Counterfactuals Won't Solve Syria

Fighting between Kurdish gunmen and Jabhat al-Nusra in Ras al-Ayn, Syria. Wikimedia Commons/Younes Mohammad

Asking “what if” is rhetorically powerful, but practically useless.

Few observers would disagree that the ongoing civil war in Syria is the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of this century: over 450,000 have perished, and over 4.8 million have been displaced. Outside of a negotiated settlement and an enduring ceasefire, which seem unlikely, the most favorable resolution may well be one in which the various parties to the conflict simply exhaust themselves—a hypothetical that suggests how bleak the Syrian landscape has become.

It is not just the mounting scale of the tragedy there that is imposing greater pressure on the international community—the United States, in particular—to stem the carnage. A series of images has compounded the sense of urgency: in particular, that of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Kurdish child who washed ashore on a Turkish beach this past September, fully clothed and almost appearing to be sleeping; and that of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old Syrian child who was photographed at the back of an ambulance after having been injured in an airstrike, wearing a blank expression that belied the horrors from which he had just been extricated. There have also been wrenching clips, including that of the two brothers who embraced one another and sobbed uncontrollably upon learning that their other brother had been killed in in airstrike.

Like countless others, I shared the images of Aylan and Omran, as well as the clip of the two brothers. Increasingly, though, I question the usefulness of such dissemination. While these visuals scar our conscience and summon our outrage, after all, they do not offer prescriptive guidance; instead, their principal effect is to increase the gap between awareness and reflection. Were that collective indignation could yield prudent policy.

Given the gravity of the situation in Syria, it is not surprising that many observers have lambasted the Obama administration’s policies and suggested that it should have implemented the alternative courses of action they had proposed. As with much other criticism of alleged U.S. “dithering” and “fecklessness,” this proposition reveals an exaggerated belief in the capacity of U.S. power, especially military, to effect political outcomes. It also betrays a reductionist—borderline monocausal—view of the world, whereby any challenge to or erosion of world order is caused by U.S. weakness, and can accordingly be remedied by a more vigorous application of its power. Most problematically, this judgment invokes counterfactual reasoning. The hypothetical is analytically weak because it cannot be tested and, accordingly, it cannot be refuted. It is rhetorically powerful, however, because it exploits our intuition: the graver a given outcome is, the more likely one is to believe that an alternative policy would have resulted in a better one.

Paul Pillar observes that when “alternatives get assessed at all, a major asymmetry usually makes those assessments faulty. The real policy, warts and all, is put up against reality, with all of the policy’s limitations exposed for us to see. But the hypothetical alternatives are not similarly exposed; whoever suggests an alternative can just assume that the alternative would have worked the way it was intended to work.”

Those who posit counterfactuals can gloss over all manner of unforeseen contingencies; policymakers, however, must grapple with them constantly. Just as one should not advise a surgeon to operate while blindfolded, one should not exhort the United States to act in Syria when it possesses so little understanding of the dynamics therein. The rejoinder to this argument is immediate and forceful: conjecture is an inescapable element of policymaking. Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld made the point memorably when he spoke of a continuum running from “known knowns” to “unknown unknowns.” The United States would be incapable of conducting a foreign policy if it conditioned every action on the possession of complete knowledge. Restraint, moreover, is not intrinsically virtuous; it can masquerade as prudence while actually serving to excuse indecision. But given the dubious outcomes of America’s interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose respective constellations of actors are far less complicated than the one in Syria, it is unclear why observers would be more confident in the outcome of greater U.S. involvement there.

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