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September 5, 2013

Observations and some conclusions on the proposed Syria intervention

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When President George W. Bush took America into Iraq to invade the country, overthrow its government and install a new one more to our liking, he provoked a major crisis on the center-right regarding foreign policy; i.e., what should be our governing principles for such military intervention. Bush’s policies were, undeniably, a departure from any recent past calculus by Republican presidents.

[It’s important to note that Bush’s attack on Afghanistan did not cause consternation on the Right. We were attacked by a foe being provided safe harbor and resources by Afghanistan. All of the wealth and treasure that should have been directed at the Taliban and al-Queda in Afghanistan were misdirected at Iraq in the opinions of many conservatives.]

Conservatives like principles by which to make our decisions. We’re uncomfortable making emotional decisions, and we’re uncomfortable simply defending whatever “our guy in the White House” wants to do or, for that matter, we’re uncomfortable simply opposing whatever “their guy in the White House” wants to do. We value principles, intellectual consistency, and putting country above party. We know that, ultimately, military involvement overseas is always going to be a judgment call, but we want to feel good about how the judgment was made.

But such principles have been hard to come by in recent practice. For better or worse, the crisis in Syria and the opportunity for congressional debate has created a chance for conservatives to think through how such decisions ought to be made.

I claim no particular foreign policy expertise, but in the past week I’ve tried to think through how I think such decisions should be made were I in a position to have to cast a vote. I’ve come up with some observations that might be able to form some principles, and I’ve managed to come to a conclusion. Submitted here just in case anyone finds my thinking interesting.

  • The American tradition, governed by our Constitution, informed by our founding documents, and reflecting our history, suggests that our bias should be reluctance to engage in foreign interventions. We should be reluctant to intervene overseas absent some compelling reason to engage in military action overseas. And anyone who is not reluctant to intervene militarily in foreign conflicts is out-of-step with the American tradition. We are truly not the “world’s police.” To start doing so would represent a departure from the American tradition, would require an empire-building financial commitment that we’re not prepared to make, and would truly provoke China and Russia and destabilize the planet.
  • I choose the phrase “compelling reason” rather than “the national interest” because, in practice, they mean the same thing, but for some reason people think that only presidents are authorized to determine what is in the national interest, which is also profoundly against the American tradition.
  • I can think of a variety of possible “compelling reasons” for military intervention, and of course this is the nub of the issue:

-A direct threat to the physical U.S. or to U.S. citizens abroad.

-A regional (North American) threat that could easily become a direct threat absent intervention.

-A threat to an ally, or to the citizens of an ally; acting in coordination with an ally.

-To deprive a confirmed enemy of some strategic gain.

  • What might not be some compelling reasons?

-Enforcing the will of the United Nations is not alone adequate as a compelling reason.

-Enforcing “international norms” is also not adequate alone as a compelling reason. There are already plenty of international norms, such as the International Court of Justice, that we reject.

  • Logically, unless American military intervention is designed to cause a decisive difference in the situation on the ground, the situation on the ground must not sufficiently compelling for American military intervention. In other words, if we don’t plan to make a decisive intervention, the situation on the ground must not be sufficiently problematic as to comprise a compelling reason.
  • A corollary to the idea of making a dramatic change in the situation is that we should make the correct change to a correctly diagnosed problem. This means taking strategic action rather than taking action around the margins. Dealing with root causes instead of dealing with symptoms.
  • If the cause is compelling, we should be willing to go it alone if necessary. Coalitions are better, but we should be willing to go it alone. Lack of a coalition is not in and of itself a deal-breaker.
  • If there IS a compelling reason to intervene overseas, the reticence of the American people should NOT be a factor. “Tired of war” alone is insufficient to negate American intervention if our principles say “go.” Our foreign policy should not sway with the pendulum of public opinion. It is the job of political leadership in such situations to lead persuasively.
  • The Executive can and should have the authority to act independent of Congress in protecting the safety of the nation from imminent threats, but other than dealing with imminent threats, the president has done the correct thing by asking Congress for a resolution--even if he’s done it out of cold political calculation rather than fidelity to the law. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, as they say. Obama is not turning to Congress because of his deep respect either for this Congress or for the Constitution, but the will of Congress is the best gauge we can obtain of whether or not the nation believes there is a compelling interest, even if the only reason Obama has turned to Congress is so that he can take credit for success but hang any negative consequences around Congress’ neck. Determining what is in the nation’s interest—what is a compelling cause—should not be the decision of one man alone.
  • We should beware the hobgoblin of small-minded consistency. “Well, we didn’t intervene in X, so we shouldn’t intervene in Y.” Well, the two situations may not be the same, or it’s even possible that we should have intervened in X, but didn’t. Small-minded consistency is not a reason to not do the right thing.

So how does any of this apply to a military attack on Syria?

  • It doesn’t meet any of my compelling reason tests, with the possible exception of “a threat to an ally.” Allies in the area are Israel, definitely, and possibly Jordan and Turkey. Our government considers Saudi Arabia an ally, though I can’t figure out why. Turkey has historically been an ally, but that alliance is weaker today than at any point in recent history. Regardless, it’s not clear that any of our allies are asking us to intervene. Certainly the Obama administration is not making the case that we are doing this for our allies. In fact, my guess is that Assad in power is actually more in Israel’s best interests than is the alternative, though of course I have no idea what our allies are saying privately to our government. Israel has clearly asked us to take action against, say, Iran’s nuclear facilities. We’ve seen no similar request to take action in Syria.
  • The Obama administration has denied that it intends to take decisive action intended to change the situation on the ground, which violates the idea that intervention is compelling.
  • The Syria situation may be a classic case of misdiagnosing a situation. It’s far from clear to me that it’s in the interests of the United States or its allies for the Assad regime to be replaced by rebels affiliated with al-Queda and al-Nusra. In fact, hard as it may be to swallow, the Assad regime may be the best of bad options, which is probably what led the likes of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton to praise Assad a few years ago and refer to him as a “reformer.”
  • Syria is a symptom, not a root cause. Root causes in the Middle East include 1) the Sunni/Shia conflict, 2) strains caused by arbitrary national boundaries drawn by the victors after World War II, 3) extremes in wealth distribution throughout the region due to utter dependence on the oil economy, and 4) hatred of Israel. The primary root cause actor and destabilizer in the region is Iran (more on Iran in a minute).
  • Some pundits on the Right are out-of-step with the American tradition of reluctance to intervene militarily, and their opinions should be ignored until they can ever identify a missile they would not launch, a bomb they would not drop, or a boot they would not put on the ground.
  • The Obama administration’s case boils down to enforcing an international norm against the use of chemical weapons. And of course the use of chemical weapons is horrible. But it’s not clear to me why chemical weapons are so heinous as to trump all other reason and principles. In the pantheon of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear and biological weapons are certainly far more deserving of a special regime treatment. It’s not clear to me why killing thousands of innocent civilians with chemicals is different than killing thousands of innocent civilians with bombs, guns or missiles. And those who have attempted to make the case that the international norm against the use of chemical weapons is in itself sufficient justification have not succeeded in doing so, in my opinion.

So what would I do?

Were I a Member of Congress, I would vote against the resolution that is being presented to Congress.

Were I the President, I would launch fighters, drop bombs, and fire missiles—at Iran’s nuclear facilities. I would fly right over Syria, and while all the news crews are training their satellite feeds on the skies and airport runways in Syria, I would take decisive action against Assad’s ally and enabler Iran. Iran is the root cause, the threat of Iranian nukes is widely recognized, and action against Iran’s nuclear facilities would have wide support. The United Nations has already spoken repeatedly against Iran’s nuclear efforts.

Action against Iran’s nuclear facilities meets the tests of a compelling reason on multiple fronts. It deals with a direct threat to an ally, and it deprives a confirmed enemy of a strategic gain. It has the benefit of indirectly affecting Assad by going after his benefactors and protectors, but particularly has the virtue of going after the root cause rather than the symptoms.

It would also be a spectacular case of strategic misdirection. You see, you are not supposed to tell your enemy when and how you’re going to strike. You’re not supposed to send your enemy a Save the Date card so that they can prepare. You are supposed to surprise them.

All the assets are in place. Israel has distributed gas masks and has the Iron Dome defense system in place. Make the necessary back channel contacts with your allies internationally, and with the leadership in Congress, and attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Now, as I said, I don’t know what Israel is saying to our government privately. I suppose, if pressed, and if Israel can identify a particular installation or two in Syria that is disturbing, in the course of going after Iran’s nuclear facilities I wouldn’t oppose dropping a couple of bombs on a particularly troubling installation in Syria. But I would not take any action against Syria in isolation without going after the bigger and more fundamental problem in the region.

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