Last week I argued in this space that some advocates of anti-ISIS intervention in Iraq actually seem more interested in fighting Iran and Syria, which are themselves fighting ISIS.
As if on cue, a BuzzFeed headline blared: “Washington foreign policy hands make the case for the unthinkable: an alliance with Assad.” The subhead described this as “Revenge of the realists.”
“The proposal poses deep moral and political problems for the Obama administration, which has compared Assad’s slaughter of his own people to the Holocaust,” wrote Rosie Gray on the first anniversary of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons attack on Ghouta.
That event nearly led to a U.S. bombing campaign against Bashar Assad in Syria, which Secretary of State John Kerry sold as an “unbelievably small” war. Congress, the American people, and the British Parliament all had other ideas and the war was quietly dropped.
Assad is indeed murderous and brutal. Those who are reluctant to bury the hatchet with the dictator are at least more consistent than the relative hawks in the Obama administration who wanted to bomb one side of the Syrian conflict a year ago and wish to bomb another side now.
If deeper involvement in Iraq requires even a de facto alliance with Syria or Iran under their present governments, that is yet another argument for caution and restraint. Perhaps it is best to let them all fight each other.
Yet it is difficult to disagree with career diplomat Ryan Crocker—a man praised by General Petraeus and given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, hardly a reflexive dove—that Syria is a “lesser evil” than ISIS.
Crocker, William Luers, and Thomas Pickering have written, “It makes no sense for the West to support a war against Assad as well as a war against the Islamic State.” Unfortunately, that is precisely the war of all against all some neoconservatives and liberal hawks seem to want.
The United States allied with Stalin’s Soviet Union to win World War II. Nixon made overtures to Mao’s China, capitalizing on a Sino-Soviet split that helped the West win the Cold War. Many conservatives were critical at the time, as these regimes joined Hitler’s Nazi Germany (with whom Stalin once signed a nonaggression pact) as the great mass murderers of the twentieth century.
Contrary to the BuzzFeed headline, few foreign-policy experts want a full operational alliance with Syria or Iran. Some have called for what Crocker, Luers, and Pickering have described as “mutually informed parallel action” against ISIS. Others have merely suggested the U.S. not destabilize ISIS’s enemies in the region, while the al-Qaeda offshoot is beheading American journalists and terrorizing religious minorities in Iraq.
Even without any practical cooperation, it is hard to see how Syria and Iran wouldn’t to some extent be beneficiaries of any successful military action against ISIS. But for all the tyranny and terror ties of those regimes, ISIS is most directly the progeny of those who toppled with twin towers and attacked the United States on 9/11. After more than a decade at war in Afghanistan in response to the Taliban providing a safe haven for Osama bin Laden, wouldn’t an ISIS state in parts of Iraq and Syria be a worse outcome?
In fact, the push for a wider war is a replay of the aftermath of 9/11, when hawks sought to make invading Iraq a higher priority than eliminating al-Qaeda and those who actually attacked America. Foreign-policy voices who point out these contradictions, especially on the right, can expect to be marginalized as pawns of Putin, Assad, and the ayatollahs where they can’t be coopted, much like Colin Powell’s State Department.
Whatever happens for the rest of the Obama administration, that will leave Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton and most of the Republican presidential field trying to out-hawk each other on the region.
For Washington doesn’t seem to have learned very much from what went wrong in Iraq, preferring to believe all problems were fixed by the surge and only returned when the combat troops withdrew. But if public opinion polls are to be believed, many Americans across the political spectrum have taken a different lesson, one that teaches selectiveness and caution about intervening abroad.
Can the voters force their elected leaders to pick their battles?
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?