June 4, 2013

Leading From Behind in Syria?

President Obama’s policy of disengagement will likely lead to more conflict in the Middle East.

It is never easy to write about foreign affairs, especially on matters of war and peace. The analyst who sits on the sideline does not, and should not, have access to the key information on which to make informed judgments about the most difficult decision that faces any President of the United States: When and how to use force on foreign soil.

The stakes are high and the events are often outside the control of the U.S. Worse still, the consequences of mistaken intervention overseas can prove disastrous to American armed service members, whose lives are put in unnecessary danger, to the standing of the United States in the eyes of the world, and to the local populations who are the intended beneficiaries of American action. At the very least, there ought to be a presumption against committing American forces in the absence of a direct and immediate military threat to the United States and to its treaty partners.

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  Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Yet that presumption is not absolute: Sometimes, the dangers of standing aside are as great as, or even greater than, those of getting involved. Both World War I and World War II stemmed in large measure from moving too slowly in the face of serious danger. On November 7, 1916, Woodrow Wilson narrowly beat the Republican Charles Evans Hughes by invoking the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” only to lead the United States into the war against Germany six months later on April 2, 1917.

In a far greater instance of folly, Neville Chamberlain, just back from Munich, announced on September 30, 1938 that “a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time,” only for Herr Hitler—as Chamberlain called him—to begin the occupation of the Sudetenland, and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, the next day.

Appeasement Today

The hardest question of the hour is whether the United States is making the same kind of mistake on a smaller scale today. At one level, it may seem perhaps premature or even churlish to challenge President Obama, who enjoys the broad support of the American public for winding down the nearly 12-year involvement of the United States in both Iraq and Afghanistan, while keeping the United States deftly straddling the sidelines in Syria, which at least for the moment looks like a bloody civil war and humanitarian disaster.

The President’s message in his recent Memorial Day speech is of relative disengagement: “Last Memorial Day, I stood here and spoke about how, for the first time in nine years, Americans were no longer fighting and dying in Iraq. Today, a transition is underway in Afghanistan, and our troops are coming home.” Under the Obama war strategy, the United States limits the scope of its military actions to targeted countermeasures, often by drones, against various worldwide outposts of al Qaeda, from Indonesia to Yemen, and thus avoids the protracted land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As he said at his speech at the National Defense University: “Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat.” And further, the new challenge is responding to serious but “localized threats like those we saw in Benghazi, or at the BP oil facility in Algeria, in which local operatives.”

Perhaps the most cogent defense of the President’s position comes from my libertarian friend, the columnist Steve Chapman, who asks tongue in cheek, “In Syria, what could possibly go wrong?” Chapman’s argument essentially was that the President has been right to resist the hotheaded Senator John McCain, who has lobbied for a no-fly zone over Syria, which is sure to lead to a repetition of the war on terror, which hasover the past 12 years has been a trail of tears, littered with pulverized buildings, dead bodies and piles of burning cash.”

Exhibit A for Chapman is the current downward slide toward all-out civil war in Iraq, where the latest news reveals that the civilian death toll topped 1,000 in May—its highest in years. The country is surely drifting toward a vicious sectarian war that pits Sunni against Shia. Matters are no better in Afghanistan, a country divided by deep tribal loyalties, and where the United States cannot control the Afghan soldiers, who have killed some 61 American and coalition forces. Syria for its part has air defense capabilities that far outstrip those of Libya.

Not getting involved in these foreign conflicts is, in the Chapman view, the way to avoid these stumbling defeats, especially in light of what is sure to be a clumsy U.S. exit strategy. Getting out of foreign entanglements is of course difficult.

One possible flaw in Chapman’s argument is that it might get the causation in the wrong direction. The casualties and the disarray may well be the consequence and not the cause of the timed retreat, which forms the core of the U.S. exit strategy. George W. Bush (who gets only a passing reference in Obama’s speech, and then only as the fall guy for Guantanamo) took the position that once you got into a war, you have to commit to it wholeheartedly.

In line with the now discarded Powell doctrine, he thought that a President had to think long and hard before committing American forces to foreign wars, but once that commitment was made, there was no place for half-measures. Overwhelming force was required in the short run to win the military venture. Once that was done, great care must be taken in running the peace, to make sure that the United States backed up the civilian authorities and brokered settlements that kept rival factions from blowing each other to bits.

On this score, the Bush administration did badly with its misguided post-invasion strategy that, for example, ushered in local resentment and hostility by disbanding the Iraqi army. But tactical errors can be corrected. The essential point remains: the only credible commitment requires the U.S. in the fight for the duration, come what may.

At bottom, no military strategy can succeed unless it rests upon a credible threat of the use of force—that is, one that an opponent believes is likely to be carried out. It is not possible to maintain that credible threat by announcing hard deadlines on the withdrawal of American troops. That only gives the advantage to the enemies: they can engage in low level harassment during the transitional period and build up strength to launch a more decisive thrust once the U.S. is out of the picture.

Perhaps the recent carnage in Afghanistan and in Iraq should not be understood, as Chapman would have it, as the direct consequence of the U.S.’s decisions to defeat the Taliban or topple Saddam Hussein. It may well have been the consequence of Obama’s popular if unilateral decision to withdraw as the situation continues to deteriorate. By washing our hands of these messy conflicts in the short run, we may have made matters worse for the long run.

Not only will fatalities continue to rise in both countries, but the conflicts will continue to spread elsewhere in the Middle East. As the New York Times headline puts it, “As Syrians Fight, Sectarian Strife Infects Mideast.”  In the end, American forces could be required to intervene under less propitious circumstances, especially with the Iranians sitting next door.

Whither Syria?

The situation in Syria is still more ominous. A powerful Wall Street Journal editorial chronicles the dangerous consequences of the American decision to sit this war out. Bashar Assad and his band of butchers have concluded that the President is weak, not circumspect. What else should they think now that the “red line” on the use of chemical weapons dissolved with little more than a presidential whimper?

Confident that there will be no forcible response, Syrians have stepped up their use of military force, aided by massive shipments of arms from Iran and Russia, and the direct involvement of the Hezbollah militia inside Syrian borders. Russia has announced that it is prepared to ship advanced air defenses in the form of its S 300 system by spring 2014, assuming these systems have not arrived unannounced already. Clearly, this poses a threat to Israel, which is concerned about the transshipment of arms through Syria to Hezbollah.

The war in Syria could thus continue indefinitely, posing graver threats to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan from the large number of Syrian refugees crossing the border. The EU has announced the relaxation of its own arms embargo for the rebels, which is not the same as supplying needed arms in sufficient quantities. But it is far from clear who should receive any arms shipment, as the rebel ranks may have become infiltrated with al Qaeda types. Intervening today is far more perilous than it was a year ago.

No Libertarian Panacea

There are larger lessons to learn from these foreign policy issues. The first is that libertarians, like Chapman and myself, can both be faithful to their basic principles, yet differ strongly on what should be done. The basic principle of libertarian thought is its blanket prohibition against the use of force (including the threat of force) and fraud to achieve personal gain at the expense of others. That principle translates easily into the international context to say that one nation cannot wage war against another.

However easy it is to state that basic principle, it is just that hard to implement it, especially in a world of self-help where there is no common sovereign to stop the use of force. It is easy to allow the use of force in self-defense, but difficult to prevent that excuse from being used by scoundrels for their own ends.

It is even harder to get to the bottom of the simple question of when and where one person (or nation) should come to the assistance of another. The basic legal rule is that such intervention is permissible but not obligatory, and only on behalf of the victim of the attack. The general private law rule that there is no duty to rescue a stranger in a condition of imminent peril from natural forces, even though there is an obvious right to do, carries over to the matter of self-defense.

The great tragedy then is that the clear moral principle can easily become overwhelmed by a series of subsidiary conflicts that extend from difficult factual disputes about the past to uncertain predictions about the future, all set against a background that allows for the exercise of good faith judgment without clear guidelines on how it is best exercised. I do hope that I am wrong, and that the President is doing the right thing. But all things considered, I think that there is a serious risk that his policy of studied disengagement may well turn out, down the road, to drag us into some larger conflict against our will.


Richard A. Epstein, Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at New York University, and senior lecturer at the University of Chicago, researches and writes on a broad range of constitutional, economic, historical, and philosophical subjects. He has taught administrative law, antitrust law, communications law, constitutional law, corporate law, criminal law, employment discrimination law, environmental law, food and drug law, health law, labor law, Roman law, real estate development and finance, and individual and corporate taxation. His publications cover an equally broad range of topics. His most recent book, published in 2013, is The Classical Liberal Constitution: The Uncertain Quest for Limited Government (2013). He is a past editor of the Journal of Legal Studies (1981–91) and the Journal of Law and Economics (1991–2001).


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