Intervention in Syria and the Myth of the “Exit Strategy”


In a recent article for War on the Rocks, Peter Munson expanded on a debate I’d had with him on Twitter over intervention in Syria. WOTR generously offered me space to respond.

Munson lays out our debate well, insofar as anyone can get anywhere 140 characters at a time. Here’s the crux of the disagreement, as he reports it:

Nichols was focused on the moral imperative to do something, anything to lessen the suffering and to reassert America’s role of strategic leadership. While I am no less caring for the Syrian people and no less interested in America’s strategic position in the region and the world, my focus was on the likely outcome of any action.

That’s accurate to a point. I’m not actually in favor of doing anything, and in fact, once I realized that any U.S. intervention would be conducted in a half-hearted, desultory way—something “incredibly small,” as Secretary Kerry dejectedly promisedI wrote a piece in early September 2013 saying that I had, in fact, given up on intervention.

But something definitely stuck in my teeth about my debate with Munson, as he notes here:

Nichols peppered me with questions meant to pin down my position with reference to precedents such as Kosovo and Somalia, the intersection of values and interests, and the moral imperative of alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people.

Munson is quite right that I wouldn’t let go of questions about Kosovo and Somalia—because, as he finally noted in our discussion on Twitter, he supported action in both of those messes, as did I, which raises the obvious question: Kosovo and Somalia were okay, but Syria is dangerous and failure-fraught? Seriously?

Perhaps Munson checked the syllabus I teach from at Harvard Summer School, because he lays out a case against intervention based on traditional just war criteria, which I teach as part of my courses there, claiming that intervention in Syria violates just war theory’s requirement that any military action must have “a reasonable chance of success.” Not only does Munson’s claim misunderstand the just war concept of “the prospect of success,” it prejudices the notion of success so strongly toward regime change that it shuts down further debate. But I’ll get to that.

The overall issue is that I now wonder exactly what Munson and others really mean when they ask about “outcomes” or even the dreaded “exit strategies,” in which every proposal for intervention is met with the phrase: Tell me how this ends.

Here’s what I think it all means. When someone says “tell me how it ends,” it’s another way of saying: “I just don’t happen to like this particular case for intervention,” for whatever reason. I am not going to look too deeply into Munson’s motives here, and will take him at his word that he thinks that intervening in any way in Syria will do more harm than good. (“More harm than good,” by the way, is not the same as the “prospect for success” criterion.)

But whatever Munson’s motives, I find his reasoning inconsistent: he was willing to wade into the fighting in Kosovo over a genocide that hadn’t even happened yet, and he was willing to support sending tens of thousands of Marines into a complicated situation in Somalia, but he is deeply opposed to fighting in Syria despite the actual use of chemical weapons against civilians. So, what’s changed? Why those but not this?

Let’s dispense with the “probability of success” argument. The early Christian thinkers who created the body of thought we regard today as “the just war tradition” proceeded from the assumption that all human life, created by God and in His image, is sacred. It can only be taken under the most extreme circumstances. The ancient notions of fighting for honor or revenge no longer make the cut.

Likewise, then, “just war” thinkers ruled out doomed crusades and suicide missions: Sovereigns were not allowed to pour men into battle just for the sheer glory of it all, or to restore besmirched honor. If human beings were going to get killed, then something had to be achieved. That’s what the “probability of success” means. There has to be some hope of attaining a goal, rather than just a spirited march off a cliff, flags flying and trumpets blaring.

I doubt Munson or anyone else worries that the U.S. and/or NATO would suffer a suicidal defeat in Syria. Instead, Munson attaches a huge objective to the meaning of “success,” rules it unattainable, and then conveniently uses this cobbled-up definition of “success” to ditch the whole project.

Considering that he accuses me of setting up straw men, it’s a pretty daring maneuver:

On a humanitarian level, it is hard to imagine that an intervention could make the situation much worse for the people of Syria, though it will take a great amount of effort to make their lot much better. From a strategic perspective, however, an intervention that fails to significantly alter the balance in Syria is a significant failure, further eroding our ability to positively affect future events. This is, unfortunately, a familiar pattern. No matter what the specific calculus, if we fail to fully contemplate the potential shortcomings of our action, and the likely need for more than one limited move, then failure is all but preordained….

A no-fly zone will make a statistical alteration to the killing, but will not end it. Will this intervention look like a humanitarian success with artillery, rockets, and militias continuing their slaughter? Will it demonstrate America’s strategic resolve and influence in a meaningful way to potential adversaries? The prospects for success of such a limited intervention do not live up to the just cause we ascribe to it. So then what?

If extensive airstrikes were to alter the balance in the war and if some humanitarian zones could be established—most likely requiring limited boots on the ground of some international force—what role would America play during the near-certain post-Assad chaos? Will we let a civil war play out so long as the regime is no longer doing the killing on an industrial scale?

In other words, Munson seems to be saying: “Some strikes might halt the slaughter for a bit, but since we can’t guarantee that this civil war will turn out better in the long run—and it can’t possibly do that, because we won’t invade—therefore the whole thing is doomed and we’re better off just staying out of it completely.” Well, sure—it’s a fool’s errand if you insist at the start on a guarantee that Assad loses the civil war. But of course, we can’t guarantee that, and Munson knows it. So he sets up an impossible condition, notes that it is unlikely to be fulfilled, and then declares the whole mess to be too complicated.

I should note here as well that it is a typical anti-interventionist position to oppose action in an impending disaster as “too early,” and then to oppose action in an actual disaster as “too late.” (Heads I win, tails you lose.)  Note, again, that this is the position Munson takes after admitting he was willing to roll the dice in Kosovo. Now, don’t get me wrong: I think Kosovo worked out, or worked out about as well as could be expected. There was no genocide, Slobodan Milosevic was forced from power by his own people, and Kosovo is now a state.

If you ask opponents of the Kosovo war, like John Schindler, they’ll tell you that this is a complete dog’s breakfast that went exactly the wrong way, and that NATO forces there—yes, we’re still there—should be renamed from KFOR to “Forever-FOR.” (We also sided with a group we later had to condemn as terrorists.) But this, as Munson eventually admitted, was a fight he supported and wanted to be a part of.

Anyway, in return for my needling about like Kosovo, Munson asked me: well, what would you do in Syria? That’s fair.

Here’s my answer:

Use military force to leave the Syrian regime worse off tomorrow than it is today. Force a price—and more military stress—on a regime already struggling in a civil war. Strike airfields, communications, and government buildings. And no, I’m not going to say how or with what. Coming up with those plans are what the military gets paid for, not me. I’m not an operator. But we should act in a way that tries to salvage what’s left of the norm that the use of weapons of mass destruction against children is not a cost-free method of warfare.

And if the U.S. military tells the civilian decision-makers it’s just “too hard,” then here’s an idea: I want our money back.

I’ve said this before and I’ll repeat it now: the United States military prepared for full-scale war against the Soviet Union in the Mediterranean, and we assumed that Europe’s lake was the one place we could really paste the Soviet empire. But now, apparently, everything is just too, too hard, it’s too risky, it’s too fraught with unknown unknowns, it’s too…well, something.

I heard the same arguments, by the way, about Libya back in 2011. I knew men (now retired) who had been in combat, real warriors, assuring me in urgent, quiet voices that Libya was tough, really tough, and that NATO was going to have a hell of a time getting in there. That was the first time I starting thinking I wanted a full refund on every dollar spent on defense. (Except for the invaluable educational services I’ve provided, of course.)

Of course, Libya was not tough. Today, however, that same worrying means the same thing: that at least some senior commanders of the U.S. military, among others, have decided they just don’t want to be involved in Syria. Maybe it’s because they’re tired of fighting in the region, or because they don’t think Syria is worth it, or because—as the Informal Official-But-Not-Official U.S. Armed Forces Spokesman, retired Major General Robert Scales has implied—they think the White House is full of chicken-hawks and hippies:

[Senior officers] are embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration’s attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense. None of the White House staff has any experience in war or understands it…They are tired of wannabe soldiers who remain enamored of the lure of bloodless machine warfare…today’s soldiers know war and resent civilian policymakers who want the military to fight a war that neither they nor their loved ones will experience firsthand.


Back in June, a story leaked that the Chairman of the Joint Staff, General Dempsey, schooled Secretary Kerry on what it would take to strike Syria. Kerry wanted action, and Dempsey said it would take a massive air campaign to destroy Syrian defenses. As Elliot Abrams argued at the time, this was, in effect, a military veto on further action, and in other circumstances might have led to an Oval Office showdown:

The “700 sortie” argument is an old Pentagon line, updated for this particular argument about Syria, that can be translated simply as “I don’t want to.” As [journalist Jeffrey] Goldberg noted, it is impossible to believe that Israel can do three air strikes in Syria (apparently stand-off strikes from beyond Syria’s borders) but the U.S. Air Force cannot do one–until it makes 700 sorties to take down Syrian air defenses. Israel lacks our stealth bombers; Israel does not have the mix of ground to ground or air to ground missiles that we do; Israel lacks the naval strength we have in the Sixth Fleet.

For our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to argue that it is simply too dangerous for us to do anything, anything at all, strikes me as shocking. This is not a policy argument, and one might conclude that despite our great capabilities we should not do what Kerry is said to have recommended (though I agree with Kerry). But that’s not what Dempsey did; he added to his policy argument a ridiculous military argument that should have been shot down with alacrity. In a better administration, the SecDef would have told him to knock off the policy arguments disguised as military advice, or the National Security Advisor would.

There has been no hashing out of this issue on the big blue carpet in the Oval (that we know of). But the question remains: are Peter Munson and others right to say that after everything we’ve prepared for, striking targets inside a second-rate (at best) military power embroiled in a civil war is just too hard, and that to do so is essentially equivalent to doing nothing, or maybe even will just make it all worse? That’s it? That’s all we’re left with? I didn’t believe that then and I don’t believe it now.

At this point, however, I doubt there’s much that the United States can do in Syria. I made my case for intervention at length in August, and a month later (as I noted above) accepted the reality that such an intervention would not happen. Our window has closed, and our credibility is shot. We’re now embroiled in a crisis with Ukraine, dealing with a Russia emboldened by our previous failures in…well, in places like Syria, actually.

But my overall point in my exchange with Munson is that this constant invocation of the “exit strategy” myth has to end if we’re to have honest discussions about interventions. The whole “how does it end” question is too often merely a hand-wave for emotivist arguments that mean little more than “I like this idea, and I don’t like that one.”

Thousands more will die in Syria, Russia will continue its neo-imperial policies, and chemical weapons are now a fact of life in dictatorial statecraft. Syria has decided it needs no further UN annoyances, as I and others predicted. The situation is now an irretrievable mess, not least because of “tell me how it ends” arguments that were little more than abstractions meant to body-block various courses of actions that are now even harder than they might have been.

I don’t have to tell anyone “how this ends.” From Syria to Ukraine, we’re seeing the results already.


Tom Nichols is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. Previously he was a Fellow in the International Security Program and the Project on Managing the Atom at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He served as personal staff for defense and security affairs in the United States Senate to the late Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania.  His most recent book is No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). The views expressed are his own.


Photo credit: Maxime Guilbot

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