It looks as if we’ll be firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria in the coming days, and critics are raising legitimate concerns:
President Bashar Assad may escalate. Hezbollah may retaliate against Western targets. Our missiles may kill civilians. We’ll own a civil war in a broken country. We’ll be distracted from nation building at home. A couple of days of missile strikes will offer merely a slap on the wrist that advertises our impotence.
There’s some truth to all that, but we also need to acknowledge something fundamental: President Barack Obama’s policy toward Syria has failed, and it’s time to try a tougher approach.
Obama reportedly rejected a proposal from Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus to arm rebels in Syria, because he feared getting dragged into the conflict. Now we’re getting dragged in anyway, and everything we worried about has come to pass:
The war has spread and destabilized Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. The hard-line Nusra Front rebels have gained strength, partly because we have spurned moderates. The Syrian army has won ground. Prolonged war has deepened sectarian hatreds that will make it harder than ever to put Syria back together.
More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed. At the rate the killings have accelerated, Syria could even approach a Rwanda-size death toll by the time Obama steps down.
I tend to be wary of the military toolbox, and I strongly opposed the Iraq war and the Afghan “surge.” But in conjunction with diplomacy, military force can save lives. We saw that in Bosnia and Kosovo under Bill Clinton (who appears to favor a more forceful U.S. approach in Syria), and we saw that just this year in Mali.
The problem is that overcommitments in Afghanistan and Iraq have left us with society-wide PTSD, so that we’re wary of engaging in Syria at all. Obama’s passivity is easy to understand: Only one-fifth of the U.S. public favors arming rebels.
But when I was last in Syria, in November, I met a grandma who had already lost her husband, her son and her daughter-in-law to the Assad regime. She was living in her fifth home that year, a leaky tent, wondering who would die next, and like everyone was desperate for international support. “We ask for God’s help in ending this, and Obama’s,” she said.
What do we tell her? That we don’t have the stomach to help her? That we’d rather wait until all her grandkids have died and the death toll has reached hundreds of thousands and embarrassed us to take firmer action?
Granted, there’s a legitimate question about whether a day or two of missile strikes against Syria (seemingly the most likely scenario) will deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons. We can’t be sure, but to me that seems plausible.
Chemical weapons are of only marginal use, simply one more way to terrorize and demoralize opponents. Assad has carefully calibrated his actions over the last few years, testing the domestic and international response before escalating.
At first he merely arrested protesters. Then his forces began firing on them. Next his soldiers swept hostile neighborhoods. Then the Syrian army began firing rockets and mortars at rebel positions. Assad moved on to indiscriminate bombing. Then his army apparently used chemical weapons in small attacks. Finally, his army appears to have undertaken a major assault with nerve gas.
We’ve been the frog in the beaker.
To me there’s some hope that destroying military aircraft or intelligence headquarters can persuade Assad that chemical weapons are not worth the cost and that he is better off employing more banal ways to slaughter his people. That’s unsatisfying but would still be a useful message to other leaders. It would reinforce the international norm against weapons of mass destruction.
Are we making too much of chemical weapons? Probably less than 1 percent of those killed in Syria have died of nerve gas attacks. In Syria, a principal weapon of mass destruction has been the AK-47.
Yet there is value in bolstering international norms against egregious behavior like genocide or the use of chemical weapons. Since Obama established a “red line” about chemical weapons use, his credibility has been at stake: He can’t just whimper and back down.
Look, Syria is going to be a mess, whatever we do. The optimal window to intervene by supporting moderate rebels may have closed. But if the coming clash gives us a chance to do more to arm certain rebel groups or share intelligence with them, that would still be worthwhile — all while backing the idea of a negotiated settlement.
For all the risks of hypocrisy and ineffectiveness, it’s better to stand up inconsistently to some atrocities than to acquiesce consistently in them all.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.