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Winning Battles, Losing Wars

Or Too Poor to Fight?

But wait, we are $16 trillion in debt, with serial $1 trillion budget deficits. Indeed, we are $9 trillion more in debt than when we went into Afghanistan. Any intervention now requires us to borrow the money from someone else. The truth is that for years we have been like Rome around AD 300 or Britain circa 1950—lots of supposed responsibilities, not enough money budgeted to fulfill them. The idea of a nation gearing up to smash an enemy when it has borrowed over $16 trillion on mostly social entitlements and pay-outs makes war a bad, if not absurd, investment.

On to Syria—or not?

With all this in mind, consider Bashar al-Assad. There is a growing movement in the press and Congress to go into Syria—either by arming the rebels, training them, or providing them air cover. But while we know that we have the power to do so (or rather can borrow the money from the Chinese to do so), do we have a strategic aim? What should Syria look like after the war (a constitutional state that would not support Iran, fund Hezbollah, undermine Lebanon, start a war with Israel, or build another reactor)?

Are U.S. arms and influence without ground troops able to see those laudable aims realized, or would a post-Assad Syria end up like Libya or Egypt—and would that still be better or worse than the present-day Syria, for us, for Christians and other minorities, for Israel, etc.? It is not enough to state the obvious: Assad is a U.S. enemy and a monster who is killing his own; we have the ability to take him out; ergo, we should.

Yet the same calculus applies to dozens of renegade states. If some advisor, pundit, general, or senator wants to go into Syria, then he must explain why Syria is more important than, say, the Congo or Somalia or the Sudan (or that we are following strategic self-interest in the Middle East, not humanitarianism)—and why we can leave the nation a far better place than under Assad, and how that is possible, given the nature of the dissidents and the fact it is the Middle East.

Remember, there is also an ironclad law about the Middle East, one we keep forgetting: Arab intellectuals (many of them educated or residing in Western universities) hate the U.S. for backing dictators; they hate the U.S. for intervening to remove them; they hate the U.S. for trying to impose postbellum democracy upon them; and they hate the U.S. for staying clear and letting Arabs be Arabs on their own.

Take out Saddam—"you created him in the first place"; stay to rebuild the country—"a neo-imperial enterprise to impose your values on a traditional society"; stay away and let him kill his own, or allow his successors to kill each other—"a callous disregard for the suffering of innocent others."

Remember the critiques of Gulf War I and Gulf War II:

  • Gulf War I: a needlessly large coalition that curbed our options, a hyped-up war that did not warrant the huge forces we deployed, a shake-down of our allies to turn war into a money-making enterprise, a cynical disregard for the Shia and Kurds who yearned for democracy, a video-game war in which we slaughtered the inept without incurring much risk or danger;

  • Gulf War II: a too-small coalition that did not win international respect, too few forces deployed for the mission, a wasteful enterprise that did not demand monetary contributions from our allies, a naïve romance that Arabs could craft their own democracy, a dirty war in which we needlessly exposed our troops to mayhem and death.

Common denominator: whatever a Bush was for, critics were against.

We should posit one simple rule about intervening in the Middle East from now on. Please some honesty: we intervene for strategic advantage (no apologies for that), not humanitarianism. If those who advocate taking out Assad claim that it is to stop the bloodshed, then they must explain why there—and not where far more are slaughtered in Africa.

Again, state the proposed mission, debate the need and envisioned cost, articulate the strategic outcome, and then obtain it with overwhelming force—or otherwise forget it.

Also read: 

Who Is Barack Obama? The Question that Won’t Go Away