A clear red line, the paper tiger…and how we get dragged into war

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Involving ourselves in a full-scale effort to topple Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad seems absurd (for reasons previously noted). But you don’t get drawn into war — certainly not this war — by logic alone.

You get sucked in.

When it happens — if it happens — it happens incrementally. I’m not suggesting a conspiracy, but hawkish opinion leaders are making a series of small but seductive arguments — each defensible in their own right — which could inadvertently entangle the U.S. into yet another intervention.

Take, for example, AEI resident scholar Michael Rubin, who seems to be arguing that the U.S. should intervene based primarily on the fact that Obama said chemical weapons are a red line.

“Credibility matters. What happens in Syria doesn’t stay in Syria,” Rubin said in an AEI video. “Once President Obama issued a red line, he essentially put American credibility at stake. Every rogue regime around the world is going to see if the U.S. … is a paper tiger.”

This is not an unpersuasive argument. This is at least a rationale for intervention. But it assumes the U.S. should get involved in Syria, not primarily because it’s the right thing to do — not primarily because it’s in our strategic interest — but instead, because we have to live up to Obama’s rhetoric (and to not do so would make us look weak to other countries.)

(Looking weak is something we clearly seem to want to avoid. This assumes the “peace through strength” notion that appearing weak invites other provocations. But if other nations test us, they may soon find out that we are not a paper tiger. Sometimes being underestimated is a good thing.)

Regardless, shouldn’t we proactively make military decisions based on the actual merits of the specific situation — as opposed to being egged on by others (or doing so out of a fear of looking weak)? And isn’t worrying so much about what Iran might think of us, in itself, a real sign of weakness?

Of course, this merely sets the scene for what is to come next.

Let’s assume that you are now persuaded that Obama’s red line declaration means we must do something. In this case, you might be in favor of a limited, punitive, strike — just to send a message that we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons. Now, setting aside the fact that “precision bombing” isn’t a panacea (and could actually have unintended consequences), this isn’t really an option. That’s because we are now being told that a “tepid intervention” would do more harm than good.

As Alana Goodman reports, “While national security hawks are divided on whether to intervene in Syria, they largely agree that if force is used, more is better.”

So we can’t do nothing — but doing something limited would be worse than doing nothing at all?

Followed to its logical conclusion, we’re left with this:

1). America must intervene if for no other reason than to save face. (Not doing so invites attacks or other bad behavior from Iran.)

2). “[A] tepid intervention would likely embolden Iran and fail to end the carnage in the region…”

3). Assuming 1 and 2 are both true, the only response would be an aggressive response.

This, of course, is a brilliant act of prestidigitation!

So it’s settled. This means war!

UPDATE: This seems to reinforce the point:

Matt K. Lewis