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The Emerging Neocon-Christian Split Over Syria

As the carnage in Syria continues, support in America for military intervention will presumably grow. But can the support spread very far beyond its current base--neoconservatives and a smattering of liberal interventionists? Backers of intervention will be challenged in their recruiting by what you could call the "strange bedfellows" problem.

For starters, if we give the insurgents arms and air support, as some propose, that would seem to put us on the same side as al-Qaeda. Sure, al-Qaeda's role is being overstated, and maybe even invented, by the Syrian regime. But it can't be long before some group "linked" to al-Qaeda is demonstrably aiding the insurgency, and that will disorient many who backed intervention in Iraq.

Besides, a much less marginal role in the insurgency is being played by Sunni Islamists more broadly. Of course, "Islamist" is a big category, and moderate Islamists could make for fine bedfellows and fine leaders of a new Syrian government. But as Nir Rosen's recent reporting from Syria makes clear, it's hard to predict which strands of Islamism will dominate, and in the meanwhile it will be easy for intervention opponents to find radically Islamist voices to highlight. And Rosen expects the radicalism to grow as the fighting wears on.

The flip-side of the strange bedfellows problem is the kindred enemies problem: Are we really ready to go to war against two million Christians? According to Tony Karon's reporting in Time, President Assad hopes to keep Christians in his coalition by harnessing their fear of a radical Islamist takeover.

So far they seem to be sticking with him, and word of their allegiance is reaching American Christians. The evangelical press is reporting that Syrian Christians fear Assad's fall and is quoting them as warning against foreign intervention. Catholic periodicals convey similar concerns, and illustrate them with, for example, reports that Syrian rebels are using Christians as human shields. And Jihad Watch, the right-wing website run by Robert Spencer, a Catholic, bemoans what will happen to Syrian Christians as "Assad's enemies divide the spoils of the fallen regime." (Spencer has in the past been skeptical of interventions, but he reaches conservative Christians who have been less skeptical.) The alliance between neocons and conservative Christians that has worked in the past is going to be harder to put together this time.

Maybe it's in recognition of this challenge that neocons have been downplaying the role of Muslim extremists. The Weekly Standard approvingly quotes John McCain saying that Syrian rebels are "not fighting and dying because they are Muslim extremists." And, in a departure from tradition, the Standard is minimizing al-Qaeda influence in an Arab country, noting that claims of al Qaeda's presence in Syria are "without evidence."

If the neoconservatives' downplaying of the insurgency's radical element doesn't work, an alternative approach would be to try and turn lemons into lemonade: One way to keep the fractured, ragtag rebels from "dividing the spoils" might be to impose order on them--lead from the front!

But the days when you could set up compliant client regimes seem to have passed, and even if they hadn't, the neocons' traditional rhetorical emphasis on spreading democracy would complicate that project. Besides, the current state of Iraq should disillusion anyone who hopes to mold a post-conflict Syria into an ally devoted to American ideals. And Iraq may be a best-case scenario. Witness Libya--where firm central authority has failed to emerge, and devolution into warring localities is now possible. (Imagine being a Christian minority that sided with the deposed regime in that situation!) And the Lybian opposition seemed more united, at the insurrection's outset, than the Syrian opposition seems now.

Another possible neocon approach would be to put uncharacteristic rhetorical emphasis on realpolitik: Depict Syria as the domino that stands between us and Iran, a country whose place in conservative Christian demonology is secure. (This approach would have the virtue of aligning with what, according to Leslie Gelb, is the actual driver of much neocon pro-interventionism.) Charles Krauthammer is espousing this domino theory, and Lee Smith's pro-intervention piece in the latest Weekly Standard says, "For the United States, the key issue should be countering Iran." Maybe this will prove the most effective pitch to conservative Christians, given the downsides of the other possible pitches. But that's a lot of downsides to overcome.

[Update, 3/14: A lot of people seem to be reading this as an editorial against intervention. That's not the way it was meant. It's an analysis of the political obstacles facing advocates of intervention. In discussing such obstacles you sometimes wind up highlighting actual downsides of intervention, but that wasn't the purpose of this piece. As to my own position on intervention: I haven't been convinced that the likely upside outweighs the likely downside, but it's not as if I think not intervening is going to magically lead to a happy outcome. The Syria situation is a mess, and I don't have a solution.]

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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