When America Retreats From The World The Bad Guys Determine Outcomes – Look at Syria America's residual might does not deter anybody anymore, because all players are convinced that a timid US is afraid to act

By Paolo von Schirach

February 23, 2014

WASHINGTON – When it comes to international security issues, the prevailing American approach is to picture two and only two distinct scenarios:

1) Bomb the bad guys. Invade the country. Chase and imprison all the enemies. Work with the friendly opposition to create a new government. Send in massive amounts of aid.

2) Do absolutely nothing.

Simplistic and stupid approach

This approach is simplistic an, in the end, quite stupid. Especially now, in the wake of the semi-disastrous Afghanistan and Iraq wars, option N.1 is politically impossible. In order to exercise it, any administration would have to make the case that the very survival of the United States is at stake. “Going in”, (following the script outlined above),  can be justified only by convincing the American public that the very survival of the United States is at stake. And this is clearly impossible. Hence  option N. 2.

Timid and confused Obama

And this is exactly the line that the Obama administration has followed regarding recent major crises. In fact, it has done worse than that. In the case of Syria, president Obama made open threats when it became clear that Assad had used chemical weapons against the opposition. But then he retreated when the Russians offered the alternative of a deal supposedly leading to the destruction of the entire WMD stockpile amassed by the Syrian regime.

Making threats with no follow on is arguably even worse than doing nothing. It creates the impression of an American leadership that “could” but in the end “would not”. The last thing that any major power wants is to gain the reputation of being confused and irresolute.

Credible alternative

Well, is there an alternative to the two starkly opposed options? Of course there is. It is not easy; but it is doable. Number one: A major world power has to make up its mind as to what constitutes its national interest in world affairs. Number two: this policy has to be articulated so that all players around the world will understand it. Number three: this major power will have to create the necessary military means that will show its ability to enforce its policy. Number four: this major power will clearly convey, well ahead of any crisis, through appropriate diplomatic channels and other means, what will happen in case of misbehavior to any government that somehow did not get the message.

A warning to Syria

Here is an example. When the troubles started in Syria, another president could have stated the following:

“America wants to see the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Syrian people fulfilled. America warns the allies of president Assad that any attempt, direct or indirect, to shore him up via military or financial means will trigger an immediate and swift American response. We shall start to massively aid the opposition, while we shall take appropriate actions in other fora against those who help the Damascus regime. Our message to president Assad is simple and clear. You have to come to terms with the opposition and be prepared to relinquish power, if this is what the people want. While this is a painful option, please understand that you will not be able to hold on to power relying on your military force. We are much stronger than you and we shall provide adequate means to the opposition, so that they will defeat you. Our history and past record should convince you that we really mean what we say. This is our only and last warning to you. “

Now, this is no guarantee of success without bloodshed. But chances are that Assad, on the basis of his own understanding of what a resolute America is capable of, would have said: “OK, this is hopeless. I may try. But in the end they will come after me, and I shall be defeated.  I know they mean business. As bad as this prospect looks, I have to negotiate my exit”.

The message Assad got

But instead Assad was confronted with a totally different scenario. He had overwhelming evidence that America, while sympathetic to the democratic opposition, was unwilling to take any serious steps to help them. Fearful of another Iraq, US public opinion was flat against any action, direct or indirect, in Syria. So, no real trouble coming from Washington.

On the other side, his traditional friends, Russia and Iran, were quite willing and capable to support him. Sure enough, there was the real nuisance of assorted fighters, some of them affiliated with al Qaeda and/or other radical movements, who were pouring in through Iraq. But none of them represented an overwhelming threat. Therefore, Assad rationally concluded that he had a pretty good chance to prevail. And so he resisted. The outcome so far is an epic disaster. Tens of thousands Syrians killed. Millions displaced by the conflict. Untold damage to many cities, and much more. But Assad is still there. The Russians and the Iranians are still helping him, paying no price for their actions.

The world watches and says: “America has become irrelevant. Whatever we want to do here or there, we do not have to worry about how Washington will react. It is pretty clear that –short of a direct attack on its soil– the US will do nothing”.


In conclusion, let’s reflect on the notion of “deterrence” discussed at length during the difficult decades of the Cold War. At that time deterrence meant that it would be foolish for either super power (the US and the USSR) to launch a nuclear strike against the other. They both knew very well that, even in case of a successful surprise attack, the other side would still retain sufficient nuclear forces, (most of them placed on submarines), that would inflict a devastating blow to the attacker. Hence “Mutual Assured Destruction”, (MAD).

That said, we should understand that deterrence applies to every scenario in which a nation wants to make it clear that there will be painful consequences if its critical interests are threatened. In the imaginary case of what America could have done in the context of the Syrian crisis, Assad could have been deterred, had he had the certainty, based on his observation of US past behavior, of swift US actions if he insisted on using force against his domestic opponents.

“If you want peace, get ready for war”

In the end, successful deterrence is about stating credible goals and creating the perception around the world that we have both the means and the will to act swiftly whenever our interests are threatened. The ancient Romans said it well long time ago:

“Si vis pacem, para bellum”. “If you want peace, get ready for war”

What this really means is that, If the bad guys really believe that you will act in case of bad behavior, chances are that they will refrain, and so you will not need to act.

It is not smart to believe that, as long as we are not engaged in a messy conflict, all is well. Acting on this notion, we leave the field to the unprincipled despots. Assad and his Russian and Iranian friends now act with impunity, because  they can see that Washington is in full retreat. Nothing good will come out of this America withdrawal.

We are the good guys, remember?



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