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The Interventionist’s Lament

Anne Applebaum bemoans [1] the decision not to bomb Syria three years ago:

I repeat: Maybe a U.S.-British-French intervention would have ended in disaster. If so, we would today be mourning the consequences. But sometimes it’s important to mourn the consequences of nonintervention too. Three years on, we do know, after all, exactly what nonintervention has produced.

One of the more frustrating things about the debate over Syria policy is the widely-circulated idea that refraining from military action makes a government responsible for any or all of the things that happen in a foreign conflict later on. Somehow our government is responsible for the effects of a war when it isn’t directly contributing to the conflict by dropping bombs, but doesn’t receive any blame when it is helping to stoke the same conflict by other means. Many pundits lament the failure to bomb Syria, but far fewer object to the harm done by sending weapons to rebels that have contributed to the overall mayhem in Syria.

Applebaum’s column title refers to “disastrous nonintervention,” but the U.S. has been meddling in Syria’s conflict to some degree for many years. Indeed, Syria is in such a miserable state because multiple outside states have been interfering and taking sides in the war. There may be no better example of how outside intervention prolongs and intensifies a civil war than Syria, and yet Syria hawks always conclude that the real problem is that Western governments haven’t done more to add to the misery. The “consequences of nonintervention” are not, in fact, the consequences of the U.S. decision not to bomb in 2013, but rather they are the consequences of the actions that many actors (including the U.S.) have taken in Syria in their destructive efforts to “shape” the conflict.

Let’s remember what the Obama administration proposed doing in August 2013. Obama was going to order attacks on the Syrian government to punish it for the use of chemical weapons, but his officials insisted this would be an “unbelievably small” action in order to placate skeptics worried about an open-ended war. If the attack had been as “unbelievably small” as promised, it would have weakened the Syrian government’s forces but likely wouldn’t have changed anything about the overall conflict. Even judged solely by how much of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons arsenal it eliminated, it would have been less successful than the disarmament agreement that was reached.

If the intervention had expanded and turned into a much more ambitious campaign, as opponents of the proposed bombing feared it could, it would have almost certainly redounded to the benefit of jihadist groups because it was attacking their enemies. It seems fair to assume that a “successful” bombing campaign in 2013 would have exposed more of Syria to the depredations of ISIS and other jihadists. It would not have hurt ISIS or other jihadists in the least since they were not going to be targeted by it, so it is particularly absurd to try to blame ISIS’s later actions on the decision not to attack. If the bombing campaign was perceived to be “not working” quickly enough, that would have prompted demands for an even larger U.S. military role in Syria in the months and years that followed. Bombing Syria in 2013 would not have ended the war earlier, but would have made the U.S. a more involved party to it than it is today. I fail to see how that would have been a better outcome for the U.S. or the people of Syria. It is doubtful that fewer Syrians overall would have been killed and displaced in the wake of such a bombing campaign. It is tendentious in the extreme to assert that the decision not to bomb is responsible for the war’s later victims and effects.

The backlash against proposed military action in Syria in 2013 was a remarkable moment in the U.S. and Britain. It was the first time that the U.S. and U.K. governments had their plan to attack another country effectively overruled by the people’s elected representatives. As it turns out, it was a fleeting moment, and it doesn’t seem likely to be repeated anytime soon. Popular resistance to the next war was virtually non-existent, and both the U.S. and British governments have returned to their old ways of starting and backing unnecessary wars. Obama has unfortunately learned the lesson that he should avoid consulting those representatives on these matters in the future, and so he has gone back to starting and waging wars without authorization. The foreign policy elite in the U.S. have similarly learned all the wrong things from this episode. Instead of recognizing how unpopular their preferred policies were/are and respecting what the public wanted, most have concluded that public opinion should simply be ignored from now on.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in the Applebaum’s interventionist lament is the complete failure to acknowledge that other states and groups have their own agency and would have continued to do harm in Syria regardless of what the U.S. did or didn’t do. Bombing Syria in 2013 wouldn’t have made the conflict any easier to resolve, nor would it have altered the interests of the warring parties. It would have been an exercise in blowing things up and killing people to show that we were taking “action.” It would have been the most senseless sort of intervening for the sake of being seen to intervene. The U.S. could have been more deeply involved in the conflict than it is for many years, but all that would have meant was that the U.S. was doing more to inflict death and destruction on a suffering country. When interventionists “mourn” a decision not to bomb, they are regretting the decision not to kill people in another country that posed no threat to the U.S. or any of our allies. That’s a horrible position, and it’s no wonder that most Americans still recoil from it.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "The Interventionist’s Lament"

#1 Comment By Chris Chuba On August 30, 2016 @ 10:35 am

Here is a few more laments …
1. Had we only refrained from invading Iraq then 1M Iraqis would not have fled into Syria infiltratred with Al Qaeda and Saddam’s military to form ISIS.
As a percentage of population, this would be like the U.S. getting 15M refugees.

2. Had we used our leverage over Saudi Arabia and Turkey to force them to stop sending U.S. made weapons into Syria, the civil war would have ended years ago.

3. Had we, ourselves, not given about $1B per year of material support to Syrian rebels, the civil war would have ended years ago.

4. Had we bombed ISIS when they were advancing on Palmyra many atrocities would have been avoided.

Funny, you never hear these laments.

#2 Comment By SteveM On August 30, 2016 @ 10:46 am

I’ve stated this before. The catalyst for the U.S. entry into the Syrian conflict was the vulgar executions of two Americans by ISIS. If those Americans had been simply shot by ISIS out of video camera range, their sad deaths would have been ascribed to, “wrong place, wrong time” because they chose to wander through a very dangerous place. I’m sure Americans are killed globally every year in various countries for various reasons. But the President does not point to specific cases and declare war on the miscreants.

I am not minimizing the brutal, atavistic nature of ISIS or the other jihadists, but Obama initiated a huge military intervention in Syria based on horrible anecdotes not connected to national security and not based on an overarching strategy.

The murders of those two men gave Obama the pretext to do what he wanted to do in 2014 only on a much larger scale. And the quagmire that was forecasted then by prudent observers of reactive U.S. military intervention has indeed been realized. And as always the costs of the tar baby that is U.S. involvement in Syria is mindlessly handed to the taxpayers by the Elites in Washington.

Unfortunately, none of the presidential candidates has made any suggestion of returning war making authority back to the Congress where it belongs.

#3 Comment By Uncle Billy On August 30, 2016 @ 10:57 am

The Interventionists always assume that US military intervention will result is a net positive. This is not a valid assumption. Often, US military intervention results in a net negative, We should offer humanitarian aid to the people trapped in these awful civil wars, but we must not get involved in a military manner. No good will come of it.

#4 Comment By Dennis On August 30, 2016 @ 11:07 am

I’d be interested to see your take on Max Fisher’s NY Times piece, “Syria’s Paradox: Why the War Only Ever Seems to Get Worse”

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 30, 2016 @ 1:29 pm

“I repeat: Maybe a U.S.-British-French intervention would have ended in disaster. If so, we would today be mourning the consequences. But sometimes it’s important to mourn the consequences of nonintervention too. Three years on, we do know, after all, exactly what nonintervention has produced.”

Actually, in the region in question, we don’t.

#6 Comment By liberal On August 30, 2016 @ 3:00 pm

SteveM wrote,

The catalyst for the U.S. entry into the Syrian conflict was the vulgar executions of two Americans by ISIS.

Don’t know about that, but I thought at the most general level we’re involved because Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, etc are the “good guys” (in the fevered imaginations of the people who run our national security policy) and Syria, Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah are the “bad guys”.

#7 Comment By cka2nd On August 30, 2016 @ 3:35 pm

SteveM says: “I am not minimizing the brutal, atavistic nature of ISIS or the other jihadists, but Obama initiated a huge military intervention in Syria based on horrible anecdotes not connected to national security and not based on an overarching strategy.”

Replace ISIS and jihadists with Noriega and his supporters, Obama with Bush I and Syria with Panama, and we have Poppy Bush’s rationalizations for invading Panama. I remember arguing with my sister-in-law that going to war over an American woman being pulled from her car and assaulted by Noriega’s supporters seemed just a tad excessive.

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 30, 2016 @ 3:59 pm

Annie’s Russia-phobic to the Nth degree and wants any and all conflict with that nation to become so exacerbated that it will produce the Final War that she believes the U.S. will win, granting her cohort the right to appoint the governors of the resultant strapies.

#9 Comment By Stink Bomb On August 30, 2016 @ 7:27 pm

“Three years on, we do know, after all, exactly what nonintervention has produced.”

A notably foetid specimen of double-talk. What contempt Applebaum must have for her readers. Surely she knows we’ve been arming insurgents, bombing, and conducting special operations in Syria for years. How dare she try to pass that off as “nonintervention”?

“Pundits” like this discredit the profession in the eyes of decent, intelligent people. They should have been fired and replaced en masse after their catastrophically bad judgment regarding Iraq. But they paid no price and still squat on their perches, dishing out bad advice.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 30, 2016 @ 7:53 pm

“American woman being pulled from her car and assaulted by Noriega’s supporters seemed just a tad excessive.”

I would bought the drug trafficking, but we didn’t invade Mexico, Nicaragua, Columbia or Peru.
__________________________

As long as our elected managers of state can avoid losing lives the public outcry over needles adventures will mostly likely be in fits and starts.

Which is why few are interested in bringing back the draft.
_________________________

I do want the movie that I watched for the second time, “Charlie Wilson’s War” is accurate.

#11 Comment By Laff Riot On August 30, 2016 @ 9:00 pm

Nonintervention according to Applebaum: a situation in which the US last week threatened to shoot down Syrian bombers if they attacked the US military personnel we had put on the ground inside Syria.

Who the hell does Applebaum think she’s kidding? In what alternate universe is that “nonintervention”?!?!?!?

#12 Comment By Ft. Bragg On August 30, 2016 @ 9:54 pm

@Stink Bomb – “But they [Applebaum et al] paid no price and still squat on their perches, dishing out bad advice.”

“Bad advice” that breeds terrorists and provokes terror attacks against America cries out for a stronger adjective than “bad”.

#13 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 30, 2016 @ 10:39 pm

“Who the hell does Applebaum think she’s kidding? In what alternate universe is that ‘nonintervention’?!?!?!?”

Eighty years on, in Bizarro America, where Will Rogers’ “I never met a man I didn’t like” has become, “Me am never met a war me didn’t like.”

#14 Comment By Bello Donnas On August 31, 2016 @ 8:49 am

“In what alternate universe is that “nonintervention”?!?!?!?”

For all the chaos, displacement and death it has caused, for interventionists what we’re doing in Syria is a poor substitute for the real thing.

What we’re doing in Syria is to an interventionist as methadone is to a junkie. A maintenance dose that leaves them jonesing for the real thing.

#15 Comment By Charlieford On August 31, 2016 @ 1:52 pm

Another reason to despise the French: Look what their refusal to intervene in our Civil War produced! More than 700,000 dead. It’s all on them. How do they sleep at night?

On a side note, we usually view people like Anne Applebaum as beholden to a defective ideology. Maybe there’s a simpler solution? These folk are just dumb. Maybe they never had a philosophy class, maybe they didn’t understand it, but they don’t seem to grasp the most basic elements of causality.

#16 Comment By Kratoklastes On August 31, 2016 @ 8:20 pm

Maybe there’s a simpler solution? These folk are just dumb. Maybe they never had a philosophy class, maybe they didn’t understand it, but they don’t seem to grasp the most basic elements of causality.

There’s an even simpler solution – one that applies to people like kristol, Krauthammer, Keller and the rest of the armchair warmongers.

I’ll get to it in a sec, but first I’ll point out why folks (including you, it seems) get bewildered at why someone can have a career dispensing obviously-idiotic ‘punditry’.

Your error is assuming that they are trying to be right, but failing.

I urge you to change that premise. Assume that all they’re trying to do is keep getting paid for their punditry.

All the mystery disappears.

What if they’re just writing whatever is necessary in order to keep being paid an exorbitant amount of money (relative to other uses of their time) for writing?

Put another way: if someone sidled up to you in a bar and said

‘Sup, @Charlieford. Look, we think you’re a bright kid, and we think you could help our cause. We can organise a gig where you get paid a decent 7-figure sum, year-in and year-out: all you have to do is write positive stuff about []”.

What would have to go in the square brackets [] above, to absolutely rule out your participation?

Bear in mind all you’re doing is writing about []: you’re not doing []: your hands will remain clean as a whistle.

What’s more: you know – with absolutely adamantine certainty – that if you don’t write in support of [], someone else will.

So that’s the sitch: [] is going to get positive coverage in the NYT, WSJ, WaPo and elsewhere… the only question is whether the money allocated to buy the opinion piece goes to you, or to some other writer.

I know very few people who could honestly state that they would refuse to write encomia to US Foreign policy if the offer on the table was in the mid-hundred-thousands per year (i.e., solidly in ‘top 1%’ territory).

Set the bar at 1-2 mill a year and there are only two groups of people who would claim to be able to resist: (a) those already making that amount in a cushier gig; and (b) those who have never faced a 6-figure temptation, let alone a 7-figure one.

The people in group (b) are lying – perhaps only to themselves.

#17 Comment By Kratoklastes On August 31, 2016 @ 8:29 pm

If you had access to the personal balance sheets of the actual beneficiaries of US Foreign Policy, you would be disabused of the childish idea that these policies have been ‘failures’.

Keep in mind the fabulous quote from Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”:

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.

If a lot of folks re-organised their conceptual framework, they would be less bewildered.

Start from this single premise…

The publicly-promulgated rationale for any policy is marketing (‘spin’), and will only coincide with the actual aim by chance. The maximum-likelihood estimator of the actual aim of literally every policy (quoi que ce soit) of government, is that every policy exists solely to transfer vast amounts of money and power to the political class and its cronies. Any other effects are (a) secondary to the primary aim; and (b) irrelevant when considering whether the policy continues.

I also like to slightly re-phrase the quotation about ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results’ to…

” the definition of insanity is to keep using an unsuccessful policy-analysis framework and expecting to get the right answer”

You get my drift, right?

If your analytical framework results in you being constantly bewildered as to how on Earth such-and-so a policy could ever possibly be suggested, much less implemented… change your framework. It just means that such-and-so a policy benefits someone that you don’t know about, who is slated to pocket an 8-figure payday if the policy is implemented.

Folks like me are simply never surprised when yet-another policy turns out to be a crony-infested boondoggle. Iraq? No shock. Solyndra? No surprise. The F-35? Yawn. ObamaCare? zzzzz.

#18 Comment By Charlieford On September 1, 2016 @ 9:13 am

“if someone sidled up to you in a bar and said”

And who would this “someone” be?