Today in the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argues that the failure to intervene in the Syrian civil war represents President Obama’s worst mistake, “casting a shadow over his legacy.” The war has certainly been a monumental tragedy. Almost 500,000 have died and millions now struggle as refugees. The truth, however, is that Obama’s refusal to bow to political pressure stands as a significant accomplishment of his tenure, not a mistake.
Kristof joins a bipartisan choir in accusing Obama of wrongly believing there is nothing the United States can do to make things better in Syria. Among his suggestions: implementing a no-fly zone, creating safe zones for civilians, and grounding the Syrian government’s air force. The immediate goal of such efforts would be to prevent harm to civilians. The longer-term goal is to put pressure on the Assad government to come to the negotiating table and put an end the civil war.
Though Kristof’s heart is in the right place, all of these suggestions – as well as the other, more interventionist recommendations made by many over the past several years – gloss over the obstacles to successful intervention. Obama’s more cautious approach implicitly acknowledges the reality of the situation in Syria as it stands today.
Most fundamentally, the political interests of those engaged in the civil war far outweigh America’s humanitarian interests in Syria. Calling Syria ‘Obama’s mistake’ both misdirects moral responsibility for the conflict and obscures the fact that the combatants are far more motivated than the United States. Both the Assad regime and the rebels have suffered incredible losses; all sides are clearly in it for the long haul.
Against such motivation the United States can certainly bring overwhelming military force. But as we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq, military superiority does not always translate to peace and stability. More American intervention in Syria is thus unlikely to change the calculus of those fighting for the future of their country. In the end, Syrians’ stomachs for taking casualties to control their own future will prove stronger than America’s stomach for taking casualties to prevent Syrians from dying.
Kristof also imagines that military humanitarian intervention on such a scale can be precise and limited. It cannot. The effort to exert control over events in Syria would lead inexorably to ownership of the broader conflict. This would lead to a massive and open-ended American commitment to Syria. It would also lead those currently fighting each other in Syria to find it increasingly necessary and useful to fight the United States – witness the attacks already conducted by the Islamic State and its supporters in Europe and the United States in response to Western engagement in Syria and Iraq.