Syrian Intervention and International Order
The impact on Iran of such action could be significant. You see, using force smartly in a limited context sometimes can help avoid the need to deploy massive force elsewhere. And the reverse is also true. Does anyone imagine that if we fail to oust Assad, the Iranian mullahs will voluntarily give up their nuclear weapons program? Of course, they will not, for having seen the American president cower from a manageable fight, they will never be convinced that he would undertake a far more complicated and potentially deadly altercation with them.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Is Rubin claiming that actively aiding a domestic insurrection in Syria for the purpose of regime change is going to make the Iranian government more cooperative on the nuclear issue? That’s silly. Does anyone really believe that helping to topple a government aligned with Iran is going to make Tehran less interested in acquiring the capability to develop a nuclear deterrent?
When the Libyan war began, critics objected that the intervention had made things even harder for nonproliferation efforts elsewhere. The Libyan government abandoned its unconventional weapons programs, but the U.S. helped to overthrow it anyway. The message to other potential proliferating states was clear enough: negotiating with the U.S. on these issues exposes the government to outside attack and destruction, and Western states will seize on the first opportunity to renege on their end of the bargain. What message do we think it would send Iran if the U.S. and its allies worked to overthrow yet another regime and justified it in terms of weakening Iranian influence? The Iranian government would reasonably assume that they were next on the target list, which would give them an additional incentive to acquire nuclear weapons or at least the ability to make them. So it should be obvious that meddling in Syria’s conflict increases the chances of a later conflict with Iran. Interfering in one conflict in which the U.S. has nothing at stake could set things in motion that will draw the U.S. into a larger unnecessary war in the future.
Rubin also labels Kissinger’s recent op-ed on Syria “comically obtuse,” which would be more accurately applied to describe her reading of Kissinger’s argument:
Intervening in Syria would cause international unrest, he says. As opposed to that sea of calm under Bashar al-Assad’s watchful eye?!
Perhaps Rubin doesn’t know the meaning of the word international, but Kissinger was making a broader point about the recent pattern of military interventions by outside powers in the affairs of sovereign states. Modern international order depends on respect for the principle of state sovereignty, which has been repeatedly violated and compromised in the last twenty years. Outside powers have taken a very active interest in the internal politics of smaller states and have resorted to the use of force to redraw territorial boundaries or overthrow governments on several occasions. Kissinger pointed out some of the potential problems:
Does America consider itself obliged to support every popular uprising against any non-democratic government, including those heretofore considered important in sustaining the international system? Is, for example, Saudi Arabia an ally only until public demonstrations develop on its territory? Are we prepared to concede to other states the right to intervene elsewhere on behalf of coreligionists or ethnic kin?
At the same time, regime change on the cheap according to the Libyan model is destabilizing in another way, because it involves toppling an existing government with no preparation or ability to re-establish order once the initial conflict has ended:
Regime change, almost by definition, generates an imperative for nation-building. Failing that, the international order itself begins to disintegrate. Blank spaces denoting lawlessness may come to dominate the map, as has already occurred in Yemen, Somalia, northern Mali, Libya and northwestern Pakistan, and may yet happen in Syria. The collapse of the state may turn its territory into a base for terrorism or arms supply against neighbors who, in the absence of any central authority, will have no means to counteract them.
The arm’s-length interventionism practiced in Libya will tend to increase the number of ungoverned or very poorly-governed spaces around the world, and we have already seen the destabilizing effects of this in Mali. If a relatively short war in Libya had such significant destabilizing consequences elsewhere in Africa, the strains that a prolonged Syrian war would put on its neighbors should not be underestimated. As Kissinger concluded, “a world order that erodes borders and merges international and civil wars can never catch its breath.” Interventionists hunting for every pretext to ignore borders, violate sovereignty, and interfere in other nations’ conflicts aren’t concerned by this, but are simply looking for the next occasion for the U.S. to exercise “leadership” regardless of the consequences.