Syria and the Dangers of American Power

Good intentions haven't led to good outcomes in past U.S. interventions in the Middle East.

Now that President Obama has asked Congress to vote on attacking Syria, the debate over intervention is heating up in Washington. A growing faction in the Republican Party, led by Tea Party figures such as Rand Paul, is pouring cold water on the notion that America should become entangled in another Middle East conflict. But another group of liberal hawks and neocons is taking a different approach. Manifesting the triumphalism that has marked American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire, they maintain that America, and only America, has the power and will to enforce international humanitarian norms in Syria.

And so in the past few days, we have witnessed the belligerent statements of high-level U.S. politicians—from leading senators such as John McCain to Secretary of State John Kerry—that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons, that it has crossed a red line, and that this act cannot go unpunished. It is America’s obligation, we are told, to show the world that such behavior cannot be tolerated, or else no one would take America seriously. But what is the actual American record of humanitarian intervention? Has it been humane? Or has it inadvertently caused even more chaos in the name of preventing it?

Consider Iraq. After the Bush and Blair governments failed to discover any WMDs, the intervention was justified by spreading democracy in the Islamic world and the supposed liberation of the Iraqi people from the tyranny of the “bloody dictator Saddam Hussein,” and the solidifying of democracy in that country. The results: a few hundred thousand dead Iraqis, millions displaced within Iraqi territory, thousands killed and tens of thousands of American and allied soldiers injured. Today, the country lies in ruins, and has de facto split into three parts—Shia, Sunni and Kurdish. Daily terrorist attacks rock the country and claim numerous lives. In view of all this, the Obama administration claimed that the United States had fulfilled its mission in Iraq and was time to leave it to its own fate.

The second such humanitarian intervention, supposedly led to save lives from an evil dictator, was Libya. UN data ranked this country, up until the intervention, as one of the five developing most rapidly and successfully. As a direct result of the U.S. and allied intervention, it is now reduced to rubble; its leader murdered by desperadoes. Lest we forget, the weapons delivered to the rebels found their way into the hands of radical Islamists in the wider Middle East, including Syria. Once again, Americans supposedly finished their humanitarian mission and the country is in shambles.

The next American move to spread peace and democracy in the region was its involvement in the Arab Spring, and more specifically, in Egyptian internal affairs. When protesters in Cairo called for the resignation of President Mubarak, President Obama demanded that Mubarak exit office without delay, despite the thirty-year friendship with the United States and despite the fact that Mubarak had, for the longest time, acted as a true and loyal ally, following all of his obligations under the Camp David accords with regard to Israel and stability in the region. The naïve expectations of Washington notwithstanding, Mubarak was not replaced by democrats after the elections. Quite the contrary. Islamic radicals ascended to power in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood who, very rapidly, turned almost the entire population against themselves. Mass protests erupted again, this time against the Brotherhood, who tried to claim all the power. After a year, the Army staged a coup d'état. Instead of a military dictatorship with some civilian institutions and Mubarak at the helm, we now have an open military dictatorship.

The moral seems obvious: American good intentions in a variety of Arab countries lead not to peace, stability and prosperity, but instead create new, colossal problems that begin with state collapse and end in chaos and conflict. By now, it’s blatantly obvious to everyone outside the Obama administration that the president himself does not particularly like or understand foreign policy and has no clear idea of America’s role and place in the world. Unfortunately, the same holds true for his foreign-policy team.

The foreign policy of the most powerful country in the world now consists of a series of improvised Obama statements. The most important takeaway from these proclamations is that once the President has said something, for whatever reason, it cannot be withdrawn, or no one will respect America. The other facet of Obama foreign policy is that it also appears to include as an essential part of its repertoire insults to the leaders of foreign nations—most recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin was given the back of Obama’s hand when he was likened to a bored schoolboy.

Obama should reconsider his stands both large and small. The truth is that Iraq, Libya, Syria or Egypt don’t pose a grave threat to the world and to the system of international relations. The largest threat to the entire system of international relations stems from a country that is stronger militarily by far—the United States, which, under the leadership of dilettante politicians, is drawn into a multitude of conflicts in global hot spots with the best of intentions. It is obvious that today the United States lacks the resources, understanding, desire and popular support to engage in nation- and state-building in other countries.

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