After two weeks of furious debate about whether the United States should attack Syria, there are cogent arguments for and against a military strike.
First, the case for intervention.
The most basic reason to attack is the one advanced from the beginning by President Obama and his aides: to deter Syrian leader Bashar Assad from using chemical weapons again. If he doesn’t pay a heavy price for the Aug. 21 incident that killed hundreds of civilians, he’s likely to use more sarin.
The second major argument for a military strike involves a broader principle: shoring up the international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. As Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate hearing: “If we don’t answer Assad today, we will erode the standard that has protected our troops for a century.”
The third chief reason for acting is that America’s credibility is at stake, especially since Obama declared large-scale use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces a “red line” that would compel a U.S. response. If it appears to the world we were only bluffing with regard to Syria, why would any nation take a U.S. threat seriously?
On its face, that argument is mostly about Iran; if there’s no attack, officials say, Iranian leaders will conclude that they can ignore Obama’s red lines against seeking nuclear weapons. But the argument is also about Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that he may attack Iran’s nuclear installations if he cannot rely on Obama’s promises. A failure to launch a small-scale attack against Syria now, officials say, would make a large-scale war with Iran more likely later.
Those are the chief arguments for intervening, and they’re persuasive. But there are also good arguments against.
First, as even Kerry has acknowledged, there’s no guarantee that a single round of U.S. strikes would succeed in stopping Assad from using chemical weapons. He might emerge from his bunker after a few days, declare his survival a victory and order another sarin attack to prove the point. In that case, the administration would probably strike again to reinforce the principle of deterrence – a scenario that raises the prospect of further escalation by both sides.
Second, military action almost always produces unintended consequences. Strikes against Syria are likely to harm civilians as well as military targets. And they could prompt retaliation by Syria or its allies against U.S. embassies or other targets.
Both of those arguments lead directly to the third and most compelling argument against intervention: the prospect that even limited military action could be a slippery slope to another war.
Looming over the arguments on both sides is a larger debate: What goals should the United States pursue in Syria, and how can those goals best be achieved?
My own reluctant judgment is that Obama and Kerry are correct. Chemical warfare is different from conventional warfare. It does cross a line that ought to be enforced, and that limit would have existed whether or not Obama had drawn his red line.
Still, the consequences of action will be painful. Military action is never as surgical as its planners would like. And if Assad retaliates, it won’t be easy to keep the conflict from becoming a slippery slope.
Many of the arguments on both sides are sound. Anyone who supports military action should do so with reluctance. And anyone who opposes it should be reluctant, too.