Adam Garfinkle discussed the effects of the Libyan war on Mali last week, but then took a strange detour to complain about the failure to do to Syria what was done to Libya:
No one has ever been able to seriously argue that there was a vital national interest anywhere to be seen in Libya. In Syria the humanitarian crisis is, if anything, greater. It certainly is larger; far more innocent civilians have been murdered by the regime than ever was the case in Libya, and the numbers we have now are most certainly underestimates. The strategic stake is obviously great, too, for what is going on in Syria, if you like an historical metaphor or analog, is the Spanish Civil War-phase of a larger struggle looming on the horizon between the United States and its Middle Eastern alliance system on the one side and that of Iran on the other. Syria’s future is a key tipping point in this struggle. If after our declaring (foolishly perhaps) that Assad must go he ends up hanging on, then Iran wins and the United States loses this prelim.
Having just correctly detailed at great length how the Libyan war has contributed significantly to the wrecking of Mali, Garfinkle seems to have overlooked one of the more important lessons of the Libyan war, which is that the ensuing destabilization of the region has done as much harm, if not more, than the original crisis military intervention was intended to avert. Suppose that Obama has ignored the Libyan civil war last year despite having called for Gaddafi to “go,” and instead built up a coalition to start a war against the Syrian government and to secure the overthrow of Assad. If that war had its predictable spillover effects by sparking new fighting in Lebanon and Iraq and maybe even toppling the Jordanian government, would anyone be praising the decision to intervene in Syria? Would it not be having similarly destabilizing effects on Syria’s neighbors that the Libyan war has had? Would it matter at that point that it was part of a “larger struggle,” or would it be proof that making policy with an obsessive focus on weakening Iranian influence blinds us to everything else?
I confess I don’t fully understand why opponents of the Libyan war would want to berate the administration for failing to make a second, even bigger blunder by becoming more involved in Syria. If opponents were right about the wisdom of the Libyan war, and I think we were, it makes no sense to complain about a lack of military action in Syria, where the humanitarian and realist cases against the use of force and/or provision of weapons are even stronger. The Spanish Civil War comparison has come up before, but this example doesn’t provide the straightforward argument for intervention that the people citing it seem to think that it does. Trombly dissected the Spain-Syria comparison a few months ago, and concluded:
Far from being proof of a simple conflict where the choice to intervene was obvious, the Spanish Civil War was an extraordinarily complex conflict occurring in the context of a much larger, and much more serious danger of world war for which the Allies were hardly prepared. The situation today is less dire, but the case for Western military intervention in Syria, when the potential outcomes of success are so uncertain, is hardly any more obvious.
In fact, many advocates for intervention in Syria seem to have the same romantic and/or self-serving view of the Syrian opposition that Westerners had about the Republican side in Spain. Because they have the “right” enemies, they must be worth supporting. This keeps interventionists from seeing that it may not actually be in the interests of any of Syria’s neighbors or the U.S. to create a Sunni majoritarian regime that will be mainly propped up by authoritarian Gulf monarchies. What matters most to interventionists is that the Syrian opposition is anti-Iranian (just as the redeeming feature of Spanish Republicanism was its anti-fascism), and so there is a very lazy assumption that whatever is good for an anti-Iranian opposition must be good for the U.S. There is a related assumption that an outcome that some U.S. Gulf client states desire is automatically a desirable outcome for the U.S., and that’s not obvious, either.