By Robert Hutchings, Special CNN
Editor’s note: Robert Hutchings is dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and co-director of its “Reinventing Diplomacy” initiative. He served as chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2003 to 2005. The views expressed are his own.
In trying to steer down the middle of the road between non-involvement and robust intervention in Syria, the Obama administration is being hit by traffic going in both directions. So far, the administration has handled an intractable situation well, but with U.S. and allied military action imminent, we could soon find ourselves being pushed up a familiar escalatory ladder.
When all the options are bad, the usual rules of good policy making still apply: identify the U.S. interests that are at stake, specify the objectives that serve those interests, and design a strategy to advance those objectives (along with tactics to implement the strategy), with a system of monitoring and review to ensure that corrective action is taken if the expected results are not forthcoming. The administration seems to be doing exactly that right now and needs no instruction from outside, but its instincts need to be reinforced rather than transformed into a course of action that aims at grand objectives with limited means.
Assuming the accuracy of administration assertions about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, our principal interests – those that are in the realm of the achievable, at least – are in upholding and defending the normative ban on the use of chemical weapons. Since we cannot eliminate Syria’s stockpile of CW weapons or directly prevent the al-Assad regime from using them, our objectives are to punish the regime sufficiently severely to serve as an object lesson to future would-be violators of that norm, on the part of the al-Assad regime or some other actor.
Punishment here includes the widest possible international condemnation and joint action, and it also implies a shared readiness to take more severe punitive measures if the regime repeats the transgression. But the operative goal is punishment, not deterrence, protection, or prevention. Using those words carelessly or interchangeably sets the administration up for "mission creep" and a set of new, unintended policy objectives that are beyond our capacity to achieve.
While punishment is meant to prevent or at least dissuade as a longer-term aspiration, it cannot guarantee that the crime will not be repeated, any more than throwing a thief in jail will prevent him from robbing again. Indeed, believing the punishment must be so severe as to prevent al-Assad and his generals from ever using chemical weapons again would lead us up a ladder that may have no end short of regime change. We have been here before as a country – believing that our power and moral position are such that no one dare flout them. It is a dangerous illusion. Thus the language used to explain our impending action ought to concentrate on and be limited to words like "punish" and "punitive," as the Obama administration has been doing with reasonable consistency.
What kind of punishment? Without getting into target selection, which should be left to those with governmental responsibility, the broad parameters can be identified. It should be potent and “kinetic,” not merely symbolic. It should be aimed at the foundations of the regime – the military, intelligence services, etc. It should allow for controlled escalation, so that the al-Assad regime knows that other targets are in our crosshairs. It should seek to protect innocent civilians and cultural symbols of Syrian civilization. And our strikes should be confined to targets within Syria, lest we ignite a wider conflagration with even more unpredictable consequences. None of this will change the political and military balance on the ground in Syria, much less lead to regime change, unsatisfying as that reality is. If we wanted to influence the outcome of Syria’s civil war directly, to tilt the balance in favor of opposition forces and hasten the demise of the al-Assad regime, this would entail an entirely different set of interests, objectives, strategies, and tactics.
Much as we might want to strike a decisive blow against this regime, there does not appear to be a policy option that holds out a reasonable prospect of achieving such an objective at acceptable cost. So we are left with the more modest but still important – and achievable – goal of punishing a regime in violation of an important global norm codified in international law. (Syria is not signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, but most of the rest of the world is, and that huge majority is within its rights to apply this norm even to states that have not signed).
If the history of U.S. interventions has taught us anything, it is that U.S. military action, even of limited scope, will introduce a new dynamic into the Syrian equation, and that our ability to manage this process is vastly less than we would like to believe. As the balance shifts both inside and outside Syria, it will be both difficult and crucial that the administration remembers the interests and objectives that caused us to intervene in the first place, and not to double-down our bets in response to domestic pressures to assure “victory” (whatever that might mean in the Syrian context).
Farther down the road, but not too much farther, we may well be grappling with the disintegration of one or more states in the region. Once the process starts – in a region where all borders are contrived and few correspond to ethnic concentrations – there would likely be a ripple effect reminiscent of the Balkans in the early 1990s, but with more profound consequences. If so, the United States and its allies will be tempted to insist on the territorial integrity of existing state boundaries. But this is likely to prove no more successful than it was at the time of Yugoslavia’s disintegration. Instead, we may need to help manage the redrawing of the map of the modern Middle East.
Ultimately, whatever we do in Syria needs to be embedded within a longer-term approach to a region in the midst of profound and essentially unpredictable change.