Maybe. How would we measure such a thing? Presumably by weighing what the goal of said military action is, the likelihood of success of the action, the level of direct impact on the US or its interests at stake, and what the cost of not acting would theoretically be.
Here’s how a proposed action against Syria stacks up in those categories:
- Goal: Um….TBD? We know what the goal is not, and it is not to topple the Assad regime. So, punish the government, or something?
- Likelihood of success: Without having a goal, it’s hard to gauge success. And if the goal is just “punishment” how is that quantified? Further, since any potential attack has been blatantly telegraphed, the likelihood of even minimal tactical successes of any significance is virtually nil.
- Direct impact on the US: None
- Cost of not acting: President Obama loses face because he said chemical weapons would “change the equation” for him
Seriously, that is the cost. And you can make the argument that it is not nothing, because the day may come when an actual threat to the US/its interests arises and Obama’s actions here will impact how the parties involved judge potential American responses. But what is important to note is that the cost of not acting is not “innocent people will continue to be killed” because that will assuredly continue – and likely, at an accelerated pace – if the US becomes militarily involved in the manner that is being proposed. Not only is there the chance of collateral damage in the strikes themselves, but the elevation of the war via direct US involvement will likely intensify the conflict. Anyone arguing that doing this will save lives has it wrong, if not totally backwards. We’re left with “We need to do something. This is something. Therefore, we need to do this.” Here’s President Obama, using more words to say just that:
“it’s important for us to recognize that when over 1,000 people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99% of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we’re sending a signal. … That is a danger to our national security.”
But this doesn’t make any sense given the options in play – Obama says he wants to make an example of Assad, and his actions then take great pains to not do that. I have to ask – what signal do you send when, in the same breath, you fall all over yourself to say “we’re not considering any open-ended commitment” and “we’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach”? Is the desired outcome that we will send a clear message to current and future dictators that, should they use certain weapons on their own people, they will be on the receiving end of some non-committal, “limited, narrow” justice that does not put their regime at risk? Consider national security secured, I guess!
Look, even if you think the war aims of efforts such as Iraq or Vietnam were the wrong ones, at least aims existed and were stated – i.e., toppling the government of Saddam Hussein, propping up the government of South Vietnam – and actions were taken to match those aims. Air campaigns against the Serbs in Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999), had rather clearly defined objectives and, in the latter case, put an end to genocidal acts. Even President Clinton’s failed 1998 cruise missile strikes were in retaliation for attacks on US embassies and aimed at Al Qaeda specifically.
It’s even hard to find an analog to such a rudderless advance when running back further through the lowlights of the military history book. Sporadic incursions into Mexico in the midst of that civil war were conducted with intention of capturing Pancho Villa and other “bandits” or protecting American citizens in theoretical danger. The haphazard intrusion of American and Allied forces into the Russian Civil War in 1918 was an abject failure that was rife with mutinies and resulted in the bodies of US soldiers being left in the Soviet Union for more than a decade, but as World War I was still being fought in France and Belgium, it was at least arguable that helping bring about a Bolshevik defeat in Russia could re-ignite a two-front war against Germany.
All of these look like tightly focused, purposeful efforts when compared with the ball of nothing that is the rationale for action in Syria.
And of course, this isn’t mentioning the elephant in the room – if Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama are taking the position that using advanced military weaponry against women and children is an act that demands violent punishment, what does Pakistan – or the world community – have license to do to us?