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June 17, 2013 11:37 AM Syria and the Lessons of Iraq

By Andrew Sabl

Apparently, the Obama administration is set to send weapons to the Syrian rebels. The New York Times article reporting that implies that this may be too little, too late if our plan is to prevent a military victory by Assad. To do that, we’d have to take out lots of Syria’s airstrips.

All this is excellent instrumental reasoning, but it’s time to contest the premise: since when has it become American policy to topple Assad, whatever the cost and consequences? Washington pundits, always more militarist than the American people, have been lamenting that the lessons of Iraq have made the Obama administration “cautious” or “loath to intervene”–as if reluctance to militarily intervene in a large and well-armed country, caution in trying to topple a dictator whose fall would produce a country consumed by deadly sectarian hatreds (partly ancient and largely new, but who cares?), were a bad thing.

David Bromwich’s article in the latest New York Review of Books, where he takes the role of what Mark Danner has called an “empiricist of the word,” provides an excellent corrective to the creeping insinuation that intervention is in the cards and that those who propose staying out must somehow justify that. Read it all, as they say, but here are some highlights: Bill Keller, who got Iraq so horribly wrong, is now asking us to trust him that Syria is different, but can’t really say why (after reading Keller’s argument, I think Bromwich is quite right.). Keller is determined that his past “error of judgment” not leave him “gun-shy,” but while he worries about his mojo, I care more about the people at the other end of his vicarious gun. A recent New York Times article “White House Sticks to Cautious Path on Syria” already is slanted, as Bromwich notes, in the very headline (slightly revised in the online version without changing its substance): why would a lack of change in policy count as news unless we’re assuming that intervention is, or ought to be, the default assumption? By the way, Mark Landler, who co-wrote that article as well as what Bromwich shows to be an over-hyped article about chemical weapons, also co-wrote the latest article approvingly citing “[s]ome senior State Department officials” who ”have been pushing for a more aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria.” The man has at the very least a bias; at most, an agenda.

About those chemical weapons, by the way: Even stipulating that Assad has used them, and I certainly wouldn’t put it past him, I deny that this gives the U.S. good reason to intervene. The bright-line taboo on using nuclear weapons is far more dubious when applied to chemical weapons, whose ability to kill and sicken horribly in a limited area is not qualitatively greater, and often less, than the ability of awful contemporary conventional weapons to kill and maim. President Obama was foolish enough to make chemical weapons a “red line”—as we now know, as an off-the-cuff remark that he hadn’t thought out—but neither America nor Syria deserves to pay the price for his gaffe, no matter what the White House thinks.

I realize that the Syrian civil war is horrible. Tens of thousands (perhaps more) have been killed; millions have fled. Assad is a vicious dictator and he does not plan to change. But the pundits eager for intervention have not explained an alternative better than this: another war. For reasons those State Department hawks have explained, this war would start with our bombing airstrips. I submit it would progress, given the need to protect our aircraft against surface attack, to our bombing all kinds of “strategic” targets, killing thousands of civilians (as in Iraq). We would quite likely send ground troops who would instantly become the targets of die-hard Alawites, not to mention Hezbollah. In the best case, and whether or not we sent troops, we would eventually hand over the country to a motley coalition of well-organized Salafis and poorly-organized moderates. Further civil war would almost follow—with no likely end to the killing, nor the flow of refugees.

There’s no shame in having learned the lessons of Iraq. Shame on those who are so determined to deny that they are lessons that they would rather repeat them. We should stay out.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Andrew Sabl is a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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