Joshua PollackSyria: A Modest Proposal

Those of us laboring in the vineyards of nuclear nonproliferation are forced to learn, alas, at least a little about energy policy. If nuclear technology only were good for making weapons, and not also for electricity, our lives would be much simpler. Nuclear power is especially important nowadays, since it offers the only low-carbon form of “base load” power. Solar and wind power are dandy, but sometimes the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. Just like coal-fired plants, though, nuclear plants can operate around the clock, only minus the coal.

But now, my friends, now the conundrums of dual use can be cast aside! Who needs nuclear anymore when we have a new source of unlimited, all-weather power? All that’s needed is a little engineering work at the Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery in Montreal, where Leonard Cohen is spinning—nay, whirling!—in his grave. Whirling! It’s a mercy that he’s dead.

Idiocy, it turns out, is the most renewable of resources.

* * *


Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about Syria, chemical weapons, and cruise missiles for a bit.

At the risk of normalizing this, our most abnormal of presidential administrations, there is a certain comparison between Trump’s actions in Syria and Obama’s. Both presidents rightly took umbrage at Assad’s large-scale use of potent chemical weapons against unarmed civilians. And in response, both did more or less the opposite of what they had said they would do.

Obama had said that CW use or movement (apparently meaning transfer to Hezbollah) would would change his calculus on the use of force away from restraint, so after the Ghouta massacre in August 2013, he went about initiating the use of force. Then, hesitating, he punted to Congress. In the ensuing moment of disarray, Russian diplomacy intervened to achieve a settlement: the removal and destruction of Syria’s CW arsenal.

Trump, by contrast, indicated through his Secretary of State and UN Ambassador that the US was not intent on fighting Assad. Days later came the Khan Sheikhun massacre, followed by Trump’s about-face with cruise missiles.

Both events seem to have been media-driven. Each president ignored a series of smaller-scale chemical attacks, then felt compelled to respond to a big, high-profile event with grisly visuals. Was there any real strategy involved on either occasion, or just tactical maneuvering (Obama) and kneejerk action (Trump)? Probably not. But let’s overlook the messiness for a moment and talk about strategy anyway.

The goal of a limited military action, by definition, isn’t to comprehensively defeat an opponent. But if we still accept Clausewitz’s dictum* that the object of war is to force one’s will upon the enemy, then it seems there are two pathways one could take. The first is to destroy or disable some particular capability the foe possesses, while the second is to modify the enemy’s intentions (or willingness to undertake a particular action, if you prefer). This is similar to Schelling’s distinction** between brute force and coercion, although, as we will see, neither course of action actually correlates to the decision of whether to employ violence.

(* Here it is, a Clausewitz reference. That’s how you can tell someone is talking about strategy!)

(** You knew this was coming, right?)

Put simply, Obama applied the threat of force to remove Assad’s CW capability. Trump used force itself to alter Assad’s willingness to use CW. (Certainly the capability of Shayrat Air Base doesn’t appear to have been affected too dramatically.) So which approach worked better?

Only time will tell. Setting aside smaller-scale attacks with chlorine, a toxic industrial chemical whose possession is not banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention and wasn’t within the ambit of Syria’s disarmament deal, Obama’s strategy of capability-removal led to about three-and-a-half years of no large-scale use of CW. If Assad is still in place after the same interval from today and nothing similar has taken place again, then we can say that Trump’s strategy of intention-change worked at least as well as Obama’s approach, and better as time goes on.

Of course, the reality is not so simple, for a variety of reasons that you, Dear Reader, have probably already enumerated. And nobody should think of what either president did as a function of strategy in the first place! But even if it’s only by accident, we ought be able to learn something from these events. In time.

Also, too, we are stuck with nuclear power. Sorry to get your hopes up!


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    I enjoyed the analysis of coercing CW weapons disposal versus deterring its use. One could argue, though, that the Obama policy implied reprisal (and perhaps war) if CW was again used. After all, one can’t use CW if one doesn’t have any – a clear violation of the agreement. Notably, Assad never again used CW (chlorine excepted) while Obama was President.

    Arguably, Trump overturned the Obama policy, because a) I love Putin, b) I don’t care about human rights, c) ISIS, not Assad, is my enemy. Assad (and maybe Putin) mistakenly concluded, therefore d) I can make or use CW again. Sadly, Assad failed to understand Trump’s logic. This underscores the need to make one’s red lines a bit more clear in advance, not draw them in after the fact.

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