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Last week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin sneeringly compared America’s policy in the Middle East to, “a monkey with a hand grenade.” Such an image disconcerts for several reasons, not the least of which is that we in the United States don’t like to be talked to in that tone of voice (thank you, Hafez Assad’s Facebook post); but it also stings because it is an ugly take on an ugly truth, that right now the United States has no coherent strategy in the Middle East.
Or rather we have an ad hoc one. Regime change here; sanctions there. We acquiesce to, or actively support, tyrants, then attack them later on.
This is not to say that we must support a single ally or set of allies it in the region, nor that we should use the same means to support them each time. The adage “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail” has proven true on the world stage since time immemorial; yet if this metaphor can be extended, we in the United States must now realize that there are certain tools to be used for certain projects. And certain projects that we cannot repair.
Which is, in a nutshell, my view of the current conflict in Syria. It’s easy to fault President Obama for acting too sluggishly in identifying the problem, or in acting too brashly in establishing his “red line” in an off-the-cuff remark 13 months ago. But the crucial and I think only question is whether should we attack Assad or arm the rebels now? And my answer to each of those questions is, adamantly, no.
The fundamental reason that we should not attack Assad relates to a simple cost-benefit calculus: is it more likely to do harm than good, and in what proportion do these hypothetical harms and goods exist? Sadly, it seems that the harm side of the ledger significantly outweighs the good.
In yesterday’s Washington Post, Ezra Klein asks “What’s could go wrong in Syria?,” and his answer is far from reassuring. He outlines ten ways in which our intervention could falter, including:
For one, our strikes could come with heavy civilian casualties – an initial consideration which must give any morally serious person pause.
Second: our strikes could result in Assad killing more civilians, as, perhaps intuitively, civilian casualties in wars often escalate when the tide shifts against entrenched, ruthless and heavily-armed regimes. (This is not even to mention the fact that Assad may use chemical weapons in response to our attacks, a move which would not only kill more innocents but also flout the international norm against chemical attacks.)
Third, our attacks may be so feeble and restrained that Assad may outlast them, survive, and come away looking stronger and more resilient before the world. As Senator James Risch asked this week, “[What] if we go in with a limited strike and, the day after… Assad crawls out of his rat hole and says, ‘Look, I stood up to the strongest power on the face of this Earth and I won?’”
Fourth is the so-called “Pottery Barn Rule”; or, “If you break it, you buy it,” “You bombed it, you own it.” The shadow of this rule extends all the way from Iraq, where members of the “Coalition of the Willing” (most notably Britain) seem to have absorbed the fact that while Syria is not Iraq, it is still a place that, if we are to intervene, will anchor us to its fate for years if not decades to come.
Fifth, there is the question of reprisal. What if, by attacking the Syrian army or its sympathizers like Hezbollah, we incite violent repercussion against Americans? We’ve seen this happen before, and the question is not necessarily would it be our fault, but rather how would or should our military respond?
And lastly, assuming these missiles devastate the regime and Assad goes down like peaches and cream. What then? What if a Jihadist group gets ahold of his vast stores of volatile Sarin gas? What if Syria’s Assad-sized void is filled by chaos? What if it is filled by something worse?
The largest and most aggressive arm of the Syrian resistance is the Jabhat al-Nusra, or Al-Nusra Front, a Sunni Jihadist militia and Al Qaeda proxy that’s been designated as a terrorist organization by the UN and US. Among the opposition, they are at this stage the most likely successors to Assad; what if they take power?
In conclusion though, I want to call attention to two rays of light which have shone through the fog of this debate and should give us some qualified optimism for the trajectory of our domestic politics.
The first is President Obama’s reluctance to use military force without Congressional approval. While I do believe Obama reached for this justification cynically, as a means of shoring up his credibility if this strike does in fact go horribly wrong, I nevertheless believe he has laudably reversed the precedent of allowing the Commander-in-Chief to use force without first consulting the legislature. Our founders knew that the Executive would be the most outward-looking branch of our government, and that therefore the Congress must vigilantly check its ability to declare unnecessary or unpopular wars. According to a recent Reuters poll, 65% of Americans agreed with the statement that, “the problems of Syria are none of our business,” and that we should thus stay out of the conflict.
John Adams was fond of declaring that the United States must not be in the business of going abroad to “slay dragons” in the name of democracy, and I’m glad that we are again becoming cynical of Presidents who tell us otherwise.
But there is a second, more subtle silver lining to this development: the growing alliance between isolationist Tea Party libertarians and progressive anti-war Democrats. On the Syria question and on the subject of our ballooning surveillance state, these two seemingly opposed sides of our politics have been marching in lock step. My two favorite politicians in Washington right now are Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Rand Paul (R-KY), statesmen who probably wouldn’t agree on what day of the week it is.
Yet their inter-party overlap on these two issues is staggering. From the Right, there are those like Paul who have a real concern for limiting government at home, while at the same time upholding a new model for foreign policy – a repudiation of the neocon view that America should intervene in internal conflicts abroad. From the left, there are voices like Grayson’s that sound more anti-war and less liberal internationalist. These people also care about privacy issues, but not because they necessarily desire a limited government, but because they embrace the leftist argument for robust civil liberties.
Right now in the House, Grayson is gearing up an “ad hoc whip organization,” a left-right coalition of Representatives who will vote not to authorize the use of force in Syria. And it looks like its gaining momentum: RealClearPolitics notes that in the House, 33 say they will vote yes to authorize or are leaning yes, while 195 no or leaning no (this is barely shy of the needed 218-vote majority.)
I find my feet firmly planted on these grounds, and invite you to stand alongside.
I believe the Syria question is going to cast a shadow over the entire second term of the Obama administration. While he perhaps would have liked to have focused on immigration or gun control — especially before the 2014 mid-term elections — it seems this conflict has taken center stage, and I don’t think it’ll be exiting stage right anytime soon.
Sign Alan Grayson’s petition: www.dontattacksyria.com.
The full text of the petition reads:
The Administration is considering intervening in the Syrian civil war. We oppose this. There’s no vital national security involved. We are not the world’s policeman, nor its judge and jury. Our own needs in America are great, and they come first. The death of civilians is always regrettable, and civil war is regrettable, but no Americans have been attacked, and no American allies have been attacked. The British Parliament understandably has voted not to join in any attack. Notably, defense contractor Raytheon’s stock is up 20% in the last 60 days. It seems that nobody wants US intervention in Syria except the military-industrial complex. I oppose US military intervention in Syria. Join me.