The question about whether or not to engage in military action abroad is very often a highly philosophical one.
Statecraft and foreign policy is not a terribly good place for ideologues to sit. It doesn’t have neat and clean answers that are verifiably right or wrong very often. Intervention is often a tragic mistake. Non-intervention is often a tragic mistake. Middling between the two is also often a miserable failure.
When considering what to do about the Syrian situation, there are simply no good answers.
The president’s airstrike in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was certainly cathartic, but ultimately did nothing. I’m not a big fan of “sending a message” through military action. Nor am I a fan of doing things meant to make us feel better, but that do not have an ultimate goal they are trying to accomplish or a benefit that can be gleaned from the action.
What was the air strike intended to do? It certainly wasn’t to diminish the ability of the Syrian military to project itself, as the airfield in question was quickly back in operation.
So what was the point of the strike? Like all of my least favorite things that governments do, it was meant to placate public opinion after pictures of dead, gassed children showed up on the front page of newspapers, and give us the feeling that we were “doing something” about it.
Which brings me to my foreign policy — let’s call it the Gagnon Doctrine — and how it relates to the situation in Syria right now.
Syria is an unmitigated disaster. That disaster exists because it is a proxy war that the United States, Russia, and nearly all Middle Eastern regional powers have been involved in for years.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is fighting the rebels. We are fighting ISIS. Russia says it is fighting ISIS but is actually fighting anti-Assad rebels. The rebels, which began as peaceful Arab Spring protesters and breakaway members of the Syrian Army, have become a vehicle for jihadists.
And guess who has been helping train and fund those jihadist rebels? That’s right, the United States government under the Obama administration. Swell.
But back to the Gagnon Doctrine. We have only one very simple question to ask ourselves here. Are we willing to invade and occupy Syria and Iraq in order to depose Assad and destroy ISIS?
Because if the answer to that question is no, than everything we are doing now is pointless.
If the answer is yes, than there needs to be a tangible — not abstract — rationale for the intervention. The administration must outline that rationale, declare a set of clear, decisive, achievable military objectives, there must be a coherent plan for what happens after the military operations are over, and there must be a clear, agreed-upon exit strategy with a timetable.
And, unlike war in the Obama administration, there must be a congressional action approving the military action, preferably a formal declaration of war.
But as you ask yourself what to do, the truth of American foreign policy should become apparent. There is no easy solution.
Pull our involvement entirely and we normalize the use of chemical weapons and tell other aspiring tyrants that the world will accept their use of them as long as they have a powerful ally backing them up. You think North Korea won’t get that message and apply the logic to its nuclear program?
Intervene directly and we have yet again dragged the US into a bloody regional war that does not directly relate to our national security interest. We would sacrifice the lives of American soldiers for the hope of more geopolitical stability in a region that is in a perpetual state of tribal warfare. And we would spend trillions to potentially get nothing in return, and perhaps even unintentionally create more problems.
Which is why, for far too long, American presidents of both parties have tried to forge a third way between those two positions. This most egregious and obvious is the middling, failed foreign policy of President Barack Obama, which simultaneously withdrew our formal involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, while starting new, undeclared, unauthorized wars in Libya and Syria, and unleashed ten times more drone strikes than President George W. Bush.
So, caught between three uniquely bad solutions, which terrible way forward will you choose? That, ladies and gentlemen, is foreign policy in a nutshell.