News of President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syria, ostensibly as a punishment for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against a largely civilian target, has many of his supporters in a quandary. Well that it should be so, for during the presidential campaign Trump spoke against American involvement in Syria’s agonies. He was certainly clear that he disfavored American military involvement in that bloody, never-ending business.
But no one can foresee all events, and it’s events, not prognostications, that must drive our decision-making. Trump’s decision to launch a cruise-missile strike against Syria’s putative chemical-weapons sites must be judged on the basis of events and what we can be reasonably sure we know about them.
However, that’s not really my principal topic for the morning’s screed.
While warfare requires the use of weaponry, not every use of weaponry takes place during a war. This should be – swallow hard, Fran – obvious. Yet like many other obvious facts, it tends to be overlooked...sometimes deliberately.
In his book Thinking About The Unthinkable In The 1980s, the late Herman Kahn tells of the time he proposed a strategic scenario to a lecture class that initially baffled his students. It starts with a limited, deliberate, and admitted nuclear strike by the Soviets against the United States. Specifically, the Soviets launch a city-buster warhead that destroys New York City. The president contacts the Soviet premier and gets the following, admittedly unlikely response:
It’s one of ours. We did it deliberately. A large number of people have been pushing us around recently: the Chinese question our preeminence in the Socialist camp; you wage an ideological crusade against us; and our East European allies are getting rebellious again. Generally speaking, we don’t feel the Soviet Union commands enough respect and we decided to correct the situation.
After this act of dropping a nuclear bomb on New York City, everybody will respect us, not in the sense of love ad confidence, but in the sense of fear and terror. When we speak, people will listen; when we make requests, people will comply, and we think that is a good situation. Therefore we dropped the bomb on New York City. It solves a lot of short-run problems. It may raise new ones, but that’s life. In any case, as far as we are concerned, the matter is closed.
Postulate that the above events were to take place. (Use your “what if” circuit. You know, the one you engage when you read fantasy or science fiction. You do read F&SF, don’t you?) Then answer the following questions for yourself:
- Would the above put the U.S. at war with the S.U.?
- If so:
- What sort of war would it be?
- What would be the U.S.’s strategic goal for the war?
- Should the U.S. and S.U. survive the war, what would their postwar relationship be like?
- If not:
- Would the U.S. take violent action in response?
- What sort of violent action would that be?
- What would be the point of that action?
Apologies to those Gentle Readers who regard questions of such gravity as “not for the breakfast table.” (I think about them at all three meals each and every day, so while my apology is sincere, my sympathy is limited.)
My contention is that the U.S. and S.U. would not automatically be at war, even given the fanciful events described above. Moreover, the U.S. would take action – violent action. It would be nuclear. It would destroy a Soviet city, probably Moscow. And it would be accompanied by a statement much like the following:
While we sympathize with your weariness from the pressures you enumerated, we could not allow your action to go unanswered. The United States does not permit such deeds to go unpunished. Therefore we have destroyed Moscow. That solves our most pressing short-run problems: keeping your aggressive tendencies in check and reminding the world that we will enforce a strict limit to strategic violence. Our forces will remain at high alert while your political turmoil resolves itself. We will watch developments with interest.
But the U.S. and S.U. would not be at war. They might go to war, should subsequent events surprise the strategists and planners on both sides, but they would not yet be at war. Even the use of the most fearsome weapons of war does not automatically bring a war about.
This morning, Peter “Datechguy” Ingemi poses the fundamental questions about the wisdom of going to war, with specific reference to Syria:
- Are we willing to go to war and pay the price in blood and treasure to topple Assad by risking American lives in Syria?
- Are we willing to fight that war until it’s actually won, rather than fight a limited war for the sake of saving face?
- Are we willing, once Assad is toppled, to stay in Syria for 30 to 50 years to make sure Syria doesn’t become Iraq or Libya and leave it for Islamists to take over?
- Are we willing to take responsibility for not only the military but the civilian casualties that will inevitably take place in Syria in such a war?
- Are we willing to risk military confrontation(s) with Russia and Iran in order to do this?
If the president is as intelligent as I believe him to be, and if his counselors are more sobersided than bloodthirsty, they’re entertaining those questions as we speak. However, we are not yet at war, and might not be, despite our use of weapons of war to strike the Assad regime’s chemical-weapons sites.
If the cruise-missile strikes were well conceived and targeted, they will serve as the necessary reminder the Assad regime needs: specifically, that the U.S. regards the use of chemical or biological weapons as absolutely unacceptable and will punish any such use proportionately to the occurrence. The Obama Administration refused to issue such a violent reminder, which would obviously embolden an entity that sees the use of war gases as advantageous to it. If the masters of Syria are not completely insane (cf. North Korea), the U.S. strike will cause them to “pull in their horns.” If not...well, as Stephen Graham Sumner said to a misbehaving Russian satrap, we have lots of cruise missiles.
Getting the facts right is obviously of paramount importance. The critical fact to be ascertained in the Syrian matter is whether the Assad regime really did use chemical weapons. Our military minds have said they’re convinced that this is the case. Yes, they could be wrong. Yes, there are those entertaining the possibility that the attack was a “false flag” by a rebel group. But in a sane republic – hopefully, that describes our Republic – military decisions are not made by referendum but on the basis of senior commanders’ best judgment.
What will be will be. We shall see.