Some rambling thoughts on Syria.

In a comment on my post “1979a”, Blonde wrote, “This course of action is also being much more meticulously thought-out than say, Iraq or Afghanistan.” I responded, “If this is meticulous, I’d hate to see Obama wing it.”

Long story short, I invited an explanation of how President Obama’s approach to Syria is more meticulous than Bush’s approach to Iraq, which Blonde gave here, and decided to make my response a regular post instead of a comment. My minority opinion follows.

In a related comment, you said, “I can provide other sources detailing how Iraq was poorly planned, if you’d like. I assumed that was a commonly accepted observation.”

Do you really think I care whether it’s “commonly accepted”? It’s also commonly accepted that to whatever extent he’s responsible, Obama is bungling Syria, so nyah. The casualties and refugees are piling up as fast as they did in Iraq– 100,000 have been killed in the last two years, and there are already double the refugees we saw from Iraq. He talks about a limited military response that few expect will accomplish anything aside from killing more Syrians. He has virtually no domestic or foreign support for a military strike. And I think that, all by itself, the fiasco over whether he would (or even had to) get permission from Congress shows how poorly thought-out his reaction has been. And the latest deal with the SovietsRussians should seem ill-conceived given your distrust of Putin (“CAN EVERYONE PLZ STOP PRETENDING THAT PUTIN IS JUST SOME COOL HONEST WELL INTENDING SHIRTLESS DUDE?!”) and your belief that Assad simply won’t give up his WMD.

So… which part of this has gone the way Obama planned? If the deal with Putin was part of the plan all along– and now Obama’s people are saying it was, though I can’t help but hear Jon Lovitz’s “That’s the ticket” sketches when they do– then I applaud except for the part where we’re trusting Assad and Putin (who, last I heard, is planning a vacay in Tehran).

The only thing that has gone to plan is that so far, not one drop of American blood and not one pair of American boots* have touched Syrian soil. And that’s a good thing– but if you want to know beyond doubt that Assad doesn’t have WMD, or that his WMD are neutralized, that will almost certainly have to change.

That’s not to say the President shouldn’t react. But you said this was better planned than Iraq, so that’s what I’m addressing.

*I’m sure we have some CIA spooks over there, so I should specify combat boots.

You wrote, “For starters, the planning for Syria is much less complex than the planning for Iraq, and so the probability that it’s done more thoroughly (and ‘correctly’, whatever measurement of correct you want to use) increases. Iraq was an enormous undertaking, an invasion which required military and civilian planning for both short term and long term efforts.”

Obama’s plan for Syria is of a much smaller scale than Bush’s plan for Iraq, so you can fairly argue that planning for Syria is proportionately more meticulous. This assumes that you can meaningfully scale down meticulousness; at some point “coaching five-year-olds to play soccer” and “planning a four-year World Cup qualifying strategy” just aren’t comparable. But I’ll grant you that planning a minor response is easier than planning a major response, and if a minor response is more appropriate, then that reflects better planning than a major response would.

You linked to two articles (here and here) about the poor planning of the Iraq War. Long story short: the plan was to go in with as light a footprint as possible while making sure we took out Saddam, secured his WMD stockpiles, prevented any further Iraqi use or development of WMD, and installed democratic institutions. Well, turns out we didn’t send enough troops to control post-invasion Iraq, and we disbanded governmental institutions (including the Ba’athists), that could have been useful in controlling post-invasion Iraq. These were huge mistakes in terms of democratizing Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of extra troops may well have helped control and democratize post-Saddam Iraq. The concern at the time was that such a heavy US presence would provide more targets for bad guys to shoot at and it would hinder our ability to “win hearts and minds.”

However, these were not mistakes in terms of stopping Saddam from having or using WMD (which, to my knowledge, is Obama’s only goal regarding Assad). We sent in more than enough troops to take out Saddam and prevent any further use or development of WMD. The point here is that to make sure with absolute certainty that Saddam would never again have or use WMD, we had to put boots on the ground.

Yes, there were people who swore up and down ahead of the war that Saddam had already dumped his WMD, and yes, they turned out to be correct. But whenever I discuss this with anyone, I put heavy emphasis on the “turned out to be” part, because before the invasion there was no reliable, believable way to confirm it. Why? Because Saddam repeatedly refused to permit inspectors into many suspected WMD sites, and people felt the way about Saddam that you do about Assad. After we put boots on the ground, and after we looked around ourselves, we confirmed that Saddam no longer had stockpiles of WMD. (We did find that he had enough elements of a WMD program that he could reconstitute it if he were still alive and in power if/when we left Iraq, and this was widely held to be his intention.) If he’d permitted thorough, unfettered, public inspections of every site we wanted to inspect– like the US and the UN had been demanding for years, though we weren’t really pushing the matter until after 9/11– there would’ve been virtually no support for an invasion.

You said, “I think action is still called for even if Syria agrees to hand over their chemical weapons to the international community… There’s no way Assad is going to actually hand over all the goods.” So what sort of action should we take to make sure that he doesn’t have them anymore? President Obama called for a “limited” action, and SecState Kerry made reference to “degrading” Assad’s ability to use WMD, and hopefully one of them knows what any of that actually means, and both of them have insisted that we’d put no boots on the ground in Syria (unless we actually do, per the current Obama-Putin agreement). In short, they’re insisting that we won’t be able to verify that Assad has no WMD.

Furthermore, this “limited” talk reminds me of Bush41’s and Bill Clinton’s approach to Saddam after the 1991 Gulf War: a handful of missile strikes scattered over the years, some economic sanctions, some vague calls for regime change. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were dying (look up the Oil-for-Food scandal), being killed (Kurds, Marsh Arabs, etc.), there was an assassination attempt on Bush41 that we thought was ordered by Saddam (I don’t think that was confirmed), Saddam was working with some terrorist groups here and there, and– most relevant to this discussion– and there was no confirmation regarding the WMD.

So if you don’t trust the Obama-Putin agreement, and if the Bush41/Clinton approach of not putting boots on the ground (post-Gulf War) wasn’t effective, and if there’s no reliable way to ensure that Assad doesn’t have WMD without putting boots on the ground, then… I guess I’m missing out on the meticulous part of the meticulous planning.

Ensuring that Assad can’t use WMD will require much heavier military action than Obama has suggested publicly. Maybe not a full-fledged invasion and occupation like in Iraq (though Bush had additional goals that Obama has not adopted). Maybe he’s actually thinking about burying Assad under a pile of rubble, but he hasn’t said so, so we’re just left with his word that he’s thought this out.

There’s the problem of comparing the early stages of the Syrian crisis to the entirety of the Iraq War. If one is going to take proportion into consideration on the planning, then one might take proportion into consideration regarding the results. In that light, I’m not sure the Syrian situation looks that much better: over 100,000 dead in roughly a year, confirmed chemical weapons attacks in August, alleged chemical weapons attacks in March (which, oddly, Assad asked the UN to investigate). Scale that over the course of 8 ½ years (the official length of the Iraq War), and you’ve got casualties that, depending on the source, approximate or exceed the casualties of the Iraq War. The very good news, and again, hopefully it will remain this way, is there have been zero American casualties in Syria.

On the “rush” to war in Iraq: I never thought the “rush to war” in 2003 was as rushed as others did. Yes, there had been plenty of pre-9/11 discussion by the Bush folks about taking out Saddam, so folks can argue that the decision had already been made. And yet we waited 18 months after 9/11 to take out Saddam. With as much paranoia as there was floating around back then, you’d think we’d have hit Saddam a lot sooner. Bush built a coalition, he went to the UN, he went to Congress and got the AUMF five months before the invasion began. The “rush to war” folks forget that our conflict with Saddam didn’t begin with Shock and Awe, or with 9/11. It went back over a decade earlier. There had been diplomacy, 12 years’ worth. There had been inspections– granted, they weren’t thorough, and we didn’t trust the results of them. But not acting for 18 months after the “societal trauma” of 9/11 strongly suggests that we thought first and acted second. There were plans in place– they just didn’t go nearly as well as anyone hoped.

You might think that I’m glossing over the post-invasion humanitarian crisis in Iraq. That is not my intention. However, I would point out that statistically it was not as bad as the pre-invasion crisis (though not politically because the world generally ignored the Iraqi people until 2003), and again, Syria is on pace to catch it.

If you could snap your fingers and turn today’s Syria into today’s Iraq, would you?

I don’t care who gets or takes credit for getting Syria’s WMD under control, or for getting rid of Assad if it means replacing him with a better government, or for stopping the slaughter of the Syrian civil war. President Obama deserves credit for not putting Americans in harm’s way. I hope he either figures out how to or bungles his way into getting the WMD under control, improving Syria’s government, and stopping the civil war without putting any Americans in harm’s way. But I’m reminded of a question people used to ask about Iraq and Afghanistan: “What would success in Iraq (or Afghanistan) look like?” That’s a hard question, and I think it’s even harder to answer when it comes to Syria. If we’re not going to go in and flatten the place a la Volleyed&Thundered’s suggestion, and if we’re not going to stay out of it altogether a la Volleyed&Thundered’s other suggestion, and if we’re not firmly committing to regime change, and if we’re not going to put boots on the ground to make sure the WMD are neutralized, then… what is success in Syria supposed to look like?

One comment

  1. 1.I’m just going to put this here for myself :

    2. Despite No. 1, I’m actually thankful you turned this into a post and gave a thorough reply. You were able to do what no news or opinion piece for me (that I’ve found) has, which was to give legitimate reasons for opposing limited military action. I’m actually relatively persuaded that “ensuring that Assad can’t use WMD will require much heavier military action than Obama has suggested publicly.” I was thinking of it in more of an idealistic context, wherein we would somehow magically (as these things happen, right?) devise a way to strategically inhibit or eradicate Syrian military power from deploying chemical weapons, and/or taking out essential military targets in an effort to better tip the balance of power in favor of the rebellion. I’ll agree that besides being idealistic, it’s incredibly limited. Ideally, the next player(s) in power shouldn’t have access to the weapons, either, and that problem wouldn’t be solved just by taking out the Assad regime.

    There’s a lot more left to be said, but I’ll take some time to better articulate my thoughts. Thanks for the insight, though.

    Like

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