Why the Syria Decision is So Difficult

The United States is contemplating a military strike against Bashar Assad's forces within the coming weeks.  President Obama is asking Congress to decide whether the use of authorized force is appropriate in light of Assad's use of chemical weapons on his own people.  Congress appears divided, and the American public and global opinion is strongly against a military strike.  Yet, many have seen the footage of women, children, and other innocents dying or struggling to survive after being intentionally attacked with Sarin.  Why is the decision of whether to punish a leader for using chemical warfare so difficult? 

There are many reasons:  America's war weariness, the fact that we have very few allies in Syria, the fact that terrorist organizations are operating there and could benefit from a strike, the fact that we are not prepared to escalate if something goes wrong, questions about evidence, and a lack of a coherent plan for what happens after the punishing attack.

But the factor that makes it an excruciating decision is this: 

Remember World War II where millions were rounded up and put into confined, concrete bunkers and were then gassed to death?  This is the same kind of weapon, but from the sky.  There is no doubt that we do not want to live in a world where lethal gas chambers fall from the sky, killing people, crops, animal life, and poisoning soil for ages to come.  Airborne "gas chambers" that drop on people over large swaths of territory should be stopped at all costs.  

I take it seriously when I hear reports that President Obama and John Kerry were truly horrified at the damage that was done through these chemical weapons, particularly on children.  Furthermore, the use of the weapons has escalated, and I do believe a panicked Assad would use those weapons to clear out neighborhoods in vital areas of the capital city Damascus.  I believe the classified information about the extent of this attack would be more horrific than what we have been able to hear and see on the news.

HOWEVER--the problem is that a strike against Syria will not leave the USA, or probably the world, in a better place.  The reason is the same as why the long-term occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq were a huge mistake:  You cannot fight a modern war, against a pre-modern enemy, in a post-modern world.

A Modern War, A Pre-Modern enemy, a Post-Modern World

Let me explain.  The enemies we now face in the 21st century are not like typical nation-state actors of the 19th and 20th Century.  Trans-national terrorists and men like Assad do not care about international norms.  They are not beholden to run a country.  They are free to be completely irresponsible, reckless, and nihilistic.  Their "moral code" allows for complete destruction of the enemy, the land, and any sense of decency.  Assad is not fighting for Syria, or even a re-constituted Syria.  At this point, he is simply fighting for his own personal survival.  He crossed the rubicon long ago, and will now either face death, a war crimes tribunal, or will lead a small, pariah state on the coast of Syria surrounded by hostile enemies.  He has no reason to follow international norms.  He is part of a pre-modern world--where there is no adherence to a universal, international code made up by nation-states.

The US response is still that of the 19th and 20th century:  Trying to figure out how to punish a country---as if Syria is a country.  It is not. It is one guy, his crooked generals, and a semi-committed military that is still, relatively well-armed.  As in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US makes the mistake of treating these countries as if they are real countries that can be reformed and controlled with some time, effort, money, military fire-power and possibly occupation.  But they are not:  They are tribal societies (many hostile to each other) that through force have been masquerading as one, cohesive country.  While no one argues that attacks on Afghanistan needed to occur after 9/11, the attempt to wage warfare (and build democracy) with Afghanistan and Iraq as if they were 21st Century nation-states was a modern idea--and a huge mistake.  A modern-state cannot emerge from a pre-modern state through war.  Countries like Japan and Germany that were re-built after World War II had ancient societies or civilizations upon which to build.  While Syria is an ancient geographical territory, the "country" itself is divided upon many different ethnic and religious groups as well as Palestinian refugees.  Now we can add to it, various foreign mercenaries and terrorist groups.  A US military response that belongs in the model of 20th century modern warfare does not fit this situation any better than our futile attempts to reform Iraq and Afghanistan.  

What about the post-modern part?   What I mean by this is that no innocent casualty, no misguided missile strike, or dead American solider will be tolerated in this post-modern world of 24/7 media which really believes that warfare is a thing of the past.  We don't wage wars to win or conquer anymore.  We do "military strikes" or act on "a resolution" or do "nation-building."  It is a half-cocked approach that starts to rub people very wrong when things go wrong---and they always go wrong if it's anything larger than Granada or capturing Manuel Noriega.  

So what is being set up here is no different than what we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan:  A modern war, fought against a pre-modern enemy, in a post-modern world.  The chances of a positive result are nearly zero.

A New Era of No Wins

A positive outcome would be nearly impossible at this juncture.  And contrary to what some are suggesting, earlier intervention would not have done the trick either (see Iraq and Afghanistan).  What is needed to even make a run at democracy? A benevolent military or policing force, a long civilizational history, a per capita GDP of $7,000 US, high rates of literacy, a wise government, and a democratic impulse are just a few of the variables that it usually takes to create a stable democracy.  This would have been a stretch prior to the Syrian Civil War.  Chinese investment and the strong-hand of Assad's regime was making Syria a fast-growing, modernizing, and attractive country; but it was an authoritarian state.  All of that is gone now.  

Today, the chances of Syria ever coming together as one country is pretty much zero.  The best one could hope for is the end of Assad and the balkinization of the country (perhaps through further warfare) until it becomes a bunch of small countries like the former Yugoslavia.  However, the terrorist element and the Civil War happening within Islam makes this peaceful outcome highly unlikely.   What is most probable is that Syria will be controlled by numerous militias, many at odds with each other, encouraging ethnic strife for years to come--without any peaceful evolution.

Furthermore, a US strike at best will cause collateral damage and further erosion of the moral credibility of the United States.  More likely, one of the following things will happen:   1) Assad will go down shortly after and Syria will be in utter chaos.  2) Assad will lash out against Jordan, Israel, or Lebanon and force someone (the USA, Israel) to get into the mix.  3) Assad will continue using chemical weapons with the only way to stop him being more strikes. 4) Our supposed "allies' in Syria turn on the USA. 5) The strike unleashes a chain of events that involve multiple countries and causes a tremendous refugee crisis dwarfing the current one--mostly falling upon Lebanon, Jordan and Europe (similar to 2, but more long-term and bigger). 

Even if the strikes are limited to 2 or 3 days and no one innocent is killed,  we are still not in the position to make anyone in Syria adhere to international norms of behavior.  This is because we are not dealing with a cohesive, modern, nation-state.   There are no "rebels" that can control the country.  There is instead a myriad of opposition groups--many hostile to each other.

The U.S.--always the eternal optimist--cannot fathom that some problems don't have simple, easy solutions.  Both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of this decade after decade (See the current inability of Americans to realize that there is no magical way to restore the economy, avoid taxes, AND have great Medicare, Social Security, and military/anti-terrorism security). Americans by their nature believe they will find a solution to any problem.  They put a man on the moon, after all.  No movie captures that American optimism better than Ron Howard's "Apollo 13" where a crisis in space leads NASA scientists to, on-the-fly, come up with ingenious ways of saving the crew.  George W. Bush's policies were rooted in a naivete that is simply stunning to behold. Nation-building and democracy in Afghanistan where sex between man and boy is still very much okay and women are viewed as no better than animals?  Really?   Clearly this person has not traveled much.  Now Barack Obama, who has lived in different cultures, is repeating the same mistake.  And I believe it is because American Presidents, American lawmakers, and the American military has failed to internalize that there are some things in the 21st Century that we will not be able to do.  There is no magic bullet, no happy ending, no guaranteed way to make the world completely safe.  

I believe U.S. lawmakers and Obama's administration when they say that the classified information about what Assad has done is a moral outrage that the world cannot ignore;  That colorless gas is one bridge too far.  And that it will be tempting for Assad to use it again, because he is a very desperate, morally weak man.  

However, if we vote "yes," for military strikes, we must admit that the hornets nest that has already been stirred up, will most likely be even more lethal--and we won't want to pay the price to shut it down.  We never do, because we live in a post-Modern, post-Hiroshima world, and we don't go for complete victories anymore.  Complete victory requires total destruction.  Instead, we settle for stale-mates to avoid mushroom clouds There is something honorable about that.  It shows civilizational progress.  But not every corner of the world will abide by those restrictions.  Some really do want war to the death by any means necessary.

We must take a stand against chemical weapons!  We must also not make a bad nightmare even worse!  What to do?  This time, there is no right answer.  We're looking for the moral clarity of D-Day in World War II, but that era has passed us by.    We are left with tragedy or tragedy.  Both outcomes will be bad.  One will be worse.  Which one do you choose?