The Stunning Hubris of Syria Hawks

Thoughts on a call for the U.S. to participate in two more Middle Eastern wars—both in one country
More
Reuters

Opponents of a war in Syria are looking wise. 

Efforts to destroy the country's chemical weapons just might work. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons declared last week that "Syria had met the Nov. 1 deadline to destroy or render inoperable all chemical weapon production facilities," according to the Associated Press. If you believe war should be a last resort, this progress is decisive as long as it lasts. Salutary changes are happening without the United States having to invest any lives or treasure. 

But another reason to avoid intervening in Syria is the stunning hubris of the course some hawks are proposing. Take Michael Totten's World Affairs article, "No Exit: Why the U.S. Can't Leave the Middle East." Its author is perfectly aware of U.S. failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the unintended consequences of our intervention in Libya, but if he's learned the right lessons from them I can't see how. 

What he proposes is fighting two consecutive wars in Syria. First, we would ally with the Islamists against the government. Then once the government fell, we would fight the extremist element among the rebels. Only then would our goals be met.

Here's his reasoning:

Bashar al-Assad’s regime is the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the Arab world, and it’s aligned with the Islamic Republic regime in Iran, the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the entire world. Obviously, then, it’s in our interest to see him defeated. One of his principal enemies on the home front, though, is the al-Qaeda–linked Nusra Front. Obviously it’s not in our interest to see these bin Ladenists replace Assad.

So why not let them fight each other, as we've been doing? Totten says that's unsustainable:

Opposing sides don’t zero each other out. That’s not how wars work, or end. Wars end when somebody wins. The worst-case scenario from an American point of view is that they both win. That’s an actual possibility. Syria could fracture into pieces. In a way, it already has. An Alawite rump state backed by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia existing alongside a Sunnistan ruled by Islamists could very well emerge as a semi-permanent reality of Middle Eastern geography. At the very least, the United States needs a policy that reduces the likelihood of that most horrible outcome.

His proposal:

One way or another, we should want both Assad and al-Qaeda to lose. But they aren’t going to lose simultaneously. They’ll need to lose consecutively. One of them first has to win.

So fight and defeat Bashar al-Assad, or support someone who will do it instead. Then fight and defeat the Nusra Front, or support someone who will do it instead. Or face the fact that one or both are going to win. If the Nusra Front wins, we’ll have an Afghanistan on the Mediterranean. And if Assad wins, he could end up under an Iranian nuclear weapons umbrella.

This reminds me of the Iraq War's earliest days, just before the "Mission Accomplished" banner, when pro-war bloggers were talking about how we'd take Baghdad, stop long enough to smell the roses bestowed upon liberators, and then "pivot" to Tehran and Damascus. It seems easy when you're just writing it down. 

What hawks ought to have learned by now is the unpredictability of waging war, whether directly or by proxy. Assuming a multi-part plan involving the use of force can be carried out with any precision is folly. That's why war is a last resort, especially if waging it could have catastrophic consequences. I am not a Syria expert. But it doesn't take one to see that both sides in its civil war have regional allies. 

The course that Totten recommends assumes that the United States can intervene against Syria's regime successfully, and without provoking costly interference or consequences from its allies, like Russia; that in doing so, it can ally with Islamists without empowering them enough to do much harm; that it can then turn around and beat those Islamists, never mind the actions of their allies; that the American people will persist in giving the Pentagon the necessary resources to fund successive wars in Syria; and that after what would obviously be a deeply destabilizing series of events, what emerged in Syria could be reasonably expected to be better than what's there now—so much better, in fact, that bringing it about will have been worth our blood, money, and attention for ... how long, exactly?

Why does Totten think America is capable of pulling that off? What about America's recent experience in the Middle East would make him confident that it's a good idea to intervene on both sides of a civil war in succession, and that it's sufficient to suggest a plan like that sans any apparent thought to what would come next? 

Once again, I come down where Daniel Larison does (emphasis added):

For the sake of defeating a regime that the U.S. doesn’t need to fight, Totten proposes that the U.S. align itself on the same side with jihadists until such time as the U.S. can conjure up the means to defeat at least some of our former anti-Assad allies. In practice, this would mean that the U.S. arms the people today that it would be bombing in the future, or that it bombs the people now that it will be arming later on. The only way that this proposal makes sense is if one thinks that the desirable goal is to maximize U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war and make both the war and U.S. involvement in it last as long as possible. Nothing could be more futile and stupid than trying to take both sides in a civil war in close succession. As in Egypt, the U.S. would end up being distrusted and hated by all sides. This proposal is a vain attempt to avoid facing the obviously undesirable consequences of regime change in Syria. 

Jump to comments
Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In