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Resisting the seductive attraction of preventative intervention

Enflamed by daily news footage of the increasing carnage in civil war-torn Syria, pundits and politicians continue to demand that the U.S. "do something." Just what that "something" should be varies, of course, as does the argument for doing it.

The most recent dÈmarche, by columnist David Ignatius in Thursday's Washington Post, complains that "The international alliance that won the Cold War has been bootless in the case of Syria," adding, "The United States, this time, hasn't been willing to organize a 'coalition of the willing' to do the dirty work."

Thankfully, we haven't. And Ignatius himself explains why. "What's missing in Syria," he acknowledges, "is an animating strategic framework that could power a U.S.-led coalition. Instead, we have a conflict driven by sectarian hatred between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, which in turn is fueled by the rivalry of Saudi Arabia and Iran."

Truer words was never spoke. The reality is that we have no dog in that fight. That reality has forced those seeking to engage the U.S. militarily in still another Islamist quagmire to fall back on one or the other of two thus far unconvincing arguments.

The first is what proponents call "responsibility to protect" ó R2P in the jargon ó which holds that the U.S. and other major powers have a moral obligation to stop less civilized people from killing each other in job lots. Never mind that recent western military interventions have typically resulted in more, not less, death and destruction.

The problem with R2P, apart from the cavalier and repeatedly misplaced confidence of its proponents in the efficacy of military intervention, is its utter failure to recognize that struggles such as the one in Syria revolve around political disagreements as legitimately contentious ó and as resistant to external resolution ó as was that of our own Civil War. 

That they tend to be conducted with little regard for "civilized" military conventions is neither novel nor unique to the combatants, as any student of European history could confirm. That may make them more unpleasant to watch, but westerners who cheerfully have slaughtered millions to win their own wars are in no position to point fingers.

But the real problem with R2P is that its feel-good motives are fundamentally divorced from any strategic interests more profound and enduring than Wilsonian moralism and aesthetic distaste. 

Not so for the second argument for intervention, which can be summed up in the phrase, "We have to intervene now to prevent something worse from happening later." This is what one might call the Munich argument: had Britain and France only resisted Hitler in 1938, it runs, World War II might have been averted. 

Putting aside the arguable validity of that claim, Bashar al Assad isn't Adolph Hitler nor Syria Nazi Germany. But the claim of urgency for preventive intervention is the same. Except that, in this case, the alleged consequence of failing to intervene is that Syria's extremist violence might migrate outside the region, perhaps even to Europe and the United States. 

Thus, we recently witnessed Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggest to Congress that jihadist factions in Syria "have aspirations for attacks on the homeland." How those aspirations would be mitigated were the U.S. to intervene militarily rather than merely rhetorically, neither Clapper nor anyone else has thus far explained. 

That's the more true since, as one writer pointed out in a recent article on ForeignPolicy.com, Syria's Jihadis ó including those affiliated with al Qaeda ó currently are much more interested in fighting each other than in attacking the west. Why we would want to induce them to alter that priority is wholly unclear.

In an interview last month with New Yorker editor David Remnick, President Obama scored the implausibility of "a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq," calling claims that arming the rebels earlier would have brought Assad down and ended the fighting "magical thinking."

Indeed, as Peter Munson recently argued in WarOnTheRocks.com, "Even had the transfers changed the balance and toppled the regime, the fundamental challenge of an amorphous atomized middle facing a cohesive and radicalized extreme would play itself out in Syria, just as it has elsewhere." 

Of course, it didn't help that, back in the halcyon days of the Arab Spring, before Egypt and then Libya descended into turmoil, followed not long after by Iraq and Sudan, the administration incautiously ó and prematurely ó consigned Assad to defeat. Fortunately, it did so only with words, rejecting the more direct military commitment urged by congressional hawks like John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and Peter King.

But the champions of preventive intervention have by no means been silenced, and the danger persists that, helped along by the so-called "CNN Effect," we could yet find ourselves embroiled in still another expensive, futile, and ultimately pointless war.

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