No, Syria Is Not Iraq

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

For those advocating greater intervention in Syria by the United States, the memory of Iraq has turned into a real inconvenience. 

“Iraq is not Syria,” proclaimed the headline of New York Times editor Bill Keller’s op-ed on Monday, by way of arguing for greater U.S. involvement in Syria’s ongoing civil war. Because of Iraq, Keller wrote, “in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.”

Let’s grant that it’s possible to over-learn the lessons of Iraq. The Iraq war, as costly a blunder as it was, should not discredit any and all military interventions, but it should—and has—raised the bar for when such interventions are necessary. What appears to persist, however, is the belief that “bold” U.S. moves—nearly always assumed to be military action—can change the situation for the better, and produce the outcomes that we would like to see.

And if those outcomes aren’t produced? Well, then it will be time for even bolder moves. Writing on Syria back in 2011, The Progressive Realist’s Eric Martin looked back at the run-up to the Iraq war and observed the steadily escalating calls for action—subsequently dubbed “The Regime Change Ratchet” by writer Matt Yglesias—that tend to drive public debate over any given foreign policy crisis. “This pattern of rhetorical escalation in response to the practical limitations of bringing about regime change from afar is a familiar dance,” wrote Martin, “most deftly performed by those inclined to advocate for more and bigger US interventions abroad.”

It seems that we’re now at Martin’s Step 3:

Step 3 (with Regime X still in place): Sanctions? Regime isolation? Is that all the President is going to do in the face of Regime X's perfidy?  Those timid jabs will never work, and the President's dithering will make us look weak and lacking in resolve. Our enemies will be emboldened.  The President must use our military to deal a swift blow.  No one is advocating a prolonged occupation, just a decapitation maneuver, and then a rapid hand off to the indigenous forces for democratic change.

The past weekend’s airstrikes on Syria by Israel have raised pressure on the Obama administration to take military action, with some claiming that the Israeli strikes undercut claims that Syrian air defenses would pose a genuine threat to a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone. In typical fashion, craps enthusiast Senator John McCain, who will apparently be appearing on every Sunday talk show from now until the end of time, has called for “game-changing action,” as if another roll of the military dice were all that was needed to better our luck. 

However, an analysis by military expert Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies cautioned that the limited strikes carried out by Israel do not offer an appropriate model for the broader effort that a no-fly zone would require.   

These details are of little interest to those for whom crises such as Syria are less a test of American capability and leadership than of American honor. It’s a test expressly designed for any non-interventionist to fail. A case in point: During the demonstrations in Iran following the country’s disputed 2009 presidential elections, neocons criticized Obama for not condemning more loudly the Iranian government’s violence against protesters. But now, as his administration has condemned, in the strongest terms, violence by the Syrian government, those same neocons dismiss this condemnation as “pathetic.” See the scam?

The assumption underlying so much of the criticism of the administration efforts to deal with the Syria crisis is that we’re just not acting “seriously” unless there’s a military component. This assumption has to be challenged at every opportunity.

And, while it may not be bold enough for some, the United States is taking action on Syria, not militarily, but through humanitarian assistance to surrounding countries affected by the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as through the hard, grinding work of diplomacy. Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced plans to convene an international conference to find a political solution to the Syria war. Sure, it’s easy to mock two guys in suits, announcing plans to get together and talk about the problem. But to the extent that the United States can effect significant and sustained positive change on the ground in Syria, this is how it will be done. As Fareed Zakaria points out in today’s Washington Post, “Without some political agreement, military intervention will not end Syria’s humanitarian nightmare. It will only change its composition.”

While it's unclear what course Obama will take in Syria, what is clear that he will be damned by his critics for whatever he does, and for whatever he doesn’t. “Many pushing so hard now for the US to wade boldly into such troubled waters probably would turn on the White House in a heartbeat should ill come of any aspect of American engagement in Syria (as it likely would in one form or another),” wrote Wayne White, a former deputy director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research's Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia.

No one should think that “game-changing action” by the administration that failed to change the game quickly or sufficiently wouldn’t be met by calls for even more “game-changing action.” Because that’s the actual nature of the game being played. It doesn’t change.

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