State of the Union

Three Realist Lessons From Obama’s Syria Missteps

Whether the deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles is enforceable and verifiable is an open question. But what is clear is that some cautionary lessons have already emerged from this crisis. Here are three of them.

First, be wary of the injunction “Don’t just stand there; do something.”

Since Syria erupted into civil war in mid-2011, commentators left and right have called for the United States to attack the Assad regime as well as to provide arms to its opponents.

But contrary to what many liberal hawks and neoconservatives claim, the violence in Syria is no worse than what Washington has been able to bear with comparative equanimity in Rwanda, Sudan, and Congo. On what moral grounds should one decide that one war is intolerable while another can be ignored?

In the field of foreign policy, the most famous advice offered to practitioners—the French statesman Talleyrand’s “Above all, not too much zeal”—showed a profound distaste for “busyness.” It’s both wise and routinely ignored advice. Remember how can-do, hands-on liberal hawks (Rusk, McNamara) screwed things up in Vietnam or how hyperactive neoconservatives (Wolfowitz, Feith) proved to be incompetent and ineffective in Iraq.

None of this is to imply that forceful action is never justified: it is in the right circumstances and when the right conditions are met. But the national interest did not require a major U.S. intervention in Syria, the political support for it did not exist and could not be mobilized, and the conflict itself has been morally ambiguous: a brutal dictatorship, backed by Shiite Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, versus a largely Islamist rebellion supported by Sunni powers as well as al-Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters.

Given that the political objective was perilously unclear, there has been much to be said for a policy of restraint and caution. As even President Obama warned as recently as last month: “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”

A second lesson: Don’t make threats or commitments lightly; make them only if you’re prepared and able to honor them. Read More…

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