There's been a lot of chatter and speculation about Syria in the last couple of days (some of it mine). As is usual for such things, there is talk about what we want to happen and talk about what is likely to happen.
Because the issues involved are partially value-laden (the use of chemical weapons as a "red line" is more normative than practical, as this post from the Monkey Cage pointed out), people can become inclined to the "want" rather than the "likely" questions. I heard a BBC reporter interviewing Chuck Hagel this morning; his line of questioning leaned heavily on the emotional side of the use of chemicals and whether this was in some undefined way "intolerable". But for the present, I'd rather focus on the "likely" question - what is the US most likely to do?
There are lots of "signals", of course - envoys for the US telling Syrian rebels various things, contingency plans being drawn up, President Obama talking about military options. None of these mean anything - they're all talk, most of it predictable. Militaries always make contingency plans, and both Presidents and envoys say all sorts of things. Talk, as they say, is cheap.
Unfortunately, the Obama Administration is in a very difficult spot. As colleagues of mine have pointed out on FB, pinprick airstrikes are unlikely to accomplish anything except pissing off the Russians and the Chinese (and Iran, but they're already mad at the US). They won't change anything on the ground nor significantly degrade Assad's capabilities. Even a "no-fly zone", which would likely be costlier to enforce, would mean little since the Syrian regime and its allies still have plenty of ground-based systems with which to cause mass casualties. Finally, international pressure is mixed; the Europeans seem inclined to some form of action, but Russia and China are strongly opposed. No clear mandate there, and the UN Security Council is off the table.
Unfortunately, unmanned missile strikes are about the only "do something" option that meets the acceptable threshold on the US domestic front. Support for intervention among Americans is extremely low, while opposition is high. And despite a few voices in Congress, there's no clear movement there for getting involved in any way that costs money. Indeed, continued debate about it could quickly become a Republican civil war between John McCain internationalists and Tea Party conservatives who hate both spending money and giving the President something to brag about.
In this two-level game, the President (any President, of any party) is likely choose the option that is minimally acceptable in both domestic and international arenas. Lacking that, he is likely to choose the option with the lowest costs on all fronts. Missile strikes are right in the "sweet spot" of this convergence of interests:
• They satisfy the "do something" impulse for internationalists at home and abroad that can't stand the idea of doing nothing in the face of a serious breach of a significant international norm.
• They cost almost nothing, and so neither bust the budget nor get Americans killed - a very serious "red line" on the domestic front.
• They are ineffective enough that responses from Russia and China are likely to be limited to yelling.
Maybe there's another way to run this calculus, but I don't yet see it. Keep in mind that this has nothing to do with what I think should happen; it is only my best guess as to what will happen. My second-best guess is "no action". We will see if either of these is right.