The Hubris of Attacking Syria

November 18, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared in National Interest (Online) on November 18, 2011.

The U.S. government once believed in peace. Today, hardly a day goes by without someone proposing that Washington bomb, invade or occupy another nation. Matthew Brodsky targets Syria.

Not that Brodsky is alone. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has yet to find a war he doesn’t want to start, also has been beating the war drums against Damascus.

War is not just another policy option, an alternative to increasing foreign aid or imposing sanctions. It means sacrificing the lives of one’s citizens, wasting untold resources, unleashing death and destruction on other peoples, wrecking foreign societies, and triggering an unpredictable cascade of unintended and sometimes catastrophic consequences. Wars almost always turn out more costly than expected for everyone.

In short, there are more than enough reasons to make war a last resort to safeguard vital interests, not a first resort to advance lesser objectives.

Why attack Syria? Damascus is a nasty actor in the region but poses no threat to America. Although Brodsky complains that Syria obstructs U.S. objectives “with impunity,” that provides no case for war. After all, Washington’s foreign‐​policy goals are infinite: there is virtually no nation which does not interfere with one or another American of foreign‐​policy design. The U.S. often objects when another country merely decides to act in its own interest.

In the case of Syria, the strongest argument for military action is a shameless bootstrap: The Bush administration invaded Iraq, Syria’s neighbor, sparking a devastating civil war and destabilizing the region. Washington now is upset that Damascus has responded in kind, failing to halt bad actors entering — and perhaps encouraging them to enter — Iraq. It is extraordinary hubris: Washington goes to war with Iraq, thereby threatening Syria. Leading American analysts suggest launching a preventive war against Damascus. When Syria seeks to protect itself by undermining the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Washington declares that to be another justification for going to war with Syria.

It was a bad enough argument when American forces were battling Iraqi insurgents. It is a bizarre argument to make when American forces are out of combat and slated to return home.

Another claim is that Washington should take out Syria because it is an ally of Iran. But if the United States isn’t willing to bomb Tehran, why should it bomb Tehran’s ally? Iran is another nasty actor, but that doesn’t warrant Washington starting a regional conflict. Washington can ill afford to attack every nation that interferes with the úber‐​hawk dream of maintaining American hegemony everywhere, forever.

Some in Washington have been reduced to arguing that the United States should bomb countries today because, if it does not, they may develop weapons to deter Washington from bombing them tomorrow. Of course, this is one of the most important reasons that pariah states desire nuclear weapons: doing so is the only sure way to forestall attack by Washington. The allied attack on Libya makes it unlikely that any dictator ever again will be credulous enough to yield up any WMDs.

The humanitarian argument for bombing Damascus is particularly weak. Some three thousand Syrians have died in months of protests against the Assad regime. That’s a tragedy, but a modest casualty toll in a world awash in violence.

Humanitarian intervention once was touted as necessary to stop genocide. Now it is proposed as a measure to stop the sort of limited conflicts which dot the globe. If three thousand deaths warrant war, then there no longer is any meaningful standard against making war everywhere, all the time. In countries like India, Nigeria and Pakistan, deadly conflict between varying religious and ethnic groups is common. Equally appropriate for intervention are Bahrain and Belarus, Burma and Congo, Cuba and Iran, North Korea and Russia, Sri Lanka and Sudan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

Indeed, Libya demonstrates how claims of humanitarian intervention are routinely misused. There was no evidence that Muammar Qaddafi, though a thug, planned civilian massacres in Benghazi. He had recaptured other cities and murdered no civilians; his rabid rhetoric regarding Benghazi was directed at armed rebels.

Moreover, the allies caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Libyans by prolonging a low‐​tech civil war in which the fighting was the greatest killer of civilians. The United States and NATO wanted to achieve regime change on the cheap, not humanitarian rescue. Nor is it clear that the conflict is really over as different armed factions vie for power.

Of course, Brodsky is right to wish for “an end to the violence, the fall of the Assad regime and the creation of conditions for a stable democratic system that protects the rights of the Christian, Kurdish and Alawite minorities.” However, what evidence is there that Washington can guarantee these results? In fact, Washington would have no control over the outcome of an attack on Syria.

Brodsky bizarrely points to the Obama administration’s past failures as reason to roll the die yet again: “Perhaps more compelling is that as autumn turns to winter, the result of U.S. engagement in the so‐​called ‘Arab Spring’ has so far empowered the Muslim Brotherhood in countries relatively friendly to Washington.” So if the United States doesn’t oust Assad, he worries, the administration will have no gains from the Arab Spring.

But why should anyone assume that coercing Damascus — presumably targeting the Assad government and security forces with military strikes of some sort — would turn out well? Just ask all those people for whom the Arab Spring has turned brown, such as the democracy protesters and Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Iraq is an even better example. The Bush administration believed that it was going to costlessly oust Saddam Hussein, impose a pro‐​American exile as president, create a Western‐​style democracy which uplifted women and recognized Israel, build bases for use against Iran and any other U.S. adversary, and remain in Iraq forever. These all proved to be fantasies. Alas, not fanciful was the civilian Iraqi death toll — perhaps 200,000 civilians dead, hundreds of thousands injured, and millions displaced from their homes.

Little better have been the results of America’s other “splendid little” wars. After defeating Serbia and occupying Kosovo, the United States and NATO stood by as their ethnic‐​Albanian allies ethnically cleansed a quarter million Serbs, Roma and other minorities. Bosnia remains an artificial state held together only by European pressure. Haiti and Somalia were not improved by American military intervention.

Maybe Syria would turn out better. But maybe not, which is why some religious and ethnic minorities there view Assad as the better of some very bad options. What gives Washington the right to gamble with other people’s lives?

Instead of dreaming up foolish new wars to fight, Washington policy makers should return to what an aide to President George W. Bush famously derided as the “reality‐​based community.” The anonymous staffer confidently told author Ron Suskind that “when we act, we create our own reality.”

Unfortunately, in Iraq and elsewhere that turned out to be the reality of death and failure.

Moreover, America no longer can afford to fight all the wars promoted by Washington’s ivory‐​tower warriors. Uncle Sam is broke. The national debt is $15 trillion. Social Security and Medicare account for around $107 trillion in unfunded liabilities. A host of other liabilities loom large.

Economist Laurence Kotlikoff figures that the American government’s total debts and unfunded liabilities total $211 trillion. Added to this is the cost of Washington’s outsize military budget — half of the world’s spending, double the real outlays of a decade ago, more in real terms than at any point during the Cold War, Korean War and Vietnam War. What drives Pentagon spending today is maintaining a force structure capable of patrolling the globe and remaking failed societies, tasks largely irrelevant to America’s defense.

The world is changing. Washington should recognize the limits of its authority and resources. And it should stop starting unnecessary wars — like in Syria.

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