SMU Law Professor Chris Jenks:
Not understanding U.S. military endgame would be ‘inexcusable’

September 5, 2013

Christopher Jenks
Chris Jenks

In regard to the foreign policy road the United States is on, I’m reminded of this paraphrased line from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

One particularly troubling aspect of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee resolution, titled, “Changing of Momentum on Battlefield,” and states that “it is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria.”

How, or even if, the U.S.’s use of force will “change the momentum” of the conflict in Syria is unclear. And the U.S. should be careful as to what it aspires, since we could well change the momentum of the conflict through military involvement. (And changing momentum in a multiyear civil war is a very different goal than punishing for chemical strike.)

Whether that change of momentum is positive — for the Syrian people, regional stability, and the U.S. on the whole — may prove altogether different.  The U.S. policy goal, laudable though it may be in some respects, overlooks if not ignores current reality and recent advice from the nation’s highest-ranking military officer.  

Two weeks ago, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and top army officer, wrote to Rep. Eliot Engel of New York and pragmatically explained the limited utility (and problematic and open ended consequences) of U.S. military strikes in Syria to punish the Assad regime:

“There are certainly actions short of tipping the balance of the conflict that could impose a cost on them for unacceptable behavior. We can destroy the Syrian Air Force. The loss of Assad’s Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict. Stated another way, it would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict. In a variety of ways, the use of U.S. military force can change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.

“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Dempsey continued. “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not." 

General Dempsey was — and is — right.  

During the U.S. war in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus captured the dissonance between lofty foreign policy goals and the use of force with the question “Tell me how this ends.” He asked that question after the U.S. invaded Iraq.

We should re-ask that question before the U.S. attacks Syria. Not knowing the answer should give the U.S. considerable pause. Not asking the question would be inexcusable. 

Assistant professor Chris Jenks teaches and writes on the law of armed conflict and criminal justice. The West Point graduate is a decorated military veteran who has worked as a senior leader in the U.S. Army’s litigation division, as an attorney adviser at the Department of State and as chief of the International Law Branch of the Office of The Judge Advocate General (JAG Corps) in the Pentagon.