There are good reasons to go into Syria, but far better ones to stay out.
Let us review a few of them. Syria is a humanitarian crisis with over one million refugees and 70,000 dead. But there are similar outrages in Mali, Somalia, and the Sudan. Why no calls to go there as well? Would U.S. troops, planes, or massive shipments of weapons stop the killing, or simply ensure endless cycles of death following the Assad departure? Will Syria’s Christians and other minorities become worse off with or without Assad?
More importantly, we do not at this late stage know which terrorist is a pro-Western Google-type, and which is a hard-core jihadist. The history of the Middle East in particular (see Iran in 1980) and world history in general (cf. France, 1794 or Russia, 1917) suggests that the more extreme, better organized revolutionary zealots, even when in the minority, usually win out over the moderate and sensible reformers in the post-war sorting out and sizing up. There are not many Washingtons, Jeffersons, or Madisons in the annals of revolutionary history.
When Assad goes, the postbellum mess will either go straight to the sham election of a Mohammed Morsi type, who will try to suspend the very constitution that brought him to power, or we will witness round two of Libyan-type violence. The bitter remedy for either, of course, is an Afghanistan or Iraq occupation, in which Americans spend blood and treasure to teach locals not to be their tribal selves. But that third alternative is absolutely politically unsustainable.
Of course, there are also strategic reasons for toppling Assad. How wonderful to see Hezbollah lose their Iranian-arms conduit, or to remove Syria from the Iran-Hezbollah axis. But is that not happening now anyway?
Apparently Israel thinks so. As I understand, their new cynical but strategically adept policy runs something like the following: now and then when Assad shows signs of recovery, or more bloodlust, or renewed interest in bringing down the region with him, bomb his assets just a little bit to refigure the score. That confuses everyone in Syria: do rebels damn or thank Israel, or both? Do Sunni nations smile or scowl? Does Assad retaliate and deplete his arsenal that is so critical to killing his fellow Arabs? Will rebels join with Assad against Israel, or remember that it helped them a bit when on the downside? In short, so far America has not intervened, and Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah are all three worse off for it.
Well apart from Benghazi, Susan Rice and Samantha Power’s Libya is a blueprint for nothing. This time around we will not get UN approval after assuring Russia and China last time that our “humanitarian aid” and “no-fly zones” did not entail ground support, which of course it immediately did. Do we want again to ignore the U.S. Congress and seek permission instead from the UN and Arab League? Was the murder of Americans in Benghazi preferable to the so-called “new Gaddafi,” whom everyone from John McCain to the Europeans were suddenly fond of as a “reformer” intent on handing power over to his Westernized progeny?
And who not long ago said Bashar al-Assad was a “reformer”?
And who visited Syria in 2007 while Americans were dying in Iraq from jihadists harbored in Syria? And who blasted Bush for alienating Syria by ostracizing such an otherwise eager interlocutor (“The road to Damascus is the road to peace”)?
Consistency Should Matter
I have another confession about why, as a supporter of removing Saddam Hussein, I did not favor either the Libyan bombing or the proposed Syria intervention. In short, I have no confidence in those now calling for intervention to be there should things not go as planned. More have been killed in Afghanistan during Obama’s 52 months than during Bush’s nearly seven years. Announcing simultaneous surges and withdrawal dates is not wise. After all the blood and treasure spent in Iraq, not leaving a tiny monitoring force was shortsighted. An administration that not only lied about Benghazi but knew it was lying does not inspire confidence, especially in its amoral calculus in promoting a pre-election narrative of a weakened al-Qaeda after the killing of bin Laden and a reforming Libya after the removal of Gaddafi over the interest of truth and the safety of our own in Benghazi.
Consistency of any sort should matter also. I admire those like a Max Boot who wanted to go into Iraq and supported the cause to the bitter end. I even sort of admire a Pat Buchanan who thought Iraq a folly, and as a useful idiot on MSNBC damned those like me who supported the occupation. And I even admire Dennis Kucinich-types who thought intervention was wrong and staying on worse, and were ridiculed when the statue fell and the “Mission Accomplished” euphoria persisted. But I have no admiration for the zealots who called for the attack, basked in the spectacular removal of the Hussein regime, and then peeled off as the violence spiked and the soldiers were more or less on their own.
Like most of you, I did not write a letter in 1998 calling for the preemptive removal of Saddam Hussein. Most of us were indifferent to Bill Clinton’s regime change act. And I think most of us did not even know about those who wrote another letter to George W. Bush after 9/11 calling for preemption in Iraq again. But most of us agreed with 70% of the people that the Congress had logic and morality in their 2002 23-writ resolution calling to oust Hussein. Colin Powell made a sincere, but flawed, presentation. (It was not just the faulty intelligence, but the failure to mention all of the congressional resolutions for war.)
Once we did go in — along with the widespread support of the American people — I vowed to support the American effort to rebuild the country to the bitter end. And the end was certainly bitter. But by 2009 the American role in the war was all but over, a plan for a residual force to ensure the peace was in place, and what happened after that was now up to a new administration. I think leaving in toto was a bitter mistake, but leave we did and as a nation we live with the consequences.
Most Who Called for Removal of Saddam Eventually Turned on Bush
Here is my point. Most of those who called for preemption between 1998 and 2001 eventually turned on Mr. Bush, who had listened to them. Almost all the liberal and conservative pundits of the New York Times and Washington Post who wanted intervention eventually bailed with the suspect excuse of something like “my three-week brilliant take-down, your stupid five-year occupation.” Some claimed missing WMD gave them an out (as if we suddenly also learned that Saddam had not posted rewards for suicide bombers, murdered thousands, tried to kill a U.S. president, harbored terrorists, broke UN resolutions, gassed his own people, etc.).
Those who once sung Bush’s praises the loudest and urged him onward (give him the Nobel Prize, nuke Saddam, “I wrote the Axis of Evil line,” sweep the Middle East) were always the most clever of critics, as if the more Hillary screamed or Harry Reid declared the surge lost, the more we would forget their October 2002 calls to arms.
If in 2002 Iraq was to be a “cakewalk,” by 2004 it was “Bush’s war.” To name just a few across the political spectrum in random order, I’m sure that a Francis Fukuyama, Fareed Zakaria, Andrew Sullivan, George Will, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., Thomas Friedman, John Kerry, and thousands of others all had legitimate reasons in abandoning the cause of Iraq. Lord knows it was unwise to let thousands of scattered Ba’athist soldiers roam the streets of Iraq unemployed. How stupid was it to focus only on WMD when the Congress gave lots of reasons to remove Saddam? More tragic still was pulling out of Fallujah in April 2004 only to have to retake it in November. Why was a junior three-star mediocrity like Ricardo Sanchez put in charge of ground troops in Iraq? Why did Tommy Franks just quit almost at the moment the three-week war stopped and the reckoning started? “Bring ‘em on” and “Mission Accomplished” are speaking loudly while carrying small sticks. The list of screw-ups goes on and on. But the fact remains that victory in war goes not to those who make no mistakes, but to those who learn the most quickly from them in order to ensure the fewest in the future.
I also grant that one can change one’s mind. But here is the point, to paraphrase Matthew Ridgway of the mess he inherited in Korea: the only worse thing for a great power with global responsibilities than fighting a poorly conducted war is losing one. I know too the age-old nostrums — that was then, this is now, things change, only with self-reflection comes wisdom, change is sometimes necessary, etc., etc.
But I have also lost all trust in the Democratic Senate, the commentariat, and the media to call for any U.S. intervention in the Middle East, given that there is a chance that it will go badly, the zealots will bail, and the soldiers alone will be stuck on the battlefield in a Middle East miasma, with little support at home — a Michael Moore lauding the enemy as “Minutemen,” a MoveOn.Org labeling Petraeus “General Betray Us,” an Alfred Knopf published novel imagining the assassination of a U.S. president, a prominent conservative confessing how he was “duped” by the “neo-cons,” and on and on. Again, been there, done that, sick of it.
One day drones and Guantanamo are war crimes originating from Afghanistan and Iraq, the next day they are … what, exactly? One day in 2004 Barack Obama has no problem with current U.S. policy in Iraq (“There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage”); one day in 2007 he wants all U.S. combat troops out by March 2008? In short, there is no evidence that either those in this administration or our elites in general are up for another bloody slog in the Middle East.
I also have only little sympathy now for “Arab reformers,” especially those ensconced at U.S. and European universities. Yes, Iraq was a mess. Bush was a twangy Texan, we know. I am sorry that we do not have mellifluous Martin Luther Kings or Abraham Lincolns around to send in F-16s. The fact remains that Bush was also an idealist, naïve maybe, but not an imperialist or colonialist. He was someone who really believed in establishing the chance of freedom in the Middle East, in the manner that he sought to provide cheap AIDS medication for Africa or expand Medicare prescription drugs, whether all on borrowed money or not. Hate him if you must for being a naïf, but not a British imperialist or Nixonian strategist.
Yes, call him dumb, naïve, amateurish, but not conniving or Kissengerian — as his realist critics, in fact, lamented. So the U.S. removed a monster who had killed a million. It stayed on at great cost. It took no oil. It took no territory. It ended up without even a base. After 9/11 it sought to remove a terrorist-subsidizing tyrant, end the no-fly zones, create something better, and spread constitutional governments in the wake. The Chinese, French, and Russians ended up profiting from U.S. blood and treasure.
Please, Spare Us Now “You Owe Us Help”
If Arab reformers ever wanted a shot at democracy, Iraq was still their golden opportunity. Instead, almost all damned the effort and caricatured Americans. I once in 2006 sat in a clinic in Tripoli listening to Arab intellectuals (or rather Gaddafi minders) explain to me the Jewish roots of the Iraqi war, and how Americans were siphoning oil off in the desert and flying it in tankers home. Finally, I could not even follow all the conspiracy theories concocted to explain how wicked the Maliki government was.
Please, spare us now “you owe us your help.” Al Jazeera one day magically can show videos of an IED tearing apart American soldiers, and the next day it is just a “media outlet” that gives Al Gore millions of its petrodollars for his access to cable TV. I’m sure it will advocate for Assad to go, for reformers to take his replace, and demonize the U.S. and “the Jews” all through the process.
We have been there, done that, and we have learned some great lessons about the 21st century, pre-modern Middle East, and any interventions into it: a) Arab reformers damn the U.S. for doing nothing, but they will damn it far more for doing something; b) interventionists believe that all success is their offspring, and failure is outsourced to someone else, usually the military or those who sent the military in; c) the Middle East lesson of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya is that only a huge U.S. ground presence, in the fashion of postwar Italy, Germany, or Japan, coupled with abject defeat of the enemy, can lead to any chance of consensual government.
Without bloody fighting and without massive U.S. aid either the enemy wins and takes over, or what replaces the enemy reverts to the mindset of the enemy. We can stand-off bomb as we did in the Balkans to bring something better, but the Balkans are in Europe, and we still have troops in the Balkans, and lots of those who pushed Clinton into bombing later wanted him to stop when it seemed all we could do was hit embassies and rest homes rather than missile sites.
Does this mean that under no circumstances should we ever bomb Iran, or take out a mass murderer with WMD? Perhaps not. But it does suggest that after Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, neither is the Middle East ready for U.S. invention nor is this generation of American elite leadership up for the task.
There is irony in seeing the opportunistic war critic Barack Obama out-drone Bush or be attacked on his Left by liberals, who rail at his callousness in not intervening in Syria. But there is not enough irony for schadenfreude — given that American soldiers might be sent into a theater by those who would support them only to the degree that they were deemed successful and blame their setbacks on everyone but themselves.
A nearly bankrupt and divided America after Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya is not up for Syria — and an Arab Spring that on its own chose Winter does not deserve any more American blood.
Sorry, that’s just the way it is.