The Pitfalls of Good Guy/Bad Guy Foreign Policy

What if the battle isn't between good and evil, but rather between bloody and bloodier?

Americans have always loved the classic battles between good and evil: minutemen vs. Redcoats, the Greatest Generation vs. Hitler, Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker, Redskins vs. Cowboys (I won’t say who’s good and who’s evil). We like the clean lines that allow us to love and support the good guy while hating and opposing the bad guy. No complications, no difficult moral decisions to make. Such is the case in Syria today: we support the “moderate” rebels—the good guys; we oppose ISIS and Assad—the bad guys. What would happen, however, if we discovered the battle wasn’t between good and evil, but rather between one group with bloody hands and another with really bloody hands?

Since Syria’s civil war began major media outlets have routinely reported on the barbaric atrocities committed by Assad’s forces against the civil population. Only rarely, however, do these same outlets report on the war crimes frequently committed by the opposition groups we support. But these crimes are neither minor nor isolated. A few examples:

- Human Rights Watch reported that in August 2013 rebel forces killed sixty-seven civilians during a key battle. These deaths were no collateral damage, however, as the report stated “evidence strongly suggests that the killings, hostage taking, and other abuses committed by opposition forces on and after August 4 rise to the level of crimes against humanity”

- Amnesty International claimed that in 2014 rebels killed over 600 civilians. “Some of these attacks,” the report asserted, “may have also constituted deliberate attacks on civilians or civilian objects, which are also war crimes.”

- And just two months ago, a pro-rebel human rights group reported that opposition forces committed war crimes by murdering seventy-one Syrian regime soldiers and civilian loyalists.

If, even into the next administration, the U.S. continues to support the opposition groups and they should happen to cumulatively overthrow Assad, what happens next? Will these groups work together to form an effective interim government, leading to fair and free elections and an end to the violence? The likelier scenario is that once Assad is out of power, the strongest of these groups will turn on each other in a new fight for control of the new government. We’ve seen just this dynamic play out in recent years.

In 2011, the U.S. supported rebel groups in Libya against Qaddafi by conducting hundreds of cruise missile and airstrikes. After the Libyan leader was killed by rebels, President Barack Obama optimistically said to the Libyan people: “You have won your revolution. And now, we will be a partner as you forge a future that provides dignity, freedom and opportunity.” Mere months later, however, the once-unified opposition fragmented and turned on itself. Now four years after we succeeded in removing a tyrant from power, Libya remains one of the most unstable, violent and ungoverned areas in the world.

In light of the fact that all participants of the war in Syria have committed war crimes, American policymakers have to face some hard questions with no good answers: if there aren’t any good guys, who do we support—or do we support anyone? If we don’t take one side over the other, what happens to the violence in that nation and the millions of innocent civilians who will continue to live in fear? Can America, the land of the free and home of the brave, stand idly by while militias wage war in which tens of thousands die?

It may be that none of the warring sides represent or would support our values and thus, regardless of which side ultimately prevails, American interests will not be served. The best we could hope for might be to use U.S. diplomatic and humanitarian resources to encourage the combatants to resolve their differences, while trying to contain the violence and leading humanitarian efforts to lessen the suffering of the innocents.

Such a policy would likely be attacked as “defeatist” or as a failure to lead. But the hard facts are that despite our attempts to resolve civil wars in other countries in recent years, the result has been a worsening of the violence, an increase in the suffering of those we’ve sought to help, and ultimately the establishment of regimes that neither represent American values nor provide peace and democracy to their people.

As we near Presidential primary season, we can only hope that the ultimate winner—whether Republican or Democrat or Independent, male or female—will show the wisdom, moral courage and leadership necessary to preserve American values and interests.

Daniel L. Davis is a widely published analyst on national security and foreign policy. He retired as a Lt. Col. after 21 years in the US Army, including four combat deployments.  The views in these articles are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the US Government. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.

Image: Flickr/K. Aksoy