Matt Lewis

Getting sucke(re)d into Syria

The revolution in Syria has claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians — most of the casualties inflicted by the Syrian military. That’s a tragedy. And now pressure is mounting for an intervention (almost certainly one spearheaded by the United States).

When it comes to whether or not to intervene, there are several schools of thought.

The predominant viewpoint is informed by a Wilsonian worldview. (This is, of course, simplistic — neoconservatives and liberal interventionists are not one and the same — they differ, for instance, on the role of international institutions — but their similarities overwhelm their differences in these matters.) Adherents to this philosophy argue the United States is a shining beacon — We have a moral imperative to save innocent life and promote democracy. When a government violates the human rights and dignity of its citizens, the argument goes, intervention is necessary.

A more “realist” approach prioritizes national interests and security. Historian and writer Daniel Pipes, for example, urges Western nations to “view Syria strategically, putting a priority on their own security.” While people in the West can and do feel bad for the plight of the Syrian people, Pipes explains, “Westerners are not so strong and safe that they can look at Syria only out of concern for Syrians.”

Both of these arguments are legitimate and serious. There is, of course, a hybrid analysis that deserves mention. Commentary magazine’s Jonathan Tobin fears the consequences of inaction:

Assad’s survival will mean not just more Syrian slaughter but will be a huge victory for his Iranian allies that will strengthen their position enormously. One way or another, the West needs to prevent that from happening. The reasons for not doing something about Syria are like those for not doing something about the Iranian nuclear threat. The consequences of intervention will be messy and possibly awful. Yet the alternative is far worse.

These all deserve merit and discussion. But are we really having that debate — at least in the broader public discourse — or is this merely another example of chatter on the elite class that leaves the broader public largely uniformed — until it’s too late?

The most obvious solution, of course, is to remove Bashar al-Assad, the “President” of Syria. It has been a principle of American politics since the 1980s to prefer pro-American to anti-American regimes. Remember Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s legendary “Dictators and Double-Standards” column? This has generally been my philosophy, as well. I wrote on this last year, warning that it would be a potential mistake for the United States to be complicit in the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt. As the saying goes, “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.” By the same token, I supported establishing a no-fly zone over Libya (Gaddafi wasn’t our bastard, and the odds of replacing him with someone worse seemed hard to imagine.)

This is all a very long way of saying that, to my thinking, the decision regarding what to do in Syria is tougher than in Egypt or Libya.

Assad is clearly a bad man — and it would be hard to argue he’s a good leader for his people. He’s no friend of our country. His regime is alleged (strongly, I might add) to support terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, is an ally of Iran, and poses a long term headache for our allies Turkey and Israel. So unlike Mubarak, he’s no ally. By the same token, there is no reason to believe his replacement would be any better, and in fact, it is entirely possible it would be worse.

There are good arguments for intervening — and it may be that America ultimately decides to go that route. But if we do, I just hope that we do so cautiously and intentionally. It is unlikely that intervention in Syria would be like in Libya. Ground troops, and American lives, would probably have to be on the ground to successfully intervene — and to then maintain the stability needed to prevent a full-blown civil war.

The regime in Syria is terrible, but we should realize the alternative is by no means guaranteed to be an improvement. Conservatives, by definition, should assume the worst case scenario is what will happen — and to prepare accordingly.