This week and next, as our congressmen and the administration consider the chemical attacks on Syrian civilians and discuss what an appropriate response might be, it is my hope that they will work very hard to keep front-and-center the complexity and ultimate unknowability of so much of the dynamics surrounding the civil war and any possible course of action that we could take.
For the possibilities — and stakes — of miscalculation are high, and no matter how informed and judicious our debate will be, it must be emphasized that our ultimate actions will not be better than an educated guess.
It is very important to establish that point, because it may have the healthy effect of putting a larger burden on the argument to respond to the chemical attacks with some sort of military reaction. The use of force should in most cases be reserved for that point when we think that all other options have been exhausted, or for that point when we have gauged that its application will be effective.
So far, and probably indefinitely, we have no way of knowing if a military strike (bombing President Assad’s assets) would prove effective or useful.
Of course, first, we’d have to define “effective.” What would be the goal of firing cruise missiles into Syria? Would it be to dissuade Assad from ever launching poison gas again? Would it be to simply destroy some of his military hardware and buildings?
Would it be to punish him for violating an international “norm” (not a “law,” because Syria never signed the relevant U.N. treaty)? Or would it be to bulwark American “credibility,” to show that we mean what we say when we draw “red lines?” Do we think that Assad has challenged our resolve?
Would cruise missile strikes be intended to aid the insurgents? Would they significantly damage Assad’s fighting capability? What would be their effect on Syrian citizens?