Only a terrifically secure country could have as poor and astrategic a debate about war as the one we’re having about taking sides in Syria’s civil war.
Actually, we’re not having a debate about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. That’s the problem. We’re debating Syria as though it’s an engineering question—an electrical outage, or a bit of erosion in the backyard. Doing so removes the most vexing aspects of the issue, leading us to the delusion that military action can easily make things better.
Too much of the discussion has focused on moral arguments and too little of it on the very real political problems beneath the war. Take the advocacy of Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. As Hamid wrote of his thinking on Syria in January 2012, he was pro-intervention “emotionally, and from a purely moral perspective,” but had some nagging non-emotional, non-moral concerns: “I cannot say whether military intervention would work.” By June, though, the emotional and the moral took over, with Hamid declaring that it was “not the job of civilian think tanks” to figure out how military intervention would produce the desired outcome.
Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, who until recently occupied George Kennan’s old office at the State Department, has similarly assumed away Syrian politics, making the case for intervention much easier. As she tweeted Sunday, “Suppose US goal in #Syria were simply to STOP THE KILLING. Forget who might/might not win down the line. What's fastest/best way to do that?”
But forgetting who might win down the line waves off the central problem: the killing is happening for a political reason. Bashar al-Assad and his enemies are not engaged in wanton, nihilistic slaughter; they are struggling over political control of Syria. Any analysis that removes that basic fact from the discussion of how to “STOP THE KILLING” turns a complex political question into a technical, scientific project, creating the delusion that it can be readily fixed by the U.S. government.
In fairness to Hamid and Slaughter, they are carrying the torch of a time-honored American tradition of foreign policy thinking. Historically, debates over foreign intervention in the United States have featured liberal analysts against realists and the military. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower reportedly had to admonish his activist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to calm down: “Don’t do something, Foster, just stand there!”
In the 1990s, apolitical liberal thinking on war reached its pinnacle. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell expressed hesitation about the Clinton administration’s intervention ideas, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lashed out: “What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?” And President Clinton’s lack of understanding of war caused him to ruminate, accurately, to General Hugh Shelton that it would “scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”
In the 1990s, realists like Richard Betts were warning Americans not to fall victim to the “delusion of impartial intervention.” Admonishing policymakers for their newfound enthusiasm for limited, ostensibly apolitical intervention, Betts reminded readers of a ground truth: “A war will not end until both sides agree who will control whatever is in dispute.” This is as true in Syria as it is anywhere. Alternatively, if analysts want to use the U.S. military to regime-change Assad, they have every obligation to explain how they intend to shepherd the country toward whatever political order they seek.
More honest hawkishness can be found at the Institute for the Study of War, whose recent paper advocating aiding the Syrian opposition admitted that politics matter:
The goal behind U.S. support to the opposition should be to build a force on the ground that is committed to building a nonsectarian, stable Syria, with a government more likely to respect American interests.
That outcome is presumably what all analysts urging intervention desire. The trick is to acknowledge the problems of connecting military means to our political desiderata. Anyone who doesn’t deal with the underlying political problems at stake is threatening to push the country into another ill-considered, potentially costly war.