Has military intervention by the US become, by definition, a mistake?

Is reflexive resistance to intervention in Syria the right reaction by progressives?

Syrian rebelsAs you’ve no doubt heard by now, using as a justification its conclusion that the Assad regime had killed 150 or more people with sarin gas – technically a weapon of mass destruction – the Obama administration has made decision to supply Syrian rebels with small arms and ammunition.

Besides, the New York Times reports

Formally designating the Assad government as a user of chemical weapons, [an] official said, will make it easier for Mr. Obama to rally support from Britain, France and other allies for further measures.

What’s more, the administration is considering instituting a no-fly zone over Syria,. Towards that end, reports Reuters:

Washington has moved Patriot surface-to-air missiles, war planes and more than 4,000 troops into Jordan in the past week, officially as part of an annual exercise but making clear that the forces deployed could stay on when the war games are over.

Guess the administration finally took pity on the Syrian rebels after reading Wednesday’s (June 12) report by New York Times weapon expert C.J. Chivers about their efforts to manufacture their own weapons.

The workers arrive by darkness, taking their stations at the vise and the lathe. Soon metal filings and sparks fly, and the stack of their creations grows at their feet: makeshift mortar shells to be fired through barrels salvaged from disabled Syrian Army tanks.

Across northern Syria, rebel workshops like these are part of a clandestine network of primitive arms-making plants, a signature element of a militarily lopsided war. … “Everybody knows we do not have the weapons we need to defend ourselves,” said Abu Trad, a commander of the Saraqib Rebels Front.

In fact,

The value of workshop-grade weapons, while once crucial to the rebels’ success in claiming territory in northern Syria, may have substantially declined.

Last spring, when Mr. Assad was struggling to confront the armed opposition that his crackdown had fueled, shops like these forced Syria’s military to change tactics. … But the government has spent a year refitting its troops, Hezbollah has sent in reinforcements, and Iran and Russia have kept Mr. Assad’s forces resupplied. … And most of the shops’ other weapons systems lack … accuracy, range or explosive punch.

Chivers quotes Khaled Muhammed Addibis, a rebel commander, who said, “All we need is effective weapons. … Nothing else.”

I’m as wary as the next guy of a proxy war — with the United States, et al, on one side, and Iran and Russia on the other – of such obviousness that it stands a higher chance than usual of pitting the principals against each other face to face. But, my personal portal into the world of foreign affairs was via the study of genocide. In fact, guilt over failing to halt the Rwandan atrocities may be the reason that former President Clinton has come down, however cautiously, on the side of Syria intervention.

Most progressives reflexively resist intervention because it’s usually – okay, always – an excuse to further U.S. political and energy interests. But, speaking personally, however much I may personally suffer from delusions of heroism about rescuing those being bullied, I’ve always had to force myself to resist calling for intervention in international affairs.

In a perfect world, we could separate the rebel forces worthy of aid from those on a fast track to war-crimes trials, as well as defer our not-so-hidden agenda in the Middle East while we provide emergency military aid to the Syrian people. But neither is likely to happen, and, because we live in an age marked by the absence of a long-overdue, muscular international body, I can’t help but wonder (speaking for myself and not FPIF, of course), if there’s merit to incremental intervention. (Ducks head to avoid incoming barrage from other progressives.)

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

14 replies »

  1. I won’t speak for all progressives, but from my perspective there are three issues. First, the obvious one – a brutal dictator using chemical weapons is bad, period, and said dictator, as they say back home, “needs killin’.”

    However, our foreign policy is always about the pragmatics, isn’t it? We pretend to support “freedom fighters” and champion the cause of justice and democracy. Except that isn’t at all what we’re doing. So on the subject of vested interests, is there reason to believe that the Syrian rebels are somehow better for the US than the current regime?

    Finally, what percentage of the US economic dumpster fire owes to the fact that we spend as much on the military as the rest of the world combined? What would happen if we opted for a defense budget that was proportional to how everyone else operates?

    There’s every reason to want Assad (and every other thug on the planet, for that matter) gone. But since it is, and alway shas been, about costs and benefits, I wouldn’t mind if we conducted this particular cost:benefit analysis using a different set of criteria.

  2. Tough to disagree with you, Sam. It’s just bad for America’s moral conscience to let the citizens of another state wallow in pain. Nobody seems to want to empower the UN to handle situations like this. Ultimately, though, the only answer is world government. It may be anathema to most factions, but I have it on good authority that’s how they do it on other planets.

    • There’s no questioning the morality and there’s no questioning how hard it is. We’re in deep trouble if we ever stop caring. But you have to get your own house in order. There’s something profoundly immoral about spending that much money on the other side of the world when your own children are hungry.

  3. Sorry, but I think it’s entirely appropriate to let the citizens of another state wallow in pain.

    First, we’re a lousy judge of who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy. We thought N. Vietnam was bad but in fact it’s turned out to be much better than S. Vietnam was. We thought Saddam was bad, but now that we’re trying to rule that train wreck of a country, it’s not so clear he was. I’ve made the same argument about Egypt. The cure can be worse than the disease. Yeah, Assad is bad, but there’s no guarantee that the new guys wont be worse. And surely history tells us they’ll be ungrateful. Hey, I sent money to the Afghan rebels to fight the Russians back in the day, and to show how grateful they were they helped with 9/11.

    Two, when did we become so interested in other people’s pain and suffering? We didn’t seem to care in Kampuchea, etc, etc. We only care when it’s the Middle East, where our complex oil and Israel agendas are involved.

    Three, It’s always a mistake to get involved in tribal wars, always, always, always.

    Four, I believe that in general religious states are always worse than secular ones, and in this case the rebels are yet another group of religious extremists. I’m stopping short of making an argument for religio-ocide, although I’m tempted.

    Five, when has our help resulted in a better solution? Their war, their issues, let them fight it.

    Six, the Sarin deception is as bad as the WMD lie. Who in the fuck did I vote for?

    • I think this about sums it up. You have both moral and practical issues, and neither endorses intervention (at least not in a resource-constrained world).

    • Excellent summary.

      1) You weren’t the only one giving money. The U.S. supported bin Laden, the leader of the group responsible for 9/11. I opposed the illegal US invasion of Iraq, yet also strongly oppose *support* for repressive regimes and states with unpopular forms of government. We should encourage democracy, but still support the peoples will in their choice of government, with the understanding that progressive values often take time to develop and can involve many wrong turns along the way.
      2) Precisely. Another prime example of our Israeli driven foreign policy. Intervention in Syria, but no non-military intervention for the 3/4 million Palestinians ethnically cleansed and still denied return, or their institutionalized oppression by Israel–both ongoing for 65 years now. This, despite the injustice that has been perpetuated being a key driver of radicalization and instability in the region, and a key contributing factor threatening our own security.
      3) Mostly agree, with the proviso there is a moral imperative to stop genocide or ethnic cleansing, which should be done in conjunction with broad international support.
      4) Mostly agree. While strongly favoring secularism, a non-secular government could prove to be a vast improvement over the previous one. Also, as pointed out before in #1, the choice of the people should be respected. In the case of Syria, this seems highly dubious, however. Syria apparently had a fairly stable society before this civil war.
      5) Mostly agree. As primarily a non-interventionist, one still shouldn’t become so confined to an ideology as to be blinded. While questioning some of the tactics used against Serbia, it seems clear our intervention there was preferable to the alternative. I would argue that military intervention should be seen as a last resort of last resorts, have broad support nationally and internationally, and have very strong justification, more along the lines of altruistic obligation rather than solely or primarily self interest. Ideally, like the author, a stronger international body would be preferable.
      6) Strongly agree. Obviously, Obama has largely turned his back on progressives in a number of areas, proving to be a huge disappointment. Nevertheless, while I would have liked a more progressive candidate in the first place, it boiled down to the lesser of two evils in the last two elections. Even with foreknowledge, I’d still be forced to make the same choice. But I hear you, brother.

      Let me add to this list one additional item.

      7) I have no love whatsoever for Assad, but what strikes me about Syria is that the victims there are merely pawns cynically used by the U.S. It seems apparent that it isn’t the innocents suffering there that we truly care about; it is for the citizens of its neighbor, Israel, where the concern actually resides. If we were genuinely concerned for the well-being of all Syrians, we wouldn’t be adding fuel to the fire, as we have been directly, and indirectly through proxies like Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’d have been applying heavy pressure on all parties involved to put an immediate end to this civil war as soon as it became clear this would be a protracted and bloody affair. Ironically, Syria amounts to little more than a nuisance to Israel; they pose no actual existential threat, nor will they any time in the near future. Moreover, unless some kind of puppet government is installed, what good reason to think any new Syrian government will feel any friendlier towards Israel?

      • take a look at the comment thread over on my israel post. obama says it’s all about israel.

    • Overcoming the knee-jerk reaction using logic may enable one’s heart to reside in the same place as one’s intellect. Thus, my heart tells me that instigating, encouraging or supporting violent overthrows of government and civil wars is rarely in the best interests of the people of that state. Violence often just begets more violence, which can lead to a vicious circle.

      Palestinian militant’s use of violence hasn’t helped the righteous cause of Palestinians. Our illegal armed invasion and its subsequent unleashing of sectarian violence in Iraq apparently killed more innocents than all the years of Saddam’s rule, not even counting how our questionable use of sanctions preceding that also resulted in inflicting a great many more deaths and untold misery among the populace. Trying to fit simple solutions to complex problems generally isn’t a good recipe. We must accept there are seldom any easy answers. What happens to Syrians not guilty of any real crime but supporting their government? Will they be unduly punished, as were Iraqi’s? Additionally, it would be best if government openly and honestly acknowledges and weighs risks, keeping the public fully informed on the pros and cons of all possible options.

      • The weird thing here, if you like odd bedfellows, is that those driven by the urge to act on behalf of moral imperatives – the “do the right thing” crowd – find themselves allied with those acting on the worst impulses. Intervene to help the oppressed and intervene to snag the oil or extend our dominance of a region – humanitarians and sociopaths unite!

        • Given that the largest and most powerful Syrian opposition group has ties to al-Qaeda–it would be very odd bedfellows indeed! It is unbelievable that heavy arms supplied to the rebels would not find their way into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra. With the one hand we’re killing them with drones while, with the other, we are arming them at the same time. Just another instance where reactionary short-term expediency trumps long-term coherent foreign policy. An American who ended up fighting with al-Nusra Front was indicted by the U.S. and has just recently been taken into custody after flying back from Turkey. From that story:

          “Harroun ….. dismissed a question about fighting alongside al Qaeda terrorists who have saturated the ranks of Syrian rebels in the fight against Assad. He charged that “the U.S. plays both sides, too,” and that the Al Qaeda splinter group welcomed him with open arms.”


          “Aymenn al-Tamimi, the Shilman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and researcher on jihad in Syria, told Foxnews.com on Thursday that keeping arms from migrating between Syrian rebel groups would be an almost impossible, task. He noted in a recent blog post on Jihadology.net that Jabhat al-Nusra and Free Syrian Army groups operating near the southern city of Daraa often cooperate.”


          This link applies to my previous post–sorry for the omission.


          (Disclaimer: Hardly preferred sources, but these straightforward exclusive articles display little bias.)

  4. And while decent men argue morality and honor, war mongers arrange for French man portable missiles to be delivered surreptitiously through the Saudis to the rebels for some future undisclosed quid pro quo.

    Reminds me of Ollie North and the Stinger missiles we snuck into Afghanistan for our pals the Mujaheddin, who later of course became our declared enemy the Taliban. I’m with Sam, let us remove ourselves from the sandbox, no good can come from our tarrying there.

  5. Wascal

    yeah, there are times when the horror is so bad we have to step in to prevent genocide, like kampuchea and all the horrible wars in darfur and sudan. wait, we didn’t get involved there. we only seem to care about genocide if those being killed are white or oil or israel is involved. it’s a very, very cynical and inconsistent policy.

    i used to read the economist and i read two articles there long ago i’ve never forgotten. one was about russia’s muslim problem and how it would play out and the other was about this obscure guy in serbia named milosevic who was stockpiling a mountain of weapons, and speculation he had genocide on his mind. point it, these are to some extent forseeable. if a magazine can see it coming, so can the cia. we could deal with some of these things without waiting for a crisis, but i suspect “wmd” and “sarin” crises are useful for policymakers.

    • I agree. Places where we should be involved you hear nary a whisper from our government. But we constantly hear about protecting the security of one particular nation lacking any actual existential threat.

      The Russian government just released evidence to the U.N. that purportedly shows the sarin was manufactured and used by the rebels. The U.N. reported problems establishing the chain of custody for the evidence France submitted, which apparently only shows it was sarin, not who deployed it. Since 15 Syrian government soldiers died in the attack, it seems likely this came from the rebels, not the Syrian government. Carla Del Ponte, who led the U.N. commission investigating this, recently reaffirmed her original findings that it was the opposition, not the government. It is reported that al-Qaeda has this capability, and it has also been reported that the U.S. was training rebels in chemical weapons, allegedly for the purpose of recognizing and securing any chemical weapons facilities.