Reckless Ardor

Yesterday Iraq, Today Syria

The great American journalist Murray Kempton once wrote that the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini demonstrated the iron rule that, in international relations, the drunk driver had the right of way. Anyone searching for a contemporary vindication of the same rule need look no further than the enthusiasm for an American military intervention in Syria now being exhibited by the same incongruous alliance that brought us the war in Iraq and the transformation of what began (to use the more accurate nineteenth-century imperial term for it) as a punitive expedition in Afghanistan after 9/11 into a vast exercise in nation building. This alliance includes liberal interventionists such as Samantha Power, one of the key advocates within the Obama administration for U.S. involvement in the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya and currently head of the president’s hubristically named Atrocities Prevention Board, and neo- and national-greatness conservatives ranging from Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to pundits such as William Kristol and Max Boot.

At the very least, the calls for so-called humanitarian war in Syria are a textbook case of the triumph of hope over experience. The traditional understanding of war is incarnated in Clausewitz’s famous axiom that it is the continuation of politics by other means. By that measure—the use of armed force to create a desired political outcome—even by the most lenient standard neither Iraq nor Afghanistan can be accounted successes. Yes, Saddam Hussein was overthrown, and Osama Bin Laden and the rest of Al Qaeda “Central” were either killed or dispersed, but in Iraq, the Baath was replaced only by a Shiite autocracy ruling over a portioned country since Kurdistan is now, in reality if not in law, an independent state. If any outside power has benefited politically it is Iran, which is generally regarded by Washington policymakers as America’s archenemy. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan preparations for U.S. withdrawal are well underway. The best possible outcome from a U.S. point of view will be for the Taliban to control most of the countryside but not take over the cities as well. That would be a situation not all that dissimilar to the one that obtained at the height of the Russian involvement in Afghanistan, when the Soviet-backed regime held the major urban centers but the Mujahideen were in charge almost everywhere else—hardly an end state that would seem to justify coalition casualties over the past decade of 3,221 dead and around 20,000 wounded.

If the conditions on the ground in Syria today, after two years of unbridled civil war, were more akin to those in Libya at the time French president Nicolas Sarkozy persuaded his NATO partners to act, or to those in Mali at the time of the recent French military intervention than they are to the conditions in Iraq or Afghanistan, then the ardor of the liberal hawks and the neoconservatives for intervention there would not seem so reckless. After all, the interventions in Libya and Mali both seemed to recapitulate the so-called humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, where the core of the debate was never whether a U.S. or NATO intervention would be successful—this, probably rightly, was taken for granted—but only whether there was really a will in Washington, Brussels, London, or Paris to intervene in a Bosnia, Rwanda, or Kosovo. But even most of those who think the United States must act in Syria concede that not only is an effective military intervention there likely to prove far more difficult than in Iraq, let alone in Mali or Kosovo; it is also by no means sure that any political result that is now imaginable will be much of an improvement over a continuation of the Assad dictatorship.

In fairness, some of the harshest critics of the Obama administration’s reluctance to act argue that if it is indeed too late now, this is only because Washington did not act in 2011 before the civil war began, when Syrians were in the streets en masse peacefully demanding that, in the spirit of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, the Assad clan relinquish power. But it isn’t clear what exactly these critics would have had the Obama administration do, short of going to war the moment it became clear that Assad was not going to cede power à la Mubarak or Ben Ali and his police and soldiers began killing protesters. For unlike Egypt, a client state of the United States, or Tunisia, a client state of France, Syria was beholden to Russia and Iran and as such not susceptible to American or French pressure. And unlike in Libya, Russia had blocked any UN Security Council resolution that might have permitted foreign intervention after the civil war had escalated. It is pure fantasy to imagine that Moscow would have allowed one before the killing and dying had begun.

In any case, all this is now moot. There is simply not going to be a Security Council authorization of the use of force against the Assad regime. Indeed, as evidence mounts that the rebels are themselves committing a great many atrocities and, at least according to some investigators, are themselves also using military ordinance proscribed under international humanitarian law, even support for (nonbinding) anti-Assad resolutions in the UN General Assembly has begun to wane sharply. None of this, however, seems to have dampened the ardor of interventionists in the United States for decisive American military action, or lessened their outrage at what they see as the Obama administration’s failure of nerve. As my friend Leon Wieseltier put it angrily in one of his recent pieces in the New Republic, the Obama administration was presiding “over a terrible mutilation of American discourse: the severance of conscience from action.” And he demanded: “Hasn’t anyone at the White House read Samantha Power’s book?”

Wieseltier believes passionately in a moral imperative for what he has elsewhere called “the politics of democratization and rescue” in U.S. foreign policy. Though he differs from the neoconservatives in essential ways, in this he is not far from the analyst and military historian Max Boot, who has written of the need for “American might to promote American ideals.” Of course, Wieseltier is the first to acknowledge that such interventions have been fitful rather than consistent, but he believes that those we have undertaken should be a source of pride, just as the Obama administration’s refusal to take action in Syria should be a source of shame. For those, like myself, who have a far less benign view of America’s intentions when it intervenes, as wells as a far less sanguine view of America’s capacities to intervene intelligently and helpfully rather than counter-productively or even destructively (see Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.), such endeavors are more likely to be a poisoned chalice for both the intervener and the intervened-upon than a blow struck for the party of humanity. At the very least, the historical record is chastening. U.S. support for the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviets empowered the Salafists—including the Hekmatyars and bin Ladens of the world—not the democrats; the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein led to a government in Baghdad that is far closer to Teheran than to Washington; and U.S. support for the Syrian opposition, however well intended, is at this point far more likely to help ensure that Sunni extremists, including groups linked to Al Qaeda, hold many of the levers of power in a post-Assad Syria than to replace the current dictatorship with something at least somewhat more decent.

THERE ARE OTHER justifications besides moral ones for a U.S. intervention to bring down Assad and the Alawites. Some believe that it would represent a severe blow to the Iranian regime as well as a defeat for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and that this is reason enough to make regime change in Syria a strategic priority for the United States. I do not find this view convincing. A far likelier outcome of Assad’s fall will be the final collapse of the Taif settlement of 1990 that brought an end to fifteen years of civil war in Lebanon, and the revival of hostilities on a mass scale between Hezbollah and Sunni militias—a conflict that is already being played out with increasing ferocity on the Syrian side of the border but will be far more likely to spiral out of control in Lebanon. The possibility that this will be the knock-on effect of Assad’s fall is just that—a possibility. If, however, Assad’s fall comes as the result of U.S. intervention—whether this means the U.S. directly aiding the rebellion or actually doing the lion’s share of the fighting—then the “Lebanonization” of a post-Assad Syria seems to me a foregone conclusion. Far from being the best hope of bringing the killing to a halt, an American intervention will almost surely make things worse, whatever its intentions, or those of the people calling for it. The only hope is in fact a negotiated settlement, brokered by the Americans and the Russians, in which neither Assad and his generals nor the rebels would get all they want or feel they deserve.

It is true that such an outcome is unlikely. For such a negotiation to take place, the Americans, as well as the Saudis and Qataris, who have been arming and financing the rebels, would have to force their clients to come to the table. And the Russians would have to do the same with the Assad regime, with Iran either joining in or at least not standing in the way. But at the moment, both the government and the rebels believe they can win, as a leaked report by the UN’s negotiator, the distinguished Algerian diplomat Lakdar Brahimi, makes clear. And this is the worst possible context in which to persuade belligerents that it is time for peace talks. As a result, the likeliest outcome is that the fighting will go on until either one side prevails on the battlefield or there is a military stalemate that lasts long enough to force both sides to accept that a negotiated peace is the best they can hope for. How all this plays out will depend to a considerable degree on how much money and materiel the outside powers supporting each side decide to provide. Though it is disingenuous of interventionists in the United States to pretend that Washington is not already providing a great deal of support to the rebels, either directly or by facilitating transfers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, it is obviously also true that direct U.S. military intervention would fundamentally transform the battle space. But whether this transformation would lead to less killing, let alone to a more humane politics, is nowhere near as self-evident as interventionists have usually claimed.

And this leads directly to the question interventionists have rarely if ever been willing to address, which is whether at this point in the Syrian Civil War it is still possible to say with confidence that taking the part of the rebels means siding with the lesser of two evils. While I presume that humanitarian interventionists would indeed reply yes to this question, I do not see how such a reply is either factually or morally sustainable.

About the Author

David Rieff is a New York–based writer. He is currently completing a book on the global food crisis.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Just where does Samantha Power stand on intervention in Syria? Surely a) she is not going to see a parallel between what we should have done in Rwanda. a country with no powerful friends, and b) what we should be doing in Syria, a country with a formidable military and the support of Hezbollah, Putin, etc. (to say nothing of the passive acquiesence of Xi Jinping). And when she reaches the UN, presumably she's going largely to be bound by the policies of the Obama administration -- unless she disagrees strongly enough to resign (as Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden did after Munich, and as Cyrus Vance did after the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt.

David Bromwich has a strong article against intervention in the current issue of the NYRB; but then he's an English professor at Yale, and I doubt whether that gives him much clout in foreign policy circles.

To NOT see a parallel; with Rwanda or any other genocide /holocaust  is to be blind.How often when such holocausts occur under our very eyes are we going to keep coming up with reasons to not stop the THE SLAUGHTER OF CIVILIANS. Over 70 thousand killed now in syria including children! later for labels-we have a moral obligation to intervene.Hiding behind the narrative that this is a civil war when you have a 40 year brutal  dictatorship going after people who have risen up against it- is what is relevant.No one can predict the future but to do nothing at this stage of events is to acqueisce in a holocaust.

Maybe drone attacks against the putative leadership on both sides of this conflict. I cannot fathom establishing sole blame upon the current government when so much of the conflict appears to be civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. Instead, deny both sides access to weapons and ammunition; force a world-wide embargo on arms for either side. Let them fight until only stones and a stone age are left if that is really what they want. Instead, I suspect the entire war is about diversion of aid, profits, oil, ownership, goods and land control to be redivided among new conquerors, the spoils of death and wanton destruction. As we would do with any communicable disease, put Syria and their ilk under quarantine and isolation. Otherwise, we risk the explosion of the conflict into every Muslim state including the Arab states, all of the mid-east and even Malaysia and India. We definitely do not need to aid and abet WW III.

If Americans equate citizens fighting to topple a brutal dictatorship with wanting to return to the stone age then it is we who have no moral compass.Our much tauted role as defenders of human rights and of the belief that all people have the right to be free of dictatorship is now exposed as bogus as more and more Americans  either support the Assad  regime[he's good for Christians after all] or make a moral equilvelence between   the dictatoship and  the people who rose up againt it.This "a pox on both their houses, drop some bombs on both sides and let God sort it out " ethos so pervasive of our values today gives credence to Alquada's contention that we are at war with Muslim/Arabs.And Alquada's opposition to  dictators gives credence to their claim they are freedom fighters defending the Arab people from such brutal regimes and those who back them.[USA,Russia or Iran].Alquada are not  inherently fundamentalists but they are oppossed to dictators.Had we not lost our moral compass we would see them as  allies in Syria.But the uprisings in the Mid East as well as the debacle of our intervention in Iraq [the people there had not risen up yet and never  asked to be "liberated"] and now in Afghanistan where even the Taliban may be players in the political process, shows that   we can't control the people of the Mid East any more.Events on the ground there happen in spite of us not because of us.[Though our hands are dirty as we installed a Shia/Kurd governemt in  Iraq to exact revenge on Sunnis.Our hatred of Sunnis- really all Arab/Muslims but exploiting Sunni/Shia divisons is a tactic that ensures more dead Arab/Muslims which is what Americans want -as Snowden recognized when he was  in Iraq- made us spite ourselves by making allies of Iran and the new Shia  Iraqi government..And it is our hatred of Sunnis that has allowed this holocaust to continue and to be supported by the American people. Mc Cain  has a conscience and  is genuinely innocent of such anti Sunni Arab/Muslim hatred and hence he clearly sees a moral imperative to stop a holocaust by a brutal dictatorship. He's riduculed for not jumping on the" a holocaust of Arab/Muslims is a good thing"  bandwagon and even recognizes that if Alquada supports toppling a dictatorship then it is our narrative about Alquada that needs changing-not that we should support a brutal regime that commits a holocaust against  it's own people!                                                                                                                                                      I still believe, or more accurately I pray, that the Assad regime will be toppled as part of the Arab spring uprisings against dictatorships and the Syrian people will still be there-just like all those other Arabs-in spite of   many Americans' oft expressed fantasies of a back to the stone age genocide.  

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment