On September 27, the UN Security Council eventually passed the Resolution 2118 on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, dispersing the cloud of military strikes against the Middle East country beset with internal troubles. According to statistics, the US has engaged in about 70 military interventions since the Cold War, not only to gain strategic interests, but also to project itself as a superior power and superior culture. This time, the story is somewhat different. The frustration of President Obama’s intention to strike Syria shows the threshold of US military intervention has been raised. US principles for military intervention have evolved from the Weinbergerism to the Powell Doctrine, and then to George W. Bush’s four standards of just cause, clear aim, decisive victory and quick withdrawal. However, those four standards are being questioned.
First, greater humanitarian disasters brought by military interventions have made people reflect seriously on its justification. Having witnessed the plight of Serbians, worse blood-shedding in Iraq and violent discord in Libya, the international community tend not to believe in such pretexts as “fighting against ethnic cleansing”, “preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” and “protecting civilians”. A foreign intervention in Syria, even though limited in use of force as suggested by Obama, will likely enhance the ability of the rebel forces (some aligned with Al Qaeda) and render a prolonged civil war. Since Syria’s implosion two years ago, the number of Syrian refugees has risen to 2 million, and Syrian deaths reached one hundred thousand. Any military intervention will surely increase both numbers.
Second, the aim of military intervention has evolved into regime changes, making people question about its legitimacy. In the case of Libya, the UN resolution on establishing a no-fly zone was distorted into overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi. In addition, among the ten recent military interventions summarized by the Associated Press, the United Nations only authorized two. For the past two years, the Obama administration has repeatedly requested that Bashar al-Assad leave office. However, without UN authorization any armed intervention will be a violation of international law not conforming to the UN Charter and the basic principles underlying international relations.
Third, decisive victories on the battlefield do not equal the accomplishment of political objectives, making people question the effectiveness of military intervention. In his speech delivered on May 19, 2011, Obama declared that US core interests in the Middle East are countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace. However, after ten years of military interventions in the region, Afghanistan and Iraq are still among the top five countries in terms of terrorist attacks, the Iran nuclear crisis remains unsettled, and Palestine-Israel relations have become tenser. On the contrary, US military interventions have produced new enemies, more terrorists, and dragged the Middle East down into further disaster.
Fourth, rapid withdrawal has become a wishful dream, making people ponder the costs of military interventions. In the Iraq War, the Operation Decapitation Strike was launched on March 20, 2003, and land attacks ended on April 15. Nevertheless, not until the end of 2011 could all US troops withdraw from Iraq. According to the Congressional Research Service’s report RS22452 released in February 2013, overall US military casualties in the Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), Operation New Dawn (Iraq) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq) are 36,347, 361 and 20,398 respectively. Besides, from 2000 to the end of 2012, it is reported there are 131,341 personnel suffering from the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Hence, it is easier to start a war than to end it, and the costs are becoming heavier. Opinion polls have suggested that most Americans are strongly against Obama’s proposed military strikes. Even a small-scale intervention would require deeper involvement in the “Muddle East”, while unintended consequences may come around. American people would not like to risk their lives and waste their wealth.
In addition to the fact that the threshold of military intervention is being raised this time international coalitions cannot be formed. Military intervention in Libya was featured by joint interference, coordinated division, and risk sharing. While the US was moving from the front stage to the back stage and the UK, France and other NATO allies rushed to the front line. However, as the United States is gearing up for a military strike on Syria, only France is firmly on board; while Britain’s Parliament rejected the use of British force, Australia merely offered moral support, New Zealand waited for more information before stating its position, and Jordan refused to be a launching pad for any military action against Syria. Under domestic and international pressure, the Obama administration has to think thrice.
Zhao Weibin is a Research Fellow for the Center on China-America Defense Relations at the PLA Academy of Military Science.