“A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security” Henry Kissinger
There are a times in a nation’s life that its leaders are confronted with situations that present conflicts between a nation’s values and realpolitik.
The fact is that there are “tribes” in foreign policy and national security debates. Some are the idealists, others pragmatists and some realists. There are gradients between the levels and sometimes depending on the situation an idealist might gravitate toward pragmatism or even realpolitik and visa versa. Sometimes it is a matter of politics, sometimes ideology and sometimes even and no leader of no political is immune from these tensions.
The situation in Syria is one of those times where the conflicting agendas of the different foreign policy tribes conflict and where no matter what happens in Syria the conflicts between the tribes will remain and perhaps even grow more pronounced. The fact is that I often can find myself on several sides of the same argument. It might be the PTSD “Mad Cow” is causing these conflicts but it could also be that there are good arguments to be made on all sides of the argument. What is ultimately the right course or the wrong course is actually hard to say.
If we argue for the idealist position, which would argue that American values of stopping human rights violations and the use of chemical weapons, something prohibited under the Hague convention and the more recent Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992 against the realpolitik of what are the actual National Security interests of the United States, the vital interests which involve the survival of the nation itself, major interests which could impact national security or tertiary interests which might have some importance but do not threaten the survival of the nation, even of they are terrible crimes against humanity.
Whether one likes it or not these are legitimate ethical and policy conflicts. On one hand there is the position that the United States has taken following World War Two and the Nuremberg trials as well as its participation in the International Criminal Courts has a moral obligation to confront the use of chemical weapons even if other nations or international bodies stand aside. On the other hand the argument that what happens in Syria is not in the vital interests of the United States and that the United States should not take military action to stop the use of those weapons. The fact is that those that advocate military action in Syria be they politicians, pundits, preachers or profiteers need to remember the words of Carl Von Clausewitz that “No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” I really don’t think that we have thought this through as a nation.
Of course these two positions are not exclusive. There are also ranges of action which span the full spectrum of action between the either or situation that most Americans seem to find themselves caught between. The fact is that the National Security Strategy of the United States is not based on military might alone, no matter how much it has been used as the first choice by American leaders. The reality is that military force is only one element, and perhaps the weakest element of the elements of national security police known as the “DIME.” That is the Diplomatic, the Informational, the Military and the Economic power of the nation. What we seem to have forgotten is that the other elements of the DIME other than the gut level military response have value and are perhaps even more important.
I think that a large part of this conundrum is found in the reflexive use of military force as the preferred means of action since the attacks of September 11th 2001. On that day the United States was attacked by the terrorist attacks of Al Qaeda militants and while the victims of those attacks were overwhelmingly American the citizens of over 60 other nations we killed in the attacks.
Those attacks demonstrated the vulnerabilities of this nation. When one looks at our actual national security policy it is clear that those vulnerabilities are not always fixed by military action in other countries. In fact they sometimes can become even more glaring as resources required for Homeland Defense and economic recovery are spent on military operations of dubious strategic value and which at times undermine efforts to build trust with other nations, build coalitions based on shared values and to undercut the efforts of extremists using diplomacy, information and economic power.
What we have to answer now is how we address a situation in Syria that is both a violation of international law but which military force alone cannot solve. Of course there is a conflict between our ideals and what are vital national security concerns. I would suggest that the real threat of military action can be a part of the answer if it helps the United States and the world make the case through diplomacy, information and economic pressure not only to stop the slaughter but to hold those responsible for it accountable in International Criminal Courts for the commission of war crimes. At the same time the reality is that the United States and the world cannot allow an Al Qaeda dominated organization such as the Al Nursa Front gain control of Syria.
The fact is that despite how clear cut we want things to be as Americans that much of what happens in the world takes place in a world of more than 50 shades of gray. Unfortunately American conservatives and liberals alike prefer to see foreign policy in the “either or” world of using pure military force or doing nothing, neither of which of themselves are the answer. The full continuum of national and international power must be brought to bear in these kind of situations, recognizing that not everyone shares our values or has the same strategic interests.
It may not be comfortable for anyone but it is reality. How we navigate it is key, maintaining our values while ensuring that our nation survives. If military action is decided on one has to remember what Clausewitz said: “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes.”
To make a decision without understanding this or as we did in Iraq ignoring it is to risk disaster. Such are the stakes. I personally would rather see more negotiation in the hopes that the Syrian chemical and biological weapons are secured and those responsible for using them, be they Assad, his government or even the rebels attempting to frame the Syrians and deceive the United States against the Syrian people are brought to justice.
This is a messy business and not for the faint of heart. Lives of thousands of people in Syria, the region and potentially around the world are at stake and a military strike that fails to accomplish the political object would be worse than none at all.