Dan Trombly, who is always worth reading, had an interesting post Wednesday at Slouching Towards Columbia on U.S. intervention in Syria. Those who have read Trombly will not be surprised by his position on intervention–he’s against it–and, as I noted on Twitter, I expect that many readers won’t agree with all of his points. Such is the price of consistently writing long and broad posts: it gives readers far more to disagree with. Trombly’s post triggered some thoughts of my own on a possible U.S. military intervention in Syria, which I outline here.
First, Trombly is certainly correct that the massacre in Houla and other regime atrocities that have been unearthed do not change American strategic interests with respect to Syria. Horrible as they are, they don’t tell us anything new about the nature of this odious regime. If it was a bad idea to intervene prior to the latest revelations–and in this case, the mode of intervention that Trombly criticizes is Danielle Pletka’s prescription of arming the rebels, giving them air cover, and supporting safe corridors–then it remains a bad idea even despite the recent grotesque news. We should not base our foreign policy around heated reactions to tragedy: doing so is a recipe for error.
Second, I think it’s worth visiting reasons that it seems anti-interventionists often end up losing foreign policy debates–and on Syria, I put myself in the anti-interventionist camp. One reason is that anti-interventionists often fail to put forward competitive options, instead stopping with the case against military action. I agree with that case (at least in its conclusion, though I may differ on some of the details), but analysis should not end there. After all, the Syrian regime is perpetrating atrocity after atrocity on its own citizens, and we all have a natural human impulse, an admirable one, to want to stop massacres if we can. So can those who don’t favor military intervention propose, maybe even come to some rough agreement on, median solutions that can deal with humanitarian concerns without resorting to an air war? When the choice presented in these debates seems to be between military intervention and doing nothing, the choice of doing nothing often loses. While I don’t disagree with Trombly’s assertion that “the average American voter” probably “likes killing terrorists but is sick of war,” the relevant audience here is really foreign policy elites within the administration. They are the ones who must be persuaded not to go to war. Given that Mitt Romney is trying to out-hawk Obama on Syria, a new war in that theater may not be politically costly for Obama.
Another thing that anti-interventionists could do a better job of is specifying what the world looks like without the U.S. militarily involved. I am by no means trying to pick on Trombly–my friend, co-author, and someone whom I deeply admire–on this point. But his post is illustrative of something I see as problematic in the anti-interventionist discourse. He writes, for example: “The only way the Assad regime is going to fall in Syria, short of an Iraq-style invasion, is by prolonging the war and defeating the Assad regime through attrition. In other words, the interventionists’ preferred solution of creating ‘safe corridors,’ arming rebel groups, and conducting airstrikes will only drag out the war without assuring victory.” What does drag out the war mean in this context? Is it because Assad is poised to crush the rebels in the status quo? If so, Trombly–or whomever is making a similar case–should come right out and say that. I think realistic assessments of what a world without military intervention would look like would significantly benefit the debate. Perhaps this world is very ugly; that doesn’t mean the case against intervention fails. As I wrote in Bin Laden’s Legacy:
The sad reality of the twenty-first century is that we cannot respond with full vigor to every perceived threat, or we won’t have the resources left over to address those that are most pressing. The sad reality is that lives will be lost in other parts of the world, like Libya, and we won’t be able to do anything about it. This should give us no comfort, but we must be realistic. When we are facing a crushing national debt, the interest payments for which are projected to eclipse our current defense budget by 2019, we cannot afford to overreact to every terrorist threat and to intervene in every conflict.
A third and final point is that Syria illustrates why I disagree with Jason Fritz’s rather thought-provoking argument that a coherent U.S. grand strategy is in effect useless. Rather than being driven by my perception of a “grand enemy,” my own sense of grand strategy is driven by what I see as the overarching–and, in many ways, interrelated–challenges that we confront as a nation, challenges that I outlined at some length on G&L. The national debt and violent non-state actors are among the primary concerns I listed. It seems to me, based on this view of the world, that a military intervention in Syria is not cost justified–particularly because, as Trombly points out, it’s possible that jihadi elements among the rebels may be strengthened rather than marginalized by U.S. involvement. It is hard to justify a new military campaign when our strategic resources would be better devoted to areas where we have very concrete strategic interests–places like Somalia, Yemen, North Africa, Mali, Afghanistan–and we’d also likely be better off if these resources were simply conserved.
My specific thinking on Syria is, of course, a bit more complex than this. But my point is that a sense of grand strategy shaped around the challenges the U.S. confronts can be useful in approaching foreign policy problems–and, in my view, can accomplish precisely what Fritz is concerned with, avoiding foreign policy mistakes.