The downside of winning a war is that it makes the next one more alluring. Defeating Serbia in Kosovo paved the way for invading Afghanistan. Our early success there made Iraq look as though it would be a cakewalk. Our 2011 victory in Libya is an invitation to plunge into Syria.
The temptation is easy to understand in this case. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has been practically daring the international community to bring it on, most recently by presiding over a slaughter of more than 100 people, including entire families shot to death execution-style.
On Tuesday, Syrian diplomats in one Western capital after another were ordered to leave, and United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan warned, "We are at a tipping point." Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that "the military option should be considered." Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., urged the imposition of a no-fly, no-drive zone to protect the opposition.
Mitt Romney is edging in the same direction. He issued a statement faulting "President Obama's lack of leadership" and demanding "more assertive measures to end the Assad regime." He called on Obama to "work with partners to arm the opposition"—even though, according to The Washington Post, the president has already done that.
The administration is so far resisting the call to enter the fight. UN ambassador Susan Rice has said that outside military action carries "a risk it ends in more violence." NATO ambassador Ivo Daalder has said the alliance has no plans to use force.
Good call. Noble intentions are no substitute for feasible options. And Syria would be a much riskier and more formidable undertaking than the effort to vanquish Moammar Gadhafi.
That's the view of Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism at the University of Chicago and author of the 1996 volume "Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War." Pape, unlike me, favored the Libya operation. But he thinks it bears scant resemblance to what we face in Syria.
In Libya, the insurgents had broad popular support and a geographic base from which to fight the regime. The U.S. didn't agree to intervene until after the opposition had gained control of large chunks of territory, including most of the country's main cities and towns. To defeat the rebels, Gadhafi's army had to pass over long stretches of desert road, where its tanks and trucks were easy prey for NATO missiles. "They were almost perfect conditions for the use of air power," Pape told me.
But Syria is not so congenial. To start with, the insurgents have attracted much less active support, and their sympathizers are scattered. "Here, there is not even a whole city, much less a medium-sized region, that we could work with to build a defensible area," Pape said. An outside force would have to capture a chunk of territory, which is a much harder—and bloodier—assignment than safeguarding an established zone.
Air power is generally unavailing in situations where government loyalists and rebels are cheek by jowl on the ground and devilishly hard to distinguish from cloud level. In that situation, ground forces are the way to go, but it would involve the likelihood of significant American casualties.
That prospect is a big deterrent, and it ought to be. One reason Obama got little pushback at home on Libya was that we didn't lose a single soldier. Syria would be different—more like the invasion of Afghanistan. We might prevail, but at a much higher price than in Libya and only if we were willing to stay on indefinitely.
One reason the cost would escalate, said Pape, is that our invasion would look suspiciously like an act of conquest rather than altruism. After all, Syria has long been at odds with its neighbor, Israel, which happens to be our close ally.
We may regard the two countries as largely separate issues, but Syrians would suspect NATO forces of doing the dirty work of the hated Zionist entity. They would be encouraged in that notion by the mullahs in Tehran—who would regard the Syria operation as a prelude to an attack on Iran and strive to help Assad.
Critics demand that Obama show "leadership" by doing something to help Syria's civilians. But sometimes leadership lies in knowing what not to do—and then not doing it.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.