The Vengeance Doctrine

Last week, as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met to consider the nomination of Senator John Kerry for Secretary of State, Senator John McCain used the opportunity to advocate for intervention in Syria. In his questioning of Kerry, McCain asserted that because the United States has not chosen to intervene aggressively against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, America is at risk. Quoting a Syrian teacher, McCain said, "This next generation of children will take revenge on those that that did not help them."

This is one step beyond the so-called "gratitude doctrine," the assumption that providing assistance to those seeking to overthrow a repressive regime—especially military aid to counterbalance the overwhelming advantages enjoyed by the forces of the dictator—will produce a successor government receptive to U.S. influence and more responsive to our interests and concerns. According to this argument, the United States must intervene not even to necessarily produce a more friendly post-Assad government in Syria (which is by no means a foregone conclusion), but must take action in order to prevent the "disappointed" from one day striking the United States. Even though it is the Syrian government which is the proximate cause of their suffering, and it is Iran and Russia which have given the most assistance to the Assad regime, it is somehow America's fault—and it is against America that revenge must be extracted.

This is an amazing argument. All over the world, there are conflicts with inevitable winners and losers. In the past, the weaker side often appealed for American help and assistance on the basis of common values or by promising accommodation of U.S. interests. Ahmad Chalabi cleverly wove both streams together in his advocacy for a U.S. invasion of Iraq—both on the grounds of "spreading democracy," but also by intimating that a post-Saddam Iraq (under his leadership) would be more likely to recognize Israel, engage in the peace process, continue to contain Iran, and perhaps even break the cohesiveness of the OPEC cartel in order to bring oil prices to lower levels.

But this is the first time I have seen the "threat" argument deployed—help us in our struggle or we will target you. There is no promise of gratitude for U.S. assistance, only the implied guarantee that timely U.S. aid now will avert terrorist attacks in the future.

The Libya example should be a warning that aiding those who threaten future revenge against the United States is no guarantee of safety or security. Gratitude for liberation from Qaddafi has not produced security for Americans and other Westerners whose countries took action against the Libyan dictator.

Of course, if the United States were to intervene in Syria on behalf of the rebellion, and actively begin killing Syrians, what guarantee is there that the "next generation" of those killed and wounded by American action would not take revenge themselves? Certainly after a U.S. intervention, the losing side in the Syrian civil war—the Alawites—would also have an incentive to "take revenge" on America for their defeat and dispossession. Particularly given their past as a secretive, insular community, they would be well poised to retreat to their mountain strongholds. They could pass on to their children a desire to take vengeance for their loss unless the United States were to intervene on the ground to separate and secure the various Syrian communities and protect them against the excesses of the Sunni majority.

Of course, such a ground invasion would require a troop presence on the ground greater than the figure of several hundred thousand that General Eric Shinseki presented to Congress during planning for the Iraq war in 2003 (and for which he was publicly shot down by deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz)—a deployment no one in Congress who supports intervention is currently contemplating. Moreover, it would require the United States to be prepared to use force against those Sunnis who would want to take revenge for their suffering and persecution at the hands of the Alawis.

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mrajanov (January 29, 2013 - 11:51pm)

Brilliant article. McCain's jungle fever strikes again.

Moses (January 30, 2013 - 7:58am)

McCain is incapable of learning. How grateful were Iraqis? Libyans? Egyptians? Afghans? Turks? Iran? America has poured too many resources into these countries and invested a lot. As a senator with a very long experience of dealing with the Middle should know that the teacher is just saying that to prompt America to do what he wants, i.e. to do his dirty laundry. It makes no sense to talk about hurting America rather than Iran or Russia. So, the teacher is either inherently anti-American or he is trying to push America to do his chores for him.I refuse to believe that the senator is so naïve. He should know that America will be cursed 5 minutes after it overthrows Assad and, that America will be blamed for all that goes wrong in Syria!!! Syria is a mess and it will get worse. If America interferes it will be blamed for everything. And, it would also have been blamed if it had interfered earlier. The US does not need to take sides in the sectarian war. It can get closer with parties from both sides and this will give the US tremendous leverage.To stop Syria’s civil war the administration must focus on making the groups that support Bashar Al-Assad feel safe to stop supporting the status quo and accept change.  Therefore, self-determination must be a pillar of any strategy dealing with the revolutions in the ME in general and in Syria in particular given Syria’s diversity if, long term stability is what we seek; i.e. the Kurds must be recognized and given an autonomous region and, the Alewites must also have an autonomous region.  Other minorities, judging by where they stand today, will chose to live with the Alewites. Both alewites and kurds could be allies of the US and, they could even be allies of Israel to balance against their newly found enemies. This will also keep Syrians occupied and, will prevent them from stirring problems. The only hope for a soft landing and lasting peace is: A Syrian Union and the right of Self-determination granted to Syria’s components. This must be the US administration’s strategy. Otherwise fundamentalist regimes will form the new geopolitical reality in the ME and it would be very difficult to check, contain, and balance against emerging hostile regimes in the ME. 

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