Americans have been somewhat surprised that our most eager ally in taking punitive military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is not the United Kingdom, our partner in the so-called “special relationship,” but the France of the Socialist François Hollande. Do you remember when we were mad enough at them to put Freedom Fries on the menu?
President Obama’s decision to delay action by turning to Congress caught the French off guard—they were reportedly ready to act immediately. Now Hollande finds himself in a somewhat awkward position—out in front of everyone else, with a debate in his own parliament. The respected satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné (the Chained Duck) described Hollande’s position as like that “of a kid whose buddies have pushed him forward to join a fight and now that he’s there, do not follow him.”
So why should stalwart Britain—headed by a conservative government, no less—say no to Syria while the untrustworthy and independent-minded French say yes? The simplest answer is that the British suffered through ten years of Iraq and Afghanistan and have had enough of getting involved in Middle Eastern civil wars with us, while the French, having sat out Iraq, are in a very different mood. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s support of the Libyan rebels was seen as a foreign-policy triumph—Islamists in Benghazi didn’t murder the French Ambassador. Hollande’s decisive move to oust Muslim extremists in Mali was one of the few dramatic successes of his brief and uninspiring tenure. He has found that quick military excursions are much easier than reforming the pension system or getting France’s teachers to give up their traditional Wednesday afternoon off.
But the different reactions of our chief allies should give us some pause as we contemplate future action in Syria. The French affirmation may not be entirely reassuring.
It is possible that limited military action to punish Syria for its presumed use of chemical weapons is the least bad of the few terrible options facing the Obama Administration—the others being a full-blown military commitment to overthrow the Assad regime or doing nothing in the face of tragedy. What seems worrisome, however, is the reasoning behind the Administration’s approach, which seems to be dictated primarily by concerns about reputation and by a negative logic—we cannot not do something—rather than by an attempt to articulate what it actually hopes to accomplish in making a military strike.
Here in France, the country’s most famous humanitarian hawk, Bernard-Henri Lévy, a major proponent of the intervention in Libya, has joined the list of American neocons (from William Kristol to Karl Rove and Elliot Abrams) who have signed an open letter to President Obama urging a greater commitment to the Syrian opposition than a limited, punitive strike. In an editorial in Le Monde, Lévy wrote, “The peace of the world depends, in great part, on the dissuasive capacity of America—and an America that bends today before Assad will have no credit tomorrow to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons or North Korea from using those it already has.”
What is notable is Lévy’s focus on America, and also on the impact of weakened American credibility in countries such as Iran and North Korea. He hardly talked about France. In fact, much of the language being used to justify a military response has almost nothing to do with the situation in Syria itself. Foreign-policy experts and commentators are concerned with American credibility, the risk of eroding American power in the world.
Similarly, Secretary of State John Kerry said, in a recent speech, “History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings.” He seemed to see the move as important to national identity: “This crime against conscience, this crime against humanity… this matters to us, and it matters to who we are, and to leadership and credibility in the world. It matters here if nothing is done.” Kerry said, “This is about Hezbollah, North Korea, and every other terrorist group. Will they remember that the world stood aside and created impunity?”
So far, we are hearing about why this matters everywhere in the world but where it would seem to matter most: Syria. But should foreign policy—especially the use of lethal force—be about identity, our image abroad, internal or external political pressures? Shouldn’t the question be, simply: Will a military strike against Syria make the terrible situation there better?
The reason this question is avoided is that we have very little idea. Would a military strike sufficiently weaken the capacity of the Assad regime to tip the balance in favor of the opposition? Would it harden the determination of the regime and its supporters? If the Assad regime fails to react in some appreciable way to missile strikes, do we leave it at that, or proceed with some other military action? If we help bring down Assad, will this increase our influence with rebel groups, which, as the conflict escalates, include increasing numbers of Islamists who are unlikely to become champions of Western-style democracy in Syria?
Curiously, the American public is far less convinced of the necessity of military action in Syria than our foreign-policy establishment and journalistic commentators. It is still smarting from the three-trillion-dollar quagmire in Afghanistan and Iraq. Research shows that it is relatively easy to manipulate the public when it knows little about a subject, but much more difficult to do so when it has experience of a problem. (See, for example, the work of Robert Y. Shapiro, at Columbia.) And so it was far easier for the George W. Bush Administration to whip up support for the invasion of Iraq—about which it knew little—than to privatize Social Security, a program it knew well. After America had experienced a few years of chaos and civil war in Iraq, public opinion turned decisively against our involvement, and has not budged much since.
The French, unlike the Americans and the British, do not have Iraq fatigue. While each situation should be judged on its own merits, one might hope that we had learned a few things from Iraq. In foreign policy, we might consider a version of the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm—that is, don’t act unless you have a clear, obtainable objective and feel that you have a better than even chance at achieving it. Decisive action is much more satisfying for policymakers than doing nothing—it seems to offer a solution to a troubling problem. But, as we saw with Iraq, it’s not so simple. And acting for the sake of political catharsis, or in the name of “credibility” as measured in foreign newspapers, leads to poor policy. Obama seems to have understood this, and has generally shown a kind of wise passivity in dealing with some of the world’s thorniest problems. He has been criticized for “leading from behind,” but he has produced some genuine accomplishments and avoided, so far, any real disasters. Syria has the potential to change that.
Decisive generally plays well in the short term. George W. Bush’s poll numbers went through the roof at the beginning of the Iraq war. And Hollande, in France, has had a small bump in his abysmally low poll numbers since coming out in favor of action in Syria. But those numbers fade quickly if things on the ground don’t go as planned.
“Our biggest problem is ignorance; we’re pretty ignorant about Syria,” Ryan C. Crocker, a former Ambassador to Syria and Lebanon, who has also held the post in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who is the dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, said in a recent Times interview. One might have thought that, after twelve years of bloody and expensive military ventures in the Middle East, we had learned some humility, to know what we don’t know—and what our most supportive friends don’t know, either.