The Squeeze - The main item on the peacenik consciousness these days must be the heated rhetoric coming out of official Washington about Syria: U.S. charges against Syria set off alarms. My take on it: it's just saber rattling. Or perhaps not "just"... it's saber rattling, but clearly there's a point to it. The point is to get Syria to submit and obey Washington, if not in all things then at least in some. At this point in the game it is not clear to me exactly what the US administration wants; it is probably not yet clear to them, either. But they will eventually agree on something and let Syria know. I expect it is likely that they can get significant concessions from Syria.

In Iraq, the US government has demonstrated clearly that is has both the will to change the region, and the power to do so. Obviously, they are trying to make the most of the political moment.

That US power may not extend to nation-building doesn't matter. For one thing, right now that power is yet to be tested (though Afghanistan is not promising; and if one knows much about capitalism and liberty one will doubt whether "nation-building" is ever really possible). But the main reason is that any authoritarian state is concerned only with its own existence, not whatever might result for its serfs if it is removed. It is a gross misreading to history to believe that a state like Syria cares for anything other than its own power.

The US government does have to worry about nation building, since the eyes of the world are on us, and doubly so when we instigate wars. Also, in Syria we don't have even the fig-leaf of pretending to enforce UN resolutions that the UN is too irresolved to enforce itself. An attack on Syria would be even nakeder aggression than last time. Finally, Bush would have domestic political problems in getting authorization for such a war from the Congress.

But it is worth thinking about the logic of threats and bluffing here. The problem with a threatening pose is one of credibility. If the victim knows that you can't follow through, or don't intend to, he has no reason to conform to your desires. Therefore, as in poker, you can never "show your hand" - in this case, the US government won't give credible assertions that it really won't invade Syria. The standard way to run things like this is a good-cop/bad-cop routine. From lots of neocon sources in government and out, we should expect belligerence. From Colin Powell, tolerance, and from Bush ambiguity. In other words, they'll work it just the way they did on the buildup to the Iraq war.

The problem of credibility explains a lot of the actual conflict in the world. Both sides may bluff to try to get the other to back down; and part of good bluffing (at the level of states, anyway) is actually believing in yourself. But if, as a strategic move, you convince yourself that a course of action is the right thing, the problem is that you may be tested. (I leave it to the reader to unpack all the "you"s there in the context of a large organization like a state.) And thus, before a war starts, it is important for those of us outside to keep a focus on the realities.

After the war starts, reality will assert itself in the test of arms, and one side or the other (often both) will find itself disappointed. In Iraq, that process has happened extremely quickly; read this UO entry about it. The reality was, no army can stand up to the US army without airpower, and Iraq had no airpower. The reality was, Iraqis on the whole would not fight for the regime, which they hated. Absent both official and unofficial resistance, there was little resistance, and the regime quickly collapsed.

Of course, winning the war does not mean that it was a good idea or that the neocons are realistic in thinking they can reform the middle east by force. Winning the war only tests part of their asserted worldview. They were right that the US could easily win the war and that the Iraqi people were oppressed and would not hinder us (and I agreed with them, and was also right). Now the question is, who's right about the postwar evolution of Iraq? Will "democracy" really work there? I doubt it. I hope I am not right. I fear I am realistic. We shall see.

The question of nation building thus looms large, for those on our side, for the issue of war or peace. But we must keep in mind that it does not matter at all for Syria's rulers. They are likely to think we are just as cynical about the little people as they are; and that's one reason why our bluff (if that's really what it is) will probably work on them.

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