I don’t feel that comfortable discussing war and that kind of thing. To me, it is obvious that our interventions normally do as much harm as good. What’s more, the reasons we go to war are rarely the reasons we claim. But other than these general guidelines, I am not plugged into what people in the field think about these matters. With Syria, I’ve become a little more familiar with what’s going on. And to my surprise, it is exactly the way things are in economics—a subject I do pay attention to.
In economics, there are a lot of things that we know. For example, businesses are not hiring and investing because there is a lack of demand for their products. There are very few business owners who claim that they aren’t investing because of “regulatory uncertainty.” And anecdotally, those who do claim this for a reason seem to be conservative ideologues who say it but don’t really act that way. (That is to say, if demand increased, they would not refuse to hire because they were afraid some new environmental regulation would be enacted next year.) In foreign policy, there are similar things that people know. It’s just that you aren’t going to hear it coming from politicians on the Sunday talk shows.
I thought about this after reading Ibrahim Al-Marashi’s excellent article in The Guardian, Syria Intervention: the US Should Heed the Lessons of the Iraq Weapons Dossier. Al-Marashi is an academic, so the only reason to listen to him is that he knows what he’s talking about. In this case, what he knows about is modern Iraqi history and that includes a lot about Syria.
Most of the article is about how the probability of success in Syria is low and the risks are high. He notes, “[A] surgical strike envisioned by the Obama administration will probably do little strategic damage to Damascus’s arsenal.” But the risks?
This is exactly what we should expect. In fact, it is economics: incentives matter. And indeed, the administration is trying to make an incentives case for war with Syria. Supposedly, a few days of bombing will hurt the Syrian government, but that is hardly clear. Al-Marashi notes, “If deterrence is Washington’s goal, Bashar al-Assad should have already learned the lesson that he does not enjoy the impunity that Saddam did. The military buildup and saber rattling communicated this fact, without an air strike occurring.” But more than that, if the United States really wants to help, there is a solution:
But that won’t happen. At this point, I’m not at all clear on why the United States is hell bent on bombing Syria. We seem to want to do it because we’ve worked ourselves up into a froth about it. But clearly the best option is to stop the civil war. But that clearly isn’t even on the table for discussion—at least among those who have the power to do anything.