Foreign Policy

Inching Toward War in Syria

For the moment, the Obama administration is not beating the war drums. But how long it until it does?


Last year, as violent strife engulfed Libya and a dictator made war on his opponents, the Obama administration balked at military intervention to topple the regime. This year, as similar events occur in Syria, it is balking again. But as we learned from Libya, that's no reason we won't eventually wade right in.

Why? Because we are the United States, and we are used to getting our way. Because when Democrats are in power, they itch to use military force against humanitarian crises. Because Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN ambassador Susan Rice are liberal hawks. Because we have a closetful of hammers and everything looks like a nail.

Last week's ceasefire raises hopes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will cave in to international pressure and accept democratic reforms. But that's not what ferocious autocrats usually do. More likely he will use every means to hold on to power.

For the moment, the administration is not beating the war drums. Ivo Daalder, U.S. ambassador to NATO, has taken pains to distinguish the Syria situation from the Libya situation.

In Libya, he has noted, we didn't agree to military action until we could cite 1) a demonstrable need (the prospect of mass slaughter), 2) a sound legal basis (a UN Security Council resolution) and 3) regional support.

But that formula is not really an argument against acting in Syria. It's more of a roadmap to intervention.

The "demonstrable need" comes in the form of 9,000 civilians killed by government forces. Regional support for action has already emerged, particularly from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The legal basis is the hang-up now, since Russia and China could veto a Security Council resolution authorizing action. But they may not protect Assad forever, and NATO just might find a pretext to move even without the UN's endorsement.

In cases like this, it's generally unwise to bet against intervention, no matter how improbable it may sound. When demands arose for the United States to impose a "no-fly" zone in Libya, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen publicly disparaged the proposal. The intervention looked unlikely right up to the moment Barack Obama unleashed the aerial onslaught.

During the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, President Bill Clinton resisted a U.S. combat role year after year. Then he went to war against Serbia—not once but twice.

Foreign policy observers with long memories can recall when the idea of sending U.S. troops into a civil war in Somalia, or dispatching Marines to topple the government of Haiti, seemed preposterous. But George H.W. Bush did the former in 1992, and Bill Clinton did the latter in 1994.

The habit isn't hard to understand when you recall the question once posed by Madeleine Albright, who was Secretary of State under Clinton: "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

It's not in the nature of American presidents to turn their backs on violent upheaval anywhere we can conjure up some pretext. Obama has already put his prestige on the line by letting his secretary of state announce that "Assad must go." He's ordered humanitarian supplies for the rebels—as well as "non-lethal" items like night-vision goggles and communications gear that have military uses.

He's getting plenty of encouragement from the "how long do we have to wait for a new war?" caucus. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., have been talking up military force. The Washington Post has endorsed it.

They may be pushing an open door. Doyle McManus reports in the Los Angeles Times that the administration "is already committed to helping Assad fall. It's merely looking for the least violent, lowest cost way to get there." Having called for Assad's departure, Obama would look like a chump to let him stay in office, killing his people.

With the Iraq war still a painful memory and the Afghanistan war dragging on, the president will be careful to avoid sending large numbers of ground troops. The assumption is that air power will be enough for most of our goals.

But there are no guarantees. As Daalder has pointed out, Syria has better air defenses and a better military than Libya had. It can expect help from Iran. And if bombs and missiles are not enough, what then?

Aw, c'mon. You know the answer.

Steve Chapman blogs daily at


Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. What. Could. Go. Wrong?

  2. Depends if it helps win votes or not, I fail to see which demographic will be won over by war with Syria ?

    1. Warmongering lefty defense contractors? Liberal philanthropic weekend warriors? Chickenhawks? Bullies?

    2. What are Syrian-Americans, chopped liver?

      1. No, they’re closer to tabbouleh.

        Seriously though, now that our most powerful Syrian-American, Steven Jobs, has past away, I don’t think a “Syrian Lobby” really exists.

  3. It will be funny to see how the typical leftists will defend war with Syria should there be no UN resolution, since not getting it will make them look ever more Bush like.

    1. More bush-like? Is that even possible anymore?

  4. “is already committed to helping Assad fall. It’s merely looking for the least violent, lowest cost way to get there.”

    Typical Obama fiscal responsibility. No Bush/Cheney contained.

    1. Oh look its the welfare leech, claiming to be a great capitalist, defending his paragon of fiscal responsibility. I guess all that talk of raising taxes and piling on the debt is not really needed then, since he is so fiscally responsible.

      1. Look, its some meth-head claiming “Libya and Iraq are just alike. No difference at all! Go Team Red!”.

        1. I am principly against war, not simply when its the wrong politician in power. Oh and Libya and Iraq are alike, both places are devastated now, and will be for a while. Unlike you, I am not against war simply because it costs too much money.

          And liked I already asked, why the fuck should anyone believe a shit like you, living on welfare and then preacing his supposed financial wisdom.

          1. What do you bet that if O’Bummer does send troops into Syria, and then loses the election, that there will be war protests come January 20, 2013?

            1. I’ll take that bet. Certain constituencies, the peacenicks among them, only appear during Repub administrations. It is amazing how there are no homeless, no sick and dying elderly, and no bad wars when the Dems are in charge.

          2. Fuck off, you liar. Libya was no “war” of ours – it was a peoples uprising. Quit projecting your failures onto others.

            1. No war ? So American planes bombing a country is not considered war anymore ?

              I repeat why does a welfare loser like you want to pretend he is some high flying capitalist ? Pretending you are does not make it any more true.

              1. So American planes bombing a country is not considered war anymore ?

                That would be correct. No ground troops actively engaging targets means no war. This means the president can order air strikes against anyone for as long as he wants, without having to seek approval from Congress, because as long as no ground troops are actively engaging the enemy, it doesn’t count.

                Cool, huh?

            2. Did you miss those missiles and bombs that the US used against Libya? It looks like war to me when you fire missiles and drop bombs on someone.

              1. Should China lob some missiles into America, they can try use shrikes logic and claim: “its not really our war, we are simply assisting the 99%”.

                1. When we do it it isn’t war.
                  When they do it it is.

                  Double helping of double standards for everyone except them!

              2. As sarcasmic so eloquently indicated, in this modern world that is not WAR-war. 8-(

    2. Typical Obama fiscal responsibility.

      So you do believe that Assad must go and that the United States should be involved in making the decision as to how and when he goes. Does the US then bear any responsibility for what happens to Syria post-Assad?

      1. some have asked the same question about what awaits Egypt and Libya. The Brotherhood is poised to take over the former and something more hostile towards us than Qaddafi will preside over the latter. But Dems count on people’s short attention spans and inability to connect dots.

  5. OK, intervention would be disastrous. But it would have one pay-off: we’d see get to see more dictators’ shitty interior decorating

  6. we are the United States, and we are used to getting our way.

    You mean “our way” like in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why not just flush $1T of “treasure” down the toilet and save some “blood”?

    1. Two words: Killer Drones. It’s only a matter of time now before The Drone Wars begin.

      1. I thought we already started that one with Canada.

        That would be one definite achievement for Obama – he managed to piss off the Canadians. Madison would be so proud.

  7. O’Bummer needs to earn that Piece Prize by blowing some more shit up!

    1. I doubt there will ever be anyone who will ever beat his record of being the Nobel Peace prize winner with the most number of kills.

      1. He should have gotten some kind of lifetime achievement award after he blew up American citizens…for peace.

        1. A non-discrimination award to show he does not discriminate based on country of citizenship.

          1. Ooo, a super duper doubly peace award w/ special circumstances for indiscriminate murder.

            Oslo, make this happen!!

      2. I thought it was a Piece Prize that you get for blowing brown people who pray to the wrong god into little itsy bitsy pieces.

        1. If piece prize = re-election then perhaps yes.

        2. The Piece Prize is what Clinton was angling for. You know, getting a piece.

        3. I think they just gave him the prize so he wouldn’t invade Norway.

      3. You think maybe he’s aiming to collect Call of Duty style achievements? Maybe he has a little cork board in his office with fake medals pinned to it for every achievement he’s earned so far.

  8. “””NATO just might find a pretext to move even without the UN’s endorsement.””‘

    Its going to be hard since the NATO charter says that it can’t fight unless its either attacked or the UN authorizes it and they will also have to get all 28 members to go along with it.

    However they are also politicians and so they are experienced at both bending and breaking the law.

    1. Syria already shot at people over in Turkey, so that’s your pretext alright.

      1. Its claimed that is what happened but it could have been the rebels doing the shooting to get some press coverage.

        But it won’t matter since the press don’t ask questions, they just repeat what they are told.

        1. Oh please, when has facts ever stopped the war machine.

          1. Syrian incusions into Turkey is the perfect pretext for NATO action. It’s like falling off a log. Let it be done!

  9. Look on the bright side.

    North Korea might nuke it from orbit.

    1. Will this be before or after the nuke crumbles into a million pieces after getting 2 feet off the ground?

      1. You know, it might solve a lot of problems if the North Koreans end up nuking themselves.

        1. Does it make me a bad person to admit that I laughed at the thought of Kim Jong Jr. and company going out that way.

      2. Raugh while you can, monkey-girl!

        1. It’s not monkey-girl, it’s gorilla girl!

          1. gorirra girr? That sounds like quite the mouthfur.

            1. But I love my groovy gorilla girl,
              And her groovy, gorgeous gape, oh!
              And her fabulous zoo-keeper father-
              My love looks like an ape!

  10. We held guerilla academy in Iraq for all those years, with grad school in Afghanistan. Is it any wonder that hordes of unemployed graduates are now bouncing around the region making trouble?

    1. *Now* do you understand nation-building? If only there were more McDonalds to gainfully employ those guys!

      1. And free health care.

      2. If only they could learn to love Guinness, they could be soccer hooligans.

        If only they could learn to love PBR, they could be OWS protesters.

        If only they could learn to love 40s, they could be Lakers fans.

        The problem isn’t the terrorist training, it’s the unemployed young males thing.

    2. They have setup their own movement modeled after a popular protest in the US last year. They’re calling it Occupy Middle East, they just have a slightly different way of doing it.

      1. Yes, and I don’t believe it involves pre-printed signs, paid protesters, and organic goat cheese and almond salad w/ a citrus vinaigrette.

  11. OT: This was the first time I noticed that the weekend threads were actually readable and not 1000+ comments of Mary Stack. Registration FTW!

  12. “that’s not what ferocious autocrats usually do”

    One did. Pinochet. And the goody-two-shoes of the world just HAD to have him arrested in 1998, thus insuring that no dictator would ever again step down peaceably.

  13. Without reading the whole article, am I correct in guessing that Obama’s critics are saying he is a wimp for not getting in to a war quickly enough. And Obama declares it a goal of US policy to get Assad out – just like the US under Clinton adopted a policy of getting Saddam out.

    So the debate involves cock-teasing the god of war versus actually going all the way.

  14. One thing I have discovered is that sometimes you just have to jump back and say “Whos your Daddy”?

  15. Roger Gary 2012

  16. Needs alt text for the pic: “Come at me, bro”

  17. Assad is a cockroach. If Obama wants to step on him, then for once I understand jug-ears’s motivation. OTOH, stepping on one cockroach never does much good. If we are going to be meddling in the Middle East (and I don’t see assorted Middle East cockroaches and sandflies giving us much choice), we would probably be better advised to sort out ALL the odds and sods.

    Won’t happen under present circumstances, though. And I dread the day that some idiot makes us angry enough that it does happen.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.