Is There Such a Thing as a “Limited” Strike Against Syria?

By Robbin Laird

Today, President Obama has indicated that he will ask the Congress to authorize a limited strike against the regime in Syria.

He has argued that this is necessary to enforce “international norms” and to put a roadblock to proliferation of various sorts.

If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?

To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?”

This open ended and sweeping characterization of why and when to act seems to be boundless.

It would not be difficult to find many candidates for such action.

Syria is just the latest.

But it still remains, how do military actions of various sorts lead to effective political and diplomatic outcomes?

There clearly needs to be a means-ends linkage to achieve an effective outcome.

The President asserts what will happen without seeming to grasp that one simply does not know the outcome in advance.  One is always dealing with a reactive enemy, and notably one who is being given a long lead time in shaping a “response” and who has powerful friends in the region who can assist in various ways in horizontal escalation, and in inventing responses which the President can not even know.

Iran, Iraq, and Russia come to mind as key players who have key stakes in the crisis and none of these players has the same view of “limited military options” that the President has.

This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.

Our military has positioned assets in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. And I’m prepared to give that order.

How does he know that it is not an open ended action?

Most notably, he argues that the action will be designed to deter this kind of behavior and degrade their capacity to carry it out.

With this characterization he admits that it is about the enemy and what he will do and what he can do.  This means that only if the enemy determines that it is limited, is it limited.

And what is the outcome?  What is the evidence of victory?

The destruction of chemical weapons in Syria? They sign a new meaningless agreement?  The regime falls?  The “rebels” whomever they are come to power?

The Administration earlier stated that the Russians did not know their real interest in Syria; does the Administration know what is interest in Syria is exactly?

This is not a court of law where clever lawyers maneuver on a point of law; this is history with its porous open ended conflicts of many years of duration.

We can look back on two recent examples and see clearly how limited limited actions are.

In the case of the Libyan intervention, there were no boots on the ground.  Manpads were lost with their role yet to be fully determined in the future.  Then there was Benghazi and now insurgents in Libya have seized parts of the Libyan pipeline and hold the Libyan economy hostage.

For the Administration, the LIbyan intervention was the INITIAL operation only; the reality is that an intervention is a moment in the ongoing struggle for power and shaping the environment within which strategic interests can be more rather than less satisfied.

And we can think back to Mr. Cruise Missile, Bill Clinton and ask how those cruise missile strikes against one Osama Bin Laden went?

The Joint Chiefs recommended a comprehensive attack on the terrorirsts and such an attack could have taken the tererorist leaders out and hsitory would have been different.  Instead, the US launched a very ineffecxtive cruise missile strike.

Cruise missiles are a favorite of civilian strategists because they can be directed by the political process; but the reality is that they are effective as tools in a comprehensive effort with clear strategic goals and an acceptance of a messy process of implementation.

And with a military authorized to take the appropriate actions to get a job done, not simply perform a “limited action” with no clear strategic goals.

The only thing limited here is the clarity of what the objectives are, the determinaton of what would constitute success, and how this action aids the US and the West in achieving a more peaceful Middle East in the twilight of the Arab Spring.

And by the way, the Administration celebration of the Arab Spring, how is that going?





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