Ross Douthat explains his view of the ISIS war’s expansion into Syria:
But as someone who burned pretty hot against our bombing campaign in Libya, where it was so very easy to imagine both American interests and regional stability suffering more (as I think they pretty clearly have) from Qaddafi’s fall than from his continued tyranny, my skepticism is a little cooler this time in part because the existing situation is already such a disaster, with no upside for American interests whatsoever, that the downsides simply don’t look as frightening as they otherwise might [bold mine-DL]. With the Libya intervention, we risked creating an ISIS-like abyss in Africa; in Iraq and Syria today we already have one, and unless we intend to just shrug off our current role in the world there is a clear need for some kind of American response. I’m doubtful that this is the right one, but not knowing what the right one is my sympathies are with President Obama, and I’ll be hoping that events as they unfold will lay some of my skepticism to rest.
I take Douthat’s point, but this seems the wrong way to judge the current intervention. Like Douthat, I was very much against the Libyan war, and we were opposed to it for many of the same reasons. The fact that intervention there has proven to be so disastrous because the intervention achieved its goal of regime change should make us much more wary of a war whose goal appears to be unachievable. Even though the administration officially claimed not to be fighting a war for regime change in Libya, supporters of the the Libyan war argued that it had “succeeded” because the Libyan government was overthrown. Gaddafi’s downfall was taken as proof that the Libyan intervention had “worked,” and the many foreseeable, negative consequences of this “success” were waved away or simply ignored. Even so, at least with the Libyan war there was some clear idea of how the war (or at least direct U.S. involvement in it) would end and what “success” would look like. Neither of these is true of the ISIS war. In this case, the U.S. isn’t trying to topple an established government, which we know the U.S. can do (however foolish and dangerous it may be to do it), but instead it is trying to eliminate a quasi-state that is very likely to benefit politically from a militarized American overreaction to its provocations. It seems very unlikely that the current intervention can possibly succeed on its own terms, which suggests that the only thing it will do is inflict more death and destruction on two war-ravaged countries for no discernible purpose. It is not enough to say that the potential downsides of this intervention aren’t as frightening as those of previous wars. There needs to be a case made that the intervention is likely to improve conditions in one or both of the countries being bombed, and as far as I can tell that case doesn’t exist. Maybe “some kind” of American response would be useful, but it seems very clear that the response being offered by the administration isn’t it. It is up to the administration to persuade us that the new war is both worth fighting and is likely to succeed, and so far they have failed to do so. That should make us far more skeptical of this war than we were of the war in Libya, and the fact that Obama still thinks intervening in Libya was the right thing to do in spite of the damage it has caused should make us question his judgment on launching this new war even more than we did three years ago.
As for the U.S. role in the world, one needn’t assume that the only choices are to “shrug off” that role or wade into another unnecessary war. The U.S. has trapped itself into fighting unnecessary wars in the past because of the misguided belief that its “credibility” and/or “leadership” was at stake, and it is usually only later after the war ends that we come to realize that the U.S. could continue to have an important and even a leading role in the world without wasting its resources on regional conflicts that posed no direct threat to our security. The U.S. is “indispensable” only in that it permits itself to be lured into unnecessary conflicts out of a misguided sense of obligation, and more often than not U.S. involvement in these conflicts undermines respect for and trust in the U.S. and sometimes even makes the U.S. and the countries involved less secure than they were. Then again, if the only choices are between unnecessary war and “shrugging off” our current role in the world, it seems clear that the wiser thing for the U.S. to do would be to redefine its role in the world so that it is not obliged to act as the world’s fire brigade.