Military Leaders Skeptical of Syria Bombing


I have long said that I trust the military leadership to make important decisions on the use of American military power far more than I do elected officials of either party. Politicians tend to make decisions on specious, self-serving grounds and be far too beholden to the defense industry to make rational decisions that actually make sense. And I’m not at all surprised that the Washington Post reports deep skepticism and opposition to the bombing of Syria that Obama is clearly headed toward.

Former and current officers, many with the painful lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan on their minds, said the main reservations concern the potential unintended consequences of launching cruise missiles against Syria.

Some questioned the use of military force as a punitive measure and suggested that the White House lacks a coherent strategy. If the administration is ambivalent about the wisdom of defeating or crippling the Syrian leader, possibly setting the stage for Damascus to fall to fundamentalist rebels, they said, the military objective of strikes on Assad’s military targets is at best ambiguous.

“There’s a broad naivete in the political class about America’s obligations in foreign policy issues, and scary simplicity about the effects that employing American military power can achieve,” said retired Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, who served as director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the run-up to the Iraq war, noting that many of his contemporaries are alarmed by the plan.

Marine Lt. Col. Gordon Miller, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, warned this week of “potentially devastating consequences, including a fresh round of chemical weapons attacks and a military response by Israel.”

“If President [Bashar al-Assad] were to absorb the strikes and use chemical weapons again, this would be a significant blow to the United States’ credibility and it would be compelled to escalate the assault on Syria to achieve the original objectives,” Miller wrote in a commentary for the think tank.

What I’d like to hear is the president explain what bombing Syria would accomplish. What would be the goal, exactly? Taking Assad out of power? That could lead to all sorts of bad things. So could a limited bombing campaign that left him in power, which might only strengthen his hand. It could also prompt Iran to get involved. I just don’t see any clear objective that could be achieved with a bombing campaign that couldn’t also unleash some very nasty side effects.

I’m not going to pretend to know what we should do in or about the situation in Syria. It’s very complicated. Some of the rebels really are affiliated with Al Qaeda and other very dangerous groups and helping them take control of the country might be a very bad idea. But leaving Assad in power also has real danger and much of the opposition to him is genuinely pro-democracy and wants real reform. It’s not even clear that we can distinguish between the two. But I just don’t see why the answer to every problem in the Middle East is more bombs and missiles. I don’t see what it would accomplish other than more dead people.

Comments

  1. says

    I’m not going to pretend to know what we should do in or about the situation in Syria.

    I’m going to go with leave it the hell alone; I’m really not seeing any way that U.S. involvement’s going to improve the situation.

  2. unbound says

    What I’d like to hear is the president explain what bombing Syria would accomplish.

    That’s easy. See stock prices of General Dynamics and Raytheon. Keep in mind that corporate long-range planning is typically 6 months to 1 year out…anything else longer than that is unknowable speculation. Need to make sure that quarterly numbers are met.

  3. says

    Some questioned the use of military force as a punitive measure and suggested that the White House lacks a coherent strategy.

    The problem, as I see it, is not that we DON’T have a coherent strategy; it’s that we CAN’T have one — we’re simply not in a position where we can execute one, however well-meaning or well-thought-out. There are lots of variables, and the US simply can’t control ANY of them with any of the tools we have.

    That, however, is NOT a conclusive argument against any intervention; it’s just an argument against trying to execute a grand strategy to try to control the direction of Syrian politics.

    Personally, I kinda-sorta-halfheartedly support the idea of bombing certain Syrian military units, as retaliation for their use of chemical weapons — as long as said bombing is done with the aim of destroying their physical ability to carry out similar attacks in the near future. As others have said, the ban on chemical weapons is one of the most basic international laws we have, so letting a regime like Assad’s get away with violating it could undermine confidence in international law in general.

    Would there be bad consequences for the US if we did attack Syrian forces as Obama suggests? Hell yes! But quite frankly, we don’t have any options that won’t bite us in the ass, hard, in the foreseeable future; so there is something to be said for just saying “what the fuck?” and doing what we know is right for the short term. It’s not that we have nothing to lose; it’s more like we’re gonna lose something no matter what we do (or fail to do).

  4. Mr Ed says

    Yesterday I went to a local fund raiser and was able to spend about ten minutes of one on one time with Chris Murphy and Joe Courtney (both Democrats from Connecticut). Chris said that Obama is pushing the strike as a deterrent to Iran developing nuclear bombs. If we let Asad cross the red line Iran will think we lack the resolve to stop them. He also said that this looks like a proxies war with Iran.

    Both said they were leaning toward voting no but we will see how it goes once the arm twisting gets started.

  5. colnago80 says

    Re Mr. Ed @ #4

    If the strike is really aimed at Iran, a much better solution would be to take out Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities. A 1/2 dozen well targeted 15 megaton bombs would do the trick.

  6. says

    I have long said that I trust the military leadership to make important decisions on the use of American military power far more than I do elected officials of either party.

    Now THAT is “damning someone with faint praise”!!

  7. says

    StupidLikudnikChickenhawk1: Your babyish agenda does not improve with either age or repetition. Now shut up and let the grownups talk about grownup stuff — you might learn something.

  8. Who Cares says

    This is a proxy war.
    The US & Saudi Arabia VS Russia (and depending on how you look at it China) & Iran.
    The problem being that the situation has changed from 2 years ago when the US backed the mutineers and the popular uprising they were supporting/co-opting. At the moment the dogmatic adherence to keep supporting the side initially chosen will at best prolong the time it’ll take Assad to win (and the suffering of the civilian population ), at worst the rebels will win.

    Why is that the worst case scenario? Because the Al-Qaeda clones have hijacked the uprising, are the most effective units in the field, will obliterate any rebel groups they think might be in their way or won’t give tribute (that is the stuff the US sends or the weapons the Saudis send, note that this allows the US to say they don’t supply weapons). And I doubt that any of the neighbors want to be the next Mali.

  9. eric says

    What I’d like to hear is the president explain what bombing Syria would accomplish.

    Presumably, (1) elimination of some stockpiles of CW, (2) the Syrian capability to produce more in the short term, and (3) deterrence from using CW again.

    I just don’t see any clear objective that could be achieved with a bombing campaign that couldn’t also unleash some very nasty side effects.

    I suspect the problem here is that everyone pretty much knows that a US retaliation for CW use in this context is just an excuse to push along regime change. They could articulate a clear, counter-CW objective which would rationally support some limited action. But being clear is not what the administration wants to do, because it limits what responses can be rationally linked to your policy objective. So they probably won’t clearly articulate any objective at all, and that will completely undermine any action we take. We’ll be imperialist bullies (again), instead of being seen as a country predictably enforcing some international norm.

    Chris said that Obama is pushing the strike as a deterrent to Iran developing nuclear bombs.

    That won’t work. And I say that as someone who would support limited strikes against CW facilities. First, if the administration clearly articulates a rationale for stopping CW use, that rationale will equally clearly not apply to nuclear technology. Second, Iran has been developing its nuclear program for over two decades now. Obama has been President for 5 years now (and has only 3 years remaining), and in that time has not moved militarily against Iran. I doubt very much the Iranians are going to take any such indirect, veiled threat of military force by us seriously at this point. Sure, Stuxnet showed that Obama was a bit more serious about it than Bush, but Stuxnet is a far cry from convincing people you’re willing to send in bombers. We didn’t send in bombers when they started mining. We didn’t send in bombers when they started construction on a plant. We didn’t send in bombers when they negotiated to purchase russian equipment. We didn’t send in bombers when Bushehr I turned on. They aren’t going to believe we’ll send in the bombers now. And, frankly, they’re probably right not to believe us.

  10. Rip Steakface says

    I think Obama is trying to cover the collective asses of the Democratic Party. Basically, if there isn’t any retaliation against Syria for using chemical weapons, the Republicans will strike back with, “why didn’t we attack Syria when we knew they were using chemical weapons on civilians? you’re soft on terror/defense/moooosliiiiiiims!”

    If Obama does nothing, people will say, “the president isn’t doing anything about this clear situation [despite the fact it isn’t clear], he’s useless.” If Obama does something, people will say, “the president is getting us involved in another useless war in the Middle East, he’s useless.” It’s a perfect catch-22.

  11. says

    Marcus Ranum, the Pennsylvania pinhead

    Because my current residence in Pennsylvania makes me as big an asshole as someone who recommends using nuclear weapons offensively? I’ll take “utterly surreal moral equivalences” for $16,000 please!

  12. Michael Heath says

    Ed writes:

    I just don’t see why the answer to every problem in the Middle East is more bombs and missiles. I don’t see what it would accomplish other than more dead people.

    The conundrum we face here is that not militarily intervening may result in more dead people than if we did.

    In addition, we should also learn that having the right strategic response doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll get the most optimal result. As those who’ve sufficiently assessed the U.S. fiasco in Iraq, a successful strategy also requires good planning and competent execution of said strategy. With all the factors involved in the Syrian situation, the possible outcomes of acting or not acting requires we concede the best decision will most likely be the least worst decision; which in turn means the one with the narrowest range of expected outcomes.

  13. says

    I’m not sure what the President’s options are here. I agree with Rip Steakface that he’s damned if he does something and damned if he does nothing.

    The WaPo’s article, quoted by Ed, says:

    “Former and current officers,”

    but only quotes two FORMER officers, one of whom kept his misgivings about the Iraq invasion to himself for years, rather than make them public.

    Color me, “skeptical”.

  14. eric says

    @14 and @17: I doubt most of the American public would have cared all that much or even been aware of the attacks, if the administration had not issued multiple annonucements about it. I can’t see this as mere political CYA because of how proactive the administration has been in messaging. IMO Obama made this a bigger poltical issue than it otherwise would have been. So this looks to me like Obama wanted to intervene in the first place, not like he is being pushed to intervene out of fear of what the GOP will say about the Dems if he doesn’t.

  15. dogmeat says

    I generally agree with the assessment here. Obama has backed himself into a bit of a corner with the issue of chemical weapons. Add to that, there are no “good guys” in this scenario, just varying degrees of nasty individuals, many of them quite willing to kill us if given half the chance. Unfortunately, as the country continues to kill off its internal factions, one has to ask when this conflict will spill over into its neighbors, many of whom are quite unstable and/or our allies. What is the least worst of a series of bad options?

    —-

    Someone smack SLC, he’s skipping again.

  16. Pieter B, FCD says

    It’s a lose-lose situation. Looking coldly at the situation, it seems that the best outcome for our interests would be that Assad and various rebels keep fighting for several years, but that means tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands will die. As Michael Heath said, we need to figure out the least worst course of action; that ain’t gonna be easy.

  17. says

    The only strikes I could see as making much sense for a limited strike in response to chemical weapon use would be against Syrias chemical warfare infrastructure. Attacking the chemicals themselves, or live weapons, would be a huge risk of effectively staging our own chemical attack. If we’ve got weapons which can safely do this from a bomb or missile, fine, but it seems to be a huge risk. It took the US government decades, and people on site, to safely dispose of our stockpiles.

    We might be able to target some of the delivery systems and production line. Make it a little harder to use what he has, a bit harder to make more. That might actually discourage further use, limit the risk of uncontrolled escalation, and be plausibly connected to the offense which is something punishments should be.

    Of course, I’d also like to see the case for assigning blame firmed up a good bit before we talk about going in. And has anyone asked Assad “WTF dude?”. I haven’t seen it, though the media might have just not reported on any response he’s had to the charges. He’s a bad man, but even he should have a chance to give his side before we start blowing shit up.

  18. says

    “@14 and @17: I doubt most of the American public would have cared all that much or even been aware of the attacks, if the administration had not issued multiple annonucements about it.”

    Perhaps FuckTheNew’sCorpse doesn’t operate in your neck of the woods.

    If the administration had NOT issued multiple announcements they would have been accused of plotting in secret. Yes, it’s exactly that simple.

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