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

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. 

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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.

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