Why a Democrat Who Opposed the Iraq War Backs Intervening in Syria

With both Republicans and Democrats split over the prospect, a liberal supporter of American action against the Assad regime says the current situation is neither Iraq nor Rwanda.
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U.N. chemical-weapons experts collect samples in Damascus. (Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters)

The prospect of U.S. intervention in Syria has split both political parties even as it has become seemingly inevitable. Republicans are split between the hawks eager to assert American power and the libertarians eager to rein in military adventurism; Democrats appear haunted by the twin ghosts of Rwanda and Iraq, unsure whether the current conflict is an urgent humanitarian crisis or an invitation to a quagmire. President Obama has himself seemed torn, voicing stern warnings but unable as yet to pull the trigger. As a former Obama foreign-policy aide told CNBC’s John Harwood on Thursday, there’s no doubt a strike is imminent, but the administration is already having second thoughts about it -- “not a great combo.”

Like Obama, Tom Perriello, a former congressman from Virginia who now serves as president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, strongly opposed the Iraq war. But he now strongly backs action in Syria. Perriello has extensive experience with conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, having worked on the peace processes in Sierra Leone and Liberia and as a consultant in Kosovo, Darfur, and Afghanistan. Perriello speaks for himself, not the White House, but his perspective sheds light on the case some Democrats are making for this intervention. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.


There’s a lot of ambiguity in the word “intervention,” with interpretations ranging from a single bombing raid to fully going to war. What do you think is the right course?

The short answer is I don’t know. There’s a tremendous amount of intelligence one would want to look at to answer this question. It’s always true, but in this case it’s particularly true, that the best you are going to do is probabilities. Most advocates only look at the probabilities on one side. Those who don’t want to intervene talk about the probability of things going wrong, which absolutely exists; there’s no way to get rid of it. Those who want to intervene focus on the probability of damage if we don’t intervene, and there we have a higher degree of certainty, because we’ve already seen 125,000 killed.

Within that context, you have to look at a set of tactics. A lot of people seem to be dismissing the idea that there’s any role for a surgical, strategic strike short of regime change. While I have advocated for a more aggressive posture that would potentially include regime transition, there is absolutely an argument for inflicting some cost to the regime for the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population.

What is that? I would say there’s some value to crippling some part of the military infrastructure, which would relate directly to the capacity for using chemical or biological weapons, or other infrastructure. And that I think you can do largely from the air without a lot of involvement on the ground. Simultaneously, there has to be a continuation of the diplomatic engagement we’ve been doing.

But if the objective isn’t regime change, what is the objective? Aren’t you weakening the regime and allowing the rebels to gain an upper hand in the civil war? Is the point really just to make a statement in the hope other irrational dictators would be deterred by it in the future?

There is an interest, not just by us but by the community of nations, in creating a significant disincentive to the use of chemical and biological weapons, which even repressive regimes, on the whole, have treated as off-limits. This is a technology that allows regimes who do not want to bomb their own civilian infrastructure to kill and do damage to a great number of civilians. [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad clearly has been escalating and will consider doing it again. When he does, he is going to make some assessments about whether the benefit he gets domestically from using those weapons is larger or smaller than the cost he has to pay for using those weapons. Even if in some ways he is well beyond all rationality, he is going to make that calculation.

You think an irrational dictator whose objectives are focused on defeating internal opposition is going to respond to incentives?

It’s part of his calculation. He knows if we intervene, his days are over, so part of what he’s doing, like a petulant child, is seeing how far he can push before we come in. Traditionally, the use of chemical and biological weapons, with very few exceptions, has been something you cannot do without invoking dramatic action.

With Assad, we are talking about a regime, not a cult of personality. He is not Idi Amin or Charles Taylor. Assad is one component, but there is also the military leadership. Those who are empowered to make decision are going to internalize that cost of having gone too far. On the other hand, if he starts to feel he can get away with it, he is going to escalate, and more people are going to die. He has given every indication that he is reading the international community’s willingness to care fairly well. The use of chemical weapons appears to have been a miscalculation, though maybe not, since a lot of people in the U.S. still don’t want to act.

You just said, "If we intervene, his days are over," but isn’t the whole premise of a non-regime-change strike that his days are not over and he gets to stay in power?

He knows if we came in full-bore his days would be numbered. We are not committing to that. What the president is proposing is not that. We’re going to poke and see what kind of poke we get back. Clearly he does want to annihilate the opposition in Syria, armed and unarmed. We are saying, no, you can’t do that, the price you pay for that actually is higher. If he were to then [escalate further], like taking a swipe at Israel, that’s going to bring us in. We may not have the power to successfully rebuild afterward, but we have certainly shown we have the ability to take out a regime effectively, and if you’re Assad that’s what you care about.

You can have multiple objectives with one being primary. I use the analogy of a biology teacher whose student is failing the class, and you know the student is also failing another class, and if he fails biology he’s going to fail out of high school. You say, “If you don’t pass this test, you’re going to fail this class,” and you’re not failing him from high school -- it’s in his power to deal with other factors -- but that will be the effect. I think that’s a bit of where we are right now.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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