Saturday, August 31, 2013

How to think about Syria (step one: don't think about Iraq)

When it comes to Syria, I feel like I'm a little bit stuck in the middle.  On one hand, I certainly don't support strikes to any real degree, as I did in Libya.  On the other hand, I can't help but be frustrated with most reactions to the prospect of strikes, which I think are far too negative for largely the wrong reasons.

When weighing the wisdom of an attack on Syria, you have to consider two questions.

First, should the US be using military force to enforce international law and achieve humanitarian ends?  

Second, can the US, in this instance, enforce international law and achieve humanitarian ends with the use of force?  

Let's do this backwards.  I think the second question is a very hard call in this case.  The amount of deliberation in the administration and in the media supports the idea that the situation is complicated, and the effectiveness and consequences of military action are hard to predict.  

The contrast between this and Libya is clear: Syria is bigger, less geographically conducive to strikes, the sides are less well-defined, the chances of getting entangled in the conflict are higher, and a perpetual stalemate is a less acceptable outcome today.  At the time of the Libyan intervention, I blogged about the reasons intervention made sense, and most of them don't apply here.  I favored strikes in Libya because the particulars of the situation made a positive outcome likely; the particulars of the situation in Syria are far more complex.  That means that the course of any military strike is both harder to foresee, and more dependent on information that non-expert bloggers (me!) don't have at their disposal.  But our history of pulling these things off without a hitch isn't wonderful.  Hence my deep ambivalence.  

The majority of observers, however, seem to be basing their opposition not off the second question, but the first.  You can tell because the reasons they give for opposing the strikes have nothing to do with the specifics of the situation and would apply even if the military had a slam-dunk plan to end the conflict with minimal loss of life.  That includes arguments like this supposed constitutional case by former Bush legal advisor Jack Goldsmith (which somehow manages to discuss decades of US military interventions without mentioning the word "Iraq"), and Matt Yglesias's neo-isolationist take, which, at its most extreme, sometimes seems to be "Why do anything militarily as long as malaria exists?"

Underlying these views, and much of the other opposition, I think, is an implicit wariness of military action in the Middle East in the wake of the Iraq War.  That's understandable; Iraq was a disaster.  But refusing to recognize the clear distinctions between this war and Iraq , if anything, gives credence to the  lies told in support of the previous war.  

The fact is, Iraq was neither conducted for good reasons nor conducted well.  It was clear at the time, and became more clear as time passed, that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction, was not meaningfully backing terrorist groups, and was not single-handedly preventing the flowering of democracy in the Middle East.  Even if the war had been executed beautifully, none of those things would have become more true, and it would have been a failure and a waste.  

As it stands, of course, it was not executed well, and turned into a years-long quagmire, in which thousands of Americans and untold Iraqis lost their lives, at the cost of billions of dollars and a huge amount of American international prestige.  

But sometimes it feels like people are letting the memory of the military failures in Iraq blot out the memory of the war's fraudulent origins, and, as a result, have learned entirely the wrong lesson from that conflict.  Iraq does not teach us that intervention to prevent the use of WMDs is a bad idea; it also does not teach us that it's always foolish to save human lives when they're threatened by a dictator.  Iraq should have taught us to conduct better and deeper analysis before rushing off to war.  Instead, a lot of people seem to have learned that it is futile to use force to protect other human beings, and foolish to try.  

In a way, this is a late victory for Bush and his acolytes: people who interpret Iraq as demonstrating that military force backed by good intentions can never have a happy ending for humanity are allowing that the previous administration was motivated by good intentions.  

It's not fair comparison.  The "should we use military force to enforce norms and save lives" question laid out above never applied to Iraq: regardless of how you answered it, it was inapplicable to the situation.  But that war's failure seems to have induced many people to answer the question for them, and in the negative.  The logic is flawed and the reason why is relevant here.  We could never help anyone by stopping Saddam from using WMDs because he didn't have any; Assad unquestionably possesses WMDs and is by most accounts actively using them against civilian populations.  

That doesn't rule out opposition to strikes, of course.  There are people with other rationales, predating Iraq, for opposing US intervention for humanitarian ends, and it's completely possible that someone could believe that strikes in Syria are militarily unworkable.  But the number of people properly in the former category seems pretty small--between Iraq, Libya, and Kosovo, most of the current skeptics have previously demonstrated some sympathy for the idea of intervening in other nation's affairs for reasons other than furthering immediate American interests--and the latter objection would require detailed discussion of the particulars of a Syrian operation, discussion which has in reality been pretty sparse.  

At the end of the day, the circumstances don't seem very conducive to strong opposition or support, but slight opposition or cautious support.  That these positions aren't very much in evidence suggests that people aren't approaching the question from the right direction, and are letting the ghosts of Iraq haunt their thinking.

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