Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. noted “Great cases like hard cases make bad law.” I was taught this in law school. A Great Case is one where the facts of the case are so unique and cries out for Justice. But the uniqueness also means that it should not be used to stand for a general principle of law. The Foreign Policy equivalent should be “Heartbreaking Images Make Bad Foreign Policy.”
This phrase popped into my head early this week when the image of dead three year old Aylan Al- Kurdi, washed up on the shores of Turkey appeared in the media. Al-Kurdi’s family was fleeing the Syrian civil war, bound for Greece and ultimately they hoped, Canada. To say the image is heart rendering is an understatement. And this sad scene has increased the call for the Western World to do…. something… about the Syrian Civil War.
The idea that the West can intervene in the Syrian conflict and make everything all better, while very tempting, is not just delusional, but evidence of some form of collective amnesia. We’ve seen this movie before any number of times before. In the 21st Century the tale has taken place in the Muslim world with the US coming to the rescue. We had the neocon production in 2003, The Invasion of Iraq. Remember the thrilling story of how the U.S. was going to overthrow Saddam Hussein and the Bathists, liberating the Iraqi people, allowing them to be governed by moderates? We were told that Shiite in Southern Iraq would welcome the U.S. Military as liberators, strewing rose petals at their feet. And how did that turn out for us and the Iraqis?
(Of course that claim was not only evidence of hubris, but also a refusal to acknowledge history. Why would the Shiites be happy to see us when we had abandoned them a decade prior to the mercy of Saddam Hussein after encouraging them to rebel?)
After Iraq wasn’t the smash hit it was hyped to be, the story-line cooled. Sure some liberals tried to revive it with Darfur. Tentatively titled Not On My Watch, it was to tell the story of America getting involved in Sudan to stop a genocidal leader and liberating the Sudanese people, allowing them to be governed by moderates. It even had George Clooney attached. But like many scripts, it just didn’t gain traction and was shelved.
Then in 2010, the liberal decided to reboot the concept. This time instead of the neocons, it starred the Responsibility to Protect (“R2P”) crowd. The setting was Libya and it was Wacky Gaddafi Has to Go . The plot was simple and familiar, Muammar Gaddafi, ruling nut-job, made some blustery statements about his people rebelling. The U.S., along with the UK and France, decided it had to stop a genocidal leader and liberate the Libyan people, allowing them to be governed by moderates. So strongly was this believed, the Obama administration didn’t even bother getting Congressional approval (something Bush and the neo-cons secured). And the result of our intervention? Islamic fascists launching terror attacks in Algeria and staging an uprising in Mali, destroying swaths of the cultural heritage of Timbuktu all while Libya descends into further chaos and on the verge of becoming a failed state. (And we won’t even go down the rabbit hole that is Benghazi).
So both right and left wingers have had their military adventure in the Middle East. And both sides have seen it all go wrong.
And yet here we are, a mere two years since the American people rejected another reboot, My Chemical Assad, the stirring story of a Middle Eastern dictator using chemical weapons on his rebellious people. The U.S., along with tits allies (TBD) decided it had to stop a genocidal leader and liberate the Syrian people, allowing them to be governed by moderates. The R2P folk and the Neocons decided this should be a joint production. The President wasn’t quite on board (Remember the Red Lines?), but was willing to greenlight the shooting (literally). But then American people saw the cast of characters and decided to pass.
Can you imagine what Syria would be like if the West had launched military operations against Assad in 2013? Remember this was when ISIS was considered a JV team. Had the West toppled the Syrian regime back then, ISIS would be in complete control of Syria, portions of Northern Iraq and would be pressing against Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. (What? You think other resistance groups would have been in control? Please, they were trading hostages to ISIS for supplies.) If Libya is is a crap show, Syria would have been that on Steroids.
And nothing has changed for the better. Simply bombing hasn’t solved the problem. The US and other countries have been bombing ISIS for almost a year now and it hasn’t weakened them. (Of course, the US is doing so without authorization from Congress and in violation of the Constitution, but no one in Washington seems to care about anything as trivial as limitations on power. As Rand Paul observed, most of his Republican opponents for the GOP nomination problem with Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy is that she is not that she is a dove, but that they want to start more wars than she.). Dropping munitions from on-high is not the same as having control on the ground. (One of the more pernicious myths that abounds in neocon and R2P circles is the US air intervention in Kosovo was sufficient to resolve the matter. It wasn’t. It was the Serbian realization that Russia was not going to intervene militarily to support it that ended the conflict).
The moderates still can’t fight. The US managed to vet and train a mere 60 troops and they were all captured and killed within days of returning to Syria. (And our erstwhile Iraqi allies aren’t any better). Simply put, we lack the ability to control what happens in Syrian territory. Short of putting boots on the ground, we won’t. And therein lies the next issue: it would be American troops. None of our NATO allies are going with us. Or if they do, it will be token forces. We will do the heavy lifting and get all of the blame when something goes wrong.
And let’s be blunt: The Syrian/ISIS situation is not a national security issue for the United States. No American interest is threatened by the Assads maintaining control. Even if ISIS was to take control (which I don’t think will happen for the reason set forth below), it would have very little impact on the United States. We don’t have a mandate to rule the world. American foreign policy works best when it is doing any combination of 1) furthering free trade and 2) promoting democracy. And promoting democracy is not the same as installing democracy. The United States should do everything to ensure the building blocks for democratic governments are in place. But unless and until the people in those countries express a true desire for such a form of government, we should not be telling them what to do.
ISIS is a problem, but one that can be contained within Syria and Iraq. (Graeme Wood’s article is the best primer on ISIS and what we should do). And the best people to do that are Syria’s neighbors. The Saudis are financing opposition to Assad and blunting ISIS. In this, they are joined by Egypt and Jordan openly and other Middle Eastern countries less openly. Iran is backing the Assads and fighting ISIS. We have no need to intervene. Let the locals deal with a local problem.
Now you may object that I am casting this as solely a military campaign. What about humanitarian options? What about taking in refugees? And my response is what about it?
We should take in some refugees and Europe should as well. But so shouldn’t the Arab world. Why are refugees going to Saudi Arabia, or Bahrain or Kuwait or the UAE? Why can’t Qatar, a nation spending approximately $220 billion building air-condition, grass soccer pitches in the middle of a desert, spend some of that money on housing its fellow Arabs and Muslims? Isn’t one of the five pillars of Islam a duty of charity to the poor and needy? Would not people forced from their homes by other Muslims fall into the category of poor and needy? The United States and Western Europe should not and cannot be expected to shoulder the burden. The locals need to deal with this portion of the problem as well.
The United States has spent the last two decades engaging in moralistic crusades and has precious little to show for it. We need a more realistic approach and not embark on campaigns based on media images, no matter how gut-wrenching.
Heartbreaking Pictures Make Bad Foreign Policy.