Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Realist Grapples with His Doubts on Intervention in Syria

From the far-left, Israel-bashing Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt, at Foreign Policy, "Could We Have Stopped This Tragedy?":
Unlike neoconservatives, who never admit error no matter how often they are wrong, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about whether my diagnoses of key world events have been off the mark. (For examples of this sort of “self-criticism,” see here, here, and here.) I’ll stand by the vast majority of what I’ve written in my scholarly work and my FP commentary, but I find it useful — indeed, necessary — to occasionally ponder whether I got something wrong and, if so, to try to figure out why.

Case in point: the increasingly awful situation in Syria. Ever since the initial protests broke out, I’ve believed this conflict was not of vital strategic interest to the United States and that overt U.S. intervention was likely to cause more harm than good. What has emerged since then is a relentless and gut-wrenching tragedy, but I’ve uncomfortably concluded that my original judgment was correct. And yet I continue to wonder.

To be sure, the Obama administration has not handled Syria well at all.

President Barack Obama erred when he jumped the gun in 2011 and insisted “Assad must go,” locking the United States into a maximalist position and foreclosing potential diplomatic solutions that might have saved thousands of lives. Second, Obama’s 2012 off-the-cuff remark about chemical weapons and “red lines” was a self-inflicted wound that didn’t help the situation and gave opponents a sound bite to use against him. The president wisely backed away from that position, however, and (with Russian help) eventually devised an arrangement that got rid of Assad’s chemical arsenal. This was no small achievement in itself, but the whole episode did not exactly inspire confidence. The administration eventually agreed to start a training program for anti-Assad forces, but did so with neither enthusiasm nor competence.

And consider what has happened since then. More than 200,000 people are now dead — that’s approaching 100 times as many victims as 9/11 — and numerous towns, cities, and villages have been badly damaged, if not destroyed. There are reportedly some 11 million displaced people either internally or out of the country, about half Syria’s original population. A flood of refugees and migrants has landed in Europe, provoking a new challenge to the European Union’s delicate political cohesion and raising the specter of a sharp increase in right-wing xenophobia. The carnage in Syria has also helped fuel the emergence and consolidation of the so-called Islamic State, intensified the Sunni-Shiite split within Islam, and put additional strain on Syria’s other neighbors.

Given all that, is it possible that those who called for swift U.S. intervention several years ago were right all along? If the United States, NATO, the Arab League, or some combination of the above had established a no-fly zone and stood ready to intervene with ground forces, might the Assad regime have fallen quickly and spared Syria and the world this bleak and open-ended disaster? Or might these steps have given outside powers greater leverage over the situation, put some serious teeth into the early diplomatic efforts, and made some sort of brokered political solution more likely?


We cannot replay the past to see where a different course of action would have led, but one cannot rule out a priori the possibility that a prompt, forceful, and committed international response would have produced a better outcome in Syria than what we observe today. If everything had gone just right, we might be viewing a pacified Syria as a big success story, much as proponents of humanitarian intervention now view NATO’s role in the Balkans in the 1990s...
Hmm... Not so easy for Walt to admit that he's wrong.

America's "vital national interests" have certainly been compromised by the administration's Syria disaster. At this point Walt and other leftists can only define "vital national interests" in existential terms, as the very survival of the United States. But that's not a very useful definition, and U.S. foreign policy has long taken a much larger stand on securing vital interests, which has included preventing hostile foreign powers from securing dominant spheres of interest in a region or country, like Russia in Syria.

But keep reading. Walt's not so open to correcting his errors after all.