This essay was first published in August 2013 in the online journal The Washington Spectator. Though the situation in Syria has changed somewhat (particularly the rise of ISIS, which today is a much greater concern than Al-Nusra, though the latter remains active under a different guise), much of the advice I wrote here remains relevant. I agree with Nicholas Kristof, who wrote recently that a failure to intervene robustly in Syria will ultimately be deemed President Obama's greatest mistake. Her support for a more proactive policy in Syria is one of the main reasons that I supported Secretary Clinton's candidacy from an early date. I hope that, if she wins the presidency, she will re-orient our strategy in Syria and the Middle East more broadly along the lines I outline below.
Since the Great Recession, U.S. politics has been dominated by debates over domestic policy, thus it has almost been forgotten that the downhill slide of the Bush coalition began because of their mismanagement of foreign affairs. The midterm election of 2006 was carried by the Democrats, despite massive GOP gerrymandering, due to anger over the Iraq war. Though the political scene here in the U.S. has shifted radically from that point, most of the foreign policy challenges that confronted us during the Bush years linger on. Moreover, however misguided Bush foreign policy was, it undeniably left an enduring impact on the state of global affairs, creating new problems and conditions that must be faced in years to come. As progressives contemplate the potential for future leadership, it is thus vital for them to ask what principles should animate foreign policy moving forward.
This is a challenging task. Foreign affairs are not amenable to easy partisan or ideological analysis. There is not a coherently “liberal” or “conservative” approach to foreign policy, “doves” and “hawks,” isolationists and internationalists, can be found on both sides of the aisle. Still, if progressives are to enjoy electoral and governing success in the near term, they need to be able to present a clear and coherent alternative to the neoconservative path blazed by the last Republican administration.
What should that alternative look like? For all its shortcomings, the Bush White House came into power with a coherent world view, one hatched in think tanks like the Project for the New American Century in the decade or so prior to their taking office. In order to right the ship of state thrown so widely off course by the neocons, progressives must formulate a set of policy guidelines to replace the misguided doctrine of the Bush years.
Many progressives would insist that the folly of neoconservatism was merely an extreme expression of a general pathology of American foreign policy. They would point to the long, sordid history of American meddling in Cuba, the Philippines, Guatemala, Iran, Angola, Indonesia, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, and a host of other countries, and insist that the projection of U.S. strategic power always serves the cause of neoimperialism. Therefore, they would conclude, the only effective and integral stance progressives might adopt as a corrective to neoconservative adventurism is to reject and restrain the use of American power abroad altogether.
Though there is merit to this view, it nonetheless comes up against problems. The first of these is empirical. Despite the abundant and tragic damage that has been inflicted by U.S. power over time, there have been several moments when it has played a crucially progressive role in world affairs. The most obvious of these was World War II. Even keeping in mind events such as Dresden, the Japanese internment, and Hiroshima (to name only a few), it is hard to deny that the last half of the twentieth century would have been far worse for tens of millions but for America’s involvement in that conflict. In more recent memory the U.S. missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, while again not without transgressions and abuses, on balance did real and necessary good.
The second problem with what might be termed “progressive isolationism” is pragmatic. By now, the burgeoning of U.S. power and its insinuation into far-flung corners of the globe is intractably institutionalized and perpetuated by systemic forces that can not realistically be politically undone. Progressives thus have no choice but to devise a doctrine for the operation of U.S. power overseas, or they will inevitably, given the natural pendulum swing of American politics, yield control of it to those, like the neoconservatives, who have a plan and the political will to carry it out.
In the electorate at large, the military remains one of the most respected and trusted institutions in American society. If progressives can not articulate a coherent doctrine for the military’s global mission, they stand little chance of retaining the support necessary to achieve any significant policy goals, be they foreign or domestic. Conversely, when progressive leaders do project American power to demonstrably positive effect, it strengthens the cause of progressivism more generally, and works to constructively realign American strategic culture.
Here I would like to propose such a set of principles, and apply them to the specific case of Syria, a significant foreign policy challenge that promises to remain on the horizon for some time. Unlike some progressives, I feel strongly that U.S. involvement in the Syrian crisis is necessary. Though some might see this as a recapitulation of the sins of the past, I hope to demonstrate that a distinctly progressive foreign policy doctrine, diametrically opposed to neoconservatism, nonetheless calls for U.S. action in Syria.
1) Understand and Respect the Limits of American Power
The greatest error of neoconservatism was its absurd overestimation of American power. According to the writings of the PNAC, the end of the Cold War had left America the singular and unchallenged superpower on the world stage. Thus, none of the lessons of conflicts like Korea or Vietnam were applicable in this new situation; America was free to remake the world according to its values and preferences. Iraq demonstrated that concept to be utterly delusional.
The swift defeat of Saddam Hussein showcased the extent of conventional U.S. military might, but this was nothing the world did not already know. The American military, after all, had been victorious in every standing battle in Vietnam. However, during the ten year occupation of Iraq, the lessons of Vietnam returned to haunt the “Vulcans” running the show in the Bush White House and Pentagon.
The situation quickly spiraled out of control of the U.S., demonstrating the same general principle expressed by the resolution of the Vietnam conflict: in a foreign nation, the U.S. can not dictate an outcome that does not enjoy the support or assent of a critical mass of that nation’s people. Just as we could not impose a permanent partition of Vietnam against the will of its people, we could not exclude figures like Moqtada al-Sadr from Iraqi politics or impose a regime that would tolerate the presence of a large U.S. garrison like those in Germany, Japan, or Korea. We left Iraq a more violent and unstable nation than we found it, and that was probably the best outcome we could have hoped for from the outset.
So where then, is there a call for U.S. action in Syria, if our misadventure in neighboring Iraq was so ill conceived? Those who would conflate Syria with Iraq overlook one crucial dimension that distinguishes these two cases: where the proximal action to overthrow Saddam Hussein was almost wholly an imposition of the U.S., the movement against the Assad regime is an authentically homegrown expression of Syrian popular will. The Syrian resistance began as a peaceful campaign for civil rights and representative government, it only militarized in response to the Assad regime’s violent assault upon civilians.
Under these circumstances, it falls within the scope of U.S. power to facilitate the Syrian resistance. If, unlike the Bush White House, the U.S. acts in concert with a broad array of international partners and does not engage its own ground forces, it will not be setting the agenda or imposing its will, but assisting the Syrian people to work toward a goal that they themselves have chosen. Will the participation of the U.S. be entirely disinterested and benign? No. But to preclude American involvement on that basis is to make the perfect the enemy of the good.
No revolutionary movement in history, whether the American Revolution of 1776 or the South Vietnamese Revolution of 1954-1975, has succeeded without external assistance. If we agree with the goals of the protesters that first arose in Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo, then to abandon them in the face of the sacrifices they have made to sustain their movement is an abdication of the ordinary role played by virtually every power in world history. Though the U.S. should not and, contra the theories of the neocons, can not unilaterally impose an outcome in a foreign nation, when a significant mass of people in that society become galvanized to effect change that is aligned with American values and interests, it is both unprincipled and unwise for the U.S. to withhold its assistance.
2) Understand and Respect the History and Culture of Other Nations
The faith of the neoconservatives in technology was grossly hubristic. In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld famously rejected multiple plans proposed to him by his own general staff, complaining each time that the draft under consideration called for too many troops. He intended to prove that new weapons, communication, and surveillance technology gave the U.S. military such dominance that the old rules of tactical engagement no longer applied.
On February 26, 2006, the folly of such reasoning was cast into stark relief, when Sunni insurgents, using common demolition-grade explosives, destroyed the Shi’ite Golden Mosque in Samarra, plunging Iraq into almost two years of bloody sectarian war. In staging the invasion of Iraq, the neocons had not accounted for any of the many idiosyncrasies of Iraq’s history, culture, or social makeup, believing that American technological supremacy made all such contingencies irrelevant. They never imagined that becoming the viceregal authority in Baghdad would make the U.S. military liable for the security of every Shi’ite shrine throughout Iraq, or for the safety of Yazidis, Turkomen, and Assyrian Christians, or for a myriad other components of the fragile Iraqi social contract. Any rational person who took these factors into account would have understood, not only the utter lunacy of Rumsfeld’s call for less troops, but that no number of troops the U.S. could possibly muster would have given America control over the fluid state of Iraqi society under occupation.
Being aware of the complexity and full-blooded humanity of our counterparts in international affairs is a natural corollary of understanding the limits of American power. Beyond this, it is an absolute necessity in navigating the turbulent conditions of an increasingly volatile and dangerous world. Perhaps nothing illustrates this principle better than the baleful link the Bush White House drew between 9-11 and Saddam Hussein. By casting the invasion of Iraq as part of a “war on terror,” the neocons simultaneously strengthened the hand of groups like Al Qaeda while, through distortion and oversimplification, weakening the capacity of the U.S. to effectively respond to that threat.
This reality was a simple function of demographics. Though the organizers and perpetrators of 9-11 were Arabs, the ideology they espoused had, prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, never achieved significant political purchase in any Arab nations. Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies rose to power in Afghanistan and Pakistan because the society of those nations is a patchwork of different ethnic groups, none of which enjoys an absolute majority. In those conditions, religious extremism becomes a viable organizing force, because religion is a more unifying factor than language or ethnicity. In a country like Iraq, which is 80% Arab-speaking, language and ethnicity unites people where religion divides them between Sunnis and Shi’ites, Muslims and Christians. Thus in the Arab world secular ideologies such as Baathism and Nasserism have historically enjoyed vastly greater political success than the religious extremism of Osama bin Laden or Ayatollah Khomeini.
The invasion of Iraq gave Sunni extremism the greatest purchase it had ever enjoyed in Iraqi society. Sunni extremists flowed into the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Hussein regime, and the very asymmetry between the U.S. and Iraqi insurgents so lionized by Donald Rumsfeld drove many Iraqis to join or make common cause with groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq. Again, anyone moderately informed about the historical and cultural conditions of Iraqi society should have been able to predict this outcome.
How, then, does a respect for the history and culture of other nations argue for U.S. involvement in Syria? Ironically, American inaction in Syria is having the same effect as American interventionism in Iraq: it is strengthening the hand of Sunni extremism. Al Qaeda had no greater purchase in Assad’s Syria than it had in Hussein’s Iraq. The decay of the Assad regime, however, is creating the same kind of power vacuum that aided Sunni extremists in occupied Iraq, and the asymmetry between Assad forces and the resistance is likewise driving Syrians to enlist or ally with Al Qaeda or its affiliate groups.
Those who oppose U.S. involvement in Syria because of the presence of extremists in the resistance are not clearly understanding the lessons of Iraq. The rise of Sunni extremism in both countries is not an expression of the normative state of either society; it is a product of contingent circumstances. In Iraq it was foolish of the U.S. to create the conditions that fueled extremism, in Syria it is foolish for the U.S. to refrain from alleviating the conditions (to the extent that it can) that fuel extremism.
The imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria (to give just one example of a measure the U.S. might take) would have several positive effects. In the near-term it would retard the growing influence of groups like the Al-Nusra front in the Syrian resistance. Since the power of such groups is a function of the asymmetry of the conflict, making the conflict more symmetrical will deplete their influence in the resistance coalition.
In the long term, only the closure of the power vacuum in which they thrive will reliably check the advancing power of groups like the Al-Nusra front. The sooner Syrian society returns to a state of normalcy and civil order, the sooner the power of Al-Nusra will wane, as the ingrained secular patterns of Syrian social life revive. It is thus not only in the humanitarian interests of the Syrian people, but in the vital security interests of the U.S., for America to do everything in its power to facilitate a swift resolution to the conflict.
3)Pursue Long-Term Political Progress Over Short-Term Tactical Gains
The neoconservatives were myopically focused on outdated hallmarks of strategic power, ignoring the rapidly evolving state of world affairs. Thus, though the most destructive attack on the U.S. since Pearl Harbor had been staged by a group of young men armed with box cutters, we invaded Iraq on the suspicion that Saddam Hussein (who had no part in 9-11) might possess weapons of mass destruction (which Al Qaeda does not need to perpetrate acts of terror, and which Saddam Hussein would not have shared with Al Qaeda in any case). This flew in the face of a strategic principle that has been understood since the early revolutionary days of Mao Zedong: the political dimensions of an asymmetrical conflict vastly outweigh its tactical factors in importance.
In this respect, the invasion of Iraq was an utter disaster. On the tactical side, it did not prevent Al Qaeda from acquiring weapons, quite the contrary. But this was the least of the matter. Politically, the Iraq invasion created an enormous boost in Al Qaeda recruitment. Al Qaeda and its affiliate groups remain a fringe movement, but thanks to the Iraq war they constitute a vastly larger force, and their ideology enjoys far broader appeal than it did before.
In the wake of 9-11, the strategic priorities of the U.S. should be the reverse of what they were during the invasion of Iraq. In other words, keeping weapons out of the hands of Al Qaeda operatives is much less important than decreasing the appeal of their ideology in the wider Muslim world. Once again, in this regard passivity in Syria is having the same effect as adventurism in Iraq.
Opponents of U.S. involvement in Syria often warn that arms given to the resistance will end up in the hands of extremists. Arms, however, are easy to come by. Political capital is not. If the U.S. sits by and allows the Syrian conflict to further degenerate into a sectarian war, the political prestige of groups like Al-Nusra will be greatly enhanced. That will pose a far greater danger to the world than some small arms falling into “the wrong hands.”
The political fallout from inaction in Syria is arguably already visible beyond the boundaries of the conflict itself. With no power rising to oppose the Assad regime’s use of force in Syria, the impetus for political reconciliation is on the decline throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Democratic opposition leaders have been assassinated in Tunisia. In Lebanon the political process is falling apart, and the conditions of civil war brewing anew. The nadir to which the Arab Spring has fallen is most distressing in Egypt. Watching Egyptian soldiers kill dozens of demonstrators on the streets of Cairo, it is impossible to draw a moral or philosophical distinction between Egypt’s new rulers and the Assad regime in Damascus. These are all conditions conducive to the growth and spread of Islamic extremism.
It was foolish of the neoconservatives to imagine that the U.S. could control the development of a society as complex as Iraq’s, much less that of the entire Middle East or larger Muslim world. But it is equally foolish to assume that the U.S. can have no constructive influence upon these societies, or that any aspect of U.S. power can be wholly excluded from our engagement in international affairs. Isolation, withdrawal, or rigid passivism are simply not realistic options given the dynamic and dangerous state of the world. Moreover, the ever-increasing interconnectedness and interdependence of the world makes a problem for one nation a problem for all. In the face of such complexity and volatility, the failure to do what good we can in a crisis like Syria’s is equivalent to doing harm.