Should the U.S. Intervene in Syria? The Debate Continues

The collapse of Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East, the result of  “leading from behind,” is apparent to all but the most obtuse of Obama’s former defenders. Charles Krauthammer aptly spelled it out last week: as he and many others have observed, we are witnessing a replay of the Spanish Civil War, in which Italy and Germany came to Franco’s rebelling generals with aid while the West stayed neutral. The Soviet Union, seeking to gain influence in the region, supplied the Spanish Republic with arms, but not enough to win, and only enough to defend themselves for a short amount of time. Krauthammer writes: “Obama has chosen to do just enough to give the appearance of having done something,” but only a small amount that will not be sufficient to win.


As a result of the inept and backwards policy, Obama has found that he has no place left to hide. He faces incredibly different choices to make, none of them good. They are spelled out today by Thomas Friedman, who sees three options, which he calls “the realist, the idealist, and the God-I-hope-we-are-lucky approaches.” As he aptly notes, none of them are without great risk, and all could leave the U.S. in an even deeper pit and in worse shape in the region.

Friedman thinks to succeed in Syria would take a full-scale Iraq-type invasion, led by the dreaded “boots on the ground,” which no commander in chief would in their right mind now advocate. So we citizens are left trying to guess which approach Obama believes is the right course, and what he really has in mind.

As a result, a new chorus of ardent interventionists has emerged. They have good arguments, and are repulsed about the failure of the Obama administration to use American power for good when it had an opportunity, and the resulting 80,000 or more deaths in Syria that are the result of U.S. inaction.

The two sides do not follow any usual left-right divide. They include a coalition of anti-interventionists on the radical Left and the libertarian and paleo-conservative Right; a coalition of ardent interventionists on the neoconservative Right and the moderate Left; and conservatives and leftists who unite around arguing that the United States should not at present intervene in Syria with aid to the rebels.


The influential Economist presented the most coherent analysis, concentrating on the need for the West to curb Iran’s power in the region, and to prevent its growing power, which would result from an Assad victory. The magazine’s editors favor both a no-fly zone and arming the Syrian rebels.

Joining them in urging intervention are two TNR editors, Leon Wieseltier and John B. Judis. Both are irate at their fellow liberals and leftists who eschew intervention. Wieseltier is upset, as he should be: “The foreign policy discourse of American liberalism no longer includes an emphasis on freedom or democracy.” He is a liberal hawk, a man who takes the same position regarding Syria that he took in the period before the Bush administration moved into Iraq and which he and his colleagues later regretted.  His colleague Judis, a man of the Left, breaks with his comrades at The Nation and Mother Jones who vigorously see U.S. imperialism involved in any intervention, and favors what he calls “benign intervention for humanitarian or for worthy geopolitical ends.” At least he is honest in acknowledging that he has no idea what can be done, and only says that as a “card-carrying member of the American left,” he thinks “we should try to do something to rid the world of the Assad regime.”

Last week, I presented my own reasons for why I think it is futile to go into Syria. I respect the arguments and analysis of those who favor intervention. I understand their motivations and their frustrations, all the result of our president’s failed policies. I comprehend Elliott Abrams’ analysis, and his argument that “the central fact about the region today is Iran’s use of raw power in Syria, with Russian support.” To counter Iran and Russia, Abrams believes that necessitates arming the rebels and more, and the announcement of a coherent and strong U.S. policy on Iran and Hezbollah. Abrams cites the work of Frederic C. Hof, who believes that we are militarily capable of stepping in without “boots on the ground,” and that we can “destroy and degrade” Assad’s capability without our own forces getting involved. Hof writes: “Syrians are being slaughtered and U.S. friends and allies are suffering the consequences. A family regime supported by terrorists threatens to plunge the region into war as it systematically wrecks the Syrian state.” But he thinks the U.S. can act even without a no-fly zone, which others see as a necessary first step.


For laymen like most readers and me, we can only consider the judgment of the experts, and then try to sort out their arguments and to reach our own conclusions. For now, I still believe intervention is shortsighted and likely to bring even worse results. I agree with my PJM colleague Victor Davis Hanson, who argues the following at National Review Online:

There is no guarantee that American air support or close training might not end up in some sort of American ground presence — the only sure guarantee that so-called moderates might prevail should Assad fall. Of course, any costly intervention would eventually be orphaned by many in the present chorus of interventionists in a manner that we also know well from Iraq. We are told that dealing a blow to Iran and Hezbollah would be a good thing, and no doubt it would be. But in the callous calculus of realpolitik, both seem already to be suffering without U.S. intervention.

And I take serious notice of the admonition of Michael Rubin, who recently returned from a trip through Iraq, where he often goes. Rubin writes that “many Iraqi Shi’ites warned against any support for the Syrian opposition, claiming they were more radical than the Americans realized,” and that they were joined in this analysis by Iraqi Kurds, Christians, and Sunnis. Rubin thus advocates only the use of U.S. air power, which he thinks is sufficient to stop Assad. He argues: “Arming the Syrian rebels is wrong and would gravely undercut U.S. national security.”


With such different perspectives and arguments from those who know the military situation, and what arming the rebels would or would not do, I think it only prudent that the U.S. stay out. As we have seen from other recent examples, the law of unintended consequences has shown that outcomes we expected are more than likely to occur. We must hope for the best, and be prepared for the worst, which it looks like will soon take place.


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