A Brief Response to Anne-Marie Slaughter on Iraq and Syria

Anne-Marie Slaughter has an op-ed in today’s New York Times in which she argues that the U.S. government should launch air strikes now against targets in Iraq and Syria as a way to advance America’s and the world’s strategic and humanitarian interests. Here is the crux of the piece:

President Obama should be asking the same question in Iraq and Syria. What course of action will be best, in the short and the long term, for the Iraqi and Syrian people? What course of action will be most likely to stop the violence and misery they experience on a daily basis? What course of action will give them the best chance of peace, prosperity and a decent government?

The answer to those questions may well involve the use of force on a limited but immediate basis, in both countries. Enough force to remind all parties that we can, from the air, see and retaliate against not only Al Qaeda members, whom our drones track for months, but also any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Enough force to compel governments and rebels alike to the negotiating table. And enough force to create a breathing space in which decent leaders can begin to consolidate power.

For the moment, let’s take for granted her assertions about the strategic interests at stake; the U.S.’s responsibility to protect civilians in other countries, by force if necessary; and the propriety of taking such action without prior approval from the U.N. Security Council.

Conceding all of that ground, it’s easier to see that, as a practical matter, Slaughter’s recommendation depends on strong assumptions about the efficacy of the action she proposes. Specifically, she asserts that the U.S. should conduct air strikes (“use of force on a limited but immediate basis,” “from the air”) against targets in Iraq and Syria because doing so will have three main effects:

  1. Deter atrocities (“to remind all parties that we can…see and retaliate against…any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity”);
  2. Spur talks among warring parties (“to compel governments and rebels alike to the negotiating table”); and
  3. Enable positive political development (“to create a breathing space in which decent leaders can begin to consolidate power”)

If you believe, as Slaughter apparently does, that limited air strikes a) will almost certainly achieve all of these goals and b) will not produce other harmful strategic or humanitarian consequences that could partially offset or even outweigh those gains, then you should probably endorse this policy.

If, however, you are unsure about the ability of limited air strikes on yet-to-be-named targets in Iraq and Syria to accomplish these ends, or about the unintended strategic and humanitarian consequences those strikes could also have, then you should hesitate to support this policy and think through those other possible futures.

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9 Comments

  1. Rex Brynen

     /  June 18, 2014

    I think you’re being excessively kind here.

    Reply
  2. I agree with Slaughter’s title. I think that America should be taking on the ISIS primarily in Syria, especially in Raqqa province. However, Slaughter’s evident desire to destroy the established governments of Iran, Syria, and Iraq and her ridiculous hyperbole (e.g., “perpetrating the worst campaign of crimes against humanity since Rwanda”) make me question her sincerity. America could not have avoided the rise of the ISIS by destroying the established government of Syria.

    Reply
    • Grant

       /  June 18, 2014

      I’m a bit confused. Do you want the United States to intervene in the fighting in Syria to target a group, but not intervene in Iraq? National borders are more than just lines in the ground, even in the Middle East, but for the purposes of this discussion on Iraq and Syria you cannot divorce one from the other.

      And how well can air strikes on their own cause enough damage to wipe out the ISIS? We don’t have soldiers on the ground, sending soldiers in is politically impossible on the domestic and international levels, in Iraq the Kurds are holding out for some deal, the Iraqi government is so desperate for soldiers that a call has been put out that de facto urges Iraqi Shia to fight, in Syria the rebels and Syrian government are fighting each other more than the ISIS and Iran so far is not sending in any large forces.

      Besides that, we’re risking falling into the trap of seeing the situation as purely the ISIS when in Iraq it’s a coalition of groups, including locals who just can’t stand the Iraqi government because of the past few years, with the ISIS just being the most visible group. Should we go after the Baathists and Sunnis who just happen to live there and are fighting as well?

      Reply
      • I’m a bit confused. Do you want the United States to intervene in the fighting in Syria to target a group, but not intervene in Iraq?

        -No. I support U.S. intervention in both Iraq and Syria. Primarily does not mean entirely.

        National borders are more than just lines in the ground, even in the Middle East, but for the purposes of this discussion on Iraq and Syria you cannot divorce one from the other.

        -Yes, which is why I am probably the first to combine Wikipedia’s maps of the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts at my blog.

        And how well can air strikes on their own cause enough damage to wipe out the ISIS?

        -Not well at all. But airstrikes can put the ISIS on the defensive.

        sending soldiers in is politically impossible on the domestic and international levels

        -It’s not politically impossible. It’s not like the Democratic party is going to do very well in this year’s elections, anyway. Besides, if sending in soldiers succeeds, the President’s popularity can only be boosted.
        I don’t see how your next few statements are anything but non sequiturs.

        Should we go after the Baathists and Sunnis who just happen to live there and are fighting as well?

        -Yup. They’re helping the ISIS.

      • Of course there’s more to presidential decision-making than what the locals think, but I get the feeling that targeting Iraqi Sunnis, many of whom have legitimate gripes against the government and “refer to themselves as ‘revolutionaries,’ not ‘jihadis’ like ISIL” while the US has not done much to stop the slaughter of mainly-Sunnis in Syria will not go over well with many, many people in the Middle East. This is probably true whether or not the US strikes both ISIS and regime targets in Syria.

      • Grant

         /  June 19, 2014

        Apologies for not putting your sentences in quotes the same way you did mine. I’m honestly not sure how. However I feel that it should be easy to follow the conversation.

        I’m afraid that it is indeed politically impossible, at both domestic and international levels, to send in American soldiers. To see it, one has but to look at the first time we sent American soldiers into Iraq in 2003. It took the 9/11 attacks and a president (as well as a loyal and eager to please press) repeatedly saying that the despised leader of Iraq was planning to provide despised terrorists with materials for weapons of mass destruction to actually manage to invade Iraq, and even then the support even at home was never remotely as universal as people liked to pretend (I remember noting that several large antiwar protests in 2003-2004 simply were completely unmentioned in even the local press).

        Abroad it was very clear that most nations thought the idea was crazy, documents from that time seem to suggest more interest in good relations with America than serious support for American policy and the Iraq war period led to a sustained anti-American sentiment that would go on for years.

        Today? Today I see no credible political figures suggesting sending in an army, the United States is still feeling the effects of the worst recession in nearly a century, China and Russia have signaled a much more aggressive policy on the Middle East at the United Nations and the American population is completely fed up with the last war and has zero interest in a new one. In short, politically impossible.

  3. The US will contribute quite enough to peace in Iraq and Syria if it withdraws funding from those who are funding ISIS – primarily the Saudis. It is the height of hypocrisy to indirectly fund ISIS with one hand and attempt to destroy it with the other.

    Reply
    • Grant

       /  June 19, 2014

      I don’t know of anything at the moment to say that the Saudi government is funding ISIS. Several factions fighting in Syria, yes, but ISIS? This is the same Saudi government that so completely cracked down on Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia that Al Qaeda had to flee to Yemen.

      Reply
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