Thursday, July 26, 2012

Syria is not Iraq

In yesterday's New York Times, Thomas Friedman offered a column entitled "Syria is Iraq." In it, he notes that "Syria is Iraq’s twin — a multisectarian, minority-ruled dictatorship that was held together by an iron fist under Baathist ideology." He therefore predicts that a "decent outcome" is unlikely in Syria in the absence of "a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition." In other words, Syria is doomed to perpetual anarchy and civil war, because unlike Iraq, Syria will not enjoy the benefits of being invaded by the United States.

Friedman is not arguing for a U.S. invasion of Syria. He concedes that "Iraq was such a bitter experience for America" (as opposed to the Iraqis themselves, for whom the U.S. invasion was presumably a holiday) that invading Syria is unthinkable. It is difficult to fathom the practical point of Friedman's piece. Having conceded that "what is impossible," Friedman notes that "in the Middle East, the alternative to bad is not always good. It can be worse." His conclusion would thus seem to be that since the U.S. can not do what is necessary in Syria, it should do nothing at all.

What intrigues me most about Friedman's column is the way it epitomizes much conventional American thinking, not only about the Middle East, but about the world at large. "Decent outcomes" can only come from the application of U.S. power. Where American might is ineffective, only pessimism and fatalism are warranted.

In his fit of paternalism, Friedman has forgotten one colossal difference between Syria and Iraq. The movement to displace the Assad regime, unlike the ouster of Saddam Hussein, is an organic, indigenous impulse of Syrian society. That fact alone may create resources and possibilities that were curtailed in the case of Iraq. If the Hussein regime had fallen to a home-grown uprising rather than succumbing to a sudden power vacuum caused by foreign invasion, perhaps in the process alternative power structures could have been built and new social compacts negotiated, precluding the "need" for a nine-year occupation. Perhaps the outcome in that case might have been a good sight more decent than the strife-torn country Iraq is today.

What is happening right now in Syria is of course very tragic, but it is potentially very hopeful in the long term. If the Syrian rebels manage to oust the Assad regime, it will be a major victory for people's revolution over the forces of modern military technology and entrenched totalitarianism. The very fact that the Syrian people have sustained their armed revolution for seventeen months in the face of murderous violence demonstrates that they have more courage, resourcefulness, and political will than Thomas Friedman gives them credit for.

A good outcome may be long in coming, and perhaps Friedman's darkest predictions will bear out in truth. But if the Syrian people do fight through to a better day, perhaps we can finally put aside delusions of American "midwifery" and come to a new assessment of the limits and potential of U.S. power. In the meantime, though the ultimate fate of Syria depends on the Syrian people themselves, it would be unwise of any nation to stand by and spectate as Syria bleeds. It is arrogant to assume that the Syrian people require a U.S. invasion to build a new future, but it is foolish to assume that any revolutionary movement facing such stacked odds can win through without assistance. If a new day does dawn in Syria, its people will remember who aided them and who stood idly by.

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