The U.S. in Syria: Death by Indecision
Indecision is a slow-moving threat. It starts out as flexibility, providing an appealing range of options and potential for negotiation. As it continues to play out, options begin to fall away. Sometimes those options are replaced with equally favorable, if not better options. Often they are not.
It is ironic that the motivation of indecision that desire to keep options open is ultimately what forces the authors of indecision into a corner. The U.S. is currently mired in a state of indecision that has been the status quo for a decade and a half, and it loses another degree of maneuverability with every day it remains in that state. The recent airstrikes in Syria have given the illusion that the administration is changing course and taking a definitive stance, but in reality the strikes mean nothing if they are not part of a longer term strategy. Long-term indecision punctuated by moments of decisive action is still indecision.
Defense hawks, including Senators McCain and Graham, have applauded the Trump administration’s actions, having advocated for concrete military action against the Assad regime for years. But the strikes come on the heels of the administration’s statements a week prior suggesting that the U.S. is not committed to forcing Assad out of Syria, and statements following the air strikes were notably vague about any shift in the administration’s stance towards the Assad regime. The Trump administration has demonstrated an isolated willingness to respond to a chemical weapons attack. However, while chemical weapons attacks are clearly inhumane and violate international treaties, a single response to a single attack is not a strategy; it is selectively enforcing a narrow standard. If the administration were to decide that the U.S. would only intervene in the event of a chemical attack, even that might qualify as a roadmap that could be followed. But the lack of clarity on general military involvement in Syria, on relations with Russia, and on a host of other questions about Syria leaves the U.S. hanging in limbo.
This problem of indecision is in no way unique to the Trump administration, or to the issue of Syria. The Obama administration similarly wavered in Syria, with fluctuations including Obama’s “Red Line” and public denouncement of Assad while coordinating with Russian forces directly supporting the regime. That indecision was present elsewhere: Obama’s administration attempted to demonstrate decisive action when it rolled out its “Pivot to Asia” strategy, stating a clear intention to refocus on that region, but that strategy lost momentum as the administration became increasingly preoccupied with the Middle East. Both the Obama and Trump administrations stated their intention to push back on Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, but both administrations lacked a clear strategy for executing that intent and have subsequently given mixed military and diplomatic responses to Chinese antagonism.
However, one of the most striking examples of U.S. indecisiveness has been in Afghanistan. The early years of U.S. deployment were plagued by a host of operational and cultural and problems, but the late 2000s demonstrated a shortcoming that was equally damaging: inability to decide what to do in Afghanistan. The 2009 surge seemed to demonstrate a clear commitment to routing the Taliban, but the administration wavered on the size and duration of the surge leading up to its initiation and during its enactment. In the years following the surge, the U.S. stuttered between setting definitive withdrawal dates and extending its deployment period. Now, Afghanistan has become a thorn in the side of the U.S. as the spotlight has faded, but the level of conflict has remained steady, and U.S. troops continue to maintain a presence in the country.
So what, you might ask? The situation in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world is complicated, and there are few (if any) good options. Can a state of indecision really be worse than potentially choosing the wrong action?
The answer to that question is yes, it absolutely can. Indecisiveness leads to a reactive rather than proactive approach to the world, allowing others to shape events and determine the rules of engagement. That reactive stance, in turn, reshapes U.S. options and reduces its influence in shaping events. The argument is often made that the U.S. could and should reduce its interference in the world, but the binary choice left by indecisiveness is not “act” or “not act”: instead, the choice often becomes “act” or “be forced to act according to another’s preference.” As an example, in Syria options for the U.S. have shifted due to its refusal to choose a single strategy. Not only has it lost its range of military responses due to increased Russian and Iranian activity, but it has also reduced its ability to pull out by remaining semi-active in Syria for so long, where the time and effort invested are just enough to make withdrawal feel like defeat. At best, indecisiveness leaves the U.S. following the curve rather than leading it. At worst, it forces the U.S. into a worse set of options than it would have faced otherwise.
This is not a call to war. This is not a recommendation that the U.S. deploy ground troops to Syria and Afghanistan, or that the U.S. aggressively engage in the South China Sea to fend off Chinese aggression. This is a call for prolonged, intentional action. That action could be withdrawal, making the decision to leave the crowded battleground of Syria or to pull every last troop out of Afghanistan. That action could include scaling up U.S. military action, directly confronting the Assad regime and putting firepower behind that choice. That action could find a middle ground between those choices, selecting a handful of players to support while setting strict limitations on the degree of U.S. engagement. But finding a middle ground cannot be synonymous with waffling between options, shifting positions where it is tactically convenient. The Trump administration has already taken a decisive step by conducting air strikes, but in order to break the chain of indecision it must follow through with a broader strategy that consistently guides U.S. action in the region.