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Friday, August 30, 2013

Shots Across the Bow

Talleyrand is having fond memories of Mr Madison’s war when he, following the naïve example of his predecessor, sought to teach us a lesson and ended up taking his country to war on behalf of a principle, and losing badly.

What Mr Obama’s game is now is anybody’s guess. His shot probably won’t be a dud. It may allow him to check this box and get back to the things he really cares about. Yet he must know that an attack on Syria at this moment violates several tenets of American policy, namely:

--do not launch a military attack without significant international support and a clear casus belli.

--do not launch a military attack without preparing the American people and reaching a consensus over costs and benefits.

--do not launch a military attack without a full contingency plan.

--do not, ever, speak of a military attack as being “tailored” and “limited” and expect to be taken seriously by the people you’re trying to influence.

--do not, ever, enter someone else’s civil war unless absolutely necessary.

Perhaps the Vietnam syndrome really is dead. Perhaps Obama and his team know much more than they’re letting on. Perhaps their diplomacy is much more subtle and successful than it appears. For his and his country’s sake, we must hope so.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Strategies and Tactics

Edward Luttwak’s latest attempt to prove a theory about civil wars—that they follow a natural course and are best left alone to play themselves out until all sides are too tired to fight—is like much of his interesting work: clever but not very intelligent. Civil wars, particularly international civil wars like Syria's, are not all the same. There are some that end with intervention, even partial intervention; there are others that are prolonged, and worsened, by it. What to do, or not to do, in Syria should be informed by a much better informed grasp of reality on the ground than Luttwak evidently has.

This war is not taking place in a vacuum or petri dish. There are other major players besides the Syrians and the Americans. Do they all share an interest in keeping this war lasting indefinitely, as Luttwak contends for the Americans? Do they also have the power to calibrate it? Do they expect that it will remain relatively confined to Syrian territory?

An affirmative answer to any of those questions is not self-evident. Nor is his reading of US policy in 2011 and early 2012 as being the result of short-term optimism. Then, as now, it was more likely driven by confusion, uncertainty and timidity (it was an election year, after all) -- and a sensible fear of getting involved directly in an extremely messy and dangerous conflict.

There is no clear choice between doing nothing, doing just a little, or launching a large scale military intervention. When in doubt, doing nothing or just a little is often a wise policy. But stalemate is not in anyone's interest here because the conflict is is growing, not shrinking. So too should the response: if you can't solve a problem, and can't hide from it, then enlarge it.

The focus of the United States and its allies now should be less on how big or small a symbolic scolding ought to rain down on Damascus and more on how the complicated and diverging interests of the various major powers now intervening in Syria’s civil war can be reordered in a common direction toward containment and, ultimately, peace. The best strategic minds ought to direct themselves to this practical course of action, and not to proving or disproving one another’s pet theories, however appealing they may be to the cynics among us. But that will require much more creative diplomacy, and a much more of a public commitment to it than any American  or European official has shown thus far.

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