The Syrian Disconnect

It's not just that Americans don't want to go to war against Assad -- it's that they know America's not good at going to war anymore.

Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

The longer the Syria debate goes on in the United States, the clearer and clearer it becomes that it is not about Syria at all. The American public is simply exhausted and has little or no appetite for yet another intervention, particularly one where it is self-evident that the commander in chief is at best a reluctant supporter.

Yet, there has been a recent rash of stories essentially complaining that the American public’s leeriness toward a Syria intervention is somehow illegitimate. The Washington Post‘s chief art critic argued that Americans are simply too inured to images of violence against children and had grown uncaring. In those same pages, author Sebastian Junger insisted that Americans simply don’t understand that force is needed to end such messy wars and that humanitarian interventions almost always go swimmingly well.

Yet, as someone who reluctantly supports an intervention in Syria, I believe firmly we need to be much more honest about the potential perils of such a course — and in doing so give the American public far for more credit for its collective wisdom.

Most Americans, regardless of their political stripe, don’t think we can get it right when it comes to the use of force or trying to reshape nations after an intervention, and that opinion is grounded in the hard realities of the past 12 years.

What is the average American taxpayer supposed to think when he or she is told that, by even the most conservative tally, the United States has already spent $657 billion in Afghanistan and $814 billion in Iraq? Credible estimates suggest that the two conflicts will cost the United States a combined $4 trillion to $6 trillion by the time they are done because of the high long-term costs of caring for wounded veterans. Bipartisan studies suggest that between $30 billion and $60 billion of U.S. funds in Iraq and Afghanistan have simply been lost, stolen, or wasted. Put another way, that’s about $12 million going down the drain each day, every day, for a decade. In some cases, those lost funds have flowed directly to the same insurgents U.S. forces have battled on the ground.

But not only have we lost staggering sums of money in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression — at a time when roads, schools, and worker training in the United States all desperately need investment. No, the losses have been much more personal. Some 4,486 U.S. servicemen and servicewomen were killed in Iraq; another 2,271 in Afghanistan. Another 50,000 have been wounded in those two wars. All told, some 1.5 million U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are still deployed in war zones or combat missions worldwide. And staggering numbers of Iraqis and Afghans have been killed since the invasions of their countries.

And what did all this achieve? Is Afghan President Hamid Karzai a worthwhile fruit of so much lost blood and treasure? Does anyone look at Iraq today and think we got it right?

The expert class has been quick to suggest that Afghanistan and Iraq are somehow anomalies, atypical U.S. interventions in the modern era.

But a closer look at other modern interventions makes clear that these are far less easy than billed. Libya today remains chaotic, and the American public is still mourning the loss of a U.S. ambassador killed in the aftermath of the successful effort to remove Muammar al-Qaddafi. U.S. military force was very effective in toppling the Libyan regime, but we are still trying to manage the aftershocks, including caches of weapons that have made their way all the way from Egypt to Mali and to Somalia.

Keeping the peace in Kosovo after the 1999 U.S. intervention required 50,000 NATO troops to effectively patrol an area the size of Tennessee, and more than 5,000 troops are still in place 14 years after the conflict. So it is no surprise that a Pew Research Center poll released Sept. 16 finds that the American public strongly backs the emerging deal on chemical weapons in Syria, yet has little faith that Syria will respect the deal — and still remains opposed to a military strike on Damascus.

The American public seems to understand the bottom line. A few days of drone or missile strikes against Syria may offer some visceral satisfaction for punishing a tyrant, but those strikes would be unlikely to fundamentally change the situation on the ground. A more robust commitment to oust Bashar al-Assad would require an open-ended military commitment and necessitate peacekeepers on the ground when he fell. The risks of such a course are obviously immense.

The choices are messy and hard. It is fine to make a moral case for ending the slaughter in Syria, but the American public deserves some honesty at long last about how difficult it would all be. The days of telling Americans that they will be greeted with flowers in the streets as liberators have long since passed for Syria and beyond.

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