes on to say that Slaughter isn’t really making “an argument about Ukraine at all,” but is just linking the current crisis to the conflict in Syria because she has long favored some form of U.S. intervention there. That’s partly true, and we see the same sort of thing in other hawkish arguments. Expanding NATO to include Ukraine or Georgia may make less sense than ever, but now that Ukraine is in the spotlight proponents of NATO expansion lost no time in insisting that the correct response to the crisis is to speed up expansion. Since NATO expansion–and specifically the promise of more expansion in the future–has provoked more hostile Russian behavior toward its neighbors, it seems bizarre to recommend doing this to prevent Russia from further escalation. The purpose of making the argument is mainly to keep the idea as part of the debate.

My guess is that Slaughter and other Syria hawks aren’t simply using the Ukraine crisis as an excuse to talk up the possibility of intervention in Syria. Many of them have taken for granted that not bombing Syria last year encouraged Russia’s seizure of Crimea, because they tend to project their perceptions of U.S. actions onto foreign governments and conclude that other states perceive the U.S. to be “weak” just as they do. Of course, once again this doesn’t make any sense for the manyreasons that have been laid out before, but it is a connection that Syria hawks in particular want to make because it creates the illusion that the U.S. has somehow made the world less stable by choosing not to attack another country. If the U.S. had bombed Syria seven months ago, this would not have discouraged Russia from anything it has done in Ukraine, just as bombing Syria in the future wouldn’t deter Russia from continuing its incursions and interference, and for the same reasons. Many Syria hawks aren’t admitting this, because it would mean acknowledging that military intervention in Syria wasn’t remotely as important to U.S. “credibility” around the world as they have been insisting that it was.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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