The Interventionist’s Lament
Anne Applebaum bemoans the decision not to bomb Syria three years ago:
I repeat: Maybe a U.S.-British-French intervention would have ended in disaster. If so, we would today be mourning the consequences. But sometimes it’s important to mourn the consequences of nonintervention too. Three years on, we do know, after all, exactly what nonintervention has produced.
One of the more frustrating things about the debate over Syria policy is the widely-circulated idea that refraining from military action makes a government responsible for any or all of the things that happen in a foreign conflict later on. Somehow our government is responsible for the effects of a war when it isn’t directly contributing to the conflict by dropping bombs, but doesn’t receive any blame when it is helping to stoke the same conflict by other means. Many pundits lament the failure to bomb Syria, but far fewer object to the harm done by sending weapons to rebels that have contributed to the overall mayhem in Syria.
Applebaum’s column title refers to “disastrous nonintervention,” but the U.S. has been meddling in Syria’s conflict to some degree for many years. Indeed, Syria is in such a miserable state because multiple outside states have been interfering and taking sides in the war. There may be no better example of how outside intervention prolongs and intensifies a civil war than Syria, and yet Syria hawks always conclude that the real problem is that Western governments haven’t done more to add to the misery. The “consequences of nonintervention” are not, in fact, the consequences of the U.S. decision not to bomb in 2013, but rather they are the consequences of the actions that many actors (including the U.S.) have taken in Syria in their destructive efforts to “shape” the conflict.
Let’s remember what the Obama administration proposed doing in August 2013. Obama was going to order attacks on the Syrian government to punish it for the use of chemical weapons, but his officials insisted this would be an “unbelievably small” action in order to placate skeptics worried about an open-ended war. If the attack had been as “unbelievably small” as promised, it would have weakened the Syrian government’s forces but likely wouldn’t have changed anything about the overall conflict. Even judged solely by how much of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons arsenal it eliminated, it would have been less successful than the disarmament agreement that was reached.
If the intervention had expanded and turned into a much more ambitious campaign, as opponents of the proposed bombing feared it could, it would have almost certainly redounded to the benefit of jihadist groups because it was attacking their enemies. It seems fair to assume that a “successful” bombing campaign in 2013 would have exposed more of Syria to the depredations of ISIS and other jihadists. It would not have hurt ISIS or other jihadists in the least since they were not going to be targeted by it, so it is particularly absurd to try to blame ISIS’s later actions on the decision not to attack. If the bombing campaign was perceived to be “not working” quickly enough, that would have prompted demands for an even larger U.S. military role in Syria in the months and years that followed. Bombing Syria in 2013 would not have ended the war earlier, but would have made the U.S. a more involved party to it than it is today. I fail to see how that would have been a better outcome for the U.S. or the people of Syria. It is doubtful that fewer Syrians overall would have been killed and displaced in the wake of such a bombing campaign. It is tendentious in the extreme to assert that the decision not to bomb is responsible for the war’s later victims and effects.
The backlash against proposed military action in Syria in 2013 was a remarkable moment in the U.S. and Britain. It was the first time that the U.S. and U.K. governments had their plan to attack another country effectively overruled by the people’s elected representatives. As it turns out, it was a fleeting moment, and it doesn’t seem likely to be repeated anytime soon. Popular resistance to the next war was virtually non-existent, and both the U.S. and British governments have returned to their old ways of starting and backing unnecessary wars. Obama has unfortunately learned the lesson that he should avoid consulting those representatives on these matters in the future, and so he has gone back to starting and waging wars without authorization. The foreign policy elite in the U.S. have similarly learned all the wrong things from this episode. Instead of recognizing how unpopular their preferred policies were/are and respecting what the public wanted, most have concluded that public opinion should simply be ignored from now on.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in the Applebaum’s interventionist lament is the complete failure to acknowledge that other states and groups have their own agency and would have continued to do harm in Syria regardless of what the U.S. did or didn’t do. Bombing Syria in 2013 wouldn’t have made the conflict any easier to resolve, nor would it have altered the interests of the warring parties. It would have been an exercise in blowing things up and killing people to show that we were taking “action.” It would have been the most senseless sort of intervening for the sake of being seen to intervene. The U.S. could have been more deeply involved in the conflict than it is for many years, but all that would have meant was that the U.S. was doing more to inflict death and destruction on a suffering country. When interventionists “mourn” a decision not to bomb, they are regretting the decision not to kill people in another country that posed no threat to the U.S. or any of our allies. That’s a horrible position, and it’s no wonder that most Americans still recoil from it.