In the messy aftermaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, critics of U.S. interventionism abroad have exerted great influence over the direction of U.S. foreign policy, putting interventionists on the defensive.
The anti-interventionist ascendancy has clearly influenced U.S. policymaking toward Iran (where President Obama seems determined, at all costs, to avoid military action in response to Tehran’s controversial nuclear program) and, before that, toward Syria (where Obama sidestepped his own “red line” over Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons and found a face-saving way to avoid military action).
But, a look at recent developments in Syria reminds us that, not infrequently, the downsides of U.S. inaction can be just as consequential as the risks of using U.S. power to influence the course of events overseas.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, the State Department’s former Director of Policy Planning and now President and CEO of the New America Foundation, predicted recently that Syria will be remembered as the “Rwanda of our time” – a place where America could have helped avert a humanitarian horror show but chose not to.
To be sure, the prospect of U.S. interventionism in Syria raised serious questions right from the start: What exactly would we do (e.g., bomb Syrian forces, enforce a no-fly zone, arm the rebels)? How would we help secular democratic forces without boosting the fortunes of radical Islamist forces? Would our intervention in Syria inspire al-Assad’s allies in Tehran and Moscow to come to his aid?
But, ominous predictions about what possible U.S. intervention might produce have all come to pass without it. As Washington sat on the sidelines, the war grew messier, the horror mounted, radical forces poured in, secular democratic forces became isolated, and Iran and Russia intervened to protect al-Assad. As the months dragged on, each problem intensified, making possible U.S. intervention an ever-more perilous pursuit.
So, since the non-interventionists won the argument with Obama, let’s take a look at what U.S. inaction helped produce:
Syria is an ever-growing humanitarian nightmare, one whose horror scales ever-higher heights. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British group, says deaths from al-Assad’s crackdown and the resulting civil war have reached at least 126,000. Meanwhile, an estimated six million Syrians are now homeless, and two million Syrian refugees are in neighboring countries.
The relentless fighting is complicating efforts to implement the agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. The fighting has closed key roads through which the munitions must travel to ensure their exit from the country.
Syrian Islamist groups recently formed a coalition that they labeled Islamic Front, with an estimated 45,000 fighters and a new charter that calls for jihad, sharia law, and an Islamic state. Despite talk that the group represents a challenge to al Qaeda, which is also increasingly active in Syria, the Islamic Front’s charter welcomed the “Muhajireen” as “our brothers who supported us in jihad.”
Al Qaeda, meanwhile, clearly sees Syria as a possible new safe haven in which to settle and from which to launch new attacks against Western targets, based on messages that al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, has sent this year.
Now, hundreds of jihadist fighters from Europe and the United States who joined radical Islamist forces in Syria are now returning home, where they are posing new threats and where some are already believed to be plotting attacks.
So, let’s add up the damage: a brutal dictator still in place and supported heavily by Iran and Russia; an agreement on chemical weapons that faces logistical challenges; a horrific civil war that claims mounting lives; and a new training ground for terrorists to ply their trade and target the West.
Would U.S. intervention have prevented all of that? Perhaps not. But, did U.S. inaction facilitate it? Almost certainly.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Gore, writes widely on foreign affairs and is author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”