Marc Lynch and Erica Chenoweth on U.S. Military Intervention in Syria

“But Obama has actually learned the real lessons of Iraq, the risks and costs, to America and to the world, of poorly conceived interventions abroad that never go quite as promised.”—Marc Lynch on possible U.S. military intervention in Syria

As talk about military intervention in Syria intensifies, Marc Lynch, author of Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today and Erica Chenoweth, author of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict offer words of caution about U.S. involvement.

In his article for Foreign Policy, Restraining Order, Lynch argues that Obama’s caution about military intervention in Syria reflects his understanding of the lessons of Iraq. Unlike some of his opponents who have faulted Obama for showing a lack of leadership, the President realizes that poorly conceived interventions, even those limited in scope, rarely go as planned and, more often than not, lead the United States into a wider conflict it cannot easily extricate itself from. Lynch writes:

Obama is routinely lambasted for a failure to lead on Syria. In fact, he has been leading … just not in the direction his critics would like to go. Washington remains wired for war, always eager to talk itself into another battle in the same basic ways: invocations of leadership, warnings of lost credibility, stark sketches based on worst-case scenarios of inaction and the best case scenarios for low-cost, high-reward action. Most presidents — including a John McCain, Hillary Clinton, or Mitt Romney — would likely have long ago leapt to play the assigned role; the United States would already be hip deep in the Syrian civil war. But Obama has actually learned the real lessons of Iraq, the risks and costs, to America and to the world, of poorly conceived interventions abroad that never go quite as promised.

As Lynch points out, the Obama administration has carefully and methodically examined the various options available to them, concluding that the opportunities for ending the bloodbath in Syria or regime change, are very limited. However, given events of the past few days and talk coming from the White House, the likelihood of U.S. intervention in some form (strategic bombings, etc.) now, according to Lynch, seems “inevitable.” And while the Obama administration has been very careful to articulate the importance of limited goals and avoiding mission creep, Lynch sees reasons for concern:

But the administration’s loud protestations of limited aims and actions are only partially reassuring. Much the same language was used at the outset of the Libya campaign. Everybody knows that it will be excruciatingly difficult for Obama to hold the line at punitive bombing after those strikes inevitably fail to end the war, Assad remains publicly defiant, the Geneva 2 diplomatic process officially dies, and U.S. allies and Syrian insurgents grumble loudly about the strike’s inadequacy. Once the psychological and political barrier to intervention has been shattered, the demands for escalation and victory will become that much harder to resist. And what happens when Assad launches his next deadly sarin attack — or just massacres a lot of Syrians by non-chemical means? This too Obama clearly knows. But that knowledge may still not be enough to save him.

Writing for the prominent political science blog, The Monkey Cage, Erica Chenoweth examines the argument put forward by some that military interventions can work and is an option in Syria. While skeptical of the parallels being drawn between possible intervention in Syria and cases like Bosnia and Kosovo, Chenoweth cites four conditions necessary for military interventions to be a success:

* They must take the form of peacekeeping missions
* They must be multilateral
* They must be multidimensional (involve state capacity-building, humanitarian assistance, refugee resettlement, economic development, election monitoring, etc.)
* The combatants must be ready to negotiate and consent to the intervention

Chenoweth concludes by writing, “All of these conditions being present, there have been some peacekeeping successes (e.g. East Timor, El Salvador, etc.). Any of these being absent, the results are more mixed. All of them being absent, the outcomes of international intervention are much less favorable in both strategic and humanitarian terms.”

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