Reckless Optimism: 7 Common Arguments for Bombing Syria and the Reasons Why They’re Wrong.
On April 6th Donald Trump bombed Syria, and like the time he used a political speech to honour a fallen Navy SEAL whose father had asked that his son not be used as a political prop, a large portion of the media responded by falling over itself to marvel at how awesome and presidential he was being. Pundits proclaimed his action to be some sort of moral awakening. Noted stoic Fareed Zakaria even brought out a version of the “today he truly became the President” line—the world’s most puzzling cliché about a man who has been the actual President of the United States since January. Pundits, editorialists, and heads of government from all the typical U.S. allies have talked about what a “proportionate” response this was.
In the month since the attacks, the arguments that have been made in their favour have consistently failed to show why they were a good idea. At best, these arguments have championed short-term strategic goals while failing to consider larger global foreign policy implications. If you’re one of the people who have gone all-in on this attack on Bashar al-Assad, please allow me to explain why it was a bad move from a foreign policy perspective.
Argument #1: “This Was a Proportionate Response!”
The idea of a “proportionate strike” against Syria is meaningless. U.S. allies, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, have praised the attacks as a “proportionate response.” This seems like a plausible statement, but the manner for determining what constitutes a “proportionate” response has never been justified beyond Rex Tillerson’s fiat that the strike was proportionate simply “because it targeted the facility that delivered this most recent chemical weapons attack.” The other word used to describe these attacks is “calibrated,” which implies that the attacks’ proportionality was measured against a non-existent standard. To this writer, it appears as though the criteria for something to be “proportionate” is simply whether or not an individual can sound reasonable while saying it is.
“How were the attacks a ‘proportionate’ response?” is an operative question given the term’s repeated use in the aftermath of the attack. It’s possible to use simple rhetorical questions to show how ill-considered and baseless the idea of proportionality is: “Why were 60 Tomahawk missiles launched against an air base proportional to 80 people dying from Sarin Gas? Why not 80 missiles? Is one missile worth more than one gassed Syrian or is there some sort of symbolic multiplier effect if you fire them at the base the attacks were launched from?” Perhaps military proportionality is like pornography—you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.
I get the sense that when people say that the attacks were a “proportionate” response what they really mean is “We all wanted the bad man to be punished and it seems like there probably won’t be immediate negative consequences for this.” It’s less about the strike being strategically or legally proportional and more about it being psychologically and politically proportional. It gives that feel-good glow of having done something sort-of productive without having to pay anything up front. To say “they acted proportionately” creates an idea that we have the ability to leverage simple solutions to deal with atrocities, and that feels great.
As Amy Davidson wrote for The New Yorker back in August 2013, when Obama was coming under fire for his plan to attack Syria: “There are principles at work in wondering whether something that feels satisfying but causes more death and disorder is right, too.” Trump’s attacks on Syria will provide few benefits to international security and could have significant definite and potential long-run costs. No definition of “proportionate” is compatible with an action that imposes large costs for few benefits.
Argument #2: “Let’s Not Hate This Because of Trump”
A variety of arguments have been made over the past month to justify Trump’s attack on Syria, and there has been a strong element of assumption to much of the commentary. This includes a general narrative of ‘We see no immediate ill-effects of this strike, and it had a good stated purpose, so it must be good right?’ Such ideation ignores an array of past U.S. military and foreign policy mistakes that assumes a positive consequence. Please allow me to explore the faulty reasoning at the heart of this line of thought.
The justifications for these attacks have been couched in rationalizations that rely on arguments to plausibility rather than arguments based on evidence. There is little to demonstrate that the attack on Shayrat Airbase will have any long term benefit to the people of Syria, but it feels good to attack bad guys, and so pundits such as Thomas Friedman have convinced themselves that the attack was useful. The many observable long-term negative effects and potential future negative effects of this attack should override such wish-based thinking.
One of the “this sounds plausible” arguments that I have heard from multiple liberal or otherwise typically anti-Trump pundits, such as Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, is that “we shouldn’t dismiss something simply because Trump did it.” This phrase should set off alarms for all who hear it; the idea that a policy decision should be judged on its merits ought to go without saying. Instead of properly querying both whether a foreign policy act is good or is bad, this line solely privileges the search for ways in which an action might be good and implies that looking for potential negatives might be a sign of anti-Trump-driven bias. Like an individual who attempts to demonstrate that they are a free thinker by arguing in favour of the Star Wars prequels, the individuals who express this sentiment are “performing their rationality” to suggest to audiences that their agreement with Trump’s actions is a manifestation of critical thought.
In reality, Trump’s consistent demonstrated cluelessness about all things foreign policy-related requires the opposite approach. Recall that this is a man who has defamed allies in Germany, Britain, and Australia, and reversed his opinion on China’s role in managing North Korea after a ten-minute conversation with Xi Jinping. He has even made the false claim that NATO didn’t fight terrorists until he told them to. A critical approach to this strike is not “I shouldn’t dislike it because it came from Trump,” but instead “given Trump’s foreign policy record, I should ensure that I scrutinize this action for flaws.”
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy’s statement on the strikes accurately describes the situation for which people are giving Trump the benefit of the doubt: “An ill-thought out military action with absolutely no overall strategy for Syria risks dragging us further into a civil war in which we cannot tip the scales. And put in the context of U.S. policies that aid the slaughter of civilians in Yemen and deny terrorized Syrians the ability to flee their dystopian existence, a solitary air strike exposes the immoral hypocrisy of this administration’s policy in the Middle East.”
Skepticism towards the validity of a claim (such as “these strikes were justified”) is a fundamental tenet of any rigorous analysis. The validity of bombings should be skeptically questioned regardless of who ordered them; however, Trump’s previous actions demand that his actions be considered from a place of heightened skepticism. The points laid-out in this series of essays demonstrate why that skepticism is merited.
Argument #3: “This Reinforces the Norm Against Chemical Weapons.”
A variety of arguments have been made over the past month to justify Trump’s attack on Syria, including the argument that the attacks strengthen the norm against chemical weapons use. It’s an attractive argument by itself. Please allow me to explain why it does not hold up when considered in broader foreign policy context.
One of the most immediately plausible-sounding arguments for Trump’s bombing, especially for liberal commentators, is that it reinforces the norm against chemical weapons. The idea that ‘if someone does something wrong, they should be punished so that they’re afraid to do it again” is simple and attractive. But the Assad regime is breaking lots of international norms that the United States is doing nothing about, including:
- Attacking one’s own population with conventional weapon.
- Starving one’s own population to death.
- Use of incendiary weapons (thermite, phosphorus).
- Use of cluster bombs.
- Denying medical treatment to civilians.
All of these violate international norms, and as Stephen Walt has pointed out, all of them leave civilians the same level of dead as chemical weapons do. While chemical weapons are a terrible way to die, I’m going to assume that forced starvation, burning to death, and bleeding out from shrapnel wounds are as well. Hence why the above activities are also illegal under various tenets of international law (although the U.S. is not party to the ban on cluster bombs).
The disparity between the U.S. attitude towards chemical weapons norms and other norms becomes more stark when accounting for violations outside of Syria. Consider Trump’s refusal to condemn Putin’s political assassinations, or Trump’s desire to use torture on detainees, or Trump’s recent endorsement of Egypt’s authoritarian and human rights abusing strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. While Saudi Arabia commits a myriad of human rights abuses and is often considered the world’s foremost sponsor of Islamist terrorism, the Trump administration is pursuing closer economic and military engagement with the country. Why do chemical weapons deserve consideration but not any of these other abuses and atrocities?
It may be tempting to view the airstrike as a “zero cost for potential gain” situation; to believe that even if the United States is not attending to every norm violation in Syria and abroad, at least something is being done to show that chemical weapons won’t be tolerated. But to take actions with no long-term strategy could potentially lead to more death as Assad—who, unlike Trump, has no choice but to play a long-term game—feels pressure to prove that he’s still in control of the situation. It also risks weakening respect for all the norms that the U.S. has indicated it does not care about.
For the international community to view bombing as a threshold for norm enforcement establishes a dangerous precedent—a precedent that has no reason to be viewed as more effective at protecting innocents or saving lives in the long term. Norms can be enforced by expressive diplomacy—through formal condemnation and legal sanctions. That strategy is obviously not the be-all and end-all to dealing with human rights abuses, but sometimes it’s the best bad option. Language and commerce are humanity’s killer apps for a reason.
In April 2016 the UN’s envoy to Syria estimated that over 400,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war. The Syrian Centre for Policy Research estimated in February 2016 that 470,000 had died. Tens of thousands more have died since then. The deaths of 80 people due to Sarin is an atrocity, it is also 0.0002% of 400,000. To target such a minor cause of lost life in Syria as being off limits while ignoring everything else is to circumscribe over 99.9998% of the deaths in that country as not worth taking action over.
Argument #4: “This Was an Act of Leadership that Strengthened International Order”
A variety of arguments have been made over the past month to justify Trump’s attack on Syria. Before I even did the Google search, I knew that pundits would argue that the attacks would proclaim that “America’s Back.” The idea that U.S. interventionism restores international order is a classic tenet of American exceptionalism, but it often doesn’t work out that way. Please allow me to explain why these missile strikes are likely to make the world less stable, not more.
This was an act that weakened the strength of international law and undermined the operation of the international system.
The United States and the global community typically enforce norms by way of public condemnation of violations. It’s not a terribly effective method—nor is bombing—however, it at least allows for some level of consistency in terms of enforcement activity and the mutual agreement that international rules are important enough to care about. That consistency is crucial, because international norms all belong to a single international system. If norms are enforced individually and arbitrarily, then they are not being enforced at all. Rather, what is being enforced are moral fiats. Norms, by definition, cannot be applied irregularly.
By attacking a Syrian airfield the United States violated the biggest international legal norm of them all: The norm against attacking another state. The principle of territorial sovereignty is arguably one of two bedrock principles from which all other instruments of international law flow. The UN Charter’s principle that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” is not only the foundation for all international law created through the United Nations, it underlies almost every multinational agreement that exists today.
There is no legal justification for the attack on Syria. Post-World War II international law allows for the use of force for self-defense or for where there has been a Security Council resolution. That’s it. As unpleasant as the prospect of obeying that law can be sometimes, its life span correlates with a decrease in armed conflict between states that is unprecedented in world history. By weakening the strength of the law against state-to-state warfare, the United States runs the risk of making such warfare more possible.
The reason that sovereign states agree to be bound by international laws is that they have the assurance that if they violate those laws another state cannot come in and break their shit. There are exceptions—U.S. sovereignty concerns have prevented the country from ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—but for the most part, nations have been willing to bind themselves to certain principles based on the assurance that their sovereignty remains secure. Trump’s attack could discourage states from embedding themselves in international law. Furthermore, it could advance a global shift from a world where international law exists but is difficult to enforce towards a world that simply doesn’t use international law period.
Despite the various instances of sovereignty violations that occur around the world there are very few issues of territorial violation where international law is not invoked in some fashion. These justifications may sometimes lack credibility, but they persist nonetheless as acknowledgements that the principle of national sovereignty exists and must be dealt with. Trump’s action stands apart as an example of an attack that is made with no legal justification. Other countries—for instance, China—could invoke this history to help delegitimize U.S. opinion on international law as part of an effort to build their own influence over international law. Alternatively, they may use force against other territories and simply ask the world “If the U.S. doesn’t need to respect the law, why should we?” After all, sovereign equality is the other bedrock principle that international law is based upon.
Argument #5: “This Weakened the Russian Agenda”
A variety of arguments have been made over the past month to justify Trump’s attack on Syria. Pundits of a variety of stripes have been quick to pronounce these strikes as bad for Russia (which was notified about them in advance). Retired U.S. General Jack Keane called them a “major setback” for the Kremlin. These opinions fail to take into account the domestic political interests and foreign policy objectives of the realpolitik-driven country. Please allow me to explain why Vladimir Putin sees these strikes as a positive for his agenda.
‘Trump’s strikes are bad for Russia.’ ‘This move is going to put pressure on Vladimir Putin.’ ‘Syria under Bashar al-Assad is now a liability for the Kremlin.’ All common refrains from the foreign policy “blob.” All untrue.
Recent events may have given at-home audiences the impression that Russia was very invested in getting Trump elected. Not quite. Russia’s pro-Trump election interference was always a means to a larger end for the Kremlin. The country’s objective for Trump in the United States was the same as its objectives for the Front Nationale in France, Jobbik in Hungary, etc—to delegitimize liberal democracy and weaken the coherence of a rules-based global system. Putin’s brand of kleptocratic authoritarianism has left the country with a weak economy but a strong and aggressive military and intelligence apparatus. The weakening of a rules-driven international order allows Russia to accomplish more things through force and corruption and decreases reliance on international agreements and transparent trade. Trump’s actions in Syria advance that cause by creating moral approval for an illegal sovereignty violation, thus making the criteria for use of force more subjective and less rule-based.
Countries which look to use illegal force for their own purposes can point to this legal violation to argue the permissibility of their actions. When the U.S. ignores international law it provides cover for every other nation’s politicians to try and do the same. The U.S. has generally recognized this—when it invaded Iraq it used legal pretexts from the first Gulf War and the pretext of a threat from WMDs to claim legal legitimacy. It limited its loss of legal credibility before acting. That didn’t occur here, and damage to international law could be greater as a result.
The international system is just that: A system. The United States cannot interact with one part of the system without affecting the other parts. Bombing Syria has greater implications that favour the U.S.’ strategic opponents—the more that violations of sovereignty become a matter of debate instead of a matter of law, the more the legitimacy of any use of force by any nation becomes debatable rather than verifiable. Russia already largely defends its actions in Eastern Europe through moral defences. The United States and the larger global community should not validate that strategy.
If you live in a country without a giant military this should worry you. The integrity of your country’s sovereignty may become more a matter of debate than an intrinsic right. You should hope that nobody—for instance, China—thinks they can articulate a reason why they have a moral right to your country’s stuff. If you think I am being overblown with that warning, consider that at the most recent G7 meeting, in the aftermath of the U.S. strike on Syria, Rex Tillerson asked why the U.S. should bother supporting Ukraine. Thousands of people are dead in a conflict premised on a Russian violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, and the U.S. Secretary of State thinks that the importance of this is… debateable.
“Bad for Russia” indeed. (Oh, I forgot to mention that this attack also made Syria into even more of a Russian client state than it already was.
Argument 6: “This Strengthened the Position of the U.S.-led Coalition and Will Save Lives in Syria”
Some analysts have discussed the strikes exclusively in strategic terms, without reference to foreign policy. This allowed them to justify the strikes through what seems like a safe assertion: That, at least, the attack weakened Assad’s military might and acted as a deterrence. Please allow me to explain how the domestic political effects of this bombing could strengthen Assad’s hand in Syria.
First, let’s cover the damage that was actually done: One of two positive effects of this attack that have been consistently pushed by the U.S. government—without contradiction—is the attack’s degradation of Syrian air capabilities. The amount of damage done by the bombing has been inconsistently reported. At one point Secretary of Defense James Mattis reported that 20% of Syria’s operational air capacity had been destroyed; he later walked that 20% statement back and clarified that the strikes did “severe damage” and around 20 aircraft were destroyed. However severe it was, Syria had enough capacity to fly sorties from the base less than 24 hours later, and thanks to Russian and Iranian support the capabilities of the Assad regime go far beyond Syria’s own military infrastructure. Russia’s capability was not diminished by the attacks. Their equipment was moved elsewhere in advance of the strike. A weaker Syrian military means that the country’s security apparatus becomes even more Russia-dominated.
The second positive effect consistently pushed by the U.S. government is strategic deterrence. However, there has been no evidence that the strikes have effected deterrence enough to create a long-run increase to civilian safety. Further, the “small strike” approach to deterrence won’t work if Syria thinks that provoking the U.S. into a prestige-boosting war is a good idea. With Russia and Iran backing the Assad government, the level of potential power at play in Syria is dangerous, and the U.S. has given no indication of how far it’s willing to go if those powers decide to escalate the situation.
During his administration, Obama was worried that if he attacked Syria it would give Assad the ability to build support by proclaiming that he had “won” just by surviving. This is not an unreasonable worry. Saddam Hussein gained considerable popularity in the Arab world after the first Gulf War through his claim that surviving the United States meant he had won the war. Vietnam has a similar ability. It’s even possible to link this trend back to the War of 1812, which is viewed in Canada as a victory over the United States. History is written by the victor, and if Assad gets to write his own history in Syria, then…?
Russia also has incentive to take things further. In the aftermath of recent anti-corruption protests against his government in almost 100 Russian cities, Putin could view the attack on Syria as a welcome opportunity to demonstrate his strength against the West. He has learned from his adventures in Syria and Eastern Europe that Russian displays of power abroad play well at home and marginalizes domestic opposition. As an autocratic regime at the helm of a failing economy, Russia’s leadership has much more invested in Syria than the U.S. does. It is
perhaps Angela Merkel who summed up Russia’s reliance on displays of power best, when she said in 2007: “Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”
Argument #7: “Now the U.S. Has Its Credibility Back.”
A variety of arguments have been made over the past month to justify Trump’s attack on Syria, including the argument that the attack restored U.S. credibility abroad. Such arguments are unconvincing and have failed to justify this attack as good foreign policy. Please allow me to explain why these strikes were a bad move.
Quite possibly the most “offhand” and casually accepted justification that I’ve seen for Trump’s strike is the claim that it gave the U.S. its credibility back after Obama failed to back up his ‘red line’ and bomb Syria in response to Assad’s previous chemical weapons attack in 2013. This argument relies on two assumptions: First, it requires accepting that Obama cost the U.S. credibility by not bombing Syria. Second, it requires believing that Trump bombing Syria increased U.S. credibility. But are either of those things true?
Let’s compare the actions of both presidents and see whose actions are more credible.
- Chemical weapons are used by the Syrian regime in violation of Obama’s “Red Line.”
- Obama announces his intention to carry out strikes after seeking approval from Congress.
- The U.S. pushes for a deal with Russia to have Syria eliminate its chemical weapons.
- Congress appears set to reject authorizing an attack on Syria.
- Obama asks for the Congressional vote to be postponed (indefinitely).
- The U.S. reaches a deal with Russia for the elimination of Syria’s chemicals weapons.
- Obama says the U.S. remains prepared to act if the plan fails.
- Syria does not use gas for the remainder of Obama’s presidency.
Now let’s look at Trump:
- In 2013, Donald Trump massively opposes any U.S. retaliation for chemical weapons use in Syria.
- Donald Trump continues to maintain a non-interventionist line regarding Syria up-to and including when he becomes president.
- Syria, for the first time since 2013, uses chemical weapons.
- Without warning, Donald Trump completely changes his opinion and authorizes an attack on an air base.
- Trump’s administration articulates multiple conflicting viewpoints on what Trump’s Syria policy is going forward.
The ‘restoring America’s credibility’ argument says that Obama cost the U.S. credibility abroad by unsuccessfully attempting to get authorization for strikes and then not attacking anyway. This theory is contradicted by Syria’s response to these events—pretending to get rid of its chemical weapons and not using them for the rest of Obama’s time in office. Syria’s reaction suggests that it saw Obama’s threats as credible. Through the narrow prism of chemical weapons use, there appears to be no lapse in U.S. credibility until Trump becomes President.
Obama’s decision making process was deliberative and transparent. In contrast, Trump’s action is an out-of-nowhere reversal of a years-held policy stance followed-up by a jumble of conflicting White House statements about forward strategy. The Trump administration has taken an array of positions on issues such as whether or not they want Assad out, if they’re going to try and remove Assad, and whether or not they will respond to barrel bomb attacks. “Inconsistent,” “unreliable,” “spontaneous,” and “capricious” are not elements of credibility.
Less than a week after his strike, Trump claimed to be sending an “armada” to deal with threats from North Korea. That armada—lead by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson—instead went to Australia to conduct drills. In response the leader of South Korea’s Conservative Party, Hoo Joon-pyo, said “if that was a lie, then during Trump’s term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says.” South Korean media have echoed this sentiment. The idea that Trump’s use of lies and reversals costs him credibility is not mere speculation, it is backed by testimony.
The only thing that recent events have shown about Trump’s credibility is, to quote David Frum, that his “words mean nothing.”
Conclusion: A Plan Defended by Reckless Optimism
Despite all the arguments that these attacks will do “good,” the situation is clearly not so straightforward as to justify such simple math. The effects of this attack have few potential upsides, massive potential downsides, and did nothing to make Syria safer.
There is no evidence the U.S. military strike on Shayrat Airbase will have positive long-term effects in Syria. They may; however, have unforeseen negative strategic effects on the fight against ISIS. Russia and the Assad regime are fighting both rebel forces and ISIS. Attacking one could affect the fortunes of the other. To wit: The LA Times has reported that villagers near the site of the missile strikes have responded with worry that the strikes could provoke ISIS into attacking the area; many evacuated to Homs city. One villager thought that an attack on Syrian airpower—which he associated with protection from ISIS—was “proof” that the U.S. is helping ISIS.
Russia has since hosted a trilateral meeting with Iran and Syria that appears to indicate that the alliance is retrenching, not weakening, in the aftermath of the attack. Further, Russia has made threats to discontinue the strategic communication hotline that it maintains with Washington to avoid conflict in Syria. If Syria and Russia activate their air defence systems or cease to communicate with the U.S. in Syrian airspace, it could become far more difficult for coalition aircraft—previously largely able to operate and attack ISIS unmolested—to work in the region. This outcome could substantially increase the difficulty of attacking and surveilling ISIS.
On a global level, U.S. engagement with the Syrian regime raises questions of American resource allocation and attention. How will an under-staffed U.S. State Department balance an increased focus on Assad with U.S. engagement in Eastern Europe? Does China—a country which Trump has seemingly walked back all his policy objections to—view this as evidence that the U.S. will continue to be distracted from every non-North Korea issue that occurs in Asia Pacific? Many saw the attacks as a message to China about Trump’s toughness. Peter Hartcher of the Sydney Morning Herald has contended about the attacks: “Trump’s true message to China is that Beijing can get on with [its strategy] while Trump figures out his own.”
The potential negatives of this bombing will stand unchallenged if the United States’ maintains its absence of a coherent strategy towards Syria. It is difficult to find justification for a military strike whose aftermath appears to offer little benefit to the safety of civilians. There has been nothing in the U.S. posture to suggest the attack had value as part of any larger harm-reduction plan. While Trump has claimed that the deaths of children from sarin motivated his bombing, he has also withdrawn funding for the UN Population Fund—which, among other things, helps thousands of women in Syria give birth safely—because of the nonsensical claim that it’s forcing Chinese women to get abortions. This action alone could result in more lives lost than those taken by the sarin gas attack. Ultimately, the missile strikes have very few long-term potential upsides and a great deal of potential downsides which could reverberate outside the Middle East and cost more lives in the long-term.
The Brookings Institution’s Besma Momani has characterized the situation created by the strike aptly: “Whether [the attack] ushers in an end to Mr. al-Assad’s brutality or incites the beginning of a global and regional conflict is yet to be seen.” Call me crazy, but I would suggest that strategic responses designed to make the world safer shouldn’t potentially incite global conflicts. Considering their lack of identifiable benefit and their great deal of potential cost, for any individual to defend these bombings as justified requires a certain amount of reckless optimism.