Map of Syria
Map of Syria

I am not an isolationist. There are times when countries, or coalitions of countries, can and should intervene in other nations’ affairs.

I am happy, generally, to stay out of other countries’ business and reserve that interventionism for cases where one nation poses a direct and immediate threat to others. I make exceptions in cases where a particular regime engages in serious, systemic, continuing violations of its own citizens’ basic human rights. I supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (see: The War in Iraq: Ten Myths), as well as the more recent intervention in Libya . . . although I did not necessarily support our strategy or President Barack Obama’s (D) unconstitutional way of executing it (see: Presidents Aren’t Dictators).

Many who tend toward the libertarian side of the political spectrum take a principled view that foreign affairs are really none of our business. Although I understand this position, I respectfully disagree. The community of nations must be ready to step-in—at least in extreme situations—not only to fight against nations that threaten the greater peace, but also to help a nation’s people fight against the maniacal dictators and belligerent madmen that too-often rule them.

Ideally this would happen in the context of an international body like the United Nations. But the only U.N. body with the authority to intervene militarily is the Security Council, and its structure—where five nations, including the United States, have unlimited veto authority—ensures that it will almost never be able to act. As we saw with Iraq, even in those rare cases where the U.N. takes a strong stand on paper, it is unwilling to obey its own charter and back it up with military force.

Many say that the U.S. isn’t the world’s police force. Well, I agree that we shouldn’t be, but until the U.N. is restructured or replaced, we are . . . because if we don’t act on the world stage to do what the U.N. is supposed to be doing, nobody will. And if nobody is willing to oppose belligerency, support human rights, and bolster peoples’ right to self-determination (even when they might elect leaders we don’t like), then the world will be much worse off in the long run.

For all our flaws, and despite some serious mistakes at times, we have acted as well as can be expected in this unique international role. Our military interventions have only been targeted against some of the worst regimes in the world, and have had strong international backing—enough so that a rationally-structured United Nations would have lent their imprimatur. Even the most controversial recent example, the war in Iraq, was executed by a coalition of over forty independent countries . . . and many more nations supported our actions, whether officially or tacitly, without committing their own troops or formally joining the coalition. Despite constant blather to the contrary, even from otherwise intelligent and knowledgeable people, there is no serious doubt that the people of Iraq are better off today than they were under the Hussein regime (see again: The War in Iraq: Ten Myths).

The worst we can be accused of insofar as our military excursions is that we don’t do enough of them. Critics often point out that, while we stepped into Iraq and Afghanistan, we have sat on the sidelines in countless other cases against countless other regimes. They are right. A cynic might say that this is evidence that we aren’t really motivated by the lofty goals of spreading democracy and bolstering human rights, since, if that was our motivation, we’d be doing it in many more places than we do. Or perhaps we simply govern ourselves by practical limits on how many fights we can manage simultaneously, by how much international support there is for military action (which is lacking, for example, in the case of Iran and North Korea), and by domestic support among our people at home.

I’m not saying we’re perfect. Not by a long shot. While it is a moral imperative that we support national self-determination and oppose dictatorial regimes, we need to be much more careful about not empowering other dictators, or lending legitimacy to ‘freedom fighters’ who merely seek to impose their own dictatorship in place of the old one, or sending money and support to regimes that are themselves dictatorial just because we happen to share a mutual enemy. We cannot assume that the enemy of our enemy is automatically our friend. We have made that mistake far too many times before; it is our single biggest failing in our ‘policeman’ role.

For example, we armed the Afghan Mujahadeen back in the 1980s in our [justified] efforts to oppose the Soviet Union, but many used those same weapons to establish the Taliban regime or, after receiving U.S. combat training, joined al-Qaeda and went to war against us. We also helped arm Saddam Hussein’s Iraq because he was at war against Iran, our mutual enemy . . . and we all know how that turned out. Even today we continue to support the Wahhabi leaders of Saudi Arabia, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian National Authority, and other countries that violate the rights of their citizens or regularly attack their neighbors. Recently, we made the absurd decision to continue sending aid to Egypt when it was ruled by the Jihadists in the Muslim Brotherhood, and still continued sending aid to them [in violation of U.S. law!] after they had a military coup.

Coming back to Syria, there is no doubt that Bashar al-Assad should be deposed. The al-Assad family’s regime—first under Hafez and now under his son Bashar—grew out of the same Ba’ath movement that put Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq. The two regimes had much in common. Both built up stockpiles of chemical weapons. Both ruled their people with an iron fist and had no qualms about violating human rights. Both denied Israel’s right to exist and lent support to Palestinian terrorist groups. Both, it would now appear, are willing to use their chemical weapons against their own people. In fact, there is still some reason to believe that Iraq moved at least some of its chemical weapons stockpile to Syria in the lead-up to the Iraq war, which would partially explain why we found fewer weapons there than we expected (although we did, contrary to public perception, find many hundreds of outlawed WMD’s in Iraq).

But we have to answer some important questions. Who are the good guys here? Who do we send money and support to? Will a collapse of the al-Assad regime result in free elections, or just in a slightly different brand of Islamist dictatorship and terror? Are we willing to make enough of a commitment to give the Syrian people the best chance for a positive outcome?

In Iraq, we made a full commitment. We deposed Hussein, and then we stuck around long enough—at great cost and despite mounting domestic opposition—to ensure that free elections happened, a certain level of security and stability was achieved, and the people there had every possible chance to build their own future (even if they end up choosing to build the wrong one, which is still a distinct possibility). And this is what it took in a country that had relatively stable public institutions, several organized opposition groups that supported freedom and democracy, and a cultural memory of the greatness of pre-Ba’athist Iraq. In Afghanistan, which had none of these things, we are having a much more difficult time achieving the same outcomes.

Ultimately, the outcome of a military intervention depends on the people. We gave the Iraqi and Afghan people a chance for success and freedom, a chance that I still deeply believe they deserved, but it is up to them to embrace it and run with it. They might. They might not. But if we had just lobbed some cruise missiles and made some air strikes, we most likely would have just agitated the dictators. The most we could have hoped for was handing the countries over to their ready-made opposition forces, but we would have had no guarantee that they were going to be any better.

So, what are our options in Syria?

One option is to do absolutely nothing. Those aforementioned libertarian-leaners are already lighting up Facebook demanding that we not interfere. They wonder why we would ever think of getting involved with an internal Syrian conflict. But, as I discussed earlier, there are times where international military action is justified and necessary. Tempting as it is, I cannot subscribe to the naive, pollyanna view that we should just sit back and let belligerent dictators do whatever they want as long as they don’t bother their neighbors. Every human being has the right to live under a system of self-government, and to have their fundamental liberties respected and protected. And every free nation has the responsibility to act on the world stage to help accomplish that end.

Further, I agree with President Obama that the use of chemical weapons is a ‘red line’ that cannot be crossed without serious repercussions. For eighty-eight years, the civilized world has agreed that they must never be used again, and that doing so would be a crime against humanity (cf., the Geneva Protocol). The al-Assad regime has used them, and cannot be permitted to continue doing so. We must be driven, by a humanitarian impulse if nothing else, to stop this unjustifiable violation of long-standing international law and remove from power those who would perpetrate it.

Recognizing that something has to be done, the question is: what?

If our goal is to depose the al-Assad regime and establish a free, democratic government in Syria, the right way to accomplish it—the only way, really—would be a full commitment not unlike the one we made in Iraq. It will take years. It will cost billions of dollars and possibly thousands of American soldiers’ lives. There will be insurgency, discord, and violence, although likely not as bad as in Iraq (since we have hopefully learned from some of our mistakes). In the end, the Syrian people will have the opportunity—like their brethren in Iraq—to make something of themselves, if they are willing to work for it. But I have no illusions about this. There is little international support for a full-on invasion of Syria, and even less support for it here at home. Although this is probably the best long-run choice, it is politically untenable and almost certainly will not happen.

If we set a more modest goal of preventing al-Assad from using chemical weapons, we could make limited air strikes against the regime and its chemical weapons infrastructure. It is unlikely to result in al-Assad being deposed and, even if it does, it is unlikely to end with a free, democratic regime in its place. We run the very real risk of agitating al-Assad, leading him to dig-in and fight more vehemently against his opposition. We also run a very real risk of sending Syria into a lawless spiral of coups and infighting like that in Egypt and Libya. But, assuming we have good intelligence about the regime’s chemical weapons programs, we might be able to limit or stop the chemical attacks . . . and that is probably better than nothing.

It is this third option that is being considered by the president and his foreign counterparts in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and, possibly, the U.N. Security Council. Assuming that Obama complies with the War Powers Resolution of 1973—providing notice to Congress of any military action within forty-eight hours and withdrawing after sixty days if not granted specific authorization by Congress to continue—then I could possibly support it. But I would support it only because we—the United States and the greater world community—are clearly unwilling to do what really needs to be done if we want there to be a free, democratic Syria any time soon.