- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
If you want evidence of the tunnel vision that continues to dominate U.S. national security thinking, check out David Sanger’s news analysis yesterday on the "lessons" of Iraq. Sanger checks in with various former policymakers to explore the different implications one might draw from the Iraq experience for the current situation in Syria.
As expected, there is some difference of opinion expressed by the various people that Sanger interviewed. But what’s striking is how the entire discussion of "lessons" revolves around tactical issues, and none of the people quoted in the article raise larger questions about how the United States is defining its role in the world or the broader goals it is trying to accomplish. Instead, they debate the reliability of pre-war intelligence, whether the U.S. can do a better job when it occupies other countries, or whether the U.S. can figure out ways to intervene in various places without getting sucked into costly quagmires. In short, it’s all about whether we can do these things differently and not about whether we should do them at all.
What’s missing from these reflections is any discussion of U.S. interests. What exactly is the goal when the U.S. contemplates intervening in another country? More importantly, how would military intervention directly contribute to the security and prosperity of the American citizens who will be paying for it and the soldiers whose lives will be at risk?
In the case of Syria, does it really matter which combination of thugs, warlords, Islamists, Alawis, Sunnis, etc., ends up running that unfortunate country? Syria has been governed by some very nasty characters for over half a century, and somehow the United States of America has managed to do pretty well despite that fact. Do U.S. strategic interests really demand that it get directly involved in reshaping Syrian politics now? Do we have any idea how to do that? Even if we did, there is no guarantee that a future Syrian government would be reliably pro-American, especially given the complex regional environment and the diverse currents of opinion among the various contenders for power. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. Middle East policy has alienated lots of people in that part of the world.
To be sure, one can justify greater U.S. involvement on purely humanitarian grounds. (Of course, if that were our main concern, you’d think we’d be doing more for the million-plus Syria refugees). Yet even here, you need a plausible and convincing plan for ending the violence, you need to be sure intervening won’t make things worse, and you need to convince the American people to support the costs and risk solely for the purpose of saving Syrian lives. Needless to say, pouring more weaponry into the Syrian cauldron isn’t going to do that, and the U.S. military isn’t eager to put boots on the ground there either.
But what about those chemical weapons? It would obviously not be a good thing if Assad starts using them, or if they began to leak out into the global arms market or got acquired by anti-American groups. So one can imagine conducting a very limited operation intended to destroy or seize arms caches before they fell into the wrong hands. But chemical weapons, dangerous though they are, are not nuclear weapons, and one would still need to do a pretty careful cost-benefit analysis before plunging ahead.
When Franklin Roosevelt took the United States into World War II, he did so on the basis of very clear strategic reasoning. As outlined by the 1941 "Victory Program," he understood that if Germany defeated the Soviet Union and was able to consolidate the industrial power of Europe, it might pose a potent long-term threat to U.S. security. That logic led him to back Great Britain through Lend-Lease and to work assiduously to bring the U.S. into the war. Going to war was a big step back then, it’s no accident that this was the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war.
Today, U.S. military superiority gives presidents the freedom to fight wars of choice (or whim), which allows foreign policy gurus to sit around and think up lots of interesting ways to use American power. We even have drones and special forces that permit us to conduct acts of war without anyone being fully aware of what we are doing. Yesterday: Kosovo, Colombia, Iraq, and Libya. Today: Afghanistan, Yemen, and a few other places. Tomorrow, maybe Syria or Mali. And these same ambitious experts can always come up with a rationale for these activities, because smart people can always invent some sort of connect-the-dots scenario suggesting why failure to act might eventually lead back to something unfortunate happening to somebody or something we care about. But this sort of worst-case reasoning — the life blood of our national security establishment — isn’t really strategy at all. It was the kind of thinking that led us into Iraq, and it’s still alive and well today.