But the critics aren’t saying any of that (they — we — don’t even have the full study to evaluate, anyway). Rather, they’re saying it’s fundamentally wrong for an institution like the Holocaust Museum to suggest that American intervention in Syria likely wouldn’t have helped, and probably could have hurt. It’s “bystanderism,” as Wieseltier put it, and bystanderism is a morally bankrupt position to take.
This is an extremely odd view. The question of whether and to what extent US efforts can stave off future atrocities is an absolutely vital one, and one which deserves to be analyzed from a stance of real rigor and humility. And once one accepts the question needs to be asked, one has to accept the answer may be “No, sometimes U.S. intervention makes things worse.” If you care about atrocities around the world, you should care about US complicity in fueling those atrocities through an ill-advised intervention — that is, exactly what has happened in Iraq and numerous other countries.
The suppression of this study is unfortunate for at least a couple reasons. It is an example of silencing inquiry through intimidation of the host institution, and that is likely to have a chilling effect on research at this institution and others. It also reflects the narrow limits of conventional foreign policy debate in the U.S., according to which the only things worth arguing over are how and when to intervene and not whether it should be done at all. The belief that the U.S. has both the right and obligation to take sides in foreign conflicts is so deeply-ingrained in some people that casting any doubt on the efficacy of intervention is tantamount to heresy.
It is remarkable that many Syria hawks still cling to the idea that the U.S. could have intervened in a constructive way in Syria’s conflict and that U.S. intervention would not have produced even greater devastation and loss of life. Syria’s war has dragged on for as long as it has because of the interference of so many outside powers, so it is rather baffling that anyone still thinks that the answer should have been more interference on our part.
The absurdity of the Syria hawks’ position has been hard to miss for a long time. On the one hand, they point to the destruction from the war, the refugee crisis, and the massive loss of life as proof that the U.S. must “do something,” but when it comes to practical recommendations everything they have favored would involve inflicting more death and destruction on Syria and its people. The justification for interfering is often framed in humanitarian terms, but the policy proposals in question would have resulted in more dead and displaced Syrians. Perhaps the now-suppressed study reached a similar conclusion about the likely results of interventionist proposals, and that is probably why the study’s critics were so angered by it. Regrettably, we won’t know what the entire study said because of the rigidity and knee-jerk hostility of its critics.
Update: Max Fisher has obtained copies of the papers included in the report.