By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
Pressure continues unabated among foreign policy elites for the U.S. military to take dramatic action in Syria. Both liberal internationalists and neoconservative interventionists — suffused with Wilsonian fervor — are warning that if President Barack Obama continues to treat Syria with benign neglect, sectarianism there will worsen, with dire consequences for the region. Moreover, the United States will have missed its best chance in decades to undermine clerical rule in Iran. They could be absolutely right on both counts. But there are still problems with their analysis.
In fact, the U.S. military and CIA are already likely helping the Syrian rebels behind the scenes with training and logistics. The increasing ability of the rebels to take and hold territory in places such as Aleppo is related to the outside help and advice they are getting from a number of countries, including perhaps the United States. But Wilsonian interventionists say this isn't nearly enough, even as they are careful not to call for ground troops. A number of them are calling for a no-fly zone instead. Yet, they are not fully fleshing out what a no-fly zone would lead to.
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A no-fly zone, by preventing the Syrian regime's helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft from bombing rebel positions, would hasten the regime's downfall. Then what? By so proactively hastening President Bashar al Assad's demise, Washington to greater extent, and NATO to a lesser one, would then own in significant measure the result on the ground. True, that was the case with Libya, but because Libya's divisions were tribal and regional rather than sectarian, the post-Gadhafi reality in Libya has so far proved more benign than the post-al Assad reality would likely turn out to be in Syria. In Libya, there was no proxy war with Iran and Russia — something that might only quicken if no faction in Damascus assumes effective control. In short, Syria holds the potential to embroil the U.S. military to a degree that Libya did not. Syria's geography means its crisis could explode to a much greater degree than has Libya's. A no-fly zone this year could result in calls from the same concerned elites for peacekeeping troops later this year or early next year.
But all this is but prologue to a more fundamental point. Take a look at the map of U.S. aircraft carrier deployments from week to week. Carriers, when they are not transiting from one area of responsibility to another, or are not on training missions or test runs, or home-ported for maintenance and crew rest, tend to be deployed in places where geopolitical and military tensions are high. After all, carriers are portable U.S. military bases, accompanied by submarines, destroyers, cruisers and so on, all fitted with heavy weaponry. In recent months, the Pentagon has had aircraft carriers on station near the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean Sea. With 11 carriers, having one or two close to all these conflict zones is doable, even with others home-ported or deployed in transit, training and test runs. But it is a close-run affair. And the carriers are representative of something else: the possibility — never completely out of mind — of major war breaking out.
For it isn't only Syria that the Pentagon must worry about. The difference between Pentagon planners and Wilsonian interventionists is that the former are required to be obsessed with several near-term futures and the latter are resolved to be obsessed with just one. In the mid-1990s, the cri de coeur was Bosnia, in the late-1990s it was Kosovo, after 9/11 for quite a few it was Iraq, recently it was Libya and now it is Syria — one place at a time, always in linear progression, even as the Pentagon must fixate on several crises at once.
For example, the Pentagon has had not one but two aircraft carrier strike groups on duty in the Persian Gulf, in preparation for a possible conflict with Iran — a conflict that could be an exceedingly complex, robust and long-term air and sea battle. For a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran, rather than solve the problem of Iranian power projection, might conceivably make it more intense and permanent. Simply because the possibilities concerning everything that could go wrong in the Persian Gulf are so vast, it is hard to exaggerate just how much planning and man-hours Washington's national security apparatus has put into that region.
Then there is the South China Sea and other seas in the Western Pacific, where political and military tensions are arguably higher than they have been at any time since the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996, when the United States drove two carrier strike groups in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait because of aggressive Chinese military posturing. Unlike then, today China's air and naval power is substantial — and the People's Liberation Army more politically powerful — creating a more unstable military balance. War is not about to break out on account of the conflicting territorial claims, but American power must be nearby to reassure allies. And American diplomats, working in concert with Navy admirals and Air Force generals, must be prepared for a complex reaction lasting days or weeks in the event of an outbreak of hostilities involving China and other littoral states.
This raises a reality that dominates Washington, even as it is almost never talked about: The ultimate expression of American power is the amount of time in a given day that America's top policymakers can devote to a problem. True, the decision-making process is impressively decentralized, with assistant secretaries and their equivalents making critical judgments daily, thus releasing the time of their superiors for other matters. Nevertheless, crisis resolution often works best when the top tier of policymakers can concentrate on the same problem. Bold decisions are more often made at the top than in the upper-middle of the bureaucratic chain. The Pentagon barely has the number of operational carriers to deal with three conflicts at once in different parts of the world, but it is unclear that the policymaking process could effectively manage such a circumstance at all.
Therefore, the following questions have to be asked: Are the benefits resulting from a dramatic U.S. military intervention in Syria sufficient to risk the possibility of Washington having to fight, say, two wars at once? What military and diplomatic responsibilities would the success of a no-fly zone lead to down the road? It may well be that those advocating military action now in Syria are right in terms of a grand strategy that leads to the eventual demise or weakening of revolutionary Iran. However, I worry that their advocacy is based more on passion than on the second- and third-order effects of intervention, not just in Syria but elsewhere. For example, the more that America is preoccupied in the Middle East, the easier it is for China to intimidate its neighbors.
Of course, the interventionists are right in one respect: The need for exit strategies can be overstated. After all, we can never know in advance the specific outcomes of all our actions. Thus, to make such demands would be to immobilize policy. Nevertheless, a certain degree of anxious foresight is useful before we commit ourselves to great endeavors. Libya could still get messy. Anarchy in Mali was a second-order effect of toppling Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, even as the new Libyan government has difficulty projecting power beyond the capital. And managing the outcome in Syria is a far more ambitious undertaking still. To repeat: We don't want to have to own the ground-level situation in a post-al Assad Syria.