How Would You Define Success in Syria?

Whether or not they are justified, U.S. air strikes would likely fail to achieve significant goals.

Syrian President Bashar Assad , left, meets with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Damascus on Saturday May 3, 2003. Speaking to the media before the meeting , Powell  said that future relations hinge on whether Damascus takes steps to becoming a true middle east partner.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Sept. 9, 2013, 4:51 p.m.

It takes a lot to over­shad­ow the loom­ing fisc­al battles in Wash­ing­ton, but Pres­id­ent Obama’s de­cision to seek con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al for air strikes against the re­gime of Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad for us­ing chem­ic­al weapons against his own cit­izens has man­aged to do it.

There are eight le­gis­lat­ive days left to pass a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to avoid a gov­ern­ment shut­down, and then sev­en more to avoid de­fault­ing on Treas­ury bonds, so those is­sues would seem to trump any oth­er — ex­cept at­tack­ing a for­eign coun­try. Mem­bers of Con­gress are com­ing back from their dis­tricts re­port­ing that vari­ous con­stitu­ency groups that nev­er agree on any­thing are uni­fied in op­pos­i­tion to an at­tack. The groups may each op­pose the idea for slightly dif­fer­ent reas­ons — or reach the con­clu­sion through vari­ous paths — but they all ar­rive at the same place. New polling re­leased from CNN, ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post, and for USA Today by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter show mount­ing op­pos­i­tion. In the Pew/USA Today poll, op­pos­i­tion to U.S. air strikes grew 15 points from 48 per­cent in the Aug. 29-Sept. 1 poll to 63 per­cent in the Sept. 4-8 sur­vey, while sup­port for the strikes re­mained es­sen­tially the same (29 per­cent in the former, 28 per­cent in the lat­ter), and the un­de­cided dropped from 23 per­cent to 9 per­cent. The new­er sur­vey in­dic­ated that 45 per­cent strongly op­posed air strikes, com­pared with just 16 per­cent who were strongly in fa­vor. A U.S. at­tack on Syr­ia at this point would seem to vi­ol­ate the “Pow­ell Doc­trine,” coined by former Gen. Colin Pow­ell, in con­sid­er­ing mil­it­ary con­flicts: First, does the United States have a vi­tal na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terest that is threatened? Second, does the U.S. have a clear at­tain­able ob­ject­ive? Third, have all the risks and costs been fully and frankly ana­lyzed? Fourth, have all oth­er non­vi­ol­ent policy op­tions been fully ex­hausted? Fifth, does the U.S. have a plaus­ible exit strategy to avoid end­less en­tan­gle­ment? Sixth, have the con­sequences of our pro­posed ac­tion been fully con­sidered? Sev­enth, do the Amer­ic­an people sup­port the ac­tion? Eighth, and fi­nally, does the U.S. have genu­ine, broad in­ter­na­tion­al sup­port for the ac­tion?

Key­ing off of the Pow­ell Doc­trine, the CNN poll asked re­spond­ents if they thought that an at­tack would or would not achieve sig­ni­fic­ant goals for the U.S.; 26 per­cent said it would, 72 per­cent said it would not. When asked if it is in the na­tion­al in­terest of the U.S. to be in­volved in the con­flict, 29 per­cent said it is, 69 per­cent said it isn’t. If an at­tack on Syr­ia were to res­ult in — as prom­ised — a re­tali­at­ory at­tack on Is­rael or U.S. in­terests around the world, an es­cal­a­tion without strong pub­lic sup­port would bring back pretty hor­rible memor­ies of the Vi­et­nam con­flict.

One per­son well worth listen­ing to is the Rev. J. Bry­an Hehir, cur­rently on the fac­ulty of Har­vard’s Kennedy School and formerly on the fac­ulties of the Har­vard Di­vin­ity School and Geor­getown Uni­versity, who also is the former head of Cath­ol­ic Char­it­ies USA. Hehir is a renowned au­thor­ity on the sub­ject of the “just war,” which ex­am­ines when a war is mor­ally jus­ti­fied and when it is not. He has quite a fol­low­ing among mil­it­ary and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials for his abil­ity to ap­ply lo­gic and reas­on­ing to chal­len­ging ques­tions on the use of mil­it­ary ac­tion. While Hehir be­lieves that the ac­tions of As­sad clearly meet the cri­ter­ia for a just ac­tion against him, in a phone in­ter­view Monday af­ter­noon he was troubled when ap­ply­ing some of the oth­er tests he uses to as­cer­tain wheth­er an at­tack is ap­pro­pri­ate. Is an at­tack the last re­sort? Is the pro­posed at­tack pro­por­tion­al, or likely to do more good than harm? Is there a prob­ab­il­ity of suc­cess, and for that mat­ter, what is suc­cess? If the in­ten­tion is to dam­age, de­ter, and de­grade the Syr­i­an re­gime’s mil­it­ary cap­ab­il­it­ies, can a “lim­ited” at­tack — with lim­ited pretty much be­ing a eu­phem­ism for sym­bol­ic — be suc­cess­ful in ac­com­plish­ing that? Would two or three days of cruise-mis­sile at­tacks ef­fect­ively do that? Would stealth bombers need to be util­ized to have a real im­pact, and if so, is that still lim­ited?

Hehir is still work­ing through those prickly ques­tions, but he clearly seemed skep­tic­al that all of the tests could be met to qual­i­fy a re­sponse as a “just” re­ac­tion. He is ex­pec­ted to re­lease a thor­ough ex­am­in­a­tion of these is­sues mid­day Tues­day.

Of course, if the new Rus­si­an pro­pos­al that an in­ter­na­tion­al or­gan­iz­a­tion take con­trol of Syr­ia’s stock­pile of chem­ic­al weapons pans out, the whole situ­ation could be­come de­fused and shift Con­gress’s fo­cus back to fisc­al is­sues. We can only hope.

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