The Incoherence of a Syria Hawk

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Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post has come up with a reason for America to intervene in Syria: because only America can. Other nations, Diehl says, face obstacles to intervening that, happily, America doesn't face.

The problem with this argument is that the examples Diehl cites show roughly the opposite--that the downsides to intervention faced by other nations are faced by America as well.

Diehl's main example is Turkey. "Turkey cannot intervene in an Arab state without risking a broad backlash." Why? Because Turkey was a "former imperial power under the Ottomans." So that invites more Arab backlash than being viewed as a current imperial power? And a current imperial power that is allied with, as they say in the Arab world, the "Zionist entity"? I seem to recall an American intervention in an Arab state within the past decade that led to a quite sustained backlash. (Hint: The Washington Post editorial page, of which Diehl is deputy editor, strongly supported the intervention in question.)

Diehl says Turkish intervention would also face problems at a finer-grained demographic level. Turkey's "mildly Islamist Sunni government raises suspicions among Syria's large Christian and Kurdish minorities--not to mention Assad's Alawites."

Wait a second. Diehl is recommending that America "support the arming of the Free Syrian Army." The Free Syrian Army is on the other side of the conflict from most Alawites and Christians. So this sort of American involvement wouldn't just raise suspicions among Christians and Alawites--it would confirm them!

If you're wondering how Diehl got tied up in such knots, I think it has something to do with a deeper tension in his argument. He starts out sounding like a peacemaker. He says America can intervene to "stop the country's slide into civil war." Then he goes on to advocate arming the side that currently doesn't have many arms--which, you'd think, would accelerate the slide into full-scale civil war. He tries to square this circle by suggesting that if America merely announced that it supported arming the opposition, the Syrian regime would "crumble from within." Sure, and then we could send in Ahmed Chalabi and everything would be fine!

Maybe Diehl is thinking that once America gets involved it will quickly be drawn into deeper involvement, complete with airpower--in which case the regime might indeed collapse and the civil war would have been short lived, and this would all have been, in a sense, a peacemaking exercise after all. I personally doubt that order would be easy to maintain after regime collapse, but at least this sunny scenario, unlike what Diehl is saying now, is internally consistent.

As I've said before, I don't know what to do about Syria; it's a mess. But intervention would seem more appealing if more of the people making the case for it sounded coherent.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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