A Skeptics Guide to the Syria Mess

September 1, 2013 9:13 a.m.

I’ve been on vacation for the last week (actually still am). So I’ve only half or less heard all the commotions and developments in Syria. Besides the wonderfulness of being on vacation, being absent from all this has felt like a blessing.

I’ve generally been opposed to our getting involved in Syria’s civil war at all, especially as the rebel groups have become increasingly radicalized. In the present situation, which has its own special dynamics because of the use of chemical weaponry and President Obama’s extremely unfortunate ‘red line’, I’m uncertain what I think is the right thing to do.

But below are a few general points that I think are important to keep in mind.1. Don’t make threats or tie yourself down, unless you’re sure you can and will follow through. And even then, do your best not to make threats; keep your options open.

2. Don’t listen to exile groups or rebel leaders. They may be brave, patriotic and even great. But they are also, almost by definition, opportunists and liars, eager to drag great powers into conflicts that have little or nothing to do with their own interests. Journalists only amplify this.

3. The people who talk most about international law and norms are mainly self-appointed groups with no actual constituencies who navigate and lobby elite global opinion, often with very benign motives and sometimes with benign effects.

4. Whether the US attacks Damascus or does not attack Damascus won’t have much effect on whether the US can in the future, under whatever circumstances, threaten or use force wherever else it wants to, to buttress or enforce whatever other international norm it chooses to. The entire concept of ‘unitary credibility’ is flawed to its core.

5. Most of these world policing conundrums come down to the imbalance of power and accountability in the international state system.

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