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.

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

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Published in the June 14, 2013 issue: View Contents
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