Stopping on a DIME – Why we must intervene in Syria

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.
America

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.

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16 Responses to Stopping on a DIME – Why we must intervene in Syria

  1. Robert Yeske says:

    The Big stick has been in the hands of the American Presidents for the past century. Its use has cost Money and Lives, yet its use has also averted a world controlled by the likes of Adolf Hitler, Mouselini, and Mau Tsu Tung ( Spelling I might be off). There are countless people alive today and free to participate in the betterment of this world because of the judicious use of that same big stick.
    We here often that with great power comes great responsibility. there remains only 1 Super power in this world and it is the USA. There is no greater power on earth today. With this great power comes the great responsibility for the rest of the world.
    You are correct, we could choose to simply not act, and as you state, we set a precedent of not following thru. It is my hope that will not ever come true. We stepped into Iran and Afghanistan and the world’s terrorist activities dropped to almost nothing for a decade. We could have stayed out of WWII, but eventually we would have been forced to deal with the regimes that would have enveloped the rest of the world, and do so without allies.
    The big stick was used as a threat with an ultimatum attached, it is time to see if our President will do the right thing and follow thru. It is time to find out if there is fiber enough to swing that stick when the time comes (well since the time has come).

    It is never a greatly popular decision to put our sons and daughters in harms way for people that we do not know, but it does often become necessary!

    • Just in case anyone missed the allusion in Bob’s discourse here — the phrase “speak softly, but carry a big stick” was coined by Teddy Roosevelt, who was the first President to break the mold of asking “mother may I” every time the military did anything. As Commander in Chief of the armed forces (a title bestowed by the Constitution), the President is both authorized and obligated to exercise control over the military in times of both peace and war. Roosevelt ordered the Great White Fleet to sail around the world (at the time unprecedented, without a Congressional mandate) in order to demonstrate America’s growing military muscle to other nations of his day. The mere subtle threat of military action was enough to tilt a number of negotiations in the Americans’ favor, and to avoid a number of potential military engagements in Roosevelt’s time, and in the years since. The “Big Stick doctrine” as it came to be known has been used, both well and poorly (as Kat pointed out), by nearly every President since Teddy Roosevelt.

      The point here is this: Threats (which can be, and have been, enough to avoid wars and bloodshed) lose all value when they are not carried out. To leave this lie is to embolden anyone who may consider the use of weapons that the world has condemned in future conflicts. This is not a far-off, abstract consideration; the dictators and non-state actors who we should *not* embolden this way are people who are alive, in power, and threatening American lives today.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Let’s back up for just a moment… If there is evidence of the use of chemical weapons being used in Syria then they are in violation of UN accords, provided they are a signatory to the ban on NBC weapons. It is therefore incumbent upon the US or other members of the UN to provide conclusive evidence to that effect and *only* then for the UN determine what the response should be.

    Syria has not attacked the US or used chemicals weapons on US citizens. They have not threatened US interests in these attacks. These are the conditions that must be met for the US to formally declare war. I realize that it is a formality that has fallen by the wayside over the last several decades and the outcomes of ignoring the formality, perhaps it would be prudent for our government to return to due process and consideration regarding military involvement.

    The US is not the global police force, that is the function of the UN. Our military is already stretched to the breaking point and possibly beyond, as well as our care system for veterans due to current missions and efforts by Congress to reduce spending. Our country’s track record regarding unilateral military action, without UN support and often very limited allied support, in of itself should be enough to argue in favor of allowing the UN to take the lead and offer to support any action as determined by the UN based on our economic and military ability to do so.

    As a country, we have stood back many times and not involved ourselves while madmen committed horrific genocidal attacks in recent decades. Many of them continue to this day. Currently, Russia is engaging in attacks against it’s own citizens that is eerily reminiscent of its pogroms against the Jews and that of Germany’s Third Reich. We chose not to intervene then and history shows quite clearly how that ended.

    The use of NBC warfare and genocide is abhorrent and it is rapidly becoming obvious that Syria’s leaders will not stop without the intervention of other countries. That said, it is not incumbent upon the US to decide to strike unilaterally, without Congressional debate and prior to the UN determining the scope and limits of military action. I fully support US involvement in that process but vehemently oppose unilateral action.

    • Kat, I hope that nothing about my post read as “unilateral.” I agree that we should not take unilateral action. Key word — *should*. If there were absolutely no international support for a military response, and about this we would disagree, it is my position that America would HAVE to respond militarily and in a meaningful way. Why?

      Because we drew a red line.

      All considerations of whether or not it was our job to draw that line evaporated the moment we drew it. So did any other considerations, such as whether or not it’s fair to our military to ask them to undertake this mission at this time, or whether or not Syria signed on to a treaty stipulating that they would not use chemical weapons. We drew the line. That has to mean something. And that principle overrides all other concerns, especially when it comes to nuclear or chem/bio weapons use and proliferation.

      The time to think about things like whether it’s wise to draw a red line for Syria passed the moment we did it. That clock expired a long time ago. And if you disagree in principle with the US taking on that role, the time to take issue is before the *next* time we do so, not after the *last* time we did so.

      America has an undeniable role in international politics and a responsibility to lead. If you agree that we are responsible to lead the world in, for example, reducing the impact of human activity on climate change (through political action), and you agree that we have a responsibility to lead the world in protecting basic human rights (through economic action), then it is duplicitous to believe that we don’t have a responsibility to lead when it comes to opposing the use and proliferation of NBC weapons, including through military action when necessary. I agree that we’re *not* the world’s police force and cannot be — but we’re also not the neighbor that kept to himself and everybody thought was nice, but nobody knew. And we can’t be that either. And any claim that we must be one or the other is setting up a false dilemma.

      Yes, I agree, we wait for the UN inspectors. But I fundamentally disagree that we must take action through the UN or with their blessing. The UN Security Council WILL NOT authorize military action because Russia has veto power, Kat. And we have a responsibility to follow through on our word. And if the UN won’t come along, NATO will (that is far more likely). I don’t think we should want to act unilaterally — but if it came down to it, we drew the line, and we hold the line. As I said before, I don’t envy the military, the politicians, the diplomats, or the President. But at the end of the day, we lead. This decision is past.

      • Kathleen says:

        We drew a red line. Fair enough. Regardless of whether we commit to action with the UN or NATO, the government should follow the constitutional requirement that the US does not engage in military action without the approval of Congress. We are talking about bombing a sovereign country which is by any definition an act of war. There fore let us then, per the laws of this country, declare war against the Assad government of Syria.

        By taking that step we can start down the path to assessing when and how those “red lines” are drawn. I would also contend that by doing this in a manner consistent with our own laws we may start to regain some credibility that we have lost with those previous military actions.

      • Congress should authorize the use of force. However, I am positive that you, me, and everyone can agree that a declaration of war would be a giant mistake. You don’t actually want a declaration of war, I wouldn’t think, because this would go well beyond the scope of our objectives. This is not sending a message to a dictator. This is changing a regime.

        No one wants that. Right?

  3. I did some quick googling to find polls supporting military intervention in Syria and it appears to be hovering between 10% and 20% in favor. An example: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/08/26/new-poll-syria-intervention-even-less-popular-than-congress/

    I think that the talk of intervention here says something about our voting base. Specifically, left-leaning and right-leaning voters alike superficially appear to finally agree on something. I say superficially, because I am fairly sure that the right would unite behind a Romney or McCain presidency that wanted (or felt morally compelled) to intervene militarily.

    A few thoughts on your words from a hard libertarian:

    Quote: 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.

    Response: You don’t have to construct such an argument. The answer is simply that we have a vested interest in having such an ability so that we can prevent their use on us. Mutually assured destruction.

    If you’re wondering why this is our business, go have a nice talk with your houseplant, and never, ever vote again.

    Response: While there are many many Republicans who are vehemently against military intervention strictly because Obama appears to be moving that direction, and would be just as vehemently for it if he appeared to shun military use, there are also many many out there, liberals and conservatives alike, who truly do not believe that America should intervene in other sovereign nations’ affairs. Disagree with us, reason with us, convince us, but please don’t insult us. Insulting language is against everything that I thought the Center View was about.

    • As disappointing as it is… I guess I do have to construct an argument as to why it is our business when another nation uses chemical weapons against anyone, including its own citizens (which is usually how that goes). That argument is going to be a bit long. Standby.

      In the mean time, I shouldn’t have been so presumptuous about what people know, and do not know, about these subjects. Clearly I presumed too much, and offended you in the process, and I apologize for that.

      I will put out more information in another post – and hopefully that will make it abundantly clear why the arguments floating around out there today, among liberals and libertarians (strange bedfellows if ever there were any), are missing the fundamental point. If not – at least I’ll have made the complete case, and hopefully informed someone else’s thinking, based on reason and not based on politics — and I’ve learned something along the way – and that is what the Center View is all about.

  4. Rebecca Yeske says:

    Okay, I have a simple view. It is not one that is overly thought out nor is it the most educated one here. Most likely it is the least. Here it is: No. I’m am not ready to go in. Most of the population of the United States is not ready to go in. The UK just gave Cameron a no vote in Parliament. This needs to be tackled by the UN. Yes, I am aware of Russia and the difficulty the UN faces to get anything done. Yes, I am aware that going the route of the UN is going to be down right difficult but honestly Syria is not a hornets nest most people want to kick.

    I abhor the atrocities inflicted upon the Syrian people by its leaders. Most people you would speak to about it do but the mess in Syria is not one the United States people (as a whole or majority) really want to tackle nor are they ready to stomach it. Syria does not have a solid opposition to its leaders. Many factions including terrorist factions we are trying to keep under control are a part of the Syrian opposition. This problem is so thick and so convoluted and the end game is nowhere near a twinkle in any one’s eye.

  5. Robert Yeske says:

    I have to agree with Don’s main point regardless of anything else, when our President makes a demand and backs it with a threat, it simply MUST be followed thru on. The inaction leads to a an appearance we cannot live with.
    Whether we want to go there, whether we need to go there, whether we have no business going there, once the challenge has been made and crossed, we must respond.

    • Exactly. The play clock on any other consideration has expired. We must act to impose consequences. The only way to do that, in this situation, is via military power.

      That does not mean eliminating Bashar al-Assad. That means punishing his use of weapons that we have a vested national security interest in controlling. Hence discussion of declaration of war, vice authorization for the use of military force, above. One thing is not the other. We are not at war with Syria and we don’t want to be. But we cannot stand by now.

  6. Okay. In advance of anything further on this topic — let’s all baseline our understanding of Syria. In case it’s useful, here is a good primer targeting everyone (not policy wonks or politicians or wannabe know-it-all’s like me, but simply everybody). There’s some good info there, and even (as it says) if you’re “glued” to the situation, there’s also some new information (there was for me, and I’d like to think I’m pretty familiar with Syria). So, I hope you also find it useful.

    • Thank you for the link. It really was quite informative and the argument for maintaining the “norm” concerning chemical weapons was well laid out and persuasive.

      • Awesome! Glad this helped. I think it’s important that we all understand just how fragile the whole concept of “rules” applied to war really is. They won’t continue to exist, or mean anything, absent our continued action to reinforce them. And the failure to do so would be a generational error (an historic error).

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