A Syrian Mistake

Decades ago bombing another country was an undeniable act of war, now an unprovoked attack on Syrian soil exemplifies moral leadership. Times have certainly changed. America’s hawkish political class has largely ignored George Washington’s advice to avoid unnecessary foreign entanglements. Partisan self-interest is clear: international entanglements allow democrats to appear tough, and Republicans to seem heroic.

Nevertheless, bellicose speeches, expert analysis, somber pronouncements, and moral outrage cannot change a critical fact: ISIS is an enemy and a potential threat to the United States. Syria is not.  Consequently a violation of Syria’s territorial sovereignty is presently unjustified. Sovereignty aside, the United States’ decision to enter an unpredictable Syrian civil war is shortsighted.

Currently Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is fighting a civil war against an amalgamation of rebel groups. In some areas of Syria moderate rebels are fighting ISIS extremists, while other regions feature a traditional government-verses-rebels civil war. Last week the United States entered the fracas by bombing ISIS and pledging additional armaments to moderate rebel groups. Soon an irresistible military temptation will be on the horizon.

Hawkish American politicians believe that by increasing the United States’ military aid to moderate Syrian rebels, the good guys will eventually crush ISIS and overthrow Assad. Then, a new government will address societal grievances, protect human rights, enhance economic growth, and undermine leftover extremists. The eventual success of this hopeful strategy is predicated on an organized military campaign on the part of disparate rebel groups, followed by years of nation-building. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which moderate rebels achieve either of these goals without American troops or substantial financial assistance.

Worse yet, American intervention could easily lay the groundwork for one of four dangerous outcomes. First, Mr. Assad retains power after an unnecessarily protracted civil war; ISIS fighters gradually retreat into Iraq. Second, tolerant Syrian rebels win, and subsequently prove themselves corrupt, unwise, unfair, and fractured; extremism remains viable. Third, moderate rebels gain power, but not decisively; substantial swaths of Syria are controlled by terrorist groups. Fourth, the presence of meddling westerners fuels ISIS’ march to victory; Syria becomes an extremist state. In short, Republicans and Democrats have abandoned principled realism, and prioritized hope and change.

Modern politicians should learn from Hamlet: faced with a powerful choice, he chose wisely.

(W)ho would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

For interventionist politicians in Washington DC, the ills “we know not of” are far less menacing than the potential threat of terrorism. Politicians have convinced a majority of voters that the United States possesses a godlike ability to cast international events in America’s preferred mold. Iraq tells a different tale. In the years since Saddam Hussein was overthrown, a corrupt, unfair, and unwise Iraqi government has failed to govern effectively.  Today ISIS is in the process of exploiting the government’s ineptitude. Under appreciated and poorly understood forces have sabotaged lofty goals in Iraq – a similar result is likely in Syria.

Bombing ISIS without Syrian permission, and arming cooperative rebels, will draw the United States into a murky conflict, a conflagration that will cause additional dominoes to tumble. Even as diplomats and military experts struggle to control the fallout from the war in Iraq, US leaders are determined to repeat past mistakes – not learn from them.

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