Home/Daniel Larison/Why the U.S. Has Stayed Out of Syria (So Far)

Why the U.S. Has Stayed Out of Syria (So Far)

The Wall Street Journalreports on the debates inside the administration on Syria policy. One reason that the U.S. hasn’t taken more aggressive measures is that proposals for military intervention encountered resistance from the military and the administration’s lawyers:

In those briefings, attendees say, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other top military officials emphasized the risks, including hitting civilians: “It would look like we were carpet bombing the Syrians,” said a former senior U.S. official who attended one of the briefings [bold mine-DL].

Defense officials say the Joint Staff presented the best options available. Top military commanders acknowledge they weren’t enthusiastic about the options because they didn’t see them as viable [bold mine-DL]. “Some things are what we call wicked problems,” one senior defense official said.

Advocates of intervening faced another hurdle: administration lawyers. Lawyers at the White House and departments of Defense, State and Justice debated whether the U.S. had a “clear and credible” legal justification under U.S. or international law for intervening militarily. The clearest legal case could be made if the U.S. won a U.N. or NATO mandate for using force. Neither route seemed viable: Russia would veto any Security Council resolution, and NATO wasn’t interested in a new military mission.

Many advocates for some form of military intervention in Syria often treat current U.S. policy as if it were inexplicable and baffling that the U.S. isn’t rushing in to attack the regime. Sometimes this is reduced to blaming Obama for being too concerned about public opinion, and sometimes in the most ridiculous criticisms current Syria policy is cited as evidence that Obama lacks “resolve” or desires American “decline,” but in all cases there is never an attempt to grapple with the military and legal objections mentioned in this article. If there aren’t viable military options, insisting that the president order military action is senseless. If it has no legal justification (and it doesn’t), supporters of intervention should have to explain why that doesn’t matter. We should be glad that supporters of an illegal, unworkable military intervention haven’t had their way so far, but the troubling thing is that there is still so much automatic support for such an unwise and indefensible idea.

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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