The United States has been at war for more than a decade. Thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, and others have been killed. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have been maimed or crippled. Trillions of dollars have been spent on these wars, and billions more on rebuilding Iraqi and Afghan society and trying to establish some form of democratic government. Beyond the destruction of Al Qaeda, the United States has little to show for the sacrifices made and money spent. The effort to bend our adversaries to our will first through military force has not worked.
Given the history of the past decade, it’s astonishing that calls for U.S. military intervention in the Middle East are mounting once again. The slaughter of civilians by the Assad regime in Syria is appalling, and the world’s outraged response entirely justified. Yet demands for military intervention are premature and imprudent. Similarly, demands now being made by the Israeli government, and by all too many in Congress, that the United States issue an ultimatum to Iran to halt its nuclear program or face a preemptive strike are rash and irresponsible.
No one disputes the brutality of the Syrian regime. Remarkably, there is unanimity among Arab governments that Assad must go. Action by the UN was cynically vetoed, however, by Russia and China. Russia has long provided military aid and equipment to Syria, and both Russia and China fear international efforts to protect citizens from the depredations of their own governments. A Security Council condemnation would have been useful, but military intervention was never an option. The Syrian army is one of the most powerful in the region and its elite units and officer corps, drawn predominantly from the same Alawite minority as the Assad family, are deeply loyal to the regime. In all likelihood, intervention would precipitate an even bloodier civil war, one that could easily spread to Syria’s neighbors, who are beset by similar ethnic and sectarian divisions. To neutralize Syria’s Sunni majority, the Assads have carefully cultivated the loyalty not only of their fellow Alawites, but also of Christians and the Sunni business elite. Fearing reprisal killings and future persecution, all these groups will resist a Sunni—and possibly Islamist—takeover. Further complicating the picture, the rebels are divided and poorly led. At the moment, the best hope for stemming the bloodshed and increasing the likelihood of regime change is to tighten the economic and diplomatic sanctions now in place. That will take time. Before Assad’s supporters will abandon him, they will have to be convinced that any transitional government will protect minority communities and interests, and that Alawites, Christians, and others will have a share of power in the new government.
Of course, there are no guarantees that diplomatic and economic sanctions will work against either Syria or Iran, but war must remain a last resort. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently in the United States to press for a preemptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Netanyahu has made no secret of his view that the economic and political sanctions the Obama administration and the international community have brought to bear on Iran will not induce it to give up developing a nuclear weapon. Israel is now threatening to bomb Iran, unless it gets a guarantee that the United States will do the bombing with its more potent weapons at a later date. Netanyahu is even insisting there can be no negotiations with Iran unless it ceases nuclear development altogether, something no one thinks the ayatollahs will do, and a position the United States rightly rejects.
President Barack Obama should press forward with sanctions and negotiations. If the Iranians agree to limit nuclear development to peaceful purposes and accept a stringent inspection regime that ensures no nuclear material is being diverted to weapons manufacture, Israel and the region will benefit enormously. A preemptive attack will only delay Iran in acquiring nuclear weapons while strengthening the regime’s resolve to do so. It will also unite what is now a deeply alienated population behind a domestically discredited Iranian leadership. One need not be naïve about the threat Iran poses to think that sanctions and careful diplomacy may yet bring the Islamic republic to the negotiating table. Over the past decade, exaggerated fears about the intentions and capacities of our enemies have been all too easily manipulated. Mastering fear, not surrendering to or exploiting it, should be the first response of a democratic government.