Once again, the question on everyone's minds as they turn on their evening news is: "Are we at war yet?" This time, against Syria. Have the bombs started dropping? Have the sorties started? Have the cruise missiles been unleashed?
The conventional-wisdom mavens of Washington have already arrived at a consensus -- yes, we are going to attack Syria soon, but we'll do it from afar, with missiles and other means which reduce the military risk to American soldiers to zero. Think Libya, not Iraq, in other words.
What's astonishing in all this war chatter is that so few are asking the fundamental question any sort of "shock and awe" operation truly demands: "What happens after the bombing raid is over?" I certainly don't have the answer, but I'm holding out hope that President Obama and his national security team are at least seriously considering the question.
If we do attack Syria, it will be solely for realpolitik reasons. President Obama drew a line in the sand, Syria crossed it, and so they will pay the price for defying American demands. Oh, we may put some sort of international veneer on the operation (allowing France and Britain to fire off a few missiles, or some other token actions), but the world will know the truth -- we'll be bombing Syria because they disobeyed the United States. I leave it (for now) to others to debate the ins and outs of how we got here and whether we should go ahead and (as John McCain puts it) "crater their runways" tomorrow, next week, or not at all.
The Syrian civil war has been going on for two years now. President Obama has been reluctant to get involved from the very beginning. The American public has been even more reluctant at the prospect of America getting involved in another military mission in the Middle East. We're war-weary, to put it bluntly. Obama has issued the usual calls to end all violence, to no effect. But about a year ago, he famously drew a "red line" on using chemical weapons. Doing so would draw an American response, he promised.
The first time chemical weapons were used, Obama (again, reluctantly) decided that American would provide very limited military aid to the rebels, in response. But the key word was "limited" -- no advanced weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles or even anti-tank weapons. But even this effort hasn't really gone forward noticeably, as most rebels have never received any of the promised weapons in any case. Obama had to be seen as doing something, and so he chose the lowest possible level of response in the hopes that it would satisfy the requirement that America "do something."
But then came last week's brazen chemical weapon attack. Brazen mostly because it occurred just as United Nations observers arrived in Syria. It was a clear slap in the face to the international community. This attack could not be ignored, especially since the videos of people horribly and painfully dying appeared instantaneously on the world's media.
So now America is going to "do something" again. The red line has been crossed, and it's not the first time it's happened. Obama is left with almost no feasible option other than a military strike to respond to such blatant disregard for human life.
Most of the expert analysis in the media (a more polite way of saying "rampant speculation") has centered around what the expected American raid will consist of. Cruise missiles, everyone agrees, will be the major factor. No American boots will touch Syria's ground -- everyone also agrees on this point. All other options, however, carry some degree of risk to American troops. Syria is not Ghaddafi's Libya -- they actually have an air-defense system, and an air force. So sending in fighters or bombers could result in the loss of American pilots. A no-fly zone would be prohibitively expensive in both dollars and lives, so it's also probably off the table of possible options.
Assuming the conventional wisdom is correct, for the sake of argument, at some point in the very near future (within a week's time, say) we will unleash a barrage of missiles in the dead of night which will target military installations within Syria. Perhaps airfields and hangars will be the main targets, or perhaps other military targets will be chosen.
Such a barrage will likely be short-lived, however. For one, two, or a few nights we will bomb, and then America will pull back. This will satisfy the realpolitik cry that America "do something" in response to the red line of chemical weapons having been crossed. Syria will be spanked, and sent to bed without dinner, for disobeying the United States.
But while most people are assuming that this will be a one-time operation which will have a beginning and an end, I'm not so sure about that. Far from sitting on the sidelines, America's lot will now be fully cast with the rebels. What this means, exactly, is anyone's guess right now.
Because what happens after the raids is completely unknowable. How will Assad react? Will he stop using chemical weapons against his own populace, or will he feel that he's now got nothing to lose by doing so? The rebels themselves are not exactly friendly towards the United States, and in fact contain some groups who would actively attack America, if given the chance to do so. These are the people we'd be helping. While we could temporarily disrupt the Syrian military by our raids, and while it could give the rebels some momentum in their fight, the ultimate outcome is by no means assured. The rebels could eventually be crushed anyway.
This is why asking the "What comes next?" question is so important, and this is why President Obama has been so reluctant to get involved in this fight in the first place. There are no easy answers, and there may in fact be no good answers either. There may in fact be only bad options, struggling to define which is the worst outcome. Even looking at the situation with the hard cold realpolitik view, if America has to bomb Syria to remain relevant and feared on the world stage (because we follow through on our threats after making them), what would it mean if we intervened on the rebels' side only to later watch them lose? That wouldn't make a very strong statement to the world.
Wars are known to escalate, due to thinking like this. Call it the "in for a penny, in for a pound" theory. If Assad's atrocities mean an American military response, that means that future atrocities should also merit the same (or even more intense) American response. This civil war has been going on for two years now, and shows no signs of ending any time soon. Meaning we could be drawn in to it over and over again in the coming years.
As I stated at the beginning, I certainly have no answers to the "what happens next?" question. We could experience a best-case scenario, a worst-case scenario, or something in between. But while it's certainly fun for the chattering classes to obsess over what weapons and what targets will be chosen for a "shock and awe" style raid, I would feel better about the future possibilities if more people were actually paying attention to the future possibilities. What will happen after our raids are done? That's the question people should really be asking right now.
-- Chris Weigant
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant