America Will Act In Syria – But Do Not Expect Much

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By Paolo von Schirach

August 27, 2013

WASHINGTON – Sadly, the strong words of moral outrage uttered by Secretary of State John Kerry regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria are destined to remain just that: words. Sure, some (face saving) symbolic military action will be undertaken. But do not expect much more than that. There are essentially two reasons for this.

No money and no will

Number 1: America is broke. And the Pentagon is even more broke as it has to adjust to the fiscal effects of the “sequester” now in place. In simple language, most of the automatic spending cuts that came into force this Spring because no broad agreement on spending and revenue could be reached between Republicans and Democrats have targeted defense spending.

In this unusually constrained environment it is inconceivable that America will engage in another conflict. Totally inconceivable.

Number 2: there is no special feeling for Syria in Washington. US policy-makers are not totally united on this, but the general consensus is that we do not want to help a Syrian opposition that may be strongly influenced by al Qaeda and/or other Islamic radicals. There is certainly no sympathy for Assad and his dictatorship; but there is no interest in expending US blood and treasure in an effort that will replace him with an even more anti-Western regime.

These two factors, lack of money and lack of an identifiable national interest in entering this conflict, conspire to have a minimal, I suspect mostly symbolic, response to the use of chemical weapons by Syria.

Autocrats can breathe easily

Having said that, this scenario has huge implications for America and its role as a superpower. It is now clear that dictators and autocrats around the world can do pretty much whatever they please, without fear of retribution from tired and penniless Washington. And this is only a short while after the intervention in the Libyan conflict was justified on the basis of a brand new international law doctrine whereby the international community can and will intervene when a government behaves badly towards its own people, as in Libya’s case.

Well, forget about all that. That theory apparently applies only in the case of small countries. Syria is a much, much bigger problem: more people, more weapons, more factions and more foreign supporters, including Russia, Iran and Hezbollah from Lebanon.

Who would join America?

I just do not see a strong “coalition of the willing” led by America about to launch an invasion of Syria. Both Paris and London saw first hand the sorry state of their air forces during the engagement in Libya. They have not forgotten that they had run out of ammunitions just days into the air war. I do not believe that they are any better prepared now. And they know that Syria would be a much tougher nut to crack.

Redefinition of the national interest

So, here is the bottom line. Forget about Pax Americana. America’s redefinition of the national interest (a polite way to say retreat) is due to two key factors. In the first place, the stupendosuly expensive and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not broadened support for interventions. Secondly, a country with an unresolved fiscal crisis, now getting ready for another nasty political confrontation on how to raise the “debt ceiling”, (this “domestic conflict” is about to take place come October), is in no shape and no mood for war.

Sure enough, expect some “action”. But that’s not the same as “decisive action” aimed at changing the course of the conflict in Syria.

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