I taught my kids that there are three pillars of national power — political, military, and economic. Nations can influence other nations and their own populace using only these three levers (sometimes alone, but usually in combination with one another). It’s been true since time immemorial. It will always be true.
During the last ten years of asymmetric warfare and military operations other than war, the US military to came up with the acronym “DIME” to describe these levers of power. DIME stands for Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic. This is essentially what I taught my children — except that “political” is split out into Diplomatic (the ability of nations to influence other nations through political engagement) and Informational (the ability of nations to control or influence the information environment, outside of and within their own borders).
A cohesive national strategy involves the balanced application of all of our powers toward an end objective. Any one lever on its own does not work so well; they must typically be used in some combination to achieve the desired effects. It is up to our political leaders, and in some cases our military leaders, to figure out how best to apply power using these levers. It is almost never an easy decision. The factors involved are complex; the impacts can be immense.
In the case of Syria, we applied political (diplomatic) pressure early-on, and we have continued to apply that pressure on the international stage. One of the ways in which we applied diplomatic pressure on Bashar al-Assad was by drawing a “red line“ — we told him that we would not tolerate his use of chemical weapons, or anything that looked like his use of chemical weapons, against his own people. The President specifically said that we would be looking for anything that looked like chemical weapons being moved around or staged.
It now appears that the Assad regime has actually deployed chemical weapons against the Syrian people at least once, perhaps more than once. A team of UN inspectors was imminently to be on the ground investigating claims of previous use of chemical weapons when a new Sarin gas attack was alleged to have occurred in Damascus. Bowing to international diplomatic pressure, the Syrian government has allowed UN inspectors access to the site, but only after conducting heavy shelling of the area where the attack was alleged to have occurred.
For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the attacks alleged — at least this last one — did, in fact, occur, and that they were carried out by the Syrian government. These seem to be safe assumptions, by the way. It’s not clear how rebels who can barely scrape together some rifles and a few RPGs could have pulled off multiple, coordinated artillery attacks using chemical weapons (or why they would have done so — against themselves and a LOT of civilians — ignoring the fringe theory that the Syrian rebels would use nerve gas in order to provoke international military engagement).
Let’s walk down the list:
- Diplomatic – After about a hundred thousand deaths in the conflict to date, with no end in sight, it’s probably safe to assume that no diplomatic solution is forthcoming. Bear in mind that Russia and Iran are supplying arms to the Syrian government, and that Russia is backing the Syrian leadership in the UN Security Council (with veto power as a permanent member of the council).
- Informational – Outside of Syria, the media has no love for Bashar al-Assad. Most of the world wants him gone and sees him as a monster. I somehow doubt that leaflets, Internet reports being fed to the media, television news coverage, etc., will impact the behavior of the Syrian regime. It certainly has not had any effect to date. Inside Syria, the information environment is state-controlled, and opinions are hard-lined in favor of or against the government already (there is no sway-able audience within Syria for any message at this point).
- Economic – It is possible that economic sanctions could have some impact on Syria that diplomatic sanctions have not had to date. However, Syria’s economy is already in pretty bad shape, and they have key trade partners who will ignore any economic sanctions that might be imposed. If we were still in a position of Syria not having crossed our red line, it might be feasible to continue political pressure and increase that pressure through punishing economic sanctions, but the effect would be gradual and the punishment resulting from those sanctions would primarily impact the Syrian people in Syria (the ones who haven’t fled) — not the Syrian government.
What tools are left? What levers can we pull? Only one.
The importance of this cannot be overemphasized: We drew a red line. Syria crossed it.
I hope that I don’t have to construct an argument as to why the US has a vested interest in having the ability to prevent other nations and non-state actors from using chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. If you’re wondering why this is our business, go have a nice talk with your houseplant, and never, ever vote again.
Our choices are down to this (through process of elimination):
- Take Military action.
- Do nothing.
Doing nothing is not an option. Why? Because it sends the message that the United States of America is not to be listened to, when it comes to preventing the proliferation and use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons by states and non-state actors. It sends this exact message:
Dear nefarious actors,
We might threaten you — but we will never back up our threat. You have carte blanche to go ahead and do whatever you want, and we will not stop you. Kill whomever you want to kill, however you would like, including us, whenever you want to.
In the immediate context, this message is sent to the Syrian people. The message reads clearly: NO ONE WILL PROTECT YOU from these types of weapons. YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN.
In the long term, it sends that message to every future bad actor. The next Bashar al-Assad. The next Stalin. The next Hitler.
That is not an option.
I don’t envy the people who have to figure out exactly how to take military action to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons. I don’t envy the diplomats who have to convince the rest of the world to support this action (BTW, Europe doesn’t need much convincing). I don’t envy the President who will have the final word when the moment comes.
But the path ahead of us is clear and we must walk it. Take military action. Make it hurt enough that Assad and every other totalitarian nutcase thinks long and hard about repeating this type of behavior. And, importantly – do it soon.