The unbearable passivity of triangulated policies that require “slam dunk” intelligence

Got policy?

It’s a percussion symphony out there.  The drumbeat of stalwart European readiness to strike Syria has become unsteady – boy, that was quick – but now comes the drumbeat of doubt about whether Assad, his actual self, actually ordered the actual chemical attack on 21 August (along with an apparently less urgent doubt that it was the regime in the first place).

FWIW, and up front, I think it was the regime that mounted the attack, and that that’s what matters.  (Whether that means we need to bomb air-defense installations and empty weapons storehouses is another question.)  Achieving the concentration and scope of toxic effects that we have seen, in both gruesome video and eyewitness reporting, is something the Assad regime is well capable of doing.

The rebels, less so.  At least some of the rebels have the capability to mount a small-scale chemical attack using rockets or mortar rounds.  But the power and concentration of an attack that would slay more than 1,000 people at once, using discrete chemical rounds lobbed through the air (as opposed, say, to spraying an area with concentrate, which would deliver the toxic compound more surely), is something we would be much more likely to see with regime weaponry and expertise.

So I think the regime did it.  Can that be proven beyond a reasonable doubt?  Quite possibly not.  Could Assad himself be indicted for it by the criteria used for an American grand jury?  I don’t know.  Doubtful, perhaps.

Policy 101

I do know that a foreign policy that limits its strategic interest to crimes that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt is a paralyzing and unworkable one.  The problem here is not one of proof against Assad; the problem is that the United States has no positive, interests-based policy on the post-Arab Spring Middle East.

We should not find ourselves in a corner, being presented with incidents perpetrated by others to which we are bound to react (unless, of course, we can identify an excuse not to).  That is the definition of ceding the initiative to the bad guys.  It’s why drawing red lines and calling that your policy is always a bad idea.  When you limit your policy to red lines, you put the other guy in the driver’s seat and drop the checkered flag.

Red lines are less dangerous if you are actively engaged and prosecuting a positive policy.  The entire difference lies in the fact that you are complicating and adding pressure to the interlocking dynamics of the situation.  If you have a plan, a red line can be an effective tool.  You’re already changing the facts on the ground, according to a relentless initiative of your own.

And that doesn’t mean you have boots on the ground somewhere.  You can’t, after all, have boots on the ground everywhere, nor is that a wise or appropriate solution to every security problem.  I have yet to see a necessity for American boots on the ground in any Arab Spring conflict.

But I am with John Bolton on the evil consequences of Obama’s policy of passivity, about the whole Arab Spring situation as about Syria.  Bolton is right: we’re in a box almost entirely of President Obama’s own making.  When you don’t have a positive policy – and on the Arab Spring and Syria, Obama doesn’t – your de facto policy gets forced on you one way or another by others.  That’s just how human life works, at the micro- and macro-level.  There is no such thing as safe, sustainable passivity or neutrality.  Small nations know that only too well, just as the family members of delinquents do.

In the long-ago days of 2011 and 2012, I wrote at some length about what the U.S. could be doing about Syria, diplomatically, and without putting boots on the ground (a big-picture look here, from February 2012).  It’s not retrospect that tells me we could and should have done more.  It was obvious at the time.  Today’s situation was foreseeable: because of our inaction, we are out of position now to do what we could once have done in Syria, without military force.

The choice: passive or positive

But we are where we are, and our choice today is, as it has always been, between continued passivity and adopting a positive policy, even if from an unfavorable and frustrating position.  So let’s be clear on this, as the president likes to say.  A “limited” strike designed only to punish Assad while offending Russia as little as possible would be a continuation of passivity.  It’s not using force; it’s just dropping bombs.  An acquaintance of mine proposed this useful analogy:  dropping bombs to punish Assad is Obama’s way of voting “present,” as he so often did during his legislative career.

Even this limited action carries high risks with it, of course, which is why the Brits are demonstrating against the whole idea.  On the other side, we have the option of adopting a positive policy: in my friend’s analogy, the equivalent of voting “aye” or “nay” on a legislative proposition.  One method for this would be the proposal of “hawks” in the United States: to take the post-WMD strike as a pretext to go after Assad.  Lop off the regime’s head using a bigger strike campaign, with a view to establishing a strategic relationship with a favored rebel faction, and bringing this thing to a conclusion.

An alternative positive policy

I see an alternative – one I consider preferable – but the caveat for both of the positive-policy options here is that Obama can’t bring them off.  He is simply incapable of it, because both would require determination, intimidation, and a steady hand.  In the case of a competent president, however, the option would still exist of telling the Russians their boy Assad has to go, and they can be part of the solution, or not: their choice.  The use of chemical weapons on civilians, in the egregious and horrific manner of the 21 August attack, creates a reasonable pretext for going more proactive at this late date.

The other reason Obama is unsuited to this task, of course, is that the approach could only work if the U.S. were explicitly bent on keeping the Muslim Brotherhood out of power in Syria.  That’s a huge issue for Russia; and Russia is right.  Doing it is a U.S. interest, if we define our interests properly, and it is one of two key interests we have in common with Russia, the other being the protection of Syrian Christians, who are taking a terrible beating from some of the rebels.  On almost nothing else do we have a common interest with Moscow.  But these two things – the radical Islamism factor in particular – are enough to generate chilly cooperation and calculating leverage.

Our task would be to put Russia in a box: remove Assad and retain a hand in the follow-on Syria, or see Assad thrown out anyway and lose Russia’s Mediterranean prize, at least for an inconvenient time.  Russia should make a two-fold concession: lose Assad, if not Syria, and therefore lose a measure of control there; and accept the shouldering of Iran out of Syria.

The latter is one of the two primary geostrategic interests of the United States, the other being simply the installation of a relatively moderate, peaceable, Western-friendly government in Syria, one that would neither brutalize its people nor export instability beyond its borders.  This other primary interest can sound sentimental or moralistic to some ears, but it is the only reliable basis for regional stability and prosperity, and we ought always to push for it as a core interest of the United States.

A special relationship with Russia is compatible with a moderate, comparatively consensual and liberalized Syria – as long as the United States, Europe, and Syria’s regional neighbors also have access to Syria and the opportunity to develop our mutual interests.  What is not compatible with peaceable moderation is Syria remaining a client of Iran, or Syria becoming a fiefdom of the Muslim Brotherhood.  These latter two conditions, we should maneuver and intimidate to exclude.

Russia can be induced to throw Iran under the bus in Syria, and fending off the Muslim Brotherhood is one of Moscow’s chief security interests.  There is leverage to be had here.  The European allies, Turkey, and Arab leaders like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, would have to be at least tacitly aligned with us, so Russia couldn’t use them to backdoor our initiative (or Iran, for that matter).  The inducements exist without our lifting a finger to produce this alignment, as long as we are serious about preventing a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Syria.

A concentration of stand-off military force might have to be deployed, to secure Moscow’s cooperation.  But it is in the highest degree unlikely that it would have to be used, as long as the American in charge presented the Russians with a cogent and credible ultimatum.  Although we should be open about our policy, the right diplomatic touch would help lower the obstacles to Russia’s cooperation.  The point is not to embarrass Russia but to get what we want in Syria.  As far back as this time in 2011, Moscow indicated that Assad was expendable.  The Russian priorities are to retain an interest in Syria and keep out the Muslim Brotherhood.

Regrettably, Obama is neither motivated to nor capable of executing such a policy.  Our budgetary woes are such that he couldn’t do it without approval from Congress, which would have to agree to any additional military spending that might be required.

But as we sit here watching Western governments split hairs over who might have ordered the undoubted chemical attack of 21 August, it is well to remember that there have been alternatives from the very beginning, and there still are.  A good rule of thumb is that if your policy is going to stand or fall on “slam dunk” intelligence, it’s a bad policy and you need to rethink it.

You will never have a smoking gun until after the trigger has been pulled – and very often, you still don’t have the gun, but only the bullet hole.  Criminal justice can be predicated on such limitations, but national security policy, aspiring to a more fundamental, prior control of conditions, requires a more proactive, bigger-picture approach.  The good news about such an approach is that, while it is more trouble to put together, you do remain in charge of it.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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16 thoughts on “The unbearable passivity of triangulated policies that require “slam dunk” intelligence”

  1. just a quick comment.

    It could work with the Russkies on Syria. But like you reminded me, and you clearly state in the piece above, you expect team Obama to pull it off?

    Since the name of this blog is still The “Optimistic” Conservative…

    Three suggestions (feel free to modify) that will lead to better Eurasian stability. If I may.

    1)Tough to agree on, but doable
    Throw a Ukrainian link/sweetener into the package with the Russians, wouldn’t hurt, might be decisive for a breakthrough. Special treatment for the Ukraine, so she will be relieved of the existential predicament “EU or Eurasian Economic Community”. Find the formula/exemption to allow her to join both organizations. Maybe then she can fulfill her natural role of bridging, and eventually unifying both blocs, Instead of being Europe’s future Golden Apple of Discord.

    2)Tougher to agree on but possible
    Syrian elections in 2014 under international supervision, with Assad not allowed to run again, but allowed to finish out his term.

    3)Toughest to impossible to agree on
    Iranian nuclear talks in 2014 with the end result of Iran allowed to enrich under the terms of the NPT. But, having a very constricting verification regime on her break out capability. The Israelis would probably have to make some concessions for this to work as well.

  2. I have yet to see any evidence that the Obama admin has ever considered protection of any Christian minorities to be an American, or even a humanitarian, interest. I thought the same when Iraqi Christians were the unmentioned collateral damage, lest Bush43 repeat the word ‘crusade’.

    But, Obama’s public embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood as ‘moderate’ is so bizarre, to anyone who has studied Political Islam.

    So, you are correct in citing Russia’s core interests in Syria.

    Just wish Russia could figure out how to destroy Hezbollah’s military capabilities, but have long assumed Russia has Iran’s promise (fwiw) to not export their Shi’a martyrdom into Azerbaijan or anywhere else on Russia’s borders.

    1. Doesn’t matter what the Obama administration has considered a US interest. I’m talking about what actually IS a US interest. Protecting Christians in Syria is one of them that we share with Russia.

      We also have an interest in protecting other minorities on a fair and humanitarian basis; e.g., not privileging Alawites per se, or shielding bad guys from justice, but preventing a bloody and indiscriminate backlash against them incident to Assad’s downfall. Also, investing with Sunni moderates who will ensure the small minority of liberalizers in Syria is protected against sharia fanatics.

      Russia doesn’t have the same interest in protecting these folks. Whether she should or not, she doesn’t. Her interest in protecting the Christians is, at the level of national policy, largely a matter of maintaining her great power posture as the protector of Orthodox Christians in the region. She doesn’t want to lose that stature, which is a strong tie for her with Christians in Greece, Serbia, etc.

      1. Everywhere the West has recently intervened in the post-Ottoman space, (ex-Yugoslavia, Iraq) Christians have suffered and been forced out. The American installed MB in Egypt was preparing a Coptic slaughter to maintain its power.. The American backed “freedom fighters” in Syria will do the same if they come to power (no clear-eyed Christians will believe Western guarantees on their safety). Everywhere in the ummah, Western backed regimes commit or allow atrocities to occur against their indigenous minority populations. It is far more prevalent in Sunni dominated states than Shia ones.

        Had a conscious policy of ethnic cleansing been implemented (ex.Cyprus), it wouldn’t have been as successful as the unintended results of our interventions.

        This fact isn’t lost upon the remaining Christians. Not political power in the West, as of today, has the guts to public advocate for preservation of the region’s remnant Christian populations.

        No wonder why Russia is thought of as protector and savior.

  3. I agree that national security cannot wait for “slam dunk” proof. But is our national security at stake? We could argue that there is a long term benefit to our country to punish the use of chemical weapons by Syria. But that rationale could justify all sorts of military intervention around the world.

    Committing an act of war against another nation without that nation having attacked American interests, lands or people, is problematic enough. If there is no imperative to intervene with military force because of our own national security or a legal obligation to defend another, doing so on the basis of ambiguous proof compounds the risk, without producing an equal reward.

    I also fear the idea of a pro-Western faction in Syria that could actually achieve victory is a bit of wishful thinking at this point, and not something that even a capable US President could engineer.

  4. Syria is a sideshow. Period. Lots of death and destruction, but still a sideshow. We have no interest there.
    Iran is the problem. It will have to be addressed one day.
    Obama stuck a finger in the eye of the Brits when he came into office for no reason other than he is shallow, immature and petulant.
    I believe that finger has been returned.
    When Obama speaks, Bring in The Clowns really should be playing in the background.
    Hail The Idiot.

  5. Just saw Kerry’s speech.

    Here’s my cynical take.

    If there are any brains left running this administration they will engineer it so that this Syrian attack they were planning somehow runs aground in or around congress. This way they’ll blame their incompetence on the American people.

    That’s exactly what I expect these jokers to do while they wrap themselves up in the rhetoric of righteousness.

    1. The last news I saw before going to sleep was the WSJ reporting that Erdogan was calling for regime change in Syria.

      To get my mind off what that meant, I went back to re-reading Robert D. Kaplan’s 2000 “Eastward to Tartary”, based on his travels in 1998 through the former Ottoman Empire.
      I forgot that, in October 1998, pre-Erdogan Turkey was threatening to go to war with Syria over Assad Sr. hosting PKK, and the longstanding dispute over Hatay province.
      Syria blinked, gave up Ocalan.

      Of course, that was when Turkey was under military control.

      1998: The good old days.

      1. I admire Kaplan. A lot.

        Yes, the Turks want regime change in Syria, period. But they want us to do most of the work for them.

        In addition to al-Qaeda’s air force,…I meant to say the USN and USAF, the Turkish air force is preparing for operations in Syria as well.

        And, I believe someone is still thinking about a limited ground op using Turkish (and maybe Israeli, if the right pretext can be found) troops. After the deluge of aerial death of course.

        !998 was another one of the years of squandered opportunity. Many long term conflicts could have been but to rest in eurasia then. Unfortunately Bubba was in charge and his legacy is now staring to become apparent.

        1. It’s different when Islamist Erdogan wants regime change in Syria than in 1998, when it was the Turkish military wanting Syria to stop hosting Ocalan.

          Erdogan just lost Egypt, whose military leadership was smart enough to say NO to MB.

          I disagree that any Israeli ground troops will ever be involved. More likely Druse who have a lot to lose no matter who wins in Syria. Most of the population on the Syrian side of the Golan are Druse and Circassians.

          Like Robert Kaplan, I look at the geography and history.
          There is an opportunity in the south, where today’s WSJ reports, with a map, how the original Syrian opposition still controls the south, including Deraa, but the AQ radical Islamists are in control along the border with Turkey.

          Can’t believe I am waiting to hear what Obama has to say – if only to find out if Kerry spiked Obama’s breakfast orange juice with a spine.
          I think Obama should lob a new map as the first strike, and ask Turkey to build a wall around the Sunni areas that Turkey wants. Turkey’s construction tycoons need some work!

  6. I too agree with Boltan as to the evil consequences of Obama’s policy of passivity. That said, I do not agree that “the installation of a relatively moderate, peaceable, Western-friendly government in Syria” is possible.

    At this moment in history, relatively moderate, peaceable, Western-friendly governments are not supported by majorities in the M.E. There are no viable (having widespread political/military support) secular or classically liberal groups in the ME.

    The ‘twin poles’ of Middle Eastern societies are Islam and tribalism. When Islam is dominant, it results in jihadist states. When tribalism is dominant, it results in ‘strongmen’, who retain their power through repression and nepotism. Given those dynamics, hoping for relatively moderate, peaceable, Western-friendly governments is no less unrealistic than Obama’s thinking.

    In Syria, the only alternative to Assad is the Brotherhood.

  7. The brains left in the heads of this joke of an administration just convinced the monkey to put the pin back into the grenade.

    They’re taking it to congress..where hopefully they’ll convince the monkey to put the grenade down.

  8. It occurred to me that this is a perfect opportunity for the Senate and House to conspire to vote down this Syria business, defeat the imperial presidency, and restore the Republic.

    I nominate Rand Paul (senate) and Charles Rangel (house) as monkeyslayers in chief.

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