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The Interventionists’ Lack of Imagination

Roger Cohen makes an error that is typical of interventionists. Here he is lamenting the effects of “failing” to enforce the “red line” in Syria:

As a result, America’s word is worth less in the world. Syria could not be worse off than it is.

Both of these statements are plainly false, but both of them are central to Cohen’s complaint that Obama didn’t bomb Syria two years ago. It is very easy to imagine how Syria could be worse off than it is. If the regime collapsed, we could see mass killings or forcible expulsions of religious minorities, an even larger exodus of refugees, further destabilization of neighboring countries, and an even higher death toll. The inability or unwillingness to imagine how things could be even worse in Syria is related to the refusal to accept that U.S. military action in Syria almost certainly would make things there worse. After all, if it can’t be any worse than it is, what “harm” could intervention possibly do?

On the other hand, if Syria could be much worse off (and it could), it doesn’t make sense to regret that the U.S. didn’t do more two years ago to contribute to the country’s woes. It is very likely that attacking the Syrian government in 2013 would have worked to the benefit of ISIS and other jihadist groups, and it might have exposed even more of the country to their depredations. How would that not be worse than the current state of affairs? Why should anyone in the West be complaining that for once in the last decade the U.S. and its allies didn’t help to enable jihadist gains? Obama has made some serious mistakes on Syria policy, but not following through on a careless threat to bomb the country isn’t one of them.

As for the value of America’s “word,” what other American commitment anywhere else in the world is now seriously doubted because the U.S. didn’t back up Obama’s off-the-cuff, vague threat? It’s not possible to name one, because “failing” to enforce the “red line” had no effect on the credibility of U.S. commitments elsewhere. Fretting pundits aside, no one seriously thinks that U.S. security guarantees count for less, and no one actually believes the U.S. is unwilling to use force to defend its allies. The “red line” episode was a high-profile case where the hawks obsessed over the danger of lost “credibility” and then had their claims thoroughly refuted, and yet some of them still recycle this argument as if it had some merit.

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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