Tim Newman has written numerous excellent posts of late, but the one that resonated most with me was this one from about a month ago, which in response to a reader’s question about what he admitted changing his mind about, he admitted to having misjudged the outcome in Iraq:
I supported the Iraq War for several reasons, one of which was I thought the Iraqis deserved the chance to be free of Saddam Hussein and run their country without him. I genuinely thought they would seize the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Arabic people are not incompatible with democracy and, so thankful that Saddam Hussein is gone, they would make a pretty decent effort to make things work.
Instead they tore each other apart and did everything they could to demonstrate that those who dismissed them as savages that needed a strongman to keep them in line were right all along. I think this was probably the most depressing aspect of the whole shambolic affair.
. . . .
But the one issue I changed my mind on was that the US (or British) military should no longer be brought to bear for altruistic or humanitarian reasons. It is rather depressing, but I am now a firm believer in the premise that a population generally deserves the government it gets. No longer would I support a war that is not prosecuted for clear strategic reasons that are indisputably in the national interest. So all those suffering under the jackboot of oppression? Sorry, you’re on your own. We tried our best and look where it got us.
I couldn’t agree more, for I have undergone a similar conversion. I too succumbed to Western universalism, and believed that freed from the oppressions of a sadistic dictator, Iraq had the potential to become a passably free, democratic country that could become a role model for a benighted region. I believed that the problem was misrule from the top, rather than dysfunction at the bottom.
I was wrong.
What Iraq has taught me–reminded me, actually, in a rather forceful way–that although political and economic freedom are highly desirable, the preconditions that make this possible are the exception, rather than the rule. Further, the preconditions are highly culturally and historically contingent. The experience brought home forcefully the relevance of civilization (as Huntington emphasized): not everyone yearns to be like Americans; in fact, to many Western/American beliefs and mores are an anathema; Western institutions and behaviors can’t be grafted onto fundamentally different civilizations and cultures, and they certainly won’t arise spontaneously in the aftermath of the overthrow of a repressive regime, especially one that has deliberately crushed civil society for decades (and I could say something similar of the FSU); the tragic view of history has much more predictive power than the progressive view.
I should have remembered the experience of the Reconstruction in the United States, or Napoleon’s experience in Spain, or myriad other historical examples of the futility of attempting to impose a social and political revolution on a hostile alien culture.
Iraq, and subsequently Libya, pushed me back to my Jacksonian roots. Reforming foreigners isn’t our business. What they do amongst themselves is up to them, as long as they don’t harm Americans or American interests in a serious way. If they do that, deal with them forcefully and quickly, with no dreamy ideas of “nation building” in the aftermath. A view summarized by one of my heroes, USMC General James Mattis, who while in Iraq said: “I come in peace. I did not bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes, if you fuck with me, I will kill you all.” Translated: we’ll leave you alone, unless you don’t leave us alone. In which case, watch out.
It’s one thing to make a mistake, to misjudge. It’s another thing to make a mistake and then learn nothing from it. We are seeing that right now, in regards to Syria. To judge by the words of many on both sides of the current political divide, Iraq (and Libya) never happened. Why do I say that? Because figures on both the right and left are advocating direct American involvement in the Syrian civil war, even though it makes Iraq look like Sunday school.
The catalyst for this waving of the bloody shirt is the carnage in Aleppo. John McCain in particular is beating the war drum, claiming that the US is now complicit in genocide in Syria. From the left, Samantha Power (she of Responsibility to Protect, which went so swell in Libya) obsesses about Syrian and Russian atrocities there.
Then there are the journalist/wonk pilot fish like Charles Lister and the execrable Michael Weiss, who churn out war propaganda in the best yellow journalism tradition, all the while doing their best to hide their connections with malign medieval regimes in the Gulf.
I will stipulate that what is occurring in Aleppo is horrific (although I would also note that the opposition is waging a transparent propaganda campaign in an attempt to manipulate the US into intervening–a campaign in which Weiss, Lister, and their ilk are avid participants).
That said, what can the United States do about it? Would intervention lead to a less horrific result? What would be the likely outcome? Would the US be able to achieve its intended outcomes? What would the unintended consequences be?
Anyone who thinks about these questions without considering the sobering lessons of Iraq is a menace. But it’s worse than that, I don’t think that McCain, Power, Weiss, Lister, et al, think about these questions at all. It’s like Iraq never happened. The amnesia is rather astounding.
Here are my answers. There are no good guys in Syria, and even if with US assistance Assad was overthrown, it would not end the civil war, which would just devolve even further into a multi-sided hell that makes Libya and Iraq look like a picnic; it would empower jihadists who will slaughter as many or more as Assad has; the flow of refugees will not stop, although the composition of the refugees might change (with Alawites and Christians replacing Sunnis); if the opposition gets control of Syria, it will be the jihadists who control the opposition, and Syria will become a base for anti-American and anti-Western terrorism.
Syria is even more broken, complex, divided and fissiparous than Iraq was/is. It is rooted in the same political and religious culture, and the same civilization. Minority-based Baathism has had 13+ more years of power in Syria. So what has happened in Iraq in the last 13+ years is probably the best scenario in Syria. And I would consider even that happy prospect to be among the least likely.
And one more thing. An American intervention in Syria would risk a superpower confrontation. Even a unicorns and rainbows outcome in Syria would not make such a risk worthwhile, and as noted above unicorns and rainbows would not be the result–a dystopian, sectarian war of all against all would be. And the US should be in the middle of that why, exactly?
Some, notably Weiss and even more respectable journalists like Edward Lucas, link Syria to a broader conflict with Putin’s Russia. Syria, Lucas tells us, is Putin’s first step in rebuilding the USSR.
Seriously? That sounds like the ravings of someone playing Risk on LSD.
Pray tell, where does Putin go from Syria? The road to the Elbe runs through Aleppo? Who knew?!? Even if Putin succeeds in propping up His Man in a shattered country that has no natural or human resources to speak of, what then? Does that change Putin’s calculus of exercising power or force in the Baltic, or the European plain? Does that change Russia’s fundamental strategic weakness (most notably a decrepit economy that is utterly incapable of supporting an extended confrontation with the US)? No to all. Hell no, actually. Syria is a diversion of Russian effort and strength in one of the least consequential countries in the Middle East.
Yes. Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe. But as Tim Newman said, the US (or British) military should not be dispatched to intervene in such places for humanitarian or altruistic reasons. Because regardless of how altruistic the intentions, the outcome will be grim, and policy should be based on what is possible not what is desirable. If the desirable isn’t possible, leave it be.
I would go further. Even if you believe–especially if you believe–that Russia and China pose grave threats to US interests, Syria is not the place to fight. It will be another ulcer that will drain American morale, produce debilitating internecine political conflict, kill and maim American service men and women, and sap its military. Better to devote resources to recapitalizing the American military than to pour them into a lost cause like Syria–or pretty much anywhere else in the Middle East.
One of the most encouraging outcomes of the election is that the likelihood of American intervention in Syria has gone down as a result: Hillary was clearly much more favorably disposed to intervention (e.g., she spoke favorably of the idiotic idea of no fly zones, a McCain hobby horse) than Trump. If Trump truly is Jacksonian, or defers to his Jacksonian base, he will not get involved. Indeed, methinks this is exactly why McCain has become particularly unhinged in the past days. He realizes the prospects for intervention have plunged, and in his impotence he is raging.
Obama’s instincts were actually sounder than Hillary’s here. Would that he had the courage of his convictions and eschewed any involvement whatsoever. Instead, he gave mixed signals (“Assad must go”, the “red line”), and authorized a CIA effort to support the (jihadist-dominated) opposition–an effort that succeeded in getting 3 Green Berets killed a few weeks ago. (The CIA is an institution that I have also had a serious change of views about.)
Historical parallels are never exact. But it is difficult to find one as close as between Iraq and Syria–temporally, culturally, or civilizationally. Given the historical precedent, it is beyond reckless even to contemplate seriously US involvement in the Syrian civil war. But too much of our political class are latter-day Bourbons, having forgotten nothing and learned nothing. One of the benefits of the rejection of the political class on November 8th is that there is a very good prospect that we will also reject some of their worst ideas, of which intervention in Syria on humanitarian or geopolitical grounds is probably the worst of all.