The Great Myth About U.S. Intervention in Syria

America’s standing in the world has not — and will not — be weakened by staying out of other countries’ humanitarian crises.

Musa, a 25-year-old Kurdish marksman, stands atop a building as he looks at the destroyed Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on January 30, 2015. Kurdish forces recaptured the town on the Turkish frontier on January 26, in a symbolic blow to the jihadists who have seized large swathes of territory in their onslaught across Syria and Iraq.     AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC / AFP / BULENT KILIC AND -        (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Musa, a 25-year-old Kurdish marksman, stands atop a building as he looks at the destroyed Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on January 30, 2015. Kurdish forces recaptured the town on the Turkish frontier on January 26, in a symbolic blow to the jihadists who have seized large swathes of territory in their onslaught across Syria and Iraq. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC / AFP / BULENT KILIC AND - (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

As the carnage in Syria continues with no end in sight, it is hardly surprising that many people are redoubling their efforts to get the United States to “do something.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and likely the next U.S. president) has used the campaign trail to convey that she still supports a no-fly zone (or something like it), and a bevy of politicians, pundits, and advocacy groups keep suggesting that America’s failure to respond is yet another sign of its declining “will” and diminished credibility.

Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post has reported that the usual suspects in the foreign-policy “blob” are uniting around the idea of a more forceful U.S. response, which suggests that strategic amnesia is reaching epidemic proportions inside the Beltway. The underlying message: If the United States does not act, our rhetorical commitment that such atrocities must never again occur will be exposed as hollow, and the decision to remain aloof is just another worrisome sign of American decline.

As regular readers know, I do not think the United States should get more deeply involved in the tragic Syrian civil war. (And let’s not forget that the United States has been engaged in that conflict in a number of ways almost from the beginning.) But I recognize that there are coherent alternatives to my position. I respect those who believe broader humanitarian considerations should trump narrow national interests and who think the United States (and hopefully others) should do whatever is necessary to end the fighting and save the lives of thousands of innocent Syrians. We share the stated ends — saving lives — but we disagree over whether sending arms or committing U.S. forces to the battle will ultimately achieve that goal at an acceptable cost or just open the door to continued bloodletting, retribution, or even greater extremism.

In particular, I’ve yet to see any of the advocates of intervention lay out a plausible blueprint for a post-civil war political order in Syria and a plausible path for getting there. The United States remains committed to dismantling Bashar al-Assad’s regime (for reasons that are not hard to understand), but we lack a serious notion of what will replace it. Needless to say, this was the key omission when we invaded Iraq and when we helped topple Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya: Getting rid of the bad guy and his henchman was the easy part, but we hadn’t the foggiest notion of what to put in their place.

What I object to most, however, is the attempt to scare Americans into doing something by suggesting that the country’s power, image, or reputation is at risk if we refrain. This claim does not stand up to even mild scrutiny, and the only thing that gives it any bite at all is endless repetition. Ironically, if enough Americans keep insisting that a decision not to get involved in a violent humanitarian crisis is ipso facto evidence of U.S. decline, a few gullible people may eventually believe them.

But there is in fact little or no basis for this assertion.

Why do I say so? Simple. Because like other great powers, the United States has repeatedly chosen not to intervene in many large-scale humanitarian catastrophes, but without anyone concluding that the country was growing weaker, lacked the will to defend its own interests, or was becoming a “pitiful, helpless giant.” Moreover, these previous acts of restraint did not have any significant impact on U.S. security, prosperity, or global standing; if anything, the United States was better off for having stayed out of many of these situations.

When Great Britain gave up its colonial empire in India in 1947, for example, the resulting partition of the subcontinent produced a flood of some 10 million refugees and more than a million dead in Hindu-Muslim clashes. That’s a level of suffering even worse than what we are witnessing in Syria, but the United States did not try to stop it. Washington’s failure to act did not undermine its reputation or prevent it from forming NATO, implementing containment, or building the full array of institutions and relationships with which it waged and won the Cold War. And as Gary Bass has shown in his book The Blood Telegram, the United States repeated this morally dubious policy during the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, turning a blind eye to clear evidence that the Pakistani Army was engaged in the deliberate massacre of some 300,000 Bengalis while forcing 10 million to flee as refugees. Yet nobody then (or now) believes this action, however reprehensible, had much impact on America’s standing as a global power.

Similarly, when the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia in 1975 (in the wake of prior U.S. interventions there) and hundreds of thousands of people perished in the “killing fields,” the United States did not act. Ironically, it was the communist government of Vietnam — our enemy throughout the Indochina Wars — that eventually intervened and drove Pol Pot and his murderous associates from power. Washington’s failure to intervene did not cause NATO to collapse, rupture U.S. alliances in Asia, or prevent America from eventually triumphing over the Soviet Union.

One could go on. The United States did little to halt right-wing bloodletting in El Salvador and Guatemala, turned a blind eye to the Argentine “dirty war” between 1976 and 1983, and openly backed Iraq during its long war with Iran (in which roughly 1 million people died). Bill Clinton famously declined to intervene to halt the Rwandan genocide in 1994, but this omission (which he later said he regretted) did not undermine America’s global position, derail Clinton’s presidency, or abbreviate the “unipolar moment.” The United States (and the rest of the major powers) has mostly stayed out of the series of wars that have repeatedly engulfed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Perhaps 5 million people died as a result of those wars, yet no one is suggesting that this failure has compromised its moral standing or international position.

In each of these cases, there were eloquent voices calling for the United States to “do something.” And perhaps they were right, at least some of the time. But the cold and harsh fact is that the United States (and its allies) did little in the face of these catastrophes and was largely unaffected.

All this is not to say that the United States should not do more in Syria or in other places where humanitarian crises loom. That is a separate issue, and for me it is mostly a question of whether the United States has the capacity and wisdom to make the situation better at an acceptable cost. Sadly, the track record of recent interventions in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan casts considerable doubt on that proposition, and Syria is an even less propitious environment in which to try to re-create a political order that would not pose a greater danger down the road. But to repeat: I understand why other people disagree with my assessment, and I’ll concede that they could be right.

But by far the worst argument for intervening in Syria is the suggestion that greater U.S. involvement is necessary to preserve U.S. credibility, to maintain its reputation as a distinctly moral great power, or to preserve the respect of allies and adversaries alike. The historical record shows that not intervening in humanitarian tragedies has had little impact on America’s standing in the past, and the same is true today. Indeed, diving deep into the Syrian quagmire is a good way to squander resources and burn up the attention and political capital of America’s leaders, which would in fact make the United States less able to act when challenges to more serious interests arise (as they inevitably will).

To repeat: One can make a coherent case for intervening in Syria, based on the worthy goal of reducing human suffering. But we should reject the idea that the United States should intervene because its own security, prosperity, or reputation is on the line. It’s not.

Photo credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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