Syria: Why We Must Restrain the Impulse to “Do Something”


If after the debacles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya (dare I say Vietnam?) some people still want the U.S. government to intervene — further — in the war inside Syria (but fueled by outsiders), we must conclude, not that they can’t learn the lessons of recent history, but that they won’t because doing so would be contrary to their assorted political, ideological, and material interests.

It is quite clear that the U.S. military is powerless to make things better in Syria. That’s right. For all the trillions spent on the national-security state and global empire, the United States stands as a pitiful giant on the Middle East stage. Sure, it could increase the bloodshed on the ground and perhaps even cause the release of chemical agents. Indeed, it could even turn the dominant al-Qaeda-related rebels, some of them the same jihadists the U.S. government fought in Iraq, into a better-armed force. As the New York Times reports,

Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.

Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.

Professor Stephen Zunes adds, “Even the so-called ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army consists of literally hundreds of separate armed militias, some of which are quite radical, without a central command.”

Yet this has not deterred the calls for intervention. Many who supported the Iraq war, including those who have come to regret it, say Syria’s different. Of course, but the differences are not relevant to the question of intervention. The U.S. government would still end up killing innocent Syrians and setting in motion a process it would be unable to control. Only hubris permits politicians and pundits, who wouldn’t themselves be going to war, to think otherwise. It’s a fantasy to think American arms will find their way only to “moderate” and “responsible” components of the opposition to dictator Bashar al-Assad. We know where the arms will end up. Look at what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Zunes writes,

Eighty percent of U.S. arms to Afghan rebels in the 1980s ended up in the hands of Hezb-e-Islami, the most hardline of the half dozen or so mujahedeen groups fighting the Soviets and their puppet Afghan regime. After the Soviets withdrew and Afghanistan’s Communist government was overthrown, Hezb-e-Islami forces killed thousands of Afghan civilians and are now allied with the Taliban fighting American forces.

Iraq and Afghanistan should have cured anyone who thought a bunch of American bureaucrats could remake a society. But many were not cured. Observe New York Times columnist and former executive editor Bill Keller’s prescription:

For starters, President Obama articulates — as he has not done — how the disintegration of Syria represents a serious danger to America’s interests and ideals. The United States moves to assert control of the arming and training of rebels — funneling weapons through the rebel Supreme Military Council, cultivating insurgents who commit to negotiating an orderly transition to a nonsectarian [!] Syria. We make clear to President Assad that if he does not cease his campaign of terror and enter negotiations on a new order, he will pay a heavy price. When he refuses, we send missiles against his military installations until he, or more likely those around him, calculate that they should sue for peace.

All of this must be carefully choreographed [!] and accompanied by a symphony of diplomacy to keep our allies with us and our adversaries at bay. The aim would be to eventually have a transition government, stabilized for a while by an international peacekeeping force drawn mostly from neighboring states like Turkey.

Note that the Supreme Military Council that Keller wants to funnel weapons through in order to create a “nonsectarian Syria” is the same entity that his newspaper says is “stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.”

Such humility is also exuded by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, neocon guru William Kristol, and others.

What drives those who seek U.S. intervention? For many it’s a messianic sense of “American exceptionalism.” As former Secretary of State Madeleine (“It’s worth it”) Albright once said, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” President Obama agrees: America is “the one indispensable nation in world affairs.”

Here’s the irony: If America was exceptional, it was in the sense that the Declaration of Independence specified limits on government power that precluded foreign (and domestic) intervention. (I can’t say the same for the Constitution.) John Quincy Adams (then secretary of state) got at the crux of that American exceptionalism when he said in 1821 that America

goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

Adams warned that the search for monsters could change America for the worse. (“She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”) Several decades later, William Graham Sumner issued the same warning during the Spanish-American War in “The Conquest of the United States by Spain.”

Today’s exceptionalists have no interest in Adams’s concept of exceptionalism. For them, American exceptionalism is a cover that allows the United States government to operate by rules different from all other governments — except perhaps its closest ally in the Middle East,Israel. (For U.S. hypocrisy regarding Syria’s chemical weapons, see Zunes’s “The U.S. and Chemical Weapons: No Leg to Stand On.”)

Andrew Bacevich saw through this contemporary notion of exceptionalism when he referred to “the Church of the Indispensable Nation, a small but intensely devout Washington-based sect formed in the immediate wake of the Cold War. Members of this church shared an exalted appreciation for the efficacy of American power, especially hard power.”

None of this is to suggest that what’s going on in Syria isn’t a heart-breaking catastrophe. Innocent people are dying, and all decent people naturally want it to stop. (Which is not to say that this is the motive for intervention; the motive is to deal a blow to Iran, Syria’s ally.) But the impulse to “do something” must be always be restrained — especially when government bureaucrats will be doing it and double especially when the object of the action is a foreign society, the complexities of which are always beyond the ken of policymakers. And none is more complex than Syria, where Sunni Muslims including al-Qaeda oppose Assad’s authoritarian minority Alawite (part of Shia Islam) regime and Christians support it.

If the general principle of limiting government power isn’t enough to stop all U.S. intervention in Syria, the particulars of this case certainly should be.

Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) in Fairfax, Va. He can be reached through his blog, Free Association.

Sheldon Richman keeps the blog “Free Association” and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society.

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