Monday, September 09, 2013

Dennis Ross: A "No" Vote on Syria Makes a Military Strike on Iran Both Less Likely and Almost Inevitable

Dennis Ross, the man who helped engineer the catastrophic failure of President Clinton's last ditch efforts to secure an Israel-Palestine peace deal, was given space in the Washington Post to bring the same special brand of help to the crisis in Syria. His central thesis is that if Congress blocks the President from bombing Syria, it becomes more likely that military action will be taken against Iran. He thus urges Congress to abandon its concerns over whether the bombing would accomplish anything constructive, whether it would suck the U.S. into a protracted conflict, or consider the extent to which U.S. interests are implicated by events in Syria, and authorize military action.

After telling Congress to ignore the slippery slope argument, in which military action in Syria "suck[s] us into a conflict that we cannot win", Ross offers a slippery slope of his own:
President Obama and Secretary Kerry have pointed out that there will be a great cost to international norms that prohibit the use of terror weapons such as chemical weapons. And surely they are right that if Bashar al-Assad can gas his own people and elicit only harsh words but no punitive action, he will use the weapons again. The price in Syria and the potential for spillover in the region are certain to be high. Additionally, other rogue actors may also draw the conclusion that chemical weapons are not only usable but that there are no circumstances, no outrages, no genocidal actions that would trigger a meaningful reaction from the so-called civilized world.
I think that's utter nonsense. First, in relation to Syria, Assad has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons, and the few nations that back him are hanging their hats on that denial. If Assad were to now announce, "Hah! Now that Congress has voted, I admit it - it was me!", it would be extremely difficult for him to avoid a Security Council resolution authorizing use of force. Putin may be a stubborn man, but after making repeated denials about Assad's involvement in the attack, it is difficult to believe he would have much interest in protecting Assad by vetoing the resolution. Second, were Assad to engage in additional attacks, any plausible deniability that remains from the prior incident would evaporate. It is difficult to believe that Congress would vote against military action, and even more difficult to believe that the President would sit and wait for approval from Congress if he believed it would not be immediately forthcoming. I don't think Ross believes what he suggests.

Second, in relation to the rest of the world, Ross is pushing the nonsensical idea that despots are eager to use chemical weapons against their own populations, but are held back by fear of military reprisal by the world's powers. With a whopping two significant uses of chemical weapons since World War II, the first (and more significant) use being the repeated use of chemical weapons by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and the second being this attack by Assad, it's difficult to see why Ross would imagine that despots are in fear of reprisal. If Syria is not attacked, that would be in keeping with the precedent seen in Iraq. Also, if despots are so eager to use chemical weapons, why weren't they emboldened by Hussein's use of those weapons? Perhaps Ross seriously believes that despots around the world would respond to a military strike by thinking, "Dang, just as I was about to add chemical weapons to my use of torture, imprisonment without trial, summary execution, military strikes, collective punishments, internment camps, starvation, and occasional genocide, the world has made clear that I can't use them. Now I have no choice but to stick with my tried and true methods of perpetuating my regime," but again I doubt that he believes a word of what he said.

After mocking those who emphasize that military strikes should be used only against "threats that are immediate and directly affect us" as regarding other concerns as "abstractions", Ross introduces his argument about Iran:
Leaving aside the argument that when the threats become immediate, we will be far more likely to have to use our military in a bigger way and under worse conditions, there is another argument to consider: should opponents block authorization and should the president then feel he cannot employ military strikes against Syria, this will almost certainly guarantee that there will be no diplomatic outcome to our conflict with Iran over its nuclear weapons.
Note his use of language: "...over its nuclear weapons." Iran has no nuclear weapons.
I say this for two reasons. First, Iran’s President Rouhani, who continues to send signals that he wants to make a deal on the nuclear program, will inevitably be weakened once it becomes clear that the U.S. cannot use force against Syria. At that point, paradoxically, the hard-liners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and around the Supreme Leader will be able to claim that there is only an economic cost to pursuing nuclear weapons but no military danger. Their argument will be: Once Iran has nuclear weapons, it will build its leverage in the region; its deterrent will be enhanced; and, most importantly, the rest of the world will see that sanctions have failed, and that it is time to come to terms with Iran.
First, President Rouhani has been in office for what? A month ago? Yet we are to believe that it is his voice of reason that keeps Iran from developing nuclear weapons? Does Ross want us to believe, then, that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad urged similar restraint and that it was his calming influence that prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons during his eight years in office? That Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is going to suddenly declare, "I know I've been arguing for years that nuclear weapons are a sin, are forbidden in Islam, and should be eliminated from the planet, but I've changed my mind!"

Ross then argues, without explanation, that "Under those circumstances, the sanctions will wither". Why would he believe that? I don't think he does believe that and, once again, he feels no need to substantiate the claim. He instead insists that if the U.S. is blocked from using force in Syria, a different country involving different facts and different weapons, Iran will decide it will never be attacked and acquire nuclear weapons. He then contradicts himself,
Israel, however, is not prepared to accept such an eventuality, and that is the second reason that not authorizing strikes against Syria will likely result in the use of force against Iran. Indeed, Israel will feel that it has no reason to wait, no reason to give diplomacy a chance and no reason to believe that the United States will take care of the problem.
As should be needless to say, if a military strike becomes more likely if the U.S. votes "no" on striking Syria, the government of Iran is not going to conclude that it is not going to be attacked and forge ahead, full speed, with its nuclear weapons program.

Does Ross believe that Iran has never heard of Israel? That Iran is unaware of Israel's military power? That Iran is unaware of Israel's position on other nations developing nuclear weapons? That it somehow passed beneath Iran's notice that Israel has launched military strikes against nuclear facilities in both Iraq and Syria when it decided those nations were too close to developing nuclear weapons? Apparently so, given his expressed certitude on how Iran would react to a "no" vote in Congress on the use of force in Syria.

Ross makes a cryptic statement,
Ironically, if these opponent [sic] succeed, they may prevent a conflict that President Obama has been determined to keep limited and has the means to do so.
Is Ross speaking about Congressional opponents of a military strike - those are the only people otherwise described in Ross's editorial as "opponents"? If so, and their "no" vote prevents a conflict that the President is trying to limit, wouldn't that be a good thing? Or is it that Ross thinks the President is wrong to want to keep that conflict limited? Based upon his next statement,
After all, even after Israel acted militarily to enforce its red line and prevent Syria’s transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad, Iran and Hezbollah have been careful to avoid responding. They have little interest in provoking Israeli attacks that would weaken Syrian forces and make them vulnerable to the opposition.
Perhaps Ross means to suggest that if no strike is made against Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah will continue to show restraint rather than trying to widen the conflict? Does Ross believe that those factions would respond to a U.S. strike by engaging in acts that would invite a massive U.S. or Israeli military response? If Ross seriously believes that Hamas and Hezbollah will launch attacks in Lebanon, Israel and perhaps around the world in response to a strike on Assad, isn't that a solid argument for restraint? Ross undermines any such suggestion, admitting, "the Syrian and Iranian interest in an escalation with the United States is also limited". He continues,
Can the same be said if Israel feels that it has no choice but to attack the Iranian nuclear infrastructure? Maybe the Iranians will seek to keep that conflict limited; maybe they won’t. Maybe an Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear program will not inevitably involve the United States, but maybe it will — and maybe it should.
Maybe Ross will attempt to do more than toss out mutually inconsistent alternative scenarios about what the future might hold; maybe he won't. Maybe Ross will provide a coherent, logical argument; maybe he won't - but maybe he should.

To summarize... If the U.S. doesn't strike Syria, Iran will conclude that the U.S. won't strike it's nuclear facilities, demolishing the credibility of the new Iranian president who has spent a full month advocating a diplomatic resolution of the controversy over its nuclear program, and inspiring Iran's Supreme Leader to abandon his stated views on Islamic law and seek to immediately acquire nuclear weapons. This will happen even though Israel, a nation with a decades-long history of using espionage and military strikes (and is rumored to have used assassinations) to stop other nations in the region from developing nuclear weapons, will almost certainly strike Iran's nuclear facilities if it senses that Iran has not abandoned its nuclear weapons program. This will result in a regional conflict that may or may not involve the United States, but that Ross apparently believes should involve the United States.

And this argument is supposed to... convince Members of Congress to support a strike?

1 comment:

  1. It has become a pet peeve of mine when "friends of Israel" make the, "Israel's a madman"-type arguments. A couple of years ago it was, "The U.S. has to attack Iran, because otherwise Israel is going to have to do it," to which a fair response is, "If they believe it's in their best interest, they can go right ahead and save us the trouble."

    Now it's "The U.S. has to attack Libya because otherwise Israel will attack Iran"? Let me guess, "And they're just crazy enough to do it," right?