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A Syrian War Would Be an Inexplicable Blunder

Bill Keller confirms that he has not really learned any of the lessons of the Iraq war:

Of course, there are important lessons to be drawn from our sad experience in Iraq: Be clear about America’s national interest. Be skeptical of the intelligence. Be careful whom you trust. Consider the limits of military power. Never go into a crisis, especially one in the Middle East, expecting a cakewalk.

But in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.

If we applied Keller’s Iraq lessons to the Syrian case, it would warn us away from military action or any deeper involvement in the conflict. Wading into a new conflict in Syria or anywhere else would be detrimental to U.S. national interests. The U.S. has nothing at stake in the Syrian conflict. Keller claims that “we have a genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one,” and he is referring to the danger of a failed state serving as a haven for terrorists, but all of the proposed options for intervention involve hastening the failure of the Syrian state and aiding in the empowerment of jihadist groups. If the U.S. has an interest in preventing state failure in Syria, that is a reason to avoid intensifying and prolonging the conflict by backing the opposition.

Keller completely ignores his second lesson later in the op-ed when he mentions chemical weapons use, which causes him to overlook some new information that ought to make a difference in his thinking. According to reports over the weekend, U.N. investigators have determined that sarin may have been used by anti-regime forces:

U.N. human rights investigators have gathered testimony from casualties of Syria’s civil war and medical staff indicating that rebel forces have used the nerve agent sarin, one of the lead investigators said on Sunday.

The United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria has not yet seen evidence of government forces having used chemical weapons, which are banned under international law, said commission member Carla Del Ponte.

It’s possible that the investigators have it wrong, but it makes absolutely no sense for the U.S. to lend support to forces that are willing to use chemical weapons. Part of the interventionist argument for supporting regime change in Syria is that the opposition supposedly would never use such weapons, and this appears to be just as mistaken as the rest of the case for intervention.

Keller then leans on the shoddy “credibility” idea to keep his sinking argument afloat:

Nor, he [Vali Nasr] adds, can we afford to let the Iranians, the North Koreans and the Chinese conclude from our attitude that we are turning inward

This is the silly sort of thing one says if one believes that refraining from new wars is proof of “isolationism.” If the U.S. did involve itself more deeply in Syria’s conflict, it would be a signal to the world that Americans can be goaded into doing anything, no matter how stupid, by threatening them with a loss of “credibility” if they don’t. I suspect few things would be more welcome in the capitals of other pariah states and authoritarian powers than confirmation that the U.S. cannot stop itself from becoming bogged down in foreign conflicts. The more attention and resources that the U.S. diverts into a Syrian war and the post-war aftermath, the less of both that it will have for other issues.

Keller’s main claim is that “Syria is not Iraq,” but with respect to the most important questions it’s not really true. The Iraq war was unnecessary and illegal, and a Syrian war would likewise one that the U.S. is choosing to fight in clear violation of international law. Unlike Iraq, there would be no fig leaf of a Security Council resolution that hawks could hide behind to defend the war, and there would likely be even less multilateral support for a Syrian war than there was for the invasion of Iraq. As absurd as it was, the so-called “coalition of the willing” included dozens of countries that were at least willing to offer token assistance. The U.S. will be lucky if it can get more than a half-dozen collaborators in launching a new war in Syria. The Iraq war was a horrible blunder that grew out of more than a decade of bad Iraq policy. That doesn’t excuse the blunder, but it helps to explain how it could have happened. If the U.S. yields to the impulse to “do something” in Syria in spite of the experience of the last decade, it will be an equally serious blunder, but it will also be an inexplicable one.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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