Welcome Instapundit readers! There is some good and interesting food for thought on the topic and on Syria in particular in the comments. Kick the tires, look around, and I commend to you the "Someone you Should Know" section, the writings of Grim, and of course my own humble efforts.
No, I'm not talking physics, but something that can make basic physics seem easy. It is something we see every day in the corporate, academic, and military worlds and it can have profound effects on people and institutions. Let's take a hypothetical look at a situation.
You are in a telecon, with people scattered around the country. Leading the telecon is a manager that is known to be ambitious, somewhat unscrupulous, well-connected, and not terribly connected to reality in terms of consumer wants, needs, and buying habits. He has a plan to advance sales (and market share), and is somewhere between announcing it and trying to sell it to other managers and offices. To his mind, the plan is a slam-dunk that no one of any intelligence can not see as a slam-dunk.
Problem is, none of the other managers and offices were consulted. They were told a plan was in work, but none were truly brought in to the development process. Marketing research had been asked to provide specific data sets and analysis of those sets, but that was all. This fact, but not the reasons behind it, are known to those taking part in the discussion. There are some other considerations in play, but this is a hypothetical.
Mr. Manager launches into his pitch, and is asked a question by the manager for Northeastern sales, who is from and residing in Maine. Mr. Manager is a touch thin-skinned (to be polite), and so answers the question with a retort rather than an answer, using a phrase common in the Southwest where he is from. That phrase has the meaning there of "shut up the answer is coming" but has a much stronger meaning in Maine.
Out of the almost infinite range of possibilities, we really have three probable responses that are going to take place. First, in the ideal world, the Maine rep will sit back, be a professional, and objectively analyze what is to come before making any decisions or even speaking again. Second, the Maine rep is going to respond immediately, but both sides will call a truce and get information and facts out, though the process will not be fun for anyone. Third, Maine will respond and Mr. Manager will take it personally, and things will go downhill fast.
We see this all the time, and in many facets of life where we have to interact with others. Even the best of people can have an off day or moment. Even the best intentioned of people forget the concept of mores, the cultural "blinders" that almost everyone tends to wear such that we think that everyone thinks in the same way we do. Even when it is critical not to, we also let personal opinions of people cloud our judgement about the professional opinions and actions of others. Conversely, leadership can and does (on a regular basis even) take personal ownership of ideas/programs/etc. well beyond the point of healthy, so that any question is taken as a personal attack.
When we role-play, excuse me, conduct training exercises, it gives a chance to experience this first hand and to develop mechanisms to detect and limit the cascade effects of bad decisions and actions. These are both personal and institutional mechanisms, and are critical to ensure good outcomes. The fact that such exercises also allow us to get to know others involved, develop professional and personal opinions of them, get a feel for how they will act or do (so we can make allowances for same), and can allow us to detect and learn mores that WILL have an impact on what is said and done, well that's really what it is all about on higher-level exercises.
When it comes to politico-military issues, Hollywood and bad literature always tend to put the blame for bad cascades on Private Snuffy who is always ignorant, scared, bloodthirsty, etc. The fact that Pvt. Snuffy should not be in that position and would not be except for bad decisions on the part of politico-military leadership is never discussed or even to be considered. The fact that in alien scenarios the peaceful intentions of the saintly ET happen to look like 'I'm going to kill you slowly and painfully and barbecue you while still alive' to Private Snuffy is a discussion for another day (mores again). I have to agree a good bit with David Drake, who has noted that if you don't want Private Snuffy deciding your diplomacy for you, you should not have put them there.
I've noted before that while individual leaders may be great and noble people, governmental responses and actions tend to follow the toddler property laws model and responses are based on a similar level of maturity. Good leaders will recognize that the positive needs of the state (and its Citizens) must come first, and factor that into their thinking. Bad leaders will respond along the lines of "L'etat, c'est Moi!"
Over on Facebook, both at my page and in a discussion on the boss's page, I've made note of a book that the current situation has brought to mind, "Alas, Babylon." Note: I have not read the new introduction by David Brin and can simply hope it is more knowledgeable and honest than some of his discussions on firearms. The book itself deals with a very bad cascade effect caused when a Navy pilot fires a missile that misses it's target, hits something that explodes, and sets of lots and lots of explosions -- ultimately triggering WWIII. The location of this attack? Syria, and a certain warm-water port that has figured (and most likely still does) strongly in Soviet and now Russian thoughts and plans.
In "The Sum of All Fears (Jack Ryan) " Tom Clancy explores what happens when key players in events don't know each other and react both to worst-possible intents and on a purely personal basis (they attacked me/they tried to kill me). Of course, the day is saved by Jack Ryan who bravely blocks the cascade and ends it with that block, but keep in mind that is fiction. Honest question time: Can anyone tell me if the current POTUS, Valerie Jarrett, and other senior staffers have ever taken part in any serious emergency response exercise, or have they (like Clancy's characters) blown them off?
Now, consider the following.
In Iran, there is a dominant trend in current leadership to hold the religious view that a great (final) battle is needed to bring about the return of the 12th Imam. To that end, they have embarked on a variety of efforts including nuclear and quite likely chemical and biological warfare efforts. Iran has pledged that any attack on Syria will bring about an attack on Israel. While the standard response of (too) many in the U.S. is to dismiss those as posturing (easily bolstered by the ridiculous photoshops put out by Iran), sober analysts are not as dismissive, and an attack against Israel does not have to succeed in hitting Israel to be successful, it simply has to provoke a response. Keep in mind that Syria is a partner (potential client state), has received quite a lot of weapons and support from Iraq, and is a hell of a lot closer to Israel than Iran.
In Syria, you have a rather ruthless dictator who's back is against the wall in several respects. You have there all of whatever it was (cough, cough) in those trucks from Saddam's Iraq that even the media has acknowledged went over the border to Syria. Within the government faction, you have those who happen to share the 12th Imam scenario; those that happen just to hate Israel (and other Muslims who are not them); and, those who might just be feeling a bit of "take them all with me" right now. Add to that a group of rebels that are backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and AQ, and you get even more players in the game (cascade points) that one can pretty much count on to make personal (bad from our viewpoint) choices.
In Russia, you have a leader who's response to being protested and strongly contested in recent elections is rather draconian by our previous standards. This leader also has international problems resulting from some of the internal actions, problems that can affect revenues, trade, and more. Factor in a history of bad relations with the current administration (reset button anyone?), and the perception that previous and current leadership have lied to them on matters of import, and… Also consider that previous efforts at power projection (Georgia invasion and seizure of American military equipment as but one example, Poland and SDI another) have not met with any real opposition or consequences.
Lather, rinse, and repeat with China, France, Israel, and Egypt.
To make it really interesting, consider the following. Unless the Russian and other foreign intelligence organizations have gone completely out of business, the leaders in those countries know that there are discussions that military plans by the administration are considered by some (including political leaders) to be a "wag the dog" scenario; that there are strong divisions in the country around the Constitutionality of those proposed military actions by the administration; and, that many foreign leaders consider our leadership to be weak and inept when it comes to foreign policy. Then, add in consideration of how the administration might react to events/proclamations from abroad based on both past performance and their response to domestic considerations -- and that foreign leaders have been briefed on this and could see it as standard mode. Add in personal opinions of current leadership as expressed by foreign leaders involved. Let's not even get into the fact that the administration has been leaking details of attack plans like a sieve giving everyone and their pet time to prepare a response…
Now, add in the fact that no one in the administration has made a case for national interest, and have admitted that there is no plan beyond making a strike to 'send a message.' No goal has been articulated beyond that: immediate, intermediate, or end-state. Consider that Russia has begun moving fleet (and possibly other) military assets into the region, and indicated that it will regard any attack on Syria (ally/semi-client state) in the strongest possible terms. Consider that Iran has said it will launch against Israel if Syria is attacked. Consider what China has said about the situation. Look at what others in the region have said, much less among our allies in Europe and elsewhere.
All it will take for things to go bad, to extremely bad, is one "failure" at one cascade point. While the world is filled with cascade points and the potential for bad cascade effects, there are times, places, and valid reasons to proceed -- one of the best being that consideration of all the possibilities and probabilities can freeze one into inaction, which has its own negative consequences. That said, there being no clear and compelling reason of national interest (as opposed to internal political interest), and a host of obvious problematic (negative) cascade points, why proceed?
If you have not read the books noted above, I will recommend them to you if for no other reason than that they present good studies on decision trees, cascade points, and cascade effects. I will also remind you of a truism (that is true) in regards war and CBN war: we are all hostage to the least stable person involved.
Have a good weekend.
NOTE: Updated to fix some typos/possible-Freudian-slips.