Wendy Pearlman, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, argues the case for US intervention in Syria. The problem is that she ignores the lessons of recent history, ignores the lessons of reality, and takes the easy way out.
It’s a lot easier to call in the military and order a few air strikes than it is to help the actual victims of Assad’s brutality. Pearlman advocates for a limited warfare approach, including possibly no-fly zones or bombing the runways that Assad’s forces use. However, she ignores the fact that this was the approach that we used after Gulf War I to contain Saddam Hussein. The problem with that approach is that it is only a matter of time before some future US President similar to George W. Bush decides that his predecessors didn’t finish the job like they should have and order a regime change. The end result would be another Afghanistan or Iraq.
This is not an advocacy that we do nothing or that we should not care. This is, however, a warning that we should avoid taking the easy way out. We have a moral obligation to house as many Syrian refugee families as we possibly can and work with the business community to give them jobs until the conflict is over. The more of these people we can relocate in the US or with friendly nations, the more that Assad’s brutality will be publicized at the ground level. Imagine settling in and seeing your local newscast lead off with a local Syrian talking about Assad’s slaughter factories, where he has killed at least 11,000 political opponents. Or the IRIL beheading people and leaving the bodies in public view, similar to the way the Romans handled people they didn’t like.
And furthermore, this should force us to take a look at how weapons are proliferating to groups like Al-Qaeda or Assad or IRIL. The blood is on Congress’ hands for every person killed by Al-Qaeda, IRIL, or dictators like Assad for every day that they refuse to ratify the International Small Arms Treaty, putting them in company with Syria and North Korea. It won’t solve everything, but it will be a start.
The only time we should use force is when one of two conditions have been met — in conjunction with the International Community through the UN or if and when the Free Syrian Army has expelled all Al-Qaeda and other extremist elements from its coalition. If we were to engage in a policy of regime change on our own — which Pearlman’s plan will entail at some point down the road — it would simply replace one brutal dictator with another similar to Afghanistan, where the communists were replaced with Islamists who murdered dissidents, raped and brutalized women, and denied people basic educational opportunities. The risk is that within around 5-20 years, we’ll have to go back and do the job all over again.
The other thing is that Pearlman assumes that we have money to spend up the wazool. But in fact, Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post notes that Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed $500 billion annually — a figure that is projected to grow to $900 billion in 2019. We simply cannot afford to go spending money on foreign wars when we have our own infrastructure to worry about and when it is much more cost-effective to resettle refugees either here in this country or in a friendly country and match them with housing and employment. But it’s a lot easier for certain politicians to worry about the Middle East than it is to worry about Middle America.
And a Syrian war could escalate tensions with Russia. After World War II, the US, UK, France, Russia, and China were placed on the UN Security Council and given veto powers in order to force them to cooperate. The object was to set it up to prevent a third world war, something Pearlman and other warmongers forget. To court tension with Russia would erode the safeguards that we put in place to prevent another world war from happening again. For better or worse, we must put our ideological differences aside and cooperate with the other four members of the Security Council in order to resolve the world’s problems. It’s not like Russia is seeking to overthrow our ally Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians or China is seeking to overthrow South Korea over its tensions with North Korea. There are certain standards of behavior that all nations must follow, just like there are certain standards of behavior that one must follow if we wish to live in the US or any other country. Regime change should only be done as a last resort when all other alternatives have failed.
Now, to proceed to Pearlman’s arguments:
I agree with her that greater coordination among external opponents of Assad would help. Part of the problem is that the groups fighting Assad have become fractured. Another part of the problem is that Obama has done nothing (to my knowledge) to identify supporters and coordinate their activities.
She then states that “Jihadist groups became powerful in Syria because blood flowed for months while the opposition’s cries for assistance went ignored.” A fair point. But in order to be fair, if we’re going to help groups like the Free Syrian Army right off the bat, the fair thing to do is to help out groups like that everywhere. That means that we would, for instance, help out the Tibetans and Falun Gong against China, the Jews against Russia, the Christians in the Central African Republic, and so on. The question I have is, where do we draw the line? Even Superman could not save the world from nuclear annihilation. The only way that Syria can create a meaningful future, ultimately, is through the hands of the Syrian people. Assad is, as Pearlman states, responsible for the ruin of his country. However, it is up to the Syrian people to deal with him.
This is not the time of the colonial days when people believed it was the White Man’s Burden to enlighten the savages. By the standards that we live by, it is not our place to colonize other countries, a point Bush failed to grasp. As Pearlman admits, even Syrian oppositionists who support air strikes do not want boots on the ground in Syria. But the policy she advocates will lead to it, like it has done before. For instance, in Vietnam, a few hundred “advisors” turned into hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground and a policy of perpetual warfare.
The Day After Project, a project outlining a transitional plan for Syria should Assad fall, designed by Syrians, could help avoid the power vacuums and chaos that beset Libya and Iraq and Afghanistan. But there is a big difference between putting stuff on paper and actually putting stuff together on the ground. It’s just like sports; it’s fun to draw up game plans; it’s a lot different for a team to execute it in a game.
The logic of intervention — to show that there are repercussions for state brutality — applies to Assad’s foreign backers as much as to Assad himself. The U.S. has three options: (1) negotiate boldly with Russia and Iran, offering shows of concern for their other vital interests in exchange for change in their policies toward Syria; (2) confront their support for Assad with its own stronger support for the rebellion; or (3) sit back as Russia and Iran do whatever they wish. The uncertainty surrounding the first two options must be weighed against the certain tragedy of the third: the Syrian regime will continue to kill more civilians every day.
Obama is engaging in Option (1) right now and putting (2) on the table. But Obama should do more of (1). The problem is that Russia and China see the US support for democracy in nations ranging from Burma and North Korea in the east to Ukraine in the west as a covert attempt to create a chain of client states on which the US can base missiles and troops, surrounding Russia and China. Obama could alleviate those concerns — possibly by creating a buffer zone between which nobody could establish bases or militarily aid a client state. He could agree to withdraw troops from South Korea after the North Korean government collapses and is no longer a threat or they eliminate their nuclear weapons program completely in return for China’s support for getting rid of Assad. Creating the kind of cooperation and trust necessary to deal with dictators like Assad requires compromise, not escalating tensions like Pearlman advocates.Pearlman continues, “The regime is responsible for the vast majority of devastation in Syria.” While Assad is responsible for much of the violence, Human Rights Watch and the UN note that the rebel groups are as well. Like I have said before, there are few good actors in this debacle.
And contrary to Pearlman’s assertion, it is boots on the ground as well as drone strikes and civilian casualties that create enemies of the US. Appeals to fear mean nothing, especially when George W. Bush, one of the most unpopular Presidents in US history, ruled by appealing to fear and not our hopes and aspirations.
The corporate military industrial complex that we are constantly feeding at the expense of our roads, bridges, and schools cannot be trusted. We tried intervening in Iraq in the name of the humanitarian goal of getting rid of Saddam and creating democracy throughout the Middle East. But in reality, when we occupied Iraq, it was a windfall for Blackwater and Halliburton and a few other gigantic multinational corporations. It was a nightmare for everyone else. Iraq is still trying to recover from the wounds of our occupation.
We do, as Pearlman concludes, have an interest in stability, freedom and human rights, and ethical interests. But these interests should be pursued diplomatically even if militarism seems like the easy way out. If all we do are a few air strikes, then Assad will simply conclude that we are not serious about deposing him. If we put boots on the ground, which we would undoubtedly do after air strikes failed, then we would be in another Vietnam or Iraq. One of the few winners would be Al-Qaeda, which would further their goal of bleeding us dry so that they could establish Islamic caliphates throughout the Middle East.