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An Even Better Question for Syria Hawks

The most important question that hawks can't answer: "How are American interests protected and advanced by taking sides in Syria's civil war?"

Dan Drezner remarks on the gap between the outcomes that hawks desire in Syria and the aggressive measures that they want to use to achieve them:

When hawks talk about taking action in Syria, they tend to focus on their desired outcomes: checking Russian and Iranian power, ousting Assad, defeating the Islamic State and ending the slow-motion humanitarian disaster. These are attractive goals that the current administration is not pursuing. Hawks sound very good when they talk about foreign policy outcomes in Syria.

The question is how the foreign policy output of greater military intervention in Syria will achieve those desired outcomes. That’s why Zakaria’s question is important, and that’s why Stephens’s failure to offer a credible answer matters.

Drezner is right that Syria hawks aren’t able to answer this question, but it’s interesting that the hawks still don’t think they need to be able to answer it. Most Syria hawks bang on about the need for a “no-fly zone” or arming a “moderate” opposition as loudly today as they did three or four years ago despite the fact that both of these options have obviously become even less practical than they were when first proposed. They can’t explain how these proposals would produce the outcomes they desire, but they are accustomed to not being expected to do that during previous debates over intervention.

In the Libyan case, for example, interventionists got the military action they wanted without being forced to account for any of the likely negative consequences of their preferred course of action. Some interventionists vaguely imagined that there would be some sort of peaceful, democratic, post-Gaddafi Libya after regime change, but it never occurred to the war’s supporters that they were obliged to explain how regime change and continued instability would lead to that result. In that sense, the outcomes the hawks talk about are beside the point. What matters to them is getting the U.S. to commit to the aggressive policies they want. As far as they are concerned, what happens later is someone else’s problem, and in most debates over direct U.S. military intervention they have been allowed to get away with that.

There has always been a glaring contradiction at the heart of the hawkish argument on Syria that they never address. They cite the destabilizing effects of the Syrian civil war as a reason to intervene, and they frequently dress up their interventionist arguments in humanitarian rhetoric, but at the same time they want the U.S. to carry out policies that will kill and displace more Syrians, create more refugees, and make the country even less stable than it currently is. They frame the problem in Syria as one of continued conflict and instability, but their so-called “remedy” promises much more of the same. It’s as if they see a country mostly on fire and ask, “What can our government do to burn the rest of it?”

The principal hawkish error in Syria is in assuming that the U.S. should be involved in the conflict at all. Drezner describes the outcomes that the hawks seek as “attractive goals,” but it hasn’t ever been clear why they should be attractive for the U.S. The most important question that hawks can’t answer, and which they are almost never asked: “How are American interests protected and advanced by taking sides in Syria’s civil war?” There has never been a remotely persuasive answer to that question, and I suspect that there never will be because no vital U.S. interests were ever at stake there.



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