America Unhinged

January 2, 2014 Topic: Grand StrategySecurity Regions: United States

America Unhinged

Mini Teaser: The "most secure great power in world history" continues to engage in costly interventions to defend merely peripheral interests.

by Author(s): John J. Mearsheimer

This deep concern about Iran is motivated by the belief that its influence in the Middle East has grown significantly and that it is bent on achieving regional hegemony. Its pursuit of nuclear weapons, so the argument goes, is part of Tehran’s drive to dominate the Middle East.

Terrorism is the basis of a second argument for treating Syria as a fundamental strategic interest. The claim is not only that Syria supports terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, but also that Al Qaeda and other groups hostile to the United States now operate in Syria. Thus, as two hawkish commentators writing in the New York Times put it, the United States could intervene in Syria and “create a bulwark against extremist groups like Al Qaeda, which are present and are seeking safe havens in ungoverned corners of Syria.” Toppling Assad would also seriously weaken Hezbollah, which is heavily dependent on Syria as well as Iran for its survival.

Another line of argument is that the United States must be intensely involved in Syria because of the danger that its raging civil war will spill over into neighboring countries, thus causing a wider conflict that will threaten American interests in the region. “The longer the war,” the Wall Street Journal argues, “the graver the risks to America’s allies.”

Finally, there is the claim that Syria matters greatly because America’s credibility is at stake. Specifically, President Obama said in August 2012 that Syria would be crossing a “red line” if it used chemical weapons against the rebels. The implication was that the United States would respond with military force if that happened.

According to the White House, Assad used chemical weapons on August 21, 2013, and killed 1,429 civilians. This tragic event, so the argument goes, was not only a clear violation of a fundamental norm, but it also put U.S. credibility on the line. This matter is deemed especially important because the fact that Obama did not punish Syria for crossing his red line makes his threat to attack Iran if it moves to acquire nuclear weapons look hollow.

None of these arguments are convincing. There is no question that America’s disastrous war in Iraq strengthened Iran’s position in the Middle East, mainly by bringing a Shia-dominated government to power in Baghdad. But Iran is nowhere close to having the capability to become a hegemon in the Gulf. It does not have formidable conventional forces, and nobody worries much about it conquering any of its neighbors, especially because the United States would intervene to stop it.

Nor is it clear that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons. The consensus opinion in the American intelligence community is that it is not. But even if that judgment proves wrong and Iran acquires a nuclear arsenal, it could not use that capability to dominate the Persian Gulf. Nuclear weapons provide states with little offensive capability and thus are ill suited for spreading Iran’s influence in its neighborhood. Furthermore, both Israel and the United States have nuclear weapons and would never tolerate Iran achieving regional hegemony. Nor would Saudi Arabia or any other Arab state, which means Iran would face a formidable balancing coalition if it tried to rule the Gulf.

Finally, no matter how powerful one thinks Iran is today, losing in Syria is not going to diminish its economic or military power in any meaningful way, although it will curtail its regional influence somewhat. But that outcome has two possible consequences for the United States, neither of which is good. One is that Tehran is likely to go to great lengths to keep Assad in power, complicating Washington’s efforts to depose the Syrian leader. However, if Iran does lose in Syria and thinks it is America’s next target for regime change, its incentive to acquire a nuclear deterrent will increase. Thus, toppling Assad is likely to make Iranian nuclear weapons more, not less, likely.

The claim that the United States should treat Syria as a core strategic interest because it is a hotbed for terrorism also suffers from a number of flaws. For one thing, terrorism is not a serious enough threat to justify intervening in Syria, especially with military force. Moreover, intervening in countries like Syria is precisely what helps trigger the terrorism problem. Remember that the United States faced no terrorism problem from Syria before the Obama administration threw its weight behind the effort to oust Assad from power. Indeed, Syria helped the United States deal with its terrorism problem after September 11. It gave Washington valuable intelligence about Al Qaeda—information that helped stymie attacks on American targets in Bahrain and Canada—and it was deeply involved in the Bush administration’s program of extraordinary rendition. According to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, it was one of the “most common destinations for rendered suspects.”

By backing the campaign against Assad, the Obama administration has helped turn Syria into a haven for terrorist groups. In fact, groups that loathe the United States dominate the armed opposition to Assad. Moreover, many Western governments now worry because their citizens are flocking to Syria and joining the rebels. The apprehension is that they will become radicalized and return home as full-blown terrorists. Intervening in Syria will just make the terrorism problem there worse, unless, of course, Washington helps Assad defeat the rebels and return to the status quo ante. That is unlikely to happen, however, because Obama is committed to arming the rebels.

But backing the rebels certainly does not solve the terrorism problem, as the most powerful groups are comprised of jihadists who hate America. Furthermore, if the United States gets more deeply involved in the conflict, the actors supporting Assad—Hezbollah, Iran and Russia—are likely to up the ante themselves, increasing the prospect the war will drag on for the foreseeable future. And the longer the civil war lasts, the stronger the jihadists will become within the opposition forces.

If nothing else, one might argue that removing Assad from power would deliver a devastating blow to Hezbollah, which is supported by Syria as well as Iran. The first problem with this claim is that the United States is not a mortal enemy of Hezbollah and not in its crosshairs. Washington should not give it any incentive to target the United States. Furthermore, even if the flow of Iranian and Syrian arms to Hezbollah were cut off, it would remain a powerful force in Lebanon and the broader region, as it has deep roots and enjoys substantial support among important segments of Lebanese society. Moreover, the flow of arms from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah would eventually start up again, because no matter who rules in Damascus, it is in their interest to support Hezbollah. That militant organization directly threatens Israel’s northern border, which provides Syria with the only leverage it has for getting the Golan Heights back from Israel.

What about the claim that the United States should intervene in Syria’s civil war to prevent it from becoming a regional conflict? It’s worth noting that the Obama administration helped precipitate this problem by attempting to remove Assad and failing, which helped exacerbate the ongoing civil war. Furthermore, if America gets more involved in the conflict, Hezbollah, Iran and Russia are likely to increase their support for Assad, which would increase the prospect that the war would spill over into neighboring countries. In other words, further American intervention would probably help spread the fire, not contain it.

In theory, the United States could solve this contagion problem by invading and occupying Syria, much the way it did in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Thankfully, there is zero chance that will happen. Thus, the best strategy for the Obama administration is to pursue a diplomatic solution.

But even if diplomacy fails and the war spreads beyond Syria’s borders, it would not undermine American security in any meaningful way, as it would not lead to a single country dominating the Gulf and its oil. Besides, every oil-producing country has powerful incentives to sell its oil and generate revenue, whether it is embroiled in a conflict or not.

Lastly, there is the argument that American credibility is on the line in Syria and thus the United States must remain deeply involved in that country’s politics. To be sure, credibility would not even be an issue if President Obama had not foolishly drawn a red line over Syrian use of chemical weapons. One might counter that the president had no choice but to rule the use of chemical weapons out of bounds, because they are especially heinous weapons and there is a powerful norm against using them.

These counterarguments are not compelling. Despite all the hyperbole surrounding chemical weapons, they are not weapons of mass destruction. They are certainly not in the same category as nuclear weapons. Israel, after all, has been willing to live with Syrian chemical weapons for many years, while it has been adamant that it will not tolerate Iranian or Syrian nuclear weapons.

Also, consider the history of civilian casualties over the course of Syria’s civil war. As noted above, the United States estimates that 1,429 civilians were killed in the August 21 gas attacks, which is a considerably higher number than the estimates of Britain, France and Doctors Without Borders, all of which put the death toll under four hundred. Regardless of the exact number, bombs and bullets killed roughly forty thousand Syrian noncombatants before the recent gassing, yet those many civilian deaths did not prompt the White House to intervene in Syria.

Image: Pullquote: The United States, which is the most secure great power in world history, has been safer over the past twenty-five years than at any other time in its history.Essay Types: Essay