As President Obama drums up support for military intervention in Syria, we should step back and examine if we’ve overcome the strong moral presumption against war. Given how frequently the US decides it’s sensible to risk the lives of our own soldiers and other nations’ civilians, it’s easy to forget the immediate costs of war are horrible for almost everyone.
So unless the long-run benefits of war clearly and significantly outweigh the almost certain death and suffering of thousands of innocent civilians in “collateral damage,” the risk to our troops and allies, the high monetary cost, and the potential long-term negative consequences, war should be avoided. In too many cost/benefit analyses, moral accountants overlook the last category on their ledger. Predicting all the ramifications of intervention is basically impossible as history has demonstrated. Most relevant to Syria, “military interventions in favor of the rebel faction” tend to lead to more civilian deaths not less.
The record of experts to forecast is often worse than chance as Philip Tetlock established from a “20-year program of research” in his book, Expert Political Judgement. In the 1980s our entire intelligence community basically failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequences that followed. What justifies any confidence our experts can anticipate the aftermath in a region and culture we know far less about? Even with over one hundred thousand troops, scores of “experts,” and hundreds of billions of dollars we haven’t been able to predict or guide Iraq or Afghanistan toward an obvious positive outcome. Tipping the military balance in Syria could lead to a power shift even worse than the status quo. Even purposefully maintaining a stalemate could embroil the region in an ethnically complex civil war that could result in more suffering and further risks to our allies and interests. Not insignificantly, prolonging war would likely raise the price of oil and further undermine global economic growth.
I’m not claiming I know exactly what would happen if we go to war in Syria. The point is that no one really knows. Couldn’t not going to war lead to terrible unintended consequences? Sure it could, but since we don’t know either way it seems perverse to directly (regardless of intention) kill civilians and spend billions of dollars for uncertain results.
Aside from predicting the humanitarian consequences, it’s doubtful even accomplishing limited goals such as preventing the use of chemical weapons is probable. Regime change in Iraq didn’t stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria; if that “message” didn’t fully entrench the “international norm” why should we think a relatively more modest campaign in Syria would prevent future use? Furthermore, the reason why civilians tend to die in greater numbers during military interventions on behalf of rebel groups is because government forces often get more brutal to compensate. Is anyone totally confident the Assad regime won’t be similarly motivated to scale up their response? Might the government respond by attacking us or our allies with conventional or unconventional weapons or tactics? Moreover, what if our interference in their civil war is too successful and leads to the Assad regime’s collapse? As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey wrote in a letter to Congress, “should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”
President Obama thought it was politically prudent to ask for Congress’s approval before entering another war of choice in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the administration argues the vote is largely for show and has no binding force despite what the Constitution, the War Powers Resolution, and candidate Obama says. It’s as if laws regarding war are mere formalities like rules for a grammar descriptivist. Well, the legal prescriptivists need to assert themselves and check the president’s power. Going to war has undeniably bad effects and highly uncertain benefits at best. This war like almost all others is not for true self-defense. War ought to be averted whenever possible.
(photo: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
Check out this short video with Steven Pinker on human nature and what we can learn about conflict from studying our closest ancestors.