Some Scattered Thoughts on Syria and “Realism”

Everything below could be wrong. I’m just musing hawkishly.

As you all know, the loss of life in the Syrian civil war is at least 93,000. The crisis started March 2011 – a little over 2 years. By comparison: the AP counts 110,600 violent deaths in Iraq from 2003-2009.

Dan Drezner thinks U.S. policy in Syria is probably to let Iran and Hezbollah waste assets in a protracted engagement. He considers this a form of “realism” in foreign policy; he cites one Dan Trombly about the “strategic opportunity” this is:

Given that rapidly overthrowing Assad without major overt military action from a broad coalition of forces is a pipe dream anyway, the United States should consider contingency plans in which it works through, rather than against, the specter of protracted civil war. To be able to bleed Iran in Syria would, relative to the risks involved, be a far more significant strategic opportunity against Iranian power relative to the investment and risk than would be a major overt campaign to overthrow Assad outright. The more blood and treasure Iran loses in Syria – even if Assad stays in power longer – the weaker Iran will be.

Drezner is pretty forthright that we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel here:

Now let’s be clear: to describe this as “morally questionable” would be an understatement. It’s a policy that makes me very uncomfortable… until one considers the alternatives. What it’s not, however, is a return to liberal hawkery.

That this has been U.S. policy toward Syria I have no doubt. Forgive me while I vomit. At times I think terms like “realism” or “liberalism” or whatever are covers for the fact that we do awful things to each other and have paper-thin justifications. I don’t even know that this is about justice or saving lives, though, because I’m wondering if the costs of inaction are higher than people realize.

First of all, I need to see clear proof that this disgusting strategy is actually hurting Iran and not strengthening its hand or our other enemies in the region. It seems to me Hezbollah and things like al-Nusra are stronger and more motivated and recruiting. It seems to me this destabilizes more than just our enemies: our allies are victims of everything turning into a Sunni/Shia battle. al-Qaeda and Iran are not just fighting each other in Syria. They’re dragging everyone and their mother into that battle. Hate doesn’t simply kill itself off. It spreads like the plague the more this continues. Are terrorist groups actually getting weaker? Please provide some proof of this.

Second: when you’re the hegemon, your interests are more than you realize and your powers are direct and indirect. I’ll start with the latter. One way in which we prevent future conflicts is simply by outspending the rest of the world combined in our military budget. Similarly, there’s a lot of indirect power exerted in things like this: if the President says there’s a “red line,” and then doesn’t act like that means much, how do our allies and enemies calculate? The incentive to threaten our interests in areas we cannot easily protect grows. Power depends on the perception of power, not just the harder calculations about interests and resources.

And power to some degree does depend on trust, and trust in the larger sense depends on whether we have a vision for a stable world. This is where “the national interest” comes squarely into focus. It is true that Syria is not essential to U.S. interests at the moment. But long term? If people start thinking “hey, the U.S. let 93,000 people die in Syria while the region went to pieces despite having interests in its neighbors Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Iraq,” doesn’t our ability to be a serious broker for peace become compromised? Look, it really helps to remember what “realism” in both its ancient and modern forms is contrasted with: piety, the idea that some quasi-religious bond can unite or moderate nations in good faith. (Interestingly, it does look like, re: classical realism, no less than Thucydides thinks Spartan reverence for the laws could extend to a moderation that would help Athens.) The idea behind realism is that by taking power more seriously than faith, one can get stability and peace.

The U.S. does not get the privilege of being a completely mercenary actor. It’s not a privilege we want. We benefit hugely by being a country other countries appeal to when they have problems.

To be clear: foreign policy seems to me to be a series of tactical considerations. Sometimes you can promote the national interest and your values. Sometimes you have to make do with worse outcomes or unstable allies. There is a lot of nasty stuff that goes on in the name of utility or stability. And I confess, I’m no expert on Syria.

My complaints mainly stem from this thought: our policymakers are paralyzed with fear that Iraq will happen again. Iraq is the worst thing ever, the most terrible thing in the history of terribleness. (btw, drones and wiretapping are awesome). Enough. If you want to talk seriously about policy, you have to learn the lesson, see the costs, and move on and try to apply what you’ve learned. Emphasis on “try.” Right now, we’re running one of the ugliest policies another country could run toward another – and will we promote wholesale butchery through arms sales? – and it isn’t clear whether this makes us or anyone else better. The only thing that’s clear is that it is one less thing we have to do. Except that it isn’t, because Assad has used chemical weapons. If this is “realism,” please inform me what fantasy is.

Also: my money is that we are going to end up intervening in a big way anyway. I need to see some serious thinking not just about interests and opportunities, but also obligations and long term goals for the US.

1 Comment

  1. Enjoyed reading your thoughts Ashok. I don’t think a lot of folks realize that there is a global sunni/shia war brewing and how serious this is going to be. Nasrallah publicly sending Hezbollah fighters takes it to another level. Now there are fighters from both sides coming from Europe and all over the world for a showdown.

    You’re so right about the U.S. not having the privilege of being a mercenary actor. I can’t understand why the U.S. is unable to articulate a basic policy. Draw some lines and stick to them.

    If there is any U.S. strategy in play, it seems to be to not let the sunni side be overrun, but keep the balance as you pointed out. Ultimately it would seem to be better to break the Syrian link from Iran and Lebanon.

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