Monday, May 6, 2013

The Burned Hand Apparently doesn't Teach at All

If the United States were a puppy, it's sheer inability to learn from past experience might be cute. Adorable even.

But it's a nation-state with the most over-funded military in the world, and so the current impulse in our policy circles to "do something" about Syria is frustrating, and scary, and DANGEROUS, in a way a puppy's antics are not.

This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons

The debate is not about the nature of the Syrian regime. Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Baath Party are savage, murderous abusers of human rights. Syria is a clear case of a demographic minority tyrannizing a majority population Their role in the sufferings of their neighbor Lebanon  is unforgivable. Their alliance with Iran destabilizes the region and threatens Israeli national security. The current civil war raging in Syria is the inevitable result of the despotic and authoritarian nature of Syria's ruling elite.

Given the despicable nature of the Syrian government, it's not surprising to find wide-spread sympathy for "The Free Syrian Army". Humans don't deal that well with complexity, and confronted with a "bad guy", our cognitive limitations incline us to find a "good guy". The Free Syrian Army can legitimately be seen as an agent of majority Sunni Syrians seeking self-determination against minority Alawi Syrians. But to think of them as "the good guys" is to both ignore the wide diversity within the rebel coalition and some of the more spectacular actions they have taken against the regime.

Bashar al Assad

Syrian rebels have been responsible for attacks causing disproportionate numbers of civilian casualties. They have used children on the front lines of combat. And there's "strong evidence" that they may have been responsible for the use of nerve gas against their enemies.

American interests in this conflict are quite clear. We have a strategic interest in seeing the end of Syria's alliance with Iran. Through our alliance with Israel, we have an indirect interest in seeing the end of Syria's support of Hezbollah. We have a moral interest in seeing the end of the atrocities and human rights abuses perpetrated upon the Syrian people by Assad's government.

These guys make Xi look like a bunch of murderous thugs. Oh. Wait...

It is equally clear what American interests are NOT. We have no interest in adding to the stresses on already over-burdened military personnel. We have no interest in replacing a horrible but explicitly secular government with an Islamic theocracy.

Like we did when we helped drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

There is no shortage of parties whose interests in Syria are more urgent than our own. Turkey faces a severe refugee problem as people flee to it from Syria. Most of the policies being urged by advocates of American intervention are well within Turkish capabilities, particularly with NATO helping share the financial and material costs. The Turkish air force can establish a no-fly zone. The Turkish Army can establish safe havens within Syria's borders. And as John McCain knows perfectly well, the US and Turkey are ALREADY supplying aid to the Syrian revolutionaries.

The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and turned its seat over to the rebels. The organization includes some of the wealthiest nations on Earth. They could end this in 6 months with 50 million dollars and some South African mercenaries. For the most part they have not chosen to act.

Member States of the Arab League

In his phenomenal work Politics Among Nations, Hans Morgenthau discussed the "strategy of prestige" where a great power felt obligated to demonstrate its continued importance within the International System. This explains the reflexive neoconservative need to intervene in every conflict, dispute and argument over a parking place. At the heart of their policy preferences is the unexamined postulate that since the United States is at the apex of the international hierarchy it must be a central participant in every interaction that takes place within that system.

It is precisely this conviction which got us involved in Vietnam, by the way.

If it were only the Neocons urging us to greater involvement in Syria it would be easy to ignore. Iraq has cost them their credibility for a generation. But much more sensible Neorealists are also urging similar policies.

I don't wish to be unfair, but James Rubin has been everywhere the last few weeks urging increased American intervention in Syria.

I don't want to get bogged down here in a bunch of technical International Relations theory, because it fascinates me. On that basis I conclude that it bores everyone else. So without employing the jargon...

Neorealists believe that norms and rules in the International System prevent nation states from doing truly crazy stuff. Like using WMDs, for example. But if a nation-state DOES break the "rule", other states become much more likely to break the "rule" as well.

In other words, if Syria gets away with using chemical weapons, every brutal authoritarian will start using them.

I am a Classical Realist, so I have a soft spot for Neorealists. But I'd think the Iraq debacle would have taught them some humility. 1) They need to be a lot more cautious and skeptical regarding "intelligence", especially about WMDs, and 2) any large scale intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state needs to be done as part of a multi-lateral effort. At the very least the Turks need to formally request the specific actions we will take under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

National treasure and Classical Realist Hans Morgenthau

Remember? The way it worked in Libya

Ultimately, the United States need not and certainly should not intervene internationally except in those instances where our interests are unequivocally at stake and where our involvement is as part of a legitimate international coalition.

These conditions have not been met in Syria, and the prospect of more demands being made on our exhausted military and our threadbare international credibility as an honest broker unmistakably tells us something depressing.

A large segment of the foreign policy establishment of this country has learned nothing from the last 12 years.