You really have to wonder who’s calling the shots in Syria these days. Just about the only thing the regime of Bashar al-Assad had to do to win the Syrian civil war was not commit an atrocity so public and taunting to US leadership that America would have no choice but to wade in, in the form of cruise missile and bomber strikes.
So naturally, Assad—or somebody working for him—ordered the use of chemical weapons on civilians in Ghouta, east of Damascus. Yesterday, John Kerry called the attacks a “moral obscenity” and promised that the American government’s intelligence on the attack would be revealed to the public as Washington all but explicitly makes the case for war against Syria.
Or, rather, the case for the US stepping into an ongoing war in Syria, which is what this action will amount to, as much as members of Barack Obama’s White House would like to use euphemistic language about “accountability” or “limited engagement.” The US and its allies are going to bomb a bunch of places in Syria and the Syrians are going to fire back, dubiously effective as that may be. And after the initial torrent of missiles have blown up a lot of stuff and people, we’re likely to be left more or less where we are today: the Syrian government and rebels will still be fighting in a war that’s estimated to have cost 100,000 lives.
Nevertheless, everything about the last few months in Syria has been a stark, screaming contrast with the preparations for war against another Arab state 10 or so years ago. A different Secretary of State promised evidence of crimes committed by the Iraqi government back then, and we all saw how that turned out.
The most notable difference between then and now is that nobody seems eager for a wider war in Syria. The madness that struck the Americans after 9/11 has burned itself out, and the ridiculous, farcical arguments for war that carried the day back in 2002-2003 are today seen for what they were: The sad prelude to a much, much sadder story.
Time was, simply pointing to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against civilians 15 years prior was central to the US case for invasion and regime change. Now, actual ongoing chemical weapons use against civilians buys some cruise missile strikes and maybe some more aid for Syrian rebels. That many 2003-era “liberal hawks” seem to be totally ignored in the current debate is probably best for everyone involved.
There will still be a war, and if everyone who matters (i.e., not the Syrian people) gets their wish, it will be a short one, limited to some explosions on CNN and their aftermath uploaded to YouTube. The question that we’re left to find the answer to is what lessons Obama and his commanders have learned in recent years—from Libya, for example. Did they learn that the US could turn the tide in a civil war cheaply and easily? Or did they take away how rare and contingent the success of those airstrikes really was?