Nothing is like anything else. You can do nothing well or you can do nothing badly. Some people excel at nothing. Others have more difficulty with it. They grow restless, resent the loss of initiative and control, and, more deeply, they feel that “something” is inherently, even morally, superior to nothing.
The U.S. government national security apparatus, for better or for worse, sucks at nothing. In the policy process, the saying goes, something always beats nothing. As a bureaucratic fact, this is clearly true. But, from a policy perspective, is nothing always the wrong choice?
Currently, the Trump administration is engaged in something of a natural experiment on this question in eastern Syria. U.S. forces went to eastern Syria in 2014 to defeat ISIL. Now, with ISIL losing its last grip on territorial control in Syria, the foreign policy apparatus is reprising a time-honored tradition and asking itself what those forces should do next. The answer is unlikely to be nothing.
In what is surely a dizzying array of internal meeting and papers, the debate centers on how the United States should leverage its military presence in Syria, which the Pentagon recently acknowledged exceeds 2,000 troops, to pursue other objectives, namely countering Iran’s influence or post-conflict stabilization, or both. Entering into that debate, Faysal Itani has argued in this journal that a “small-time” U.S. mission in Syria would be unable to effectively counter Iran, pointing to the “imbalance of commitment and interests between the United States and Iran” and the overwhelming numerical advantage of pro-Iran forces. He notes that the United States would need a force of many “tens of thousands of combat troops” in Syria to challenge Iran or contribute to the country’s reconstruction process.
Consistent with U.S. government practice, Itani ignored the nothing option. He is certainly right about the limitations of the small U.S. force presently in Syria. But even a much larger force would stand a poor chance of rolling back — or even containing — Iranian influence in the war-ravaged country. The reason for this is the very “imbalance” on which Itani’s argument against a small force rests. Syria is simply not central to U.S. interests and, as such, Iran’s cost tolerance will far outpace that of the United States at almost any level of conceivable commitment.
Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule is obviously undesirable, not least for his wanton abuse of the Syrian people. Iran’s continued presence in a country abutting Israel, Jordan, and the Mediterranean is also not a good thing. But these conditions neither fatally compromise U.S. interests nor are they necessarily unmanageable. The survival of the Assad regime and a persistent Iranian presence in Syria do not make it impossible to prevent ISIL’s re-emergence in the country or temper the most pernicious consequences of the refugee crisis.
Some advocates of a counter-Iran mission in Syria emphasize the purported danger to Israel posed by the concentration of pro-Iran militias, perhaps under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, on Israel’s northeastern border. However, as a senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor in November, “Even if some Shiite militia or other establishes a base in Syrian territory, it would not be a real strategic threat.” The dangers to Israel posed by Iran’s establishment of a land bridge between Iran and Lebanon, which could facilitate Iran’s ability to surge troops and materiel to Hizballah, also concerns many U.S. policymakers. But even without a land bridge, Iran has been able to use air and sea routes to supply its Lebanese ally for decades. And Israel would presumably be able to continue launching airstrikes against shipments from or passing through Syria to Lebanon.
By contrast, Iran sees its interest in next-door Syria through an existential lens, viewing a pro-Iran regime in Damascus as essential to its regional power projection. Consequently, Iran has been willing to accept steep costs in defending Assad, which has helped make Syria, historically a difficult ally, deeply dependent on Tehran. As of October, over 2,000 Iranians have died in combat in Syria, including 39 generals. It is hard to imagine that the United States would be prepared to accept such casualties. Thus, Iran has made a bigger commitment to Syria than has the United States because of the disparity in stakes between the two countries. The United States is fighting for preferences, while Iran is fighting for perceived necessities. This imbalance of interest means when the going gets tough, the United States will likely get going.
Similarly, no U.S. mission, irrespective of size, is likely to succeed in stabilizing or rebuilding Syria at this stage. In this case, the primary obstacle to success is not one of commitment. Rather, one need only look at America’s success rate. U.S. rebuilding efforts have run aground on the rocks of cultural misunderstandings and venomous political dynamics in the greater Middle East. Over the past 40 years, even larger U.S. stabilization efforts in Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have either failed outright or met with serious complications. There is no basis to conclude that a U.S. effort in Syria would be any different. At this point, the American brand is entirely toxic in the Middle East, meaning that the already difficult job of U.S.-sponsored nation-building has become much harder still.
The Can-do Threat to American Security and Prosperity
While it may come as a surprise to outside experts, the policy process in the U.S. government will likely bring these points to the surface. The assumptions underlying U.S. policy in Syria will be questioned, priorities recalibrated, and available resources scrutinized. Out of this will follow what is normally a sober, fairly rigorous evaluation of possible strategies. True, we are in the midst of a presidency that has vilified expertise and set new land-speed records for policy incoherence, but the presence of seasoned professionals in departments and agencies will ensure something approximating this sequence of events ensues. The U.S. policy debate will not be a ramshackle exercise in wishful thinking.
And, yet, there is a high probability that the policy process will recommend a new strategy for Syria that ignores these historical lessons and drastically exaggerates what can be achieved with a finite set of resources. During our time in government service in the National Security Council and the Department of State, we saw this scenario unfold countless times.
The dynamic that continually produces this outcome is fairly simple and, in a certain way, is to the credit of the policy professionals in the U.S. national security apparatus. They represent after all, the United States of America. It is, by virtue of its history and culture, an extremely optimistic place. And why not? It is the richest and strongest country on earth. Its history, despite many blemishes, has been one of nearly unalloyed progress. It has won both world wars, put a man on the moon, and invented nuclear weapons, baseball, and on-line dating. It is hard to tell the leaders of such a country, not to mention its people, that something is impossible. In areas remote to most Americans, such as Syria, the hard part is supposedly summoning the national will to succeed rather than having the capacity to do so.
This cultural trait means that when a hard problem like Syria hits the headlines, doing nothing is a politically and bureaucratically unacceptable answer. So, as the policymakers struggle with the hard reality that the resources necessary to achieve the objective simply don’t exist, some entrepreneur in the back of room always stands up at a critical moment and says, “Wait, I have an idea, we can get what we want with a relatively limited commitment, we can have our cake and eat it too.” With enthusiasm bubbling out of his ears, he continues, “I know this mission has failed the last several times we tried it, but we’ve studied the lessons of those failures and this time will be different.” Usually he attaches a new buzzword like “counter-insurgency” or “precision strike” to what is actually old hat. Politically, it is precisely what the policymaker needs and he seizes on it.
Internal opposition is dismissed as an un-American counsel of despair. Outside commentators like Itani rightly critique the lack of resources devoted to the plan. But they miss that the United States, with its broad range of global security responsibilities and shaky political will, simply can’t afford to do more and refuses to do nothing. A limited, calibrated approach, combined with a healthy dose of can-do optimism, is usually the answer. When it fails, the pressure for escalation follows.
While a can-do spirit is certainly desirable in government institutions, particularly the military, too much of it leads to overreach and failure. At a moment in which the United States has multiple security commitments around the world and a new era of great power competition with Russia and China is dawning, it risks becoming the can-do threat to American security and prosperity.
The Alternative is Nothing
This threat means that nothing needs to make a comeback. Nothing, despite its rhetorical disadvantages, is often a viable strategic option. A nothing doctrine for eastern Syria would spare U.S. resources and probably lives. It would not overcommit to the type of mission that has failed continually in the Middle East and exhausted American will. It would leave to Iran and Russia the unenviable and compromising task of trying to stabilize and rebuild a ruined, fractious, and — in places — extremist Syria. And, instead of having to spend its time explaining why it accidently bombed a hospital or a wedding, the United States would have the opportunity to rebuild its brand in the region by conducting purely humanitarian operations and supporting refugees in neighboring countries.
These reasons amply justify doing nothing. But the policymaker’s response to this analysis would inevitably be “so what is your alternative?” Nothing is simply not recognized as a valid alternative. This means that to avoid bad policy ideas, one usually needs to propose ideas that are less bad and focus discussion around them.
In this case, the “less bad” advice will probably focus on finding alternative terrain to push back on Iran that is more favorable to Washington. Iraq, somewhat ironically, is the most likely answer. While the United States can’t completely drive Iran out of Iraq, Washington can more easily sustain influence in the country than in Syria. In Iraq, the United States has multiple partners with which it can potentially work, including Kurds, Sunni tribes, and even powerful Shiite factions wary of Iranian dominance. After 15 years of involvement in Iraq, Washington has an expansive web of networks throughout Iraqi communities that it can leverage to advance U.S. interests. Recent efforts by America’s Gulf partners, including Saudi Arabia, to re-engage Iraq also would help Washington to remain an important player there.
And, ultimately, a long-term but small U.S. presence in Iraq would enable the United States to both project power on Iran’s border and to preoccupy Iran’s attention. At the very least, this would force Iran to expend resources in Iraq. More optimistically, the United States could succeed in cultivating historical Iraqi Arab (Shiite and Sunni) anxiety about Iran’s intentions, ensuring that Baghdad does not become Iran’s puppet.
But using Iraq as a proxy battlefield against Iran also risks upsetting the hard-won semi-stability that exists there and plunging it once again into civil war. In other words, even if Iraq is more favorable terrain than Syria, it still doesn’t beat nothing.
What Something Costs
In the end, the real question is not whether strategic nothingness is a better strategy. It is whether U.S. leaders have the political courage to carry it out. Can they withstand the anti-nothing political pressures to “do something” that dominate U.S. press coverage of nearly every foreign problem? Can they resist the entrepreneur in the back of the room and his next repackaged brilliant idea for low-cost victory? On the evidence so far, the answer is no.
In that case, eastern Syria beckons. If so, we will soon hear that some combination of rolling back Iran and stabilizing Syria requires a long-term U.S. presence there. The administration will accompany the announcement with some new buzzword strategy and categorical assurances that this is an entirely new approach, even as pundits puzzle to distinguish the difference from past efforts. The Iranians and Syrians, and perhaps the Russians, will escalate the conflict as they have so often in the past. As American casualties begin to appear, the president will be faced with the Hobson’s choice of deploying more force or abandoning the effort in humiliating fashion. Escalation will mean that the United States will end up fighting a war that its leaders never really decided upon or explained to the public.
None of this is inevitable of course, but it is the story of many previous U.S. efforts going back to Vietnam. By ruling out nothing, the United States puts itself on a path to inadvertent escalation. Resources and lives are wasted and the nation’s will to sustain its international role is sapped on peripheral conflicts. It is the price of something.
Jeremy Shapiro is Director of Research at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he worked at Brookings and at the Department of State.
Andrew Miller is a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Previously, he served in a variety of policy and intelligence positions covering the Middle East at the National Security Council and the Department of State.
Image: U.S. Army/Jason Hull