Thursday, August 20, 2015

Do More? Do More What?

I got into a twitter conversation with a frustrated friend of mine who is appalled by the loss of life in Syria.  He is frustrated that we are not doing more to stop the bleeding.  My response: tell me what we could do.  I have long argued here that the Mideast is the land of lousy policy alternatives and that the key lesson from the past 15 years of war there is of humility.  That the locals have far stronger incentives and any solution that is lasting requires the local folks do all the heavy lifting--governing, providing security, etc. 

Anyhow, I thought to reply today in two ways: consider my war record and then consider what can be done now. 
  • Iraq 2003: I was against the war.  Knew the folks behind it were bad at their jobs, saw it as a distraction from Afghanistan, thought it was just a bad idea.
  • Iraq 2007 surge: I think I was ambivalent because I bought the COIN logic but distrusted the Bush administration.
  • Afghanistan surge 2010: I was weakly for it, as it seemed like we owed it to ourselves and to Afghanistan to try to do it right--commit the resources that it needed and give it a chance.  Much ambivalence because Karzai and Pakistan were doing best to undermine the effort.
  • Libya: I was for it, since there seemed to be a viable actor on the ground to whom we could give air support.  Ooops.
  • Iran: folks in Bush administration kept leaking plans for bombing, and I kept being opposed.
  • Syria: largely opposed because I just didn't see a way through that didn't require a 10-20 year commitment that was simply not in the cards.  Also, remember, it blew up as the US was still heavily committed/exhausted by Afghanistan and had just left Iraq.
So, what can we do in Syria now?  Any real intervention that would stop Assad from killing people and stop ISIS from killing people would require the US to kill a lot of people.  Yes, the US because no one else has enough deployable troops to make a difference except for ... Turkey (which seems to be intent on killing Kurds more than anything else).  Invading Syria would be hard work, but might be do-able.  But keeping it at peace?  That would require a large occupation force for how long?  And how many casualties would the American people tolerate? 

Syria would be a very complicated peace-enforcing/state-building mission that would be very, very expensive and very, very violent.  Would the outcome be better than the current one?  I am not so sure.  So, we could get a high level of violence, perhaps more in the form of car bombs and IEDs and sniping than barrel bombs, but with outsiders paying a far higher price.

As always, it comes down to politics, and I just don't see a political settlement at the moment and little that outsiders can do to foster one given that Assad is fighting for his life with the help of Iran and Russia and that ISIS is not going to go away very easily.

Outsiders can do more to relieve the suffering of those who flee.  But what else can we do?
  • No Fly Zone?  Right now the air campaign against ISIS in Syria is facilitated by Assad's willingness to let this happen.  If we want to shoot down Syrian planes and helicopters, the airspace gets more dangerous.  That is ok if you acknowledge the tradeoff, but it is a cost to doing business differently.
  • Safe havens?  Would require some conquest to establish "safe" places, and we learned from Bosnia that save havens become targets and resolve very little.
  • Attack Assad?  We could launch strikes and perhaps land troops to get rid of the Assad regime, as Assad is the best recruiter ISIS has.  But then what?  ISIS takes over since our moderate opposition folks have not really amounted to anything there.
  • Conquer and occupy?  Thanks but no thanks.
So, the problem is not that there are lousy policy alternatives but that the various choices are awful, awful, awful.  And none are attractive enough that leaders can build domestic and international coalitions to sustain such efforts.

There are limits to power.  It is time we acknowledge that.

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