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The Interventionists’ Lack of Imagination

Roger Cohen makes [1] 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.

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7 Comments To "The Interventionists’ Lack of Imagination"

#1 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On October 16, 2015 @ 12:49 pm

If Obama has lost credibility, it’s mostly from talking too much. If you yell “Assad must go!” and he doesn’t, and you do nothing about it, you seem to be something of a loudmouth.

Obama’s mistake was his proclamation, not his failure to intervene. “We like democracy, but it’s up to the Syrian people” would have been quite enough.

#2 Comment By Joe F On October 16, 2015 @ 4:39 pm

There is one thing in common with every plan so far offered relative to Syria: it is a bad idea. It may be counterintuitive to the American belief that there must always be a solution to a problem, but I cannot imagine any real possibility that there is a favorable outcome to be found.

#3 Comment By Junior On October 16, 2015 @ 4:47 pm

And one could also make the argument that Obama’s statements are THE reason for Assad’s getting rid of chemical weapons which was the reason for the red-line in the first place. Mission accomplished.

#4 Comment By Pinata Guy of the NYT Op-ed Page On October 16, 2015 @ 6:16 pm

“As a result, America’s word is worth less in the world.”

“As a result” of what? “As a result” of ignoring George Washington’s advice to steer clear of entangling alliances?

“Syria could not be worse off than it is.”

Too true. If only we had enforced the “red line”, Syria today might enjoy peace, prosperity, and democracy. Like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

Even a hardened veteran like DL must occasionally tire of kicking the dayglo colored targets Cohen paints on his own rear end.

#5 Comment By Trail of Broken Promises On October 16, 2015 @ 6:41 pm

What does Mr. Cohen have to say about Obama violating his solemn pledge to get our troops out of Afghanistan?

I would wager he’d say something along the lines of “Oh! Well, you see, some broken pledges are actually good for American credibility!”

#6 Comment By SmoothieX12 (aka Andrew) On October 16, 2015 @ 7:20 pm

The Interventionists’ Lack of Imagination

And, of course, of understanding the nature of the war. In fact, this one trumps the lack of imagination. I would rather communicate with unimaginative, run of the mill, common sense guy than with imaginative murderer.

#7 Comment By Fran Macadam On October 17, 2015 @ 11:31 am

“Cohen, what is good?”

“To see your enemies driven before you, to hear the weeping and lamentation of their women and children. That is good.”