Published on August 30th, 20132
America’s Prestige and the War against Syria
By Jo Jakobsen
The United States is on the verge of going to war against Syria. To a significant degree, this war is down to reputational concerns in Washington. That is, concerns for the reputation, or the credibility, or the prestige of the international system’s hegemon. This article explicates what the reputational issue is all about.
You’ve probably heard it a lot in the last few days: The United States of America is about to wage war against Syria – out of reputational concerns. So it seems, and so it is. Within a few days, scores of Tomahawk missiles will take off from their bases on Mediterranean warships and will rain down on command and control centers, artillery positions, and other militarily relevant targets in the ravaged Assad-led Middle Eastern state. A couple of days later, it will all be over (for now, at least). The regime in Syria can then continue fighting against and slaughtering their adversaries and, as is too often the case, civilians as well.
And the American action will, as is often indicated in analyses and news reports these days, come as a consequence of reputational concerns. But what does this exactly mean? Why is it that reputation is so darn important that the U.S. is willing (“eager” is a wholly imprecise word here…) to set aside, or so it seems, concerns for core national interests as well as some elements of international law?
And remember that this is a U.S. led by a president who at heart is far more reluctant than any of his post-Cold War predecessors ever were to engage his war-weary countrymen in combat in far-away places. This is not really a war president. This is not a president who wants to fight. This is a president who has plenty of other stuff to deal with – the economy, Afghanistan, drone strikes, and the pivot to Asia comes to mind.
Yet this is a president who will soon order his military to fight yet another war against a Muslim country. To repeat: Not because he wants to. He really doesn’t; President Obama has for two and a half years, for sound if also somewhat cynical reasons, flatly refused to do anything substantial about the horrible Syrian situation. And he still feels that way, nothing has changed in that respect. But now he has no choice. America is going to war. The main reason is not humanitarian concerns. In fact, the devastation and massacres do not really come into play at all in this decision. The reason for the war – or the main reason in any case – is reputation, that is, concerns for the credibility, prestige, and future of the greatest power on the face of the earth.
To really get a grasp of the issue at hand it might be useful to separate between two facets of reputation. Let’s call these facets, respectively, general reputational concerns and specific reputational concerns.
I start with the general reputational concerns, as these are the ones that have been highlighted to a great degree in recent days and weeks. At face level, this is an easy one to explicate. It has to do with the so-called “red line” that President Obama emphasized in a speech a little over a year ago. Upholding his “do-virtually-nothing” policy on Syria, he still added that he and his administration “have been very clear to the Assad regime … that a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
A threat made by the hegemon against the Assad regime. The statement was clear in a dual sense: Continue doing what you’re presently doing, Mr. Assad, and we won’t respond. But do not use chemical weapons; if you do, you’ll get a war with us, and that you wouldn’t like.
The threat has by many commentators been labeled as stupid given the president’s unshakable objective of staying out of the Syrian mess forever and ever. And indeed, the threat did constitute somewhat of a mistake; the upcoming interstate war is proof-in-hindsight of that. But the guiding light of hindsight aside, the threat is actually not as big a mistake as many people think.
There are two reasons why. The second reason, which has to do specifically with the strategic dimensions of chemical weapons, I will return to later. The first reason is plain and simple: President Obama really believed – for good reasons – that the Syrian regime would abstain from using chemical weapons given the clearness of the message coming from Washington. In other words, the U.S. would quite likely never have to fulfill the threat; there would be no use of chemical weapons and hence no war involving America.
Of course, the prediction was wrong. The Assad regime did use chemical weapons. In fact, it most likely used them earlier this year as well, in smaller quantities –chemical-weapons attacks that were modest enough so that President Obama could look the other way without being overly concerned about the resputation of his country. President Assad was likely emboldened by the fact that the U.S. chose to remain silent. So he struck again. But the latest attack constituted something different. It was large, it was gruesome, its effects on civilians were there for the whole world to see on computers and TVs.
So the U.S. has made an unambiguous threat to act. And to act means – and this needs to be understood! – to use military power. It means to go to war. Threats made in international politics are, on the face of it, cheap stuff. Anybody can make a threat – there are indeed empty threats flying all over the place. Most of these threats come from small or middle-ranked powers that often use them as a way of garnering support from domestic constituencies and sometimes also international audiences (threats to wipe Israel off the map if they misbehave belong in this category).
But being a hegemon – a superpower – is something different. Especially in the context of actual or looming war. The hegemon’s prestige hinges, or, more precisely, is perceived to hinge on the capacity and willingness to make good on promises. And threats are promises that something bad will happen to you if you don’t listen to us.
The U.S.-shaped international system (for it is to a substantial degree shaped by America) is an imperfect, intricate system that, contrary to much common belief, is relatively stable and consists of individual state members that are relatively obedient to the dictates of the hegemon. Follow the hegemon (more or less and at least on stuff that are vital to America), and you are rewarded. Fall out of line, and you will likely be punished. All in all, states – even states that are generally seen as fairly recalcitrant – do tend to follow the U.S.-shaped norms. Some do not, however – like Taliban’s Afghanistan, Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, and Saddam’s Iraq. They are duly punished.
Here, with regard to Syria, you also have a regime that doesn’t listen to the leader; it doesn’t listen not least because it right now has more parochical concerns, i.e. the raging civil war. 100,000 dead Syrians did not challenge any colorful lines, for the U.S. had sensibly, though a tad cynically, refrained from drawing any such lines based on general humanitarian concerns. But the chemical-weapons attacks did cross the American red line. The U.S. has to act. Words are not cheap anymore. The world is watching. Will America act?
If it does, it will be criticized from virtually all corners. (Be aware that whatever the U.S. does militarily in Syria in the coming days or weeks, it will not have any positive effect on the humanitarian situation there; the opposite is the far more likely scenario.) If it doesn’t, America faces a possible severe loss to its prestige. America – the hegemon – has made an empty threat!
Who’s going to believe America hereafter? Is America weakened? Has America lost its stomach for waging war? Can we now do pretty much whatever we’d like without having to fear American attack or forced regime change? Will Iran interpret this as a green light (and not a red line) to step up their nuclear program? Will other regimes in the Middle East regard this as America’s farewell kiss to the region? How will America’s allies around the world take it? – Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, all of these are states that face severe security concerns in their neighborhood, and all of these are states whose security concerns are primarily relieved courtesy of the promises of American protection.
And China – China is a pretty well-behaved member of the international society right now, not least because they fear American intervention into Asian disputes. Will China be emboldened by the seeming emptiness of American threats? And what about North Korea?
The world, as it is – the American-shaped world – is replete with potential trouble-spots that are kept relatively stable in part and sometimes virtually in full because U.S. deterrent threats are seen as credible. That credibility is vitally important. And though it is resilient, and though America still has substantial theoretical reserves of that elusive stuff called prestige, prestige and credibility are still far more easy to destroy than to construct.
More generally, one can ask: Is America a hegemon in serious decline? And such questions arise because of one single sentence uttered by the president of the world’s leading power. One sentence draws America into a war it has never had any intentions of fighting. These things happen to hegemons, however. Being a hegemon is no walk in the part.
Before I move on to the second facet of the current reputational issue, I would like to point out that the United States has a great deal of experience with these kinds of situations. They represent nothing new, neither to the international system in general, nor to America. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 is a glaring example; both Washington and Moscow seemed eerily willing to sacrifice humanity on the altar of superpower prestige.
Yet Vietnam is still certainly the most commonly cited example. The catastrophic U.S. war there in the 1960s and 1970s were all about superpower prestige. The U.S. was drawn into it, slowly and gradually, because it feared that if it let Vietnam become a member of the Communist camp, the American-dominated capitalist camp might disintegrate, first in South-East Asia, and then, perhaps, in even more vital regions.
Why would it disintegrate? Well, the perception was that the “fall” of Vietnam might precipitate a chain reaction; the capitalist dominos would risk falling one by one, and pretty fast as well. This perception, although it was certainly overstated in Washington at the time, has often been somewhat unfairly ridiculed in analyses and references to Vietnam.
It is really not all that far-fetched. Indeed, all politico-economic systems, like the American one past and present, own their existence and continued survival at least in large parts to its members’ belief in that system’s effectiveness and objective superiority. Let Vietnam become Communist, and the Soviet system has effectively proved its attraction for the region and, perhaps, for the world.
Vietnam in itself was not vital; the battle over superpower prestige, however, was. Syria in itself is not vital (though people in that country and in the wider region would surely disagree); U.S. prestige, however, is.
So, to sum up the analysis so far: The United States has to go to war against Syria lest they face a loss to their general reputation as the system leader. It surely, at first glance at least, doesn’t sound like a very benevolent cause. The U.S. doesn’t go to war because they are particularly interested in protecting civilians or in hindering further massacres; and their upcoming military attack will not help such a cause in any case.
The United States is, to be sure, acting, or trying to act, strategically rationally; they do whatever they perceive as being in their own nation’s interest. Their own nation’s interest is, generally speaking, to avoid the Syrian mess altogether, but President Obama’s speech a year ago – and, more vitally, the Assad regime’s latest actions – changed these calculations about the national interest. America’s reputation is at stake.
But there is a second, more specific dimension to these reputational issues. It has to do with the strategic nature of chemical weapons. Recall that I early on in this text was somewhat hesitant about labeling the “red-line” speech as a strategic mistake even when we consider that it sends a half- or quarter-hearted America into a war it never wanted. To be sure, it was at least a partial mistake, there’s little point in denying that. But still, America is the system leader, and the system leader sometimes will find itself entangled in unpleasant and hopeless situations (Syria is a hopeless situation, just to make that clear; in fact, hopeless is the most precise word available here).
It goes with the job. If the country is not entangled in unpleasant and hopeless situations from time to time, the country is not and cannot be the system leader.
And fighting over the chemical-weapons issue is a good cause. It is a really good cause. But it is not necessarily a good cause for the “obvious” reason: that these are hideous weapons that brutally kill innocent Syrian victims. Of course, these are hideous weapons that brutally kill innocent Syrian victims. But that is not really emphasized in Washington. Because in Washington, what is far, far more important is to uphold U.S. credibility and reputation as a country that is in the forefront of delegitimizing these weapons internationally. The U.S. does not want anyone to fight with chemical weapons. But the U.S. is not particularly concerned about the fact that these weapons are used to kill Syrians.
This argument is easily substantiated. The Syrian civil war has claimed about 100,000 lives. Around 99.5 percent of these victims have been killed by so-called conventional weapons – bullets, bombs, and the like. The rest, 0.5 percent or something close to that, have lost their lives in chemical-weapons attacks. For each individual, and for the families of each individual, it really, really doesn’t matter whether one is killed by nerve gas, rifles, knives, bombs, Tomahawks, rocks, or whatever. The recent chemical-weapons attack was a hideous crime, it was gruesome, but objectively speaking, it constituted nothing particularly new or particularly gruesome in the context of the Syrian calamity.
The United States has painstakingly built up a reputation for leading the battle against so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Under that label falls, first and foremost, nuclear weapons, biological weapons, and chemical weapons. The first of these – nuclear weapons – are, again objectively speaking, the only type of weapon that truly deserve the label WMD to the extent that the point of using such a label is to distinguish sharply between weapons that kill a lot of people hideously and instantly and those that kill less efficiently and more discriminately. One nuclear bomb can wipe a city off the map. Chemical weapons (not to speak of the much-exaggerated fear of biological weapons) cannot possibly do that.
I do not in any way wish to exonerate chemical weapons or the people who use them. And banning, or developing a taboo against, gruesome weapons is not a bad idea. The point that should be made, however, is that the situation in Syria concerns a humanitarian catastrophe that has very little to do with chemical weapons. Chemical weapons make the whole shebang a little bit worse – but only a little bit. Unfortunately, the situation cannot become much worse. Unless, that is, the United States eventually decides to go all-in.
Still, here we are, the U.S. is about to wage war over a breach of the “chemical-weapons taboo,” which in turn is closely linked to U.S. reputation and prestige – and, perforce, to U.S. strategic interests.
To cut to the chase, the United States has built its anti-WMD reputation (not a flawless reputation, it should be pointed out, considering that the U.S. still keeps several thousands of nuclear weapons in its arsenal) largely because it suits American strategic interests. And it suits American strategic interests because America is the world’s leading, indeed the world’s superior, conventional-weapons power.
Never in the history of the state system has one single country dominated militarily to the degree that the U.S. has done in the entire post-Cold War period. The U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, U.S. intelligence, U.S. Marines, U.S. command and control systems, U.S. military technology, U.S. drones, U.S. conventional military power is unprecedented. No-one state can realistically hope to beat the U.S. military when the fight is on Washington’s terms. America’s conventional military power is simply too great.
Therefore, quite logically, it is in the near-, medium-, and perhaps also long-term strategic interest of the United States to work to ensure that wars, to the greatest extent possible, are played according to the “rules” that best suit America. This should not come as any surprise. When two states fight in the same way, according to the same general rules, the one with the greatest military power is the likely winner.
Asymmetric warfare changes that equation, though, and that is the main reason why asymmetric warfare is abhorred by Washington. “Asymmetric” can mean many things, of course. In general, it means that, when you fight America, you should not fight on America’s terms, lest you face certain defeat. Sometimes you’re pressured to fight on America’s terms, however. Saddam made a bad habit out of that – and he always lost. Others are more skillfully altering the rules of the game so that the U.S. loses its big conventional-weapons advantage. Americans experienced that fully in Vietnam; others (think Afghanistan!) have since adopted similar asymmetric guerrilla tactics, often with considerable success. Terrorist attacks also fall under the “asymmetric” label; conventional-weapons superiority has little impact in battles against al-Qaeda.
Chemical weapons can also be key in asymmetric battles between America and its enemies. If the U.S. does not react adequately forcefully to the Assad regime’s chemical-weapons atrocities, that regime – and other regimes as well – might very well interpret this as, if not a green light then at least not a red either; in the next war America fights – in Syria or elsewhere – chemical weapons might be the asymmetric weapon of choice for America’s adversary.
And make no mistake about it: The U.S. fears chemical weapons – and a frightened America easily becomes a deterred America. And a deterred America easily becomes a hamstrung hegemon. And a hamstrung hegemon is a hegemon that will quickly lose its reputation as a hegemon – and when that happens, the hegemon soon ceases to be a hegemon.
The “taboo” against the use of chemical weapons is a taboo that rests on a somewhat shaky foundation. Chemical weapons will probably never (in my lifetime, at least) be a commonly-employed tool of warfare, but the mere risk of facing these things on the battlefield is far more likely to deter the U.S. from intervening in far-away places than is any conceivable form of conventional military power. And that risk likely increases if the Assad regime does not face any sort of particular punishment for the recent chemical-weapons attack even if the fact remains that almost all of the victims in the Syrian civil war have been killed by conventional weapons.
Cynically speaking, conventional weapons are within the prevailing rules of the game; chemical weapons are not. Atrocities committed by the use of conventional weapons do not spur a U.S. intervention. Atrocities committed by the use of chemical weapons do spur a U.S. intervention. Sheer numbers of casualties don’t matter. It is perhaps paradoxical. It is perhaps cynical. But at the same time, it is logical: it makes strategic sense. Being a hegemon is no walk in the park.
So the U.S. gets the war it doesn’t want. And the war comes as a result of a peculiar mix of mistakes and strategic rationality. The war will be short. For now, that is. I’m more or less done with discussing the reputational issues now, but one more thing about superpower prestige should be added.
It is a paradox, perhaps, but again: there is some logic to the madness. America will strike, hesitantly and quarter-heartedly. The attack will yield no or very limited success, of that there should be little doubt. The Assad regime might well be emboldened by such a non-result. They will effectively see this as a victory against America. America’s prestige, its reputation, will suffer gravely as a consequence. America cannot stand losing wars. The hegemon simply doesn’t lose wars. No hegemon loses wars. In a few days’ time, the current hegemon will most likely “lose” against Syria, however. That is unacceptable, so the U.S. will likely strike yet again. For reasons of prestige. And they will continue striking until they have won – or at least “avoided defeat.” That will take a long, long time. In Washington they call this “mission creep,” and they fear that even more than they fear chemical weapons.
Being a hegemon is no walk in the park.
*Cover photo by Honest Reporting, Tomahawk missile fire photoby dvidshub, Syria photo by Hovic, USS Stout photo by U.S. Navy, U.S. soldier photo by U.S. army, F18 photo by U.S. Navy, demonstration photo by Leif Hinrichsen, Damaskus vegetable photo and cat photo by Captain Orange, woman photo by James Gordon, soldier photos by Expert Infantry, B52 photo by AF Global Strike, helicopter photo by Matthew Fern, flag photo by Keoni Cabral.