- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
I don’t know how the Syria business is going to turn out, and neither do you. But I think everyone ought to take a deep breath and ratchet down their forecasts of how deep, significant, and meaningful this event is.
On one side, advocates of military strikes have been using increasingly overheated rhetoric over the past week, employing the familiar tropes and arguments that hawks have relied on ever since World War II. Comparisons to Hitler and the Holocaust? Check. Obligatory reference to Munich? Got it. Lurid warnings about a loss of American “credibility“? Uh-huh. Repeated attempts to portray opponents of a military strike as “isolationists” or worse? Roger.
This approach makes it appear that what is at stake in the Syria debate is nothing less than America’s Future Role in the World. If the United States doesn’t act, so the argument runs, this one decision heralds a progressive retreat of the United States from its global responsibilities (whatever those are), its steady decline as a great power, and the onset of a new era of global anarchy. But if the United States can just find the will to send some cruise missiles into Syria, then all those terrible things can be avoided and American leadership will be restored (until the next time it is hanging by a hair, of course — probably a few months from now).
Dire warnings can be just as lurid on the other side. Opponents warn that bombing Bashar al-Assad’s forces will start the United States down a slippery slope to a major ground-force commitment (it might, but it’s unlikely). They suggest that attacking Assad will bring al Qaeda extremists to power (a possibility, but far from certain). Or they believe it will just reinforce America’s tendency to use force first and do diplomacy later, a tendency that has gotten the United States into trouble repeatedly over the past two decades. And some more overwrought doves worry that attacking yet another Middle Eastern country will further intensify Islamic radicalism and produce a lot of nasty blowback down the road.
I remain opposed to military intervention because I do not think it will advance U.S. strategic or moral interests, and because I do not believe we have a magic formula for solving the Syrian civil war. But I also believe that both sides in this debate need to take a deep breath and to stop portraying this moment as an all-important fork in the road that will shape world events for decades to come.
In fact, what happens in Syria is not going to affect America’s overall position in the world very much. Syria is a small and weak country, and what happens there isn’t going to alter the global balance of power in any significant way. It’s not even clear it will alter the regional balance all that much. (Israel will remain the region’s strongest power no matter what happens in Damascus.) America’s global position will be determined primarily by the state of the U.S. economy and by what happens in places like China, the European Union, India, Turkey, and Brazil in the years ahead.
To be more specific: If America’s economic recovery continues and if the advent of hydraulic fracking and cheaper energy gives the U.S. economy an additional boost, then America will remain the world’s No. 1 power no matter what happens to Assad, the Free Syrian Army, or the al-Nusra Front. If China’s economy hits a wall, if Brazil, Turkey, and India hit economic headwinds, and if the EU remains hampered by its various economic woes, then the United States will be in relatively good shape whether it bombs Damascus or not.
Ditto “American engagement.” Contrary to what people like Bill Keller seem to think, the United States is not becoming “isolationist.” Opposition to the Syrian adventure stems from the fact that U.S. strategic interests are not deeply engaged (here the American people have got this one right), and moral considerations do not mandate intervention because we might easily make things worse and increase the level of human suffering. But comparisons to World War II are deeply misleading: Assad is a thug and a war criminal, but he’s not genocidal or bent on world domination, and Syria is not a great power like Germany was. No matter what happens in Syria, the United States will remain the single most formidable international actor, and other countries aren’t going to lose sight of that reality in the years ahead. I’d even bet that the pivot to Asia continues no matter who is elected the next U.S. president, unless China slips badly and doesn’t seem like an emerging threat anymore.
Instead of becoming “isolationist,” the American people seem to be returning to a realistic degree of prudence. To oppose a military response in Syria because it won’t make Americans more secure and may not help the Syrians very much isn’t cowardly, irresponsible, or feckless; you might just call it common sense.
Postscript: There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity today, based on a Russian proposal to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. If the U.S. goal is merely to reinforce the “red line” against chemical weapons use, then it has little choice but to take the deal and spin it as a great success for “tough” U.S. diplomacy. But it is likely to take some time to work out the procedures and actually secure the weapons, and there’s always the risk that Russia would renege (or Assad would cheat) so as to retain a chemical weapons option in extremis. More importantly, this arrangement doesn’t by itself get us much closer to settling the war, which should be our primary objective. To do that, the United States is going to have to engage with Russia and Iran, and we might even have to agree to leave Assad in power for a while. That’s not a very satisfying outcome, perhaps, but it is one that would save a lot of lives.