On Monday night in Syria, U.S. planes began bombing ISIS targets, in addition to a couple of al Qaeda affiliates (they just keep popping up, don't they?).
This action is only the most visible and recent part of what has become a comprehensive strategic disaster for the United States. Despite not being able to articulate any sort of logical strategy, let alone any actually compelling interest for what we're doing, we're stumbling into yet another boneheaded, open-ended conflict in the Middle East.
We're going to regret this.
First, we're basically alone among liberal democracies. In the documentary The Fog of War, Robert McNamara, the repentant architect of the Vietnam War, laid out one of his guidelines for the wise use of military force:
What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning. [The Fog of War]
In a speech Tuesday at the White House, President Obama specifically referenced five Arab "partners" who are on board with the operation: Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Qatar, Jordan, and Bahrain. All are autocracies of varying degrees of brutality. Worse, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia only recently reined in private donors from funding ISIS. Meanwhile, Germany and Turkey want no part of the Syria strikes. France won't support them either. Even the U.K. is waffling, saying they support the strikes but aren't actually participating (apparently the prime minister and the foreign minister disagree).
Why is that? Could be that our plan makes no sense at all. Strikes in Syria are already compromising other objectives, as Kurdish officials report that the strikes are pushing ISIS forces toward Kurdish territory. The idea that we can successfully arm and train "moderate" Syrian rebels is simply ludicrous. As Ross Douthat points out, we just tried that with the Iraqi army, for eight years, and it was an utter failure. Everything about Syria suggests that such an effort will be more difficult than before, not less.
It has been barely a year since we came within a hair's breadth of supporting ISIS and other Syrian rebels in their quest to topple the dictator Bashar al-Assad. Now, as Glenn Greenwald points out, we're tipping off Assad in advance about coming airstrikes. All our quagmire alarms should go off when a civil war is so chaotic that the target of intervention shifts 180 degrees in a single year.
There is also a fundamental disconnect between means and ends here. President Obama says we must eventually destroy ISIS. Airstrikes alone almost certainly won't accomplish this. We've been bombing ISIS in Iraq now for weeks and it has barely dented their territory. Setting an objective without the means to achieve it is a great way to get national credibility invested in yet more escalation that ends in ground troops and a doomed-to-fail occupation.
Finally, this war could become illegal in short order. Congress (composed of sniveling cowards) has appropriated money for this effort in Syria, but has passed no explicit authorization to use force as required by the War Powers Act. President Obama sent a notice in line with the Act on Aug. 8 that he was using force against ISIS in Iraq, but has sent no notice for this new effort in Syria. That means without an authorization, either he must wind down airstrikes by Oct. 6, or send a new notification soon. Either way, the airstrikes are supposed to last months, and Congress must pass a formal authorization or the president will soon be in violation of U.S. law.
This raises the question of what we ought to be doing instead. The answer is containment. Don't arm or bomb anyone in Syria. Keep supporting the Kurds and the Iraqi government, and keep watch from the sidelines. Undermine ISIS and similar groups by going after their sources of money and disrupting their international networks. These are fundamentally weak organizations that thrive on political chaos. Without a unifying enemy, they'll collapse eventually.
And for God's sake, let's build some moral authority by funding U.N. hunger programs. Congress just about tripped over itself ponying up $500 million for bombing and arming random people in Syria (and apparently we just casually committed to spending a trillion bucks over the next three decades on upgrading our nuke supply?), while the U.N. World Food Program is cutting back its operations in Syria due to a shortfall of $352 million. This is at a time when over 130,000 refugees fleeing ISIS forces streamed into Turkey just in the last few days.
We're not going to do any of that, it seems. The U.S. government seems incapable of even the simplest sort of cost-benefit analysis. But if we really cared about the long-term effort against extremist groups, we ought to start by demonstrating that America is the kind of country that will spend at least as much to feed and clothe helpless refugees as it will on bombs and guns.