The United States is preparing for a military strike on the Assad regime. At least that’s what a tweet from President Trump suggested early this morning. It is unclear at the time of this writing when it will take place, but a military strike has been likely since reports surfaced of the regime’s latest use of chemical weapons in the Syrian town of Douma.
A number of analysts have laid out America’s options for a military strike on the Assad regime in response to its chemical weapons usage. None are good. The Cato Institute’s Emma Ashford assessed the pros and cons of intervention in a Twitter thread over the weekend (BLUF: the safest option is ineffective and the most effective option is too costly and risky. That is, a repeat of last year’s cruise missiles strikes will do little to help the Syrian people, while putting a large number of American boots on the ground risks escalation with the Assad regime and its backers).
How to best use military force in limited ways has long bedeviled American policymakers. For advocates of military intervention, the problem has always been essentially a Goldilocks dilemma: how can the United States intervene effectively without making a large-scale military commitment? The problem is, military force is not nearly as easily controlled as many advocates for it like to suggest. Conflicts that are meant to stay limited do not always remain so. Missile strikes give the illusion that the United States can “do something” quick and effective without the commitment of ground troops. As Eliot Cohen wrote about the use of American airpower after Operation Desert Storm, air strikes and cruise missiles are “an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, [they] appear to offer gratification without commitment.”
At the time Cohen was writing, the United States was an unrivaled military power with broad freedom of action. In Syria though, the dangers are greater given the presence of both Iranian forces and, more importantly, a nuclear-armed Russia. Even cruise missile strikes are not necessarily risk free. Meanwhile, increasing the number of boots on the ground to topple the Assad regime might end one threat to the Syrian people, but a conflict with Iran and Russia will just expand the suffering.
While Secretary of Defense James Mattis suggested earlier today that military options are ready to be given, a request for them from the president was yet to be made. Likewise, the president’s belligerent tweet was sent before any agreement was made with America’s allies on how to proceed, according to a report this afternoon in the Daily Beast.
Still, given the president’s tweet, a strike now seems less a matter of whether than when and how. Yet the answers to those questions are important, given how bad America’s military options are in this case and the risks associated with the choice.