By Taylor Marvin
How can the United States and its European allies show Vladimir Putin that their warnings against further Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine are serious? New America Foundation president, Princeton professor, and former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that President Obama must “demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations” by striking the regime of murderous Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. “The result will change the strategic calculus not only in Damascus, but also in Moscow,” Slaughter writes, by demonstrating American resolve and causing Putin to reconsider the credibility of American threats. Limited strikes in Syria — she specifically suggests destroying the Syrian government’s fixed-wing aircraft — “might not end the civil war there, but it could prevent the eruption of a new one in Ukraine.”
Daniel Larison rejects Slaughter’s logic, writing that “it makes absolutely no sense to argue that bombing a Russian client in one place will change Russian behavior in another place for the better.” In fact, Larison and the National Interest’s Robert Golan-Vilella note, Slaughter’s argument has already been tested: the Obama administration already used forced to punish an authoritarian ruler massacring his own people, in Libya. Admittedly Syria is a Russian client in a way that Gaddafi’s Libya was not, but the point stands: if using force in Libya did not send a strong message about US resolve, would additional military intervention in Syria marginally strengthen the cumulative evidence of the Obama administration’s willingness to use force to the point that Putin would have never annexed Crimea, or — if the strikes were carried out now, as Slaughter proposes — suddenly stand down?
Of course not. The lesson the world drew from the war in Libya is not that the United States and its allies would use force in all circumstances, but instead that the United States and its allies would use force in very specific ones. In Libya organized rebel forces were ready to be the ground army airpower would support, Libya did not have an Iranian ally that could match intervention with asymmetric retaliation, and there was little risk of downed aircraft and dead pilots. In Syria, none of these conditions hold, and similar benchmarks certainly don’t hold in Ukraine.
Larison further writes that “nothing would be more useful for Moscow as a matter of propaganda than to have the U.S. illegally attacking another country.” This is also true. Arguments that failing to punish Russia will usher in a future of frequent great power aggression are often met with the counterargument of, well, this future is just the recent past, and Americans only notice and object to sovereignty violations when it’s not them doing the violating. While sovereignty and non-interference concerns are not in and of themselves a reason to dismiss hitting the Assad regime, advocates of intervention in Syria should acknowledge that it would strength Putin’s diplomatic position as well as weaken it. While global opinion has been generally against Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine, this opposition has not been as strident as the US and Europeans would have hoped. If strikes in Syria allowed a ‘well, both sides do it’ thought to take root, many leaders would find themselves with a convenient excuse to avoid the diplomatic and political risk of meaningfully punishing Russian aggression.
But ultimately the entire discussion is silly. Strikes in Syria can only be expected to influence Moscow’s calculus if they prompt a reassessment of the punishment Russia could face for further action. American resolve has no bearing on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, because everyone — Obama, the EU, Putin, the Ukrainians, everybody — knows that the United States is not going to go to war or even meaningfully threaten war with a major nuclear power. Striking Syria as a proxy demonstration of American resolve just makes this more obvious. If America is so committed to facing down Putin in eastern Ukraine, why is it striking Syria then? Because the United States cannot credibly threaten to use military force against Russia. The only coercion that is on the table is diplomatic efforts, which striking the Assad regime has at best a negative relation to. It’s akin to punching the skinny guy next to the hulking bar-fighter you’re trying to intimidate, just to show you’re serious.
I don’t think it is, as Danny Hirschel-Burns said on Twitter, surprising that a former “senior US policymaker would have such a simplistic view of credibility” because this really isn’t an argument about Ukraine at all. Anne-Marie Slaughter has favored military intervention in Syria for years, endorsing in January 2012 intervention under the responsibility to protect doctrine should conditions be favorable and calling for unilateral limited military efforts to establish safe-zones in February 2012. Maybe, given the enormous human suffering in Syria over the last two years, the world should have followed Slaughter’s advice — reading 2012 Syria op-eds in 2014 is deeply sorrowful — but in any case it is obvious now that this military intervention is not coming. Citing strikes in Syria as a useful part of the Western toolkit in Ukraine is just, in my mind, a way of keeping the possibility of intervention in the public eye. The crisis in Ukraine is simply an excuse to keep that conversation going.