The CPD Blog is intended to stimulate dialog among scholars and practitioners from around the world in the public diplomacy sphere. The opinions represented here are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect CPD's views.


The Case for Blowing Things Up

Aug 26, 2013

As a committed advocate for soft power and public diplomacy, I look for ways other than military force to address even the most pernicious international behavior. Usually, talking is better than fighting and wise use of political power can make unnecessary the reliance on “kinetic action,” as military thinkers refer to combat.

But there are times when a state’s actions are so outrageous and have so little chance of being altered by peaceful means that soft power measures should be set aside. On occasion, blowing things up is essential.

Such is the case with Syria today. Bashar Assad has calculated that he can, literally, get away with murder. Intelligence and military officials have little doubt that he is responsible for the use of chemical weapons on civilians, and yet the Syrian regime pays no price for this except the international opprobrium that bothers Assad not at all. If Assad can prolong his fight for survival – and perhaps even prevail to some degree – his use of chemical weapons is likely to continue and maybe expand.

In an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia, published on Monday, Assad warned that if the United States launched military action against him it would result in “failure just like all the previous wars they waged, starting with Vietnam and up to the present day.” For the United States to become fully involved in another Middle East war would be unwise and would not be supported by most Americans. But a clear distinction exists between going to war and using crisp punitive measures in response to presumed crimes against humanity.

Past failures to act remain as stains on the global conscience. To take just one example, Rwanda 1994: approximately 800,000 people were slaughtered while the world’s most powerful nations refrained from using the controlled lethal force that might have stopped the massacres. President Bill Clinton and others later apologized for their inaction, but that did not reduce the number of dead.

What will people say 20 years from now when they look back on today’s events in Syria? Will they apologize for doing nothing while chemical warfare was employed?

The United States and its NATO allies possess the precise military capability to cause significant damage to Assad’s war machine. Perhaps the source of the chemical weapons could be hit, and if that is not feasible due to the danger of releasing chemical agents into the atmosphere, airfields or other military facilities could be targeted.

The point of all this is to show Assad – and the rest of the world – that certain behavior, even in wartime, will not be tolerated. Some would argue that this kind of action is a mere gesture and that Assad will find other ways to kill Syrian civilians. Perhaps, but that is not a reason to do nothing at all.

Despite the allure of soft power as a way to deal with international disputes, there is no getting away from the sad reality that hard power is sometimes needed. Forceful action will speak to global publics as its own kind of public diplomacy. It is time to blow up at least part of Assad’s capability to slaughter innocents.


Since I like playing the contrarian, a lil food for thought as you march us off to war:

-Questions to be answered before we go to war, like why does Egypt's similarly heinous crime get no response?
where does this all end? what is the legal basis for military action?:

-also fwiw the architect of the surgical strike plan being pushed forward doesn't think it will work:

"Tactical actions in the absence of strategic objectives is usually pointless and often counterproductive,"
Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said. "I never intended my
analysis of a cruise missile strike option to be advocacy even though some people took it as that."

And what happens if there is a Syrian response? Can we stand the heat in Hell's kitchen?

No perfect answer/policy exists. But doing nothing -- failing to punish the perpetrator -- implies tolerance for the behavior.

While I am a realist in that I firmly believe in what hard power can accomplish, in this case, I think it will be very little without a strategy behind it---as Harmer, and Paul highlight above.

If we don't know what we want the strategic outcome to look like, then tactical operations that don't actually advance that strategic objective serve little purpose.

I just don't see a scenario developing which benefits the U.S.

I find it funny the method by which we determine what's no longer allowable. What's the trigger for military action? Forget killing 100,000 people. Now it's using a particular type of weapon to do it. So it's not killing people that matters, it's just how you do it.

Mr. Seib should not be an educator. Aside from the fact that he is giving credibility to media lies (perhaps his students are too young to remember the false lies we are in the habit of repeating - i.e. Iraq, Operation Tailwind, Yellow Rain, not to mention the chemical weapons Iraq used against Iran with help form the US), but aside from the misinformation he is saying America needs to kill the Syrians, not Assad! Shameless drivel from a professor.

Matthew, I agree with much of what you say, particularly that the United States cannot emerge from this in a beneficial way, but I think the nature of the weapon does matter. It is not the only trigger, but should the world simply shrug while chemical weapons are used?

Instead of war, we favor effective negotiations with the belligerent parties, with the support of Russia and China, to bring peace to the warring parties. There exists not a speck of evidence or confirmation that the Assad government was liable for the alleged chemical attack.

Here are the facts: (1) Carla Del Ponte, a United Nations Human Rights investigator, has declared that the Syrian régime has not used chemical weapons. He found the rebels used chemical weapon. (2) In May, twelve supporters of the Syrian militia were detained in Turkey for having 4.5 pounds of Sarin, the suspected neurotoxin gas used in the latest assault. (3) A prominent British newspaper, the "Daily Mail", reported in January that the Syrian rebels were planning to deploy chemical attack to blame the crime on the Syrian régime only to warrant U.S. involvement. (4) The Syrian rebels nonstop are taking direct weapons and funding from the United States, despite ample evidence of carnages (counting murder, torture and rape) by the rebels. Based on the United Nation, rebels are actively enlisting juveniles. (5) Dr. Ake Sellstrom, a member of the United Nations inspection team, has openly confirmed his doubts about the chemical attack by Syrian government, indicating the reports of the alleged attack are "suspicious". (6) Contradictory reports have been presented: 1,300 slain versus 350 and 200. Thus, the numbers are uncorroborated. (7) "Doctors Without Borders", by their own admission, received their report from a Syrian rebel group! (8) Prior to the attack, Videos of the contended dose were posted on the internet by cronies of the Syrian rebels! (9) The weapons experts have questioned the integrity of the Video because the people treating victims are not dressed in proper equipment.

Soraya, if you want to be a public diplomat, learn to show a lil respect and use your powers of communication not obnoxious rudeness.

If this is about whether the "world" shrugs, then the world needs to respond. It shouldn't be the responsibility or expectation of the U.S. to do so. Now if the world actually has a strategic plan with a strategy (and contingency plans) for an endgame, that may be different. But the last decade of warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya has proven we're not very good at figuring out what to do after we drop the bombs.

If we are going by the standard that chemical weapons should not be used, then there should be a standard for responding to states that use them. Clearly, few states can agree on a standard, even if most of those states (not including Syria), belong to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

If it does not benefit the United States, why should the United States do it? Do we think that dropping a few bombs in Syria will accomplish anything? We tried that kind of stuff for over a decade in Iraq prior to the invasion.

I too am abhorred by the use of chemical weapons, but I do not support piecemeal solutions to bigger problems.


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