I annoyed several people today on Twitter when I mused as to whether those who were touting our responsibility to protect (so glibly abbreviated by people who want this to be a "thing" as R2P) the people of Syria were going to be heading down to recruiting offices to join in the effort. This was a rhetorical jab and one that some took umbrage to, saying that people who aren't in the military have a right to an opinion, as well, and that such questions are too important to be left to generals. The sensitivity of these Ivy Tower champions of the utility of force to such jabs drives me to distraction, but it also misses my point. I do think such issues are too important for generals. They are also too important for people who have neatly packaged conceptions of the world, designed to fit through the narrow funnel of academic theory and confirmed through "research trips" consisting of friendly conversations sitting cross-legged on a dirt floor or in a coffee house or university, plus maybe a few years working to churn out policies that practitioners shake their heads at from the bowels of the Pentagon or Foggy Bottom. One need not have served to have an opinion, but I do think that people signing others up to "protect" with glib assumptions of easy and limited interventions and quick success deserve the rhetorical jab. And this is not a jab at all who inhabit the ivory towers of academia and rarified policy, because some understand the sordid reality of the world just from others' accounts of them. The ones I aim at, however, have missed them in their quest for elegant theories and policies. Finally, even for those who vow to "understand the sacrifice" involved in such interventions and have "counted the cost," this is a sterile, abstract, and academic accounting that I think would be far different if they were rallying to the gunfire as idealists once did in a different age, as volunteers in World War I and II or the Spanish Civil War, to take examples in which the U.S. was not involved (initially in the first cases).
One tweeter lamented that, if nothing is done in Syria, then R2P is just an idea. What he and others like him do not understand, clearly, is that R2P is just an idea. It is an idea that is attractive to me as an idea. The depths of the barbarity in Syria are sickening and I would ideally very much like to see it stop. I do think that the world has a responsibility to protect human life to the extent possible. However, the facile assumptions that the R2P crowd is making about a way ahead in Syria betray the unreality of their understanding of the world writ large and the region in particular. First, they talk about making "buffer zones" or "cordons" around specific cities, stating that this is a limited intervention. Supposing that this would be neat and limited is the height of foolishness. This calls for a full-fledged invasion of a sovereign nation and the taking, holding, and ultimately administration of its territory. In using the term sovereign, I am not as concerned about the concept of sovereignty and whether the Assad regime deserves to have its sovereignty respected as I am concerned with the fact that the Syrian military still has the capability to resist such an invasion of the country's territory. It cannot stop an invasion lead by first rate powers, but it can inflict significant casualties. Additionally, even airstrikes, the darling of liberal interventionists, will have to be extremely robust and wide-reaching just to defend limited cordons due to the fact that Syria's air defense system is much more significant than that found in Libya, or even in Iraq in 2003, due to a decade of strikes. Setting that aside, once in, what does one do if the Syrian military is harrying the defenders of these cordons from beyond? Do we sit under the barrage or will we be obligated to strike out farther and farther in self-defense? I could go on, but the idea that this will be limited quickly falls to pieces upon further thought.
Note that I said that the Syrian army cannot stop an invasion by a first rate power. Here, we must note the second gaping flaw in the R2Pers construct for Syria. They promise that no U.S. troops will be committed. We all know that means no Europeans will be signing up either. That leaves an Arab League intervention. Students of the region will note that the Arab states have had some troubles, to say the least, in pulling together to conduct any sort of coordinated policy, much less a military intervention. The members of the Arab League have very different interests in Syria and seek very different outcomes. Even if a coordinated intervention in Syria could be put together, which is doubtful, the end result may be even greater tensions across the region than currently exists.
This is before we consider the very real possibility of a Syrian regime "death blossom." Some of my readers know what I mean with this term, but for those who don't, a death blossom is what someone with little control of himself does when faced with the threat of death from small arms or other fire. Generally, this someone is the holder of an AK-47 with the trigger mashed down through gross motor control and pirouettes through at least 360 degrees of motion, spraying death at everyone around. The Syrian regime holds far more significant weapons than AK-47s. What is more, this isn't crazy Muammar out in the middle of the desert, this is a regime in a very densely packed region bordered by a lot of dry kindling: Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. Syria has threatened to reach out and touch all who may be seen as interfering in its affairs, and it has the means to do so. Let's not forget, too, the alliance between Syria, Iran, and all of their nefarious proxies. An intervention in Syria, no matter how limited it is in intention, could spiral very, very rapidly out of control, spreading conflict across the region and making good of all the glib buzz phrases people have come up with since 9/11.
As for the argument that a civil war may cause a bigger conflagration than an intervention, a question just posed by @SlaughterAM, a full-fledged civil war is no likelier to be avoided by an intervention than to be caused by it, in addition to the complications of the third-party and second/third-order effects mentioned above. What is more, it will be easier to contain a civil war, if it does come, from outside than it will be to extricate ourselves from the middle of one.
In sum, I absolutely believe that in an ideal, linear, and rose colored world, we have a responsibility to stop the horrific loss of life in Syria. However, in the real world, the dimensions of what is required to conduct even the "limited" intervention suggested by R2P fans is far greater than what they imagine. This is because many of these advocates have not though through the problem in any detail because they are more concerned with the idea of R2P than with the reality of the use of force, its costs, and its limitations. This is what my tweets were getting at today. For all who think we can do things better this time, I beg that you read my article at Foreign Policy and this extremely resonant article from the April 1968 edition of The Atlantic. We all want peace, but it has eluded us since the dawn of time. If we truly want to intervene, we must make an informed decision that counts the likely costs, rather than relying on facile assumptions and acronym imperatives to drive policy. If an intervention is to be successful, it must be based on realistic assumptions and get a realistic investment from the get-go.
From the Atlantic article:
Long before I went into government, I was told a story about Henry L. Stimson that seemed to me pertinent during the years that I watched the Vietnam tragedy unfold—and participated in that tragedy. It seems to me more pertinent than ever as we move toward the election of 1968.
In his waning years Stimson was asked by an anxious questioner, "Mr. Secretary, how on earth can we ever bring peace to the world?" Stimson is said to have answered: "You begin by bringing to Washington a small handful of able men who believe that the achievement of peace is possible.
"You work them to the bone until they no longer believe that it is possible.
"And then you throw them out—and bring in a new bunch who believe that it is possible."