I just quickly wrote this out in the past hour based on a half dozen papers and radio segments I’ve done in the past, but I hope it is illuminating in some way to readers.
When considering a U.S. humanitarian military intervention — i.e. an intervention premised upon the notion that it will stop some atrocity in progress, as opposed to one premised upon a direct national security interest — I have a very simple two-pronged assessment system:
1. Does the United States have the capacity to execute the intervention successfully?
2. Will the intervention create a net positive outcome for the involved civilians while not worsening the position of the United States?
Those two clear points address myriad potential problems. And both must be satisfied to justify intervening.
The first one tells you not to do it if the U.S. can’t militarily execute a strategy successfully (for example if the topography, geography, or type of war prevent the successful use of the primary tactic such as airstrikes — or if a strike/invasion won’t actually stop the atrocity or accomplish its goals). And it tells you not to do it if the U.S. military is stretched too thin for a successful operation at necessary levels due to other engagements. Finally, it tells you not to do it if it brings reasonably likely chance of getting sucked in and failing after an initially successful entrance (a quagmire isn’t a win and avoiding one falls under capacity to succeed).
The second one tells you not to do it if intervening will make the situation worse for the affected civilians (total anarchy and brutal civil war with mass civilian slaughter *resulting from* an intervention is not better than “liberating” an oppressed population — see Iraq). And it also tells you again not to intervene to save a population if the goal is totally open-ended and will make the U.S. more precarious. If the presence of U.S. troops helps stabilize a situation and establish a workable transition to a permanent replacement, that’s fine. If the U.S. troops exacerbate a situation or are the ONLY thing preventing genocide permanently, that doesn’t help either. There has to be a better plan and a way out/forward for both the affected civilians and for the U.S. Why? Because even setting aside U.S. interests and costs, every quagmire intervention makes it less possible to help the next place. Thus it’s against global humanitarian interests to have a failed mess of an intervention in any one place.
I actually highly support the principle of military interventions for humanitarian reasons that don’t directly affect U.S. interests. But only if they satisfy those 2 criteria.
Syria doesn’t meet that 2-pronged test. Due to Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. isn’t prepared for a short or long intervention in a large(ish), mountainous nation like Syria that’s in the middle of a big civil war with no clear end in sight (or even a winner to back that won’t screw over the population later or stab the U.S. in the back). There’s almost not even a concrete goal the United States could successfully “achieve” in such an intervention. No easy way to take out the regime, no plan to deal with the resulting mess if the regime does fall (which won’t end the conflict), and no legitimate group to empower to lead a transition successfully to reunite the nation. So the first one fails. And it’s not at all clear (unlike say Libya or Kosovo) that the U.S. can even actually help the civilian population and could even make it worse. While harming U.S. strength. So the second definitely fails.
Thus, the U.S. shouldn’t intervene in Syria as the situation currently stands. If the scale of chemical weapons attacks — if they are indeed being used on civilians — increases dramatically, the benefits of an intervention may rise above the costs. And if they were being used in a different country even once, that might be another story. But right now, right there, it’s a no go. Everybody would lose.