Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Slam dunks, Syria, and the lessons of Iraq

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When President Obama first drew the “red line” last summer on Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons and then again last December, he almost certainly believed that this was a line Assad would not cross. To do so was unimaginable for the president since he believed that Assad would not want to provoke a possible American military intervention. But it appears that Assad has taken the full measure of the president and judged that, when push comes to shove, Obama was determined not to intervene and would do everything in his power to avoid doing so. Hardly the first time a dictator has assessed a democratic leader as being weak-willed.

But the particular reason given for the president’s reluctance, according to Politico and other news accounts, is the specter of Iraq. Hanging over the White House’s response to Assad’s probable use of chemical weapons is the shadow of Bush’s Iraq War, where inaccurate intelligence on Saddam’s WMD programs led, so it’s argued, to a bloody, costly, and needless war.

But there is more than one lesson to be learned when it comes to Iraq and less-than-perfect intelligence. Lost in today’s debate is the fact that it was only after the First Gulf War that we learned that Saddam’s nuclear program was far more advanced than what the US intelligence community had ever assessed, and was, follow-up inspections concluded, within a year or so of having a crude nuclear device in hand. Imagine what the Middle East today would look like if Saddam or his sons had a nuclear arsenal and Iran was on its way to having a similar capability.

The point here is not to suggest that Obama should ignore ambiguities in intelligence, but rather, that he should understand that there rarely are “slam dunks” in this business. There will be costs for assuming there are, and costs of waiting for certitude, as well. In the case of Syria, the costs of waiting are obvious: thousands upon thousands of civilians killed, turmoil in an already unstable region, creation of a new landing spot for jihadists, deeper penetration of Iranian forces into the Levant, and the prospect of America’s enemies gaining access to Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons and biological warfare labs. No doubt there will be costs for intervening but, as every day goes by, those costs begin to pale in comparison with the disaster that exists right now.

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