Action is not Synonymous with Force

This is a guest post from Deborah Avant, Sié Chéou-Kang Chair for International Security and Diplomacy and Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.


The debate among Ivo Daalder, John Mearsheimer, and Hisham Melhem last night on the Newshour was quite poignant. All three actually agreed on the important point: the action the US is considering to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons will, as John Mearsheimer put it, “do little good”.  A very good set of arguments from CNAS arrive at similar conclusions.  There are many nods to the brutality to Assad’s regime but no one thinks the options being considered will improve the situation.

Really?  The US is thinking of launching a missile attack at no insubstantial cost (extrapolating from the costs of the Libyan intervention, which of course no one can agree on, we are looking at $1 billion minimum or as much as $2 billion/day) that will kill Syrians and promise many disruptions. Yet we cannot possibly foresee—when the vast majority of experts who agree on little else finally agree—that it is likely to do little good?

The conversation on the Newshour demonstrates how poorly the options the US is considering address the concerns American leaders feel.  Ivo Daalder admits (and Hisham Melhem is incensed by) the fact that we are considering only something that will punish Assad, not something that will help the situation on the ground.  The best one can say about the action being considered is that punishment is meant to “deter” future action, but Jon Mercer and others have demonstrated how fraught such a deterrence strategy is. I disagree with John Mearsheimer’s assumption that we should only act in ways that further our narrowly defined national interest, but he does have a point that taking action that promises to do little good makes little sense.  The other implicit option in this conversation, though, is doing nothing.  This is also hard to stomach (on that, see George Packer’s conversation with himself).

Perhaps it is time to move beyond the fallacy that the only action that counts is military force.  There are many, many things the US could do (and may be already doing) – working with the Arab League, working with global businesses who have impact in Syria, engaging people close to Assad…maybe even engaging with Hassan Rouhani.  These are all actions too.  Indeed, as Charli Carpenter points out, even if all the US wants to do is to punish Assad, there are many actions that may be more effective than a military strike.  The exercise of power does not require military force.  Power comes in many forms and often the most effective forms are the least violent.

Rather than being boxed in to a military strike (serious action) vs. no military strike (doing nothing) frame, Obama could use his considerable rhetorical skill to reframe the question as: what can the US do to either 1) reduce the chance that Assad will not use these weapons in the future or 2) improve the situation for civilians on the ground?  I am not suggesting there are easy answers to either of these questions. But at least if the US frames the questions in the right way, it will be less likely to take costly action that is worthless – or worse.

3 Responses to Action is not Synonymous with Force

  1. Fred August 29, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

    “But at least if the US frames the questions in the right way, it will be less likely to take costly action that is worthless – or worse.”

    True. Perhaps they should frame one like this: “Who actually used the chemical weapons in Syria that killed hundreds.”

    • Deborah Avant August 30, 2013 at 11:28 am #

      As Charli points out in her Foreign Affairs piece, that is step one.

  2. Susan August 30, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    One option that doesn’t seem to be getting much attention would be for the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court – as the US agreed could be done in the case of Darfur years ago (after Colin Powell publicly declared that genocide had been committed). Article 8.2(b)(xviii) of the Rome Statute gives the Court jurisdiction over war crimes involving use of poisonous gas, and other sections of the same article establish jurisdiction over attacks aimed at civilians.

    The ICC is the proper place to pursue – and punish– this criminal act. And the Prosecutor might actually be able to figure out how the attack came to be ordered and who is criminally responsible. The US could assist by turning over whatever intelligence it has gathered.