Giants have limitations
This morning, I wrote:
The calculus seems to be all about maintaining presidential prerogatives, sending messages and maintaining credibility at this point, all of which is total nonsense. The US is the world's military behemoth and everyone knows it. That such a country is also constricted in its ability to act militarily should be common sense. Big strong countries should pick their battles very carefully. But they always seem to be so worried about saving face and demonstrating their "credibility" that they make the mistake of believing their own hype. It's a depressingly familiar routine.
In this excellent post from James Fallows, which sets forth a number of concerns and insightful observations, he quotes this from a reader who says it more clearly than I did:
These pro-intervention responses (likely not representative of the whole country, granted) are indicative to me of a country still not yet at ease with its role as a superpower (~50 years isn't very long, granted). The idea of firing missiles on a country for the sake of one's own credibility is inward looking, and smacks of insecurity. The idea of one sovereign nation 'punishing' another equally so.
This is a point I've been trying to make for a decade. The US government is not a superhero. It is not omnipotent. In fact, it is an unwieldy giant that is so big it is muscle bound and clumsy. It cannot accomplish fine surgical tasks and is, therefore, ill suited to small bore interventions.
There is only one good reason to intervene in Syria: to prevent more innocent civilians from being burnt and gassed to death in their own homes - one can only imagine the true horror. And while that is a fine reason for wanting to intervene, it doesn't change the essential fact: none of the options laid before us will likely be effective in achieving that long term.
While hundreds of nations across the world would like to ease the suffering, they know implicitly that they don't have the capability to do so effectively, and so the debate never even begins. While in the US -- the world's 'only' superpower -- we wrestle with arguments of why and how, because we can't see the elephant in the room: we're powerless to help! (1). As a superpower the US cannot concede this explicitly. If strikes are launched, it will show that the US cannot concede this implicitly either.
(1) caveat: The US could of course launch a full scale invasion and win comfortably, but as we know from Iraq, it would not ease civilian suffering in the short and medium term, and the loss of life to them and us is too great.
The greatest advantage this nation really has is the mystery of its power. When it decides it must intervene and fails to accomplish its stated goals, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, that mystique is eroded and it's very difficult to get it back. Demonstrating over and over again that it doesn't have the agility to affect behavioral change with its mighty military force (and is sloppy, at best, with its intelligence capabilities) is a mistake. It emboldens foolish people to take chances they wouldn't otherwise take and risks escalating into the major confrontation that the US doesn't want to have to wage.
After years of crying wolf and being exposed as far less capable that the world once thought, it's absolutely predictable the Syrians (whoever they are) decided to test the boundaries. Taking the bait in this precise way, proving that we don't have the capacity or the influence to do anything other than ineffectual "signal-sending" or all out war weakens our national security and doesn't help the Syrian people. Giants have limitations too. But it's not a good idea to go out and prove it every chance you get.