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Killing Syrians For Ukraine

Anne-Marie Slaughter reminds us why we’re glad that she doesn’t work in government anymore:

The solution to the crisis in Ukraine lies in part in Syria. It is time for US President Barack Obama to demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations. The result will change the strategic calculus not only in Damascus, but also in Moscow, not to mention Beijing and Tokyo.

It makes absolutely no sense to argue that bombing a Russian client in one place will change Russian behavior in another place for the better. Nothing would be more useful for Moscow as a matter of propaganda than to have the U.S. illegally attacking another country. The diversion of resources and attention required to start a war with Syria would make U.S. and allied warnings over Ukraine even less meaningful than they already are. Attacking Syria would distract the U.S. from the Ukraine crisis while wrecking whatever semblance of Western allied unity there is. It would potentially be political suicide for any European governments that went along with it, and it would needlessly open up a rift in NATO at the worst possible moment. Fortunately, it isn’t likely that the administration would be foolish enough to follow this advice, but if they did it would provoke a major backlash here at home. More to the point, while it would drag the U.S. directly into the war in Syria, it would have no beneficial effect on the Ukraine crisis, and would more likely cause Russian hostility to the U.S., our allies, and would-be clients in the region to spike even higher. I suppose it might influence how other governments see the U.S., but not at all in the way that Slaughter imagines. Treaty allies elsewhere in the world would be annoyed that the U.S. is wasting its resources on another unnecessary war in the Near East, and other major powers may conclude that our leaders are reckless and foolish.

Of course, Obama has ordered “the offensive use of force” when he decided to intervene in Libya. Slaughter can’t have forgotten this, since she was a leading advocate of the Libyan war, but strangely she doesn’t mention it here. The Libyan war shows that U.S. uses of force sometimes don’t have the deterrent effect that their advocates believe them to have. Not only was the Libyan war supposed to dissuade other authoritarian rulers from using force against their domestic opponents, but it was supposed to be an example of a “good” intervention backed by international consensus. There was no international consensus, and several of the countries that abstained on the U.N. resolution quickly came to regret their decision to cooperate with the U.S. In Russia’s case, U.S. willingness to wage yet another war for regime change was viewed with alarm and made Moscow even more wary of U.S. intentions. Unfortunately, other dictators were not deterred from using violence to suppress protesters, since the “precedent” of Libya meant nothing to them. In any case, Russia wasn’t impressed by the willingness to use force in Libya. Why would Syria be any different? Slaughter’s explanation is woefully lacking. She writes:

Striking Syria might not end the civil war there, but it could prevent the eruption of a new one in Ukraine.

Hawks are constantly misjudging how other states perceive U.S. actions and therefore fail to anticipate their reactions. Bombing Syria isn’t going to cow Russia into changing its behavior in Ukraine. If anything, it would provoke Russia to escalate its involvement in Ukraine, and perhaps might trigger Russian actions against other “pro-Western” governments in its vicinity. If Russian leaders see their seizure of Crimea and interference in Ukraine as a sort of payback for Western interventionism in the past, is it likely that they will respond to a new military intervention in the way that our interventionists expect? No, it isn’t.

The larger, glaring flaw with Slaughter’s proposal is that she proposes that the U.S. commence hostilities against Syria purely for the sake of making a point to the Russians. There doesn’t appear to be any concern for what effect U.S. intervention would have on Syria itself, or whether it might trigger Iranian retaliation against U.S. clients elsewhere in the region. For the sake of trying to intimidate Russia into changing its behavior in Ukraine, Slaughter is willing to call for military action that could lead to a wider regional war and might derail ongoing diplomacy with Iran. Her argument is the epitome of everything wrong with mindless, knee-jerk interventionism.

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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