In a word: nothing.
Although the war drums have been beating long and hard for Syria for a while, it appears that common sense may be making a rare comeback and military action may be avoided. I guess that the Obama administration realized that finding itself in agreement with François Hollande, and opposed by the English Parliament, must be a bad place to be.
Is the Syrian regime disgusting and criminal? Of course it is, but this is hardly news and it really doesn’t distinguish it from a great number of regimes around the world; for the region, and with the notable exception of Israel, it is virtually de rigueur. But this is not the point. The only questions should be: does the Syrian regime threaten the vital interests of the United States and can US military action do anything about it?
Any form of military intervention in Syria clearly fails the first part of this test. Although we may be appalled by the behavior of the Assad regime, the fact that it chooses to brutalize its own population is a matter of total indifference to the interests of America. We should not put at risk one American life, or spend one dollar of our wealth, to attempt to put this right. We cannot assume the role of the world’s police, a role that has proven, time and time again, to be thankless and endless, but far from costless.
Military intervention also fails the second part of the test, for a whole number of reasons.
First, there appears to be little to choose between the two sides, not surprising in a region where political movements are really nothing but rival gangs of looters. Even if military action were effective in bringing about change, we have little reason to believe that the replacement would be any better. Surely, this is the lesson of places like Iraq and Egypt. As Donald Tusk, the Prime Minister of Poland, said when asked if Poland would support intervention, “Our experience from that region shows that despite having a good and justified reason to intervene there, it rarely brings peace.” Democracy is new enough in Poland that politicians there can still occasionally speak the truth.
Or, as Henry Kissinger once said about the Iran-Iraq war, “It’s too bad they can’t both lose”.
Even if military action could be effective, American-led military action is almost certainly doomed to failure.
Living outside of America, one learns that there is huge gulf of cynicism that separates America from the rest of the world and this gulf severely limits the effectiveness of any US foreign policy actions, especially military ones. The reality is that American foreign policy is frequently motivated by idealism; I make this as an objective statement of fact rather than any form of pride or approbation, because frankly I would prefer a policy based on realpolitik. I cannot count the number of times that I have had educated Europeans bring forth the most extraordinary and illogical arguments to impute self-serving motives to America’s foreign policy actions where there are – unfortunately, from my perspective – none. If this is the reaction of educated Europeans, I can only imagine the reaction of the “Arab street”, where convoluted conspiracy theories pass for knowledge and the CIA is responsible for everything from 9/11 to AIDS.
This means that any movement supported by America, no matter how beneficial and enlightened, is immediately demonized in the eyes of the Arab public. American assistance is literally the kiss of death.
Finally, this type of humanitarian intervention will always expose America to accusations of hypocrisy and will needlessly test American credibility. It is only possible to intervene with regimes which are militarily weak and cannot affect the vital interests of the West, such as by disrupting oil supplies: even the worse regimes will escape sanction if they have the ability to fight back. This means that intervention will always be selective and therefore “hypocritical”, further promoting cynicism about American motives. If America makes itself the standard bearer of humanitarian intervention, a task which is impossible to fulfill consistently, then American credibility is undermined. When Obama draws a “red line” over chemical weapons in Syria, and then decides that he could actually use some political cover from Congress, what does this do to the credibility of other American “lines”, most of which are far more important to America’s real interests?
The proper policy in Syria is to join the chorus in abhorring the actions of the Assad regime and then to wait for the United Nations to take action. Which is like waiting for Godot. Thankfully.
Roger Barris, London