Saturday, August 24, 2013

Have We Learned Nothing?

In the wake of reports that pro-government Syrian forces have unleashed chemical weapons against both rebel fighters and civilians calls have intensified for a U.N. response, and pressure is being brought to bear on President Obama to make good on his foolish "red line" commitment.

I understand very well the desire to "do something." What I don't understand is how doing something changes anything. How does launching a few cruise missiles do anything other than killing a few Syrians and causing even more widespread scorn for the United States?

Surely we learned after supporting the overthrow of Hosni Mubarek in Egypt that things rarely work out the way we think they will. We support Mubarek's overthrow and we wind up with Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. We assist in the overthrow of Moammar Qaddafi in Libya and we wind up with chaos and the Benghazi debacle. Even when our national interest is arguably at stake and military action is justified, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's devilishly difficult to control the forces that are unleashed.

If we assist the Syrian rebels against Bashir Assad and Assad falls all we will succeed in doing is paving the way for al Qaeda to gain control in Damascus. Assad is heinous, to be sure, but "heinous" is written on the DNA in that part of the world. As bad as he is, many of the alternatives are worse.

Nor is it clear to me why Assad's use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians is a "red line" for President Obama. Death by chemical weapons is horrible, but no more so than being buried alive under the rubble from an artillery barrage. Why do we think that once chemical weapons are introduced against his people that we then should punish him, but as long as he's just blowing them to bits with bombs, rockets, and artillery fire we should stay our hand?

I'm not one who believes that we should never intervene to help innocent people being killed by cruel neighbors and leaders, but intervention should be predicated upon national interest and/or a reasonable prospect of success. Moreover, the good we can reasonably expect to achieve should much outweigh the cost in blood and treasure that we expect to incur.

It's not clear that intervention in Syria would meet any of those criteria.