Carl von Clausewitz, the great Prussian military theorist of the early 19th century who discussed war as being an extension of politics, also spoke of the "fog of war" - how in the face of incomplete, dubious, and often completely erroneous information and high levels of fear, doubt, and excitement it was necessary for alert commanders to make rapid decisions - both on the battlefield and at a strategic level where certainty was rare. Thus it is with Syria.
Let's try anyway.
There is a set of questions about the relative strengths and relationships of the participants - Assad's Alawites, the moderate Sunnis, the jihadist Sunnis, the neighboring countries,and the more distant patrons in Iran and Russia. This is very well discussed by the folks at the British newspaper The Telegraph, the intelligence web site Stratfor, and any number of other news sources. It is unlikely that the CIA can get a much clearer picture of the risks and likely outcomes than the well-motivated private citizen.
The most important question is not about them - it is about us. Why should we get involved? There are two types of answers.
1. It is morally wrong for us to stand by as over 100,000 people are killed and the Assad regime deploys gas warfare against its citizens. Within the administration there has been a devide between the pragmatists who see an unending list of tyrants and atrocities in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere and the idealists such as UN Ambassador Samantha Powers (who was vocally outspoken about the Clinton administration's slowness to act in the Balkans and failure to act at all in central Africa) and National Security Advisor Susan Rice (who was central to the Clinton administration's failure to stop mass genocide in Rwanda in the the 90's.) A strong majority of Americans would side with the pragmatists.
2. What is our national security interest?
- Credibility. Some 90,000 deaths ago Obama declared that Assad had to go. A year ago he declared chemical weapons a "red line". In June he declared a smaller use against insurgents to be cause for sending (yet to arrive) weapons to the rebels. John Kerry (perhaps bloviating beyond his authority in an effort to be the un-Hillary) declared Assad's use of chemical weapons to be "undeniable" and demanding of a response. Abject weakness will inevitably draw challenges elsewhere - perhaps with Iran's nuclear program; perhaps somewhere like Korea where our symbolic presence and nuclear umbrella have guaranteed peace for a half century. Two years of speeches without action have made belief in American commitments a real national security interest.
- Containment of the jihadists. For the past two years radical Islamists have been migrating to Syria and joining militias such as the al-Queda-allied Jabhat Nusra to the point that they may have become the most effective fighters against the Assad regime. Our failure to arm the pro-west moderates when they were in the ascendency 12 to 18 months ago was a lost opportunity which may be rectified over time, but the chaos that would follow the collapse of Assad's regime could easily result in at least large enclaves of radical anti-West Islamists and a sanctuary for al-Queda such as Afghanistan and Pakistan offered a generation ago. Until we can be confident that the moderates would dominate, Assad is preferable.
- Stability of our regional allies - Israel; Turkey; Saudi Arabia; Egypt. Each has its own considerations - suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; concern about the Kurds in northern Syria gaining independence and inflaming the Kurds in Turkey; Saudi opposition to both jihadist insurgents and Iran's Shia allies; Israel's value to Islamists as a rallying point. None of this is good. Assad has been a troublemaker in Lebanon, but otherwise he has been good for peace in the neighborhood.
The political setting is ugly. Obama will not have the support of the United Nations to enforce the international community's ban on use of chemical weapons; he will not have the support of the Arab League which he did have in Libya; he will not have the support of NATO which he has in Afghanistan; he is not inclined to ask for approval of Congress as required by the Constitution. He will not have the support of the American people.
What to do? Lob in a few missiles - enough to show that he cannot be trifled with, but not enough to weaken Assad's military. Perhaps ship a few of the promised munitions to the moderate Syrian opposition. Rely on the media and the public to move on to the budget fights and the baseball playoffs. Such is leadership in the era of Obama.
This week's video contains the reflections of Republican Senator Tim Scott on Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech - he was available to speak on Fox since he - the only African American senator - was not invited to the celebration at the Washington Mall. An innocent oversight to be sure.