As I type these words, the United States is not at war with Syria. Yet. (Firing cruise missiles at another sovereign nation, no matter how just the cause, is an act of war.) But many of the same people, plus some additions, that were, in the words of Greg Mitchell of the Nation, “So Wrong for So Long,” when it came to Iraq are now urging an obviously reluctant President Obama to “do something,” especially after reports of possible chemical weapon use by the Assad regime.
This leaves me in an increasingly familiar and uncomfortable position: total ambivalence. I understand why the use of chemical weapons changes the moral and strategic equation. There are some lines regimes should not be allowed to cross with impunity. To put it bluntly, it may be their civil war but it is our shared humanity. Not only are there limits to what governments can and should be allowed to do to their citizens -- two obvious examples being the use of weapons of mass destruction and genocide, which, as U.N. Ambassador Samantha Powers has documented, usually go hand-in-hand -- but we really don’t want to live in a world where the use of such weapons are viewed as no big deal.
Thus, my ambivalence doesn’t stem from a lack of repugnance or outrage -- it stems from the fact that I’ve seen this movie before and I know that it’s not going to end well. In his new book, “Lawrence in Arabia: Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” Scott Anderson tells the story of how the West tried to impose its ideas about what the Middle East should be, despite not understanding the region at all, or even caring to understand the region.
The same is true today. We invaded Iraq without understanding the difference between a Shia, a Sunni, and a Kurd, much less that Kurds could be either Shia or Sunni, and, oh yeah, Iraq was home to one of the oldest Christian communities on Earth.
Syria is, if anything, even more complicated than Iraq: Alawites, Sunni, various kinds of Arab Christians, Armenian Christians, and Kurds. The Syrian civil war, like the Congo civil war documented by Gerard Prunier, is a regional proxy war, in which the various sides are supported by Syria’s “neighbors.” (If you are wondering what’s with all the book links, I am making an immodest point: I’m pretty well read and if I’m ambivalent, you should be, too.)
Thus, before we fire the first cruise missile, we need to ask ourselves “what is the goal?” It can’t be regime change if for no other reason than, even if you can justify it morally, the United States really, really, really stinks at regime change.
Nor can it be to “alter the equation” on the battlefield. I’m sorry but, at most, our role is analogous to that of a referee. Our “job” is to make sure that both sides play by some semblance of rules, if not for their sake, then for ours. The outcome of the contest is not our concern. Not because we see the sides as moral equivalents but because in civil wars you need to ask, “What comes next?”
And in Syria, there is every reason to believe that the answer is, to paraphrase Madame de Pompadour, “après Bashar al-Assad, le deluge.” That’s almost certainly the case for Syria’s Christian minority, who, it should be noted, are descended from the first people to be called “Christians.” The Alawites can’t be too sanguine about their prospects in a post-Assad Syria, either. And they control the military and all those weapons we are worried about.
So if regime change and “altering the equation” are out -- and I pray they are -- that leaves us looking for a response that will “send a message” without entangling us in a conflict that the American people want no part of, and where we can’t even begin to imagine what “success,” as in “a reasonable chance of success,” looks like.
Yeah, I’m talking about “Just War.” I hate to bring up Iraq again (not really), but one lesson we should have learned from that debacle is that finding a “just cause” is the easy part. Nation-states can always identify some “vital interest,” which, it should be noted, is not the same thing as a “just cause,” not that anyone notices the difference. The toughest part is figuring out how to protect that interest without making matters worse.
And making matters worse is an almost inevitable result of modern warfare, especially in a region as, pardon the cliché, “volatile” as the Middle East. Unexpected consequences should be expected, which makes defining success even more difficult than usual. Al-Assad can be driven from power and replaced with a well-intentioned Sunni leader who, in turn can be replaced by (a) a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, (b) a Salafist, or (c) another authoritarian strongman. The first two would be a catastrophe for Syria’s Christians and Alawites and bad enough for non-Islamist Sunnis, and the last one would mean that hundreds of thousands of Syrians died to replace one dictator with another. Meet the new boss, basically the same as the old boss.
But, unfortunately, it looks like we may be fooled again.
Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic, if he were aware of my existence (which he shouldn’t be), would no doubt accuse me of lacking moral seriousness. If I understand him correctly -- having read literally hundreds of pieces by him, I think I do -- ambivalence in the face of an undeniable evil, which the Assad regime certainly is, is a failure to own or embrace the consequences of your moral convictions.
Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s the result of countless examples of good intentions born of sincerely-held moral convictions not being enough. No, make that “often making matters worse.”
Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe Syria is more like Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999, where airpower forced the Serbs to back off. Then again, in 1995 and 1999 the Serbs had somewhere to go: Serbia. (Actually, they got to keep part of Bosnia, at least unofficially.) The Alawites have nowhere to go, which makes them people with everything to lose. Literally.
I think the president knows this and is probably regretting the whole “red line” business. I hope so, because going to war for something as insubstantial as “credibility” would be absurd. Folks, we left Iraq as soon as we could and we’re preparing to do the same in Afghanistan. Our “credibility” has already taken some hits. We’ll live. Really.
Assad may have left us little choice but to express our outrage at his use of chemical weapons, if not for the Syrian people’s sake, then for ours. But this won’t end well.
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