Don’t mistake US hesitancy over Syria for weakness

By Robert Farley Source:Global Times Published: 2013-10-21 20:53:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

In late August, the US seemed poised to strike Syrian military targets with cruise missiles and stealth aircraft. But a series of events intervened, from the Obama administration's decision to seek Congressional approval to a Moscow-brokered deal that may separate the Syrian government from its chemical weapons.

While many have greeted the deferral of military action with sighs of relief, some have wondered whether Washington's apparent unwillingness to carry through with its threats signals weakness. Can the US maintain its international credibility without attacking Syria?

President Barack Obama's hesitance to undertake military action has several sources. There is little question that he doubts that modest strikes will be effective at destroying Syrian military capability, and that he fears deeper entanglement in Syria's civil war.

The reluctance of Congress to sign off on the intervention indicates the low level of public support for the war. And perhaps most importantly, the Obama administration has made reducing the US commitment to the Middle East a central aspect of its grand strategy.

But since at least the Cold War, questions of resolve, reputation, and credibility have animated international relations discussion. Some hawks in the US care less about Syria than about the message that non-intervention could send to the rest of the world.

They ask whether Obama's decision not to back his "red line" with military force will lead people to ask whether the US will defend similar red lines on Iran, South Korea and the island of Taiwan. As Danielle Pletka of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute has argued, "Weakness is habit forming."

But the notion that the US needed to go to war in order to send a message has always been a bit silly. Washington cannot force any other country to learn any particular lesson; observers are always free to make their own conclusions.

US policymakers would be well advised to carefully assess the national interest, determine what problems meet the criteria for military action, and proceed based on those calculations, rather than try to play the credibility/reputation game. Syria is a sufficiently distinct problem that it deserves its own consideration.

Also, the lack of a direct assault is not the same as non-intervention. The US will likely continue to facilitate aid for its favored factions among the rebels, as well as advice and training in refugee camps. Moreover, US officials have been careful to claim that force remains on the table if the Syrian government does not comply with the terms of the agreement, or if there are additional chemical weapon attacks.

At the same time, observers should take care not to draw the wrong inferences from US behavior with regards to Syria.

The evidence indicates that Obama believes the use of force in Syria to be a waste of time and effort. It does not follow that he, and his closest advisors, believe the same about various conflicts in East Asia.

Indeed, the entire point of the pivot to the Asia-Pacific region is to redistribute US diplomatic and military effort away from the Middle East and toward East Asia. Avoiding entanglement in Syria is part of that project.

In short, we don't yet know whether the US will eventually lead some portion of the international community into the Syrian civil war.

And, as a general rule, the US president ought not to make promises that he has no intention of keeping.

However, there is great risk in overstating the importance of lobbing a few dozen cruise missiles at Syrian military targets.

Bluffing is an important tool of diplomatic statecraft, and there's no reason to believe that a called bluff over Syria means that the US is bluffing with respect to its other international commitments.

The author is assistant professor of national security at Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, University of Kentucky.

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