[Published in War on the Rocks.]
Ever since Russia reneged on an ill-conceived ceasefire plan for Syria in September and participated in a barbarous military campaign in Aleppo, the crescendo of American voices calling for some action in Syria has risen a notch, apparently reaching the White House this week.
Throughout the Syria crisis, the U.S. government bureaucracy and key power centers in the foreign policy elite have espoused Obama’s version of restraint and resignation, toeing a position along the lines of “Syria is a mess, but there’s little we can do.” Lately, though, an escalatory mindset has taken hold, with analysts and politicians floating proposals to defend Syrian civilians and confront an expansionist Russia.
“I advocate today a no-fly zone and safe zones,” Hillary Clinton said in the most recent debate, taking a position starkly more interventionist than the president she served as secretary of state. She continued: “We need some leverage with the Russians, because they are not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution, unless there is some leverage over them.”
Does this kind of talk represent a sea change in decision-making circles? After years of decrying missteps in the ill-begotten wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and debating America’s shrinking footprint, is there now a convergence to once again embrace interventionism among politicians, public opinion and the foreign policy elite that some in the White House derided as “the blob”?
I think there is, and those of us who have espoused a more vigorous intervention in Syria and a more activist response to the Arab uprisings need now to take extra care in the policies we propose. As the pendulum swings back toward a bolder, more assertive American foreign policy, we must eschew simplistic triumphalism and an unfounded assumption that America can determine world events. Otherwise we risk repeating the mistakes of America’s last, disastrous wave of moralism and interventionism after 9/11.
It’s important not to overstate the backlash to Obama’s calls for humility and restraint, and not too ignore the activist and moralistic strains that connect Obama’s foreign policy to that of his predecessors. With those caveats, it seems like we’re on the cusp of a return to a more activist foreign policy.
That doesn’t make us all interventionists yet, but it does expose the United States to renewed risk, making it all the more important to restore some honesty and clarity to the debate. Any discussion about America’s global footprint has to acknowledge that it’s still huge. America has not retrenched or turned its back on the world. Any discussion about Syria has to acknowledge from the get-go that America already is running a billion-dollar military intervention there. So when we talk about escalating or de-escalating, we need to be clear where we’re starting. The United States is heavily implicated in all the Arab world’s wars, with few of its strategic aims yet secured. This unrealized promise has fueled frustration about America’s role.
Even Trump’s isolationist calls to tank the international order and make America great by impoverishing the rest of the world echo, in part, a desire for strength and moral clarity. The likely next president, Hillary Clinton, has steadily stood in the American tradition of liberal internationalism which has been the dominant school of foreign policy thought since World War II. That history embraces an international order dominated by the United States and trending toward market economies, free trade, liberal rights, and a rhetorical commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights, which even in its inconsistent and opportunistic pursuit, has been considered anything from an irritant to a major threat to the world’s autocracies. This ideological package has underwritten America’s best foreign policy, like Cold War containment, and its worst, like the invasion of Iraq and the post-9/11 savaging of the rule of law.
Syria’s war has been the graveyard of the comforting, but vague, idea that America could lead from behind and serve as a global ballast while somehow keeping its paws to itself. Other destabilizing realities helped upend this dream, among them Europe’s financial crisis, the rise of the extreme right, the Arab uprisings, the collapse of the Arab state system and a new wave of wars, unprecedented refugee flows, and the expansionist moves of a belligerent, resurgent Russia.
Pointedly, however, Syria has embodied the failure of the hands-off approach. Its complexity also serves as a warning to anyone eager to oversimplify. Just as it was foolish to pretend that the meltdown of Iraq and Syria, and the rise of the Islamic State, were some kind of local, containable imbroglio, it is also foolish to pretend that a robust, interventionist America can resolve the world’s problems. Neither notion is true.
America is the preeminent world power. It can use its resources to manage conflicts like Syria’s in order to pursue its interests. Success flows from clearly defining those interests and intervening sagely, in a coordinated fashion across the globe. America has played a disproportionate role in designing the international institutions that created a new world order after World War II. For a a time after the end of the Cold War, it enjoyed being alone at the top of the global power pyramid. American influence swelled for many reasons, highest among them American wealth, comprehensible policy goals, and appealing values. But dominance is not the same thing as total control, and a newly assertive U.S. foreign policy still can achieve only limited aims.
The next president will have to recalibrate America’s approach to power projection – how to deter powerful bullies like Russia, how to manage toxic partnerships with allies like Saudi Arabia, how to contain the strategic fallout of wars and state failure in Iraq, Syria, and the world’s ungoverned zones. The most visible test right now is Syria. Syria is important – not least because of the 10 million displaced, the 5-plus million refugees, the half million dead. It is also important as the catalyst of widespread regional collapse in the Arab world, the source of an unprecedented refugee crisis, a hothouse for jihadi groups, and as a test of American resolve.
It’s harder and harder to find foreign policy experts willing, like Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson recently did inThe New York Times, to argue that any American effort to steer the course of Syria’s war will only make things worse. (British journalist Jonathan Steele made a similar argument this week in The Guardian that any Western effort to contain war crimes in Aleppo “threatens to engulf us all.”)
Figures from both major U.S. parties have increasingly shifted to arguing that the United States will have to experiment with some form of escalation, because the existing approach just hasn’t worked. Hillary Clinton’s team is apparently considering a range of options including no-fly zones or strikes on Syrian government targets. The ongoing shift is less the result of a revelation about Syria’s meltdown and more a reflection of American domestic politics and a consensus that it’s time to recalibrate America’s geostrategic great power projection.
As this debate gets underway in earnest, it is crucial to force all sides to draw on the same facts, and be honest about the elements of their policy proposals that are guesses. For example: It is a fact that Syria is in free fall and Iraq barely functions as a unitary state, with fragmenting civilian and military authority on all sides of the related conflicts. It is a guess that Russia has escalation dominance and is willing to pursue all options, including nuclear conflict, if the United States intervenes more forcefully in Syria. It is a fact that tensions between the United States and Russia are at a post-Cold War high. It is a guess that they will clash directly over Syria rather than Kaliningrad or Ukraine or some other matter. It is a fact that the rise of the Islamic State and the flow of millions of displaced Syrians has destabilized the entire Middle East and reshaped politics in Europe. It is a guess that if the United States shoots down some of Bashar al-Assad’s helicopters it will lead to more fruitful political negotiations among Syrian factions and their foreign sponsors.
Many of the competing poles of the American debate begin with assumptions that are shaky or downright false, and ignore the lion’s share of facts on the ground in Syria. Any honest assessment of the crisis demands humility. Any serious analyst taking a position on Syria has to acknowledge that there is no possibility of a neat solution, and no outcome that precludes civilian suffering, regional instability, and strategic blowback — whether one argues for increasing America’s intervention, as I have, or for further restraint, in keeping with President Obama’s position (or, for that matter, for an admission of rebel defeat and an acceptance of Bashar al-Assad’s enduring role).
Unfortunately, many interventionists ignore the low likelihood of success and the danger of escalating the war, while many restrainers downplay the major ongoing strategic risks posed by Syria’s meltdown. Marc Lynch, himself of the school of restraint, neatly dissected the incoherent underpinnings of the American debate in a recent War on the Rockspiece.
America cannot direct the course of events in Syria because the war is too complex and Russia too committed to Assad, Lynch argues. But with the regime’s war crimes accelerating, for political reasons America can no longer afford to be perceived as not trying harder, even if any extra effort is destined to fail. Lynch predicts that Hillary Clinton will win the presidency and pursue an escalation in Syria, which will fail for all the same reasons as America’s existing intervention. In a year’s time, Lynch argues, Syria will be worse off, and America will either back down or sink deeper into yet another doomed Middle Eastern war.
Sadly, Lynch might be right. But – and the tone of certainty in all the polemics and analysis makes it easy to forget – he might also be wrong. Happily, for the prospects of the debate over Syria, Lynch offers an example of striking the right tone. He is confident in his analysis but not sloppy with the facts. Now that escalation is more seriously on the table, we need a more honest debate.
While Lynch contributes a welcome measure of sobriety to the debate, even he sidesteps the initial fact that Obama’s policy has been to pursue a military intervention, leaving the implication that the status quo doesn’t somehow involve a major U.S. role in the Syrian war. That gets to the heart of the problem: Anti-interventionists won the internal debate in the Obama administration, swatting down proposals from cabinet members to expand the U.S. role, strike Assad when he used chemical weapons, and push harder for regime change. Instead, a Goldilocks notion of the “just-right” intervention governed U.S. policy in Syria since 2011 — enough to say we did something, not enough to be determinative. Yet this policy’s authors often present themselves as an embattled minority facing down the interventionist blob — a foreign policy establishment caricatured as prone to groupthink and which never met an intervention it didn’t like. The actual debate is between limited interventionists like Obama and expanded interventionists like Clinton. On the far ends are those who want a full withdrawal from the Levant and the mad hawks who’d like to see U.S. troops foment regime change in Damascus.
No serious position on Syria can ignore America’s existing, major and ongoing military intervention, or the frustrating reality that the United States and its allies tried and failed to steer the conflict in another direction. No serious position on Syria can ignore the war crimes, sectarianism, and intractability of Assad and his supporters. No serious position on Syria can ignore the very real risks of a direct conflict between the United States and Russia.
The big picture in Syria is daunting indeed. It encompasses a region in the grips of state failure. A coherent Syria policy cannot be divorced from the volatile region of which it is a lynchpin; nor can it be divorced from grand strategy and geopolitics. What happens in Syria affects American relations with much of the world.
America’s strategic depth and deterrent power are tangible assets that have taken a beating as a result of Washington’s contradictory, halting, and passive response to the Arab uprisings. The United States postponed a rethink of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, corroding the most productive aspects of the partnership while remaining wedded to the most toxic. America’s Saudi plight is most bitterly apparent in Washington’s almost casual, and fantastically wrong-headed, decision to support Saudi Arabia’s criminally executed war in Yemen — as if in apology for America’s pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal over Saudi objections.
British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson reflected the growing understanding that Western inaction has persisted long past the breaking point when he told a U.K. parliamentary committee yesterday that the siege of Aleppo had dramatically changed public opinion. “We cannot let this go on forever,” Johnson said. “We cannot just see Aleppo pulverized in this way. We have to do something.” Reportedly, British defense officials are considering how to enforce a no-fly zone without getting into a shooting war with Russia and are also considering attacks on the Syrian military.
It might be true, as analysts and former Obama administration officials keep pointing out, that the existing policy has been driven by good intentions and that any shifts or tweaks are unlikely to save Syria from ruination. It might be true that there are no pat solutions to the Syria crisis.
But that’s misleading, only part of the story. When America changes course, so will other players, including Russia, Iran, and the government of Syria. A different style of intervention from the one America is pursuing now could save some lives, which is no small accomplishment. And finally, while it’s not only about America, (or about Syria), an escalation in Syria that is designed to send messages to American rivals and contain the strategic fallout could, if well executed, produce yields in surprising places, as America’s deterrent stock rises and a renewed belief in American activism and engagement restores the U.S. role as global ballast.
We are not all interventionists yet, no matter how shrill the protests from the camp that has tried to defend every twist and turn of Obama’s Middle East policy and now finds itself suddenly on the losing side of the debate. But it is not foolish to hope that somewhere between the destructive overreach of George W. Bush’s militaristic foreign policy and Barack Obama’s pursuit of balance and restraint, there exists a happier medium where America’s never-ending engagement with the most troubled parts of the world yields better results.