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Aug 31 / Great Apes

Syria: Foresight and Hindsight

Originally I figured that there wasn’t much of a point in writing about the potential for a military intervention in Syria because there were lots of other people covering the topic.  Foreign Policy, for example, has done a very good job writing about Syria lately.  But it strikes me that while there are lots of people discussing the possible outcomes of an intervention in Syria from a tactical standpoint, there isn’t much being done to tie it into broader historical themes.  International relations history is what I got my masters degree in after all, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that that’s the angle I want to attack this from.

A lot of the discussion around whether or not to get involved in Syria breaks down along familiar lines.  Those on the right view the U.S. and its allies as uniquely good and just forces that are morally obligated to become involved in virtually every world conflict so that the side of Good might prevail (well, maybe not so much when the conflict mostly involves black people killing black people).

Then there are those on the left who are usually opposed to military intervention and often view the U.S. as a frequently damaging force in world affairs (you probably already know that I’m in that camp).

Then there are people who like to call themselves centrists.  People who call themselves centrists tend to subscribe to ideas that sound good but are demonstrably nonsense, like “The truth always lies somewhere in the middle.”  Centrists will usually claim not to subscribe to the more extreme elements of right wing thought although they more often than not end up agreeing with the right’s prescription.

Here’s a thought: how many times does the left need to be right about major world events before we dispense with the lie that “The truth always lies somewhere in the middle”?  Let’s look at the war in Iraq: the right was wrong about it.  Disastrously, horrifically, incontrovertibly wrong.  The left was right in virtually every meaningful way.  As those of us on the left predicted: Saddam didn’t have or use weapons of mass destruction; the war was not brief; the U.S. and its allies were not greeted as liberators; massive numbers of civilians were killed; civil war broke out, which resulted in ethnic cleansing; al Qaeda was not present in Iraq or working with Saddam; the war increased both terrorist recruitment and attacks.  That’s a pretty stunning record!

It should go without saying, but the left was also right about the war in Afghanistan in addition to the ongoing proxy/drone/special forces wars in Somalia and Yemen.  One would think that given this pretty sterling record, people not associated with the left would come to the conclusion that maybe we aren’t all crazy hippies who just don’t understand the world and that instead we have typically been prescient and insightful when it comes to foreign affairs.

And so we arrive at Syria and the same dynamic is visible yet again.  The right wants to bomb Syria and the left is opposed.  Those in the mythical centre are doing their best to argue something that sounds like it’s somewhere in the middle of the two.  Yes, they’ll say, neocons screwed up their wars in the Middle East; we certainly don’t want another Iraq.  But! they’ll say, this isn’t another Iraq!  We can’t, as the left suggests, do nothing!  Their ultimate conclusion is the same as it often is: the argument from the right is too strident but conservatives are basically right and we need to do what they’re suggesting anyway.  This is emblematic of a common problem with what are often called “centrists” – their primary concern is with sounding reasonable rather than being correct.  A reading of recent history would certainly suggest that the left has a very strong record of being correct.

While I have described myself as being part of the left, broadly speaking, when it comes to issues of international security my views have a lot in common with realism.  In particular, I believe that states (or the people running them) are usually rational actors who make decisions in what they perceive to be their own self-interest.  Using this model it was easy to see why Saddam Hussein would not, around the turn of the century, have deployed weapons of mass destruction – because it would lead to the U.S. invading and killing him (though it ended up not mattering on account of Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. being raging war mongerers).

Similarly, Bashar al-Assad is very likely a rational actor acting in his own self-interest.  That means there are two possibilities here: the first is that he didn’t order chemical weapons to be used because he perceived that as being opposed to his self interest (in which case they may have been deployed by someone else without his awareness or consent) and the second is that he did order chemical weapons to be deployed because he perceives that as being in his self interest.

In neither of these cases does the proposed U.S. action of a small number of isolated missile strikes make any sense.  If he didn’t want the weapons used it’s nonsensical to attempt to deter him.  If he did order them used then he’s made a calculation that doing so was worth whatever risk it entailed.  In that situation the U.S.’s stated goal of not orchestrating his ouster and not preventing him from being able to continue committing atrocities will surely embolden him, as he will see that his calculation was correct.  If the goal is to “send a message” then he will receive the message loud and clear: he can continue as before.

That means that the only way to actually send a message is to make the risk of committing atrocities not worth it.  Which means that the U.S. would have to be committed to Assad’s removal from office, which would likely mean getting involved in actually fighting in Syria.  It’s implausible that Assad would simply surrender to the rebels, so either the U.S. is committed to removing him from office or it is committed to the continuation of the civil war.  There are no other options.

To close this out, let’s return to taking a bit of a historical view.  The history of American meddling in Middle Eastern conflicts has clearly been the history of the U.S. destabilising the region.  The U.S. helped Saddam Hussein build weapons of mass destruction.  The U.S. provided the Mubarak regime in Egypt with arms for years.  The U.S. provided military support to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.  The U.S. provided arms and support to various warlords in Somalia, helping to start the most recent Somali civil war.  The U.S. provided arms to support the Ethiopian army in its invasion and occupation of Somalia as part of that civil war.  And so on.

U.S. wars and proxy wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have all had disastrous consequences, greatly increasing instability in the region and leading to large numbers of civilian deaths and an increase in terrorist recruitment and attacks.

If we’re really, genuinely concerned with an improvement to the situation in the Middle East I have a suggestion: maybe a better U.S. foreign policy would be to stop fucking around in that part of the world.  I don’t know what will make the situation in Syria better, but I do know that there is a very conclusive history of American military involvement in the region making things markedly worse.  If we care about history, if we care about not just sounding reasonable but about actually being correct, then I think the course of action is clear: no military intervention in Syria.

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