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It would seem like the time to get on the record about this. Perhaps the best way to describe my attitude toward military intervention in Syria is "I'm open to it." I am not actively in favor of it, I am uneasy about the prospect, but I am not opposed.
In the abstract, my attitude has always been "give war a chance." As a teenager, I watched the meat-grinder of the Yugoslavian civil war and wondered why no one was helping—stop talking and help—and then the feckless response of the United Nations wondering why no one was helping effectively. That was formative. I argued for intervention in Rwanda, Kosovo, Zimbabwe, Iraq, and Libya, and supported those interventions that we carried out. (On Libya, compare my post here with Pat's post here.) Generally-speaking, I say: When western military power can be used to prevent small men from slaughtering their populi, we should favor intervention. I am emphatically an interventionist when we foresee intervention being a net plus and the costs being reasonable. I think it naive to suppose that you can talk such men out of office and into a short and predictably-fatal retirement. I think it facile to complain that war takes lives when lives are already being lost, as they are in Syria.
"When," however, is often "if." To be more precise about it, I tilt toward intervention when there are discrete problems that can be resolved through the application of military force. While I realize that this is a mushy standard rather than a clear test, Iraq may provide a helpful example: The problem was that Saddam Hussein's control of Iraq was unacceptable, our goal was to remove him from power, and this could readily be accomplished through precise application of military force. (Operation Opera furnishes a non-American example—the problem was the existence of an object susceptible to military force—as, mutatis mutandis, does Operation Corporate.) Egypt, by contrast, will serve as a counterexample: Its problems can't be solved by troops on the ground, let alone by letting some firepower off the chain, and so it's hard to make a case for intervention. Moreover, that is a threshold test, and there is another piece to the analysis, which is even mushier, alas: The negatives of intervention must not outweigh the positives. North Korea exemplifies that point: There is no doubt that we could crack that nut, but the collateral costs are horrendous. Not every problem that can be solved by military force must be—or should be.
The problem that I have with supporting intervenion in Syria is that it's easy to say "intervention" but more difficult to articulate precisely what that means: What are we trying to do? How are we going to get there? What are the waypoints—by what metrics can we assess progress and failure? What are the criteria for deciding whether we're "there" and/or whether we're going to get "there"? What happens once we're "there"? At what point or in what circumstances do we leave? Broadly-speaking: What's the plan? Is it to kill Assad? To remove the Syrian government? To destroy the regime's chemical weapons? To destroy or disrupt the regime's military? To referee the dispute?
William Saletan gives it a good try, but comes up short. Nick Clegg says that “[t]he objective [of military action in Syria] is to deter the further use of chemical weapons on humanitarian grounds,” but that's not good enough either. That is not a goal, it is an aspiration. And it's a weaselly aspiration: Are we really to tell Assad that chemical weapons are out, but that, if he might kindly return to butchering his people with conventional arms, we will mutter and resume our fitful sleep? And it's a dangerous aspiration: Plastic aspirations produce open-ended commitments, which is precisely what we don't want. While recognizing that the situation on the ground sometimes dictates a certain fluidity of strategy, there should be tangible, concrete, defined goals: we're going to go in with X, we're going to do Y, and (ideally, although less importantly) we're going to leave when Z.
It must also be noted, tangentially, that many of the cheerleaders for intervention, from the President on down, have displayed a level of raw partisan hypocrisy that is astonishing. The speech of Secretary Kerry, for example, could have been given almost word-for-word, with only superficial changes, by Vice-President Cheney in the runup to Iraq. To be clear, the act of hypocrisy was then, not now—Kerry is right now and was wrong then. And to be sure, there are Republicans who supported war in Iraq but who are now skeptical of attacking Syria, which might, one supposes, leave them open to comparable charges of partisanship. But I doubt that such charges can stick. The liberation of Iraq, unlike our hypothetical action in Syria, had a clear and precisely-defined goal that could be measured. (It is important to be clear about this: Those who opposed the liberation of Iraq were wrong. Period. That assesment does not change because of the subsequent mismanagement of post-Hussein Iraq.) It would be hypocrisy for those who favored the liberation of Iraq to reject action in Syria on principle, but surely not if their concerns are practical.
Let me end on this note: One of the few things on which President Obama and I coincide is our shared distaste for sitting by idly in the face of slaughter. Political expedience may have induced him to oppose Iraq, but we saw his true colors, I think, with intervention in Libya. He and I are unimpressed by the notion that such-and-such "is not an American problem" or that "America is not the world's policeman"; we are skeptical of the idea that we may not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy and certain that Adams' sentiment, whatever its wisdom in abstracto, is cold-blooded in a world where ambition is so often invoiced in innocent blood. My threshold for supporting the President on this is very low. I tilt toward intervention, and I should like to defer to his judgment if he would articulate as much as a plausible and coherent approach. (Cf. Simon Dodd, The NSA programs: Deference, secrecy, libertarians, conservatives, and the Fourth Amendment, part I, Motu Proprio, June 19, 2013.) He has yet to do so. Syria deserves better, and so do we.