Staying Out of Syria Is Not Cost-Free

Failing to act against the Assad regime invites more problems down the road.

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Let me start by stating the obvious: The United States needs the current situation in Syria about as much as it needs a hole in its head. Congressional debate on American intervention will be spirited and authorization is far from guaranteed. The administration, to be sure, has not covered itself in glory here by oscillating all over the place in terms of what it said that it would do, how it would do it and what it seems to want or not want to do.

Of course, if limited strikes do occur to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, then they could be supplemented by other legal and economic levers against Damascus. In terms of economic consequences, Orde F. Kittrie and Gregory D. Koblentz over at The National Interest have argued that:

The U.S. could also make perpetrators pay a severe economic price for using chemical weapons by imposing new, secondary sanctions on both the Assad regime and specific individuals involved in the chemical attacks. Under a  U.S. law enacted in 1991, if a foreign government "has used lethal chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals,” the president must impose various specified primary sanctions. Most of these primary sanctions have already been imposed on Syria for other reasons. But there are relatively few secondary sanctions on the Assad regime or its pillars of support. Secondary sanctions are restrictions – such as denial of access to the U.S. financial system and markets – which are designed to inhibit non-U.S. persons and companies from transacting with a target of primary U.S. sanctions. New secondary sanctions could pressure foreign companies to halt their transactions with the regime and its pillars.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

But attacking Syria is not popular for many. As Richard K. Betts sums things up over at Foreign Affairs

As with other post–Cold War atrocities, the use of chemical weapons has led to calls for the United States to "do something” to stop the perpetrators. Yet exactly what that something should be – which would not make things worse, not cost too much in blood and treasure, and not have unanticipated consequences – is utterly unclear. The two contradictions make the policy problem a dilemma in the true sense, a choice among unsatisfactory options. Congress must now share responsibility for determining the least bad way out. Indecisive use of military power emerges as the compromise between apparently unacceptable alternatives of doing nothing and doing too much. This is jumping halfway across Clausewitz's ditch; it is solving Solomon's choice by actually splitting the baby. In other words, it is politically logical but strategically unwise, and it is both understandable and tragic.

Another tragedy of the situation, however, might be another leg being taken out of the global security system. Steven Metz writing at the World Politics Review (subscription required) notes that:

The hesitancy and confusion surrounding a response to the Syrian use of chemical weapons demonstrates the perfect storm that is propelling the United States toward strategic retrenchment and disengagement: a risk-averse administration disinclined to bold action; a divided and dysfunctional Congress that uses national security to score partisan points; and a war-weary public uninspired by America's leaders to sustain the global security system that the United States played a large role in creating. All this is combined with the mounting bill from putting 12 years of war with al-Qaida on the national credit card at the very time that an aging population, decaying infrastructure and decrepit educational system impose costs on the government.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

This retrenchment and disengagement might be the most damaging in the long-term. The United States today is undoubtedly a superpower on a budget, but still a superpower. No nation can project power like the United States can, even today on sequestration. The United States gains much politically, culturally and economically from its leadership role in the global security system.

It is a chimera to think that we can disengage or walk away from areas like the Middle East and pay no consequences. The Syrian regime should be punished for using chemical weapons on its people, but more so, such punishment needs to be undertaken to deter future uses of such weapons.

There are those out there who say we should do nothing about Syria and let the sides fight it out. For them, I would ask, why do they think that is a cost-free option for the United States? After all, the Iran-Iraq war lasted for more than eight years, but did not exhaust either side. Iraq went on to invade Kuwait two years after its conclusion, deepening U.S. involvement in the region. Iranian adventurism led to a strengthening of Hizbollah, Hamas, and support to the Khobar Towers attack that killed 19 U.S. airmen. What are the strategic consequences after the regime or opposition win and what makes you think the United States won't have to be drawn into a deadlier or more expensive conflagration down the road?

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.