“Bombs away!” It’s almost become a mantra for American governments over the past five decades. As the Obama administration monitors an agreement with Russia to collect Syrian chemical weapons, the cry threatens to ring out again.
Check the record. Since 1963, the United States has launched a significant assault on a country every 40 months or so. It’s as if every time a country (that is weaker and smaller than the United States) doesn’t do what we want it to do, we take military action.
Forget about that old-fashioned, time-honored tradition called diplomacy, which has often saved lives and produced lasting results. We’ve almost forgotten how to do it. We’ve forgotten how to talk. We’ve relied on a military response so often that we’ve allowed whatever diplomatic skills we once possessed to get rusty.
The ill-considered, misjudged use of force, however, can lead to really bad outcomes. Take, for example, the current Syria/chemical weapons crisis.
The Obama administration painted itself into a corner with its inept use of the phrase “red line.” All of a sudden, after two years of slaughter in Syria, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry played the humanitarian card. Yes, chemical weapons are hideous, but conventional weapons are not pretty either, and have killed at least 100,000 people in the Syrian war. Beyond that, intelligence sources are sure chemical weapons have been used in the past year with no firm evidence as to which side used them.
There’s also evidence that if the Syrian government did use chemical weapons this time, it was not on President Bashar Assad’s direct orders, but rather the decision of a field commander, whom Assad rebuked. It’s hard to discern the truth; the evidence is ambiguous.
Suppose, if Syria does not implement the Russian-American agreement over chemical weapons reached in Geneva last week, the U.S. does drop bombs, though. Suppose it’s a limited strike. Such action probably wouldn’t have much impact on the conflict.
On the other hand, if we carry out a big strike package – one that lasts for days, or even weeks, and contains a lot of munitions – it could do real damage to Assad’s regime, and shift the balance in the civil war.
Some people worry that a constrained strike could stir up more conflict on the periphery. You can be sure a major strike would prompt a negative reaction by everyone concerned.
The question everyone should be asking the White House is, “If we strike, what next?” In the limited strike scenario, what will we do if Assad takes his licks, shrugs his shoulders and the war continues as before? What will we do when it becomes clear we’ve done nothing?
And what if we strike with a bigger, more robust package? If the balance suddenly shifts and radical Al-Qaeda elements in the opposition are triumphant, what next? Or if Assad decides to wage war with a vengeance, deploying his conventional military might and killing people left, right and center, how will the U.S. respond?
Nobody in President Barack Obama’s atrocity-preventing team has thought this through, and, until Russia’s recent effort to have Syria’s chemical weapons put under international scrutiny, the administration had all but abandoned alternative approaches.
There are three things the U.S. should do. First, we need to spend money to help relieve the Syrian refugee crisis. Refugees are destabilizing Lebanon, doing damage in Jordan, and not being taken care of in Turkey. We need to give the refugees some hope.
Second, we need all invested parties – including Iran – to become involved in whatever political or diplomatic process we can engineer to bring pressure to bear on states providing arms and making the conflict worse.
Third, and in conjunction with the diplomatic process, we need to let Assad know that he has a way out. It could be an interim or shared government, or some political solution acceptable to his Alawite community, which, as it reasonably fears, might be slaughtered if we let Assad fall the way Moammar Gadhafi did in Libya.
All of this will be difficult, but will be made less so by the pause needed to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. We need to pour smart diplomacy into that pause. We are much more apt to produce positive results this way than by dropping bombs and adding to the brutal violence in Syria.
Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army colonel, was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He is a distinguished adjunct professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).