Syria and the lessons of Iraq

There’s no shame in having learned the lessons of Iraq: no to a war in Syria.

Apparently, the Obama administration is set to send weapons to the Syrian rebels. The New York Times article reporting that implies that this may be too little, too late if our plan is to prevent a military victory by Assad. To do that, we’d have to take out lots of Syria’s airstrips.

All this is excellent instrumental reasoning, but it’s time to contest the premise: since when has it become American policy to topple Assad, whatever the cost and consequences? Washington pundits, always more militarist than the American people, have been lamenting that the lessons of Iraq have made the Obama administration “cautious” or “loath to intervene”–as if reluctance to militarily intervene in a large and well-armed country, caution in trying to topple a dictator whose fall would produce a country consumed by deadly sectarian hatreds (partly ancient and largely new, but who cares?), were a bad thing.

David Bromwich’s article in the latest New York Review of Books, where he takes the role of what Mark Danner has called an “empiricist of the word,” provides an excellent corrective to the creeping insinuation that intervention is in the cards and that those who propose staying out must somehow justify that. Read it all, as they say, but here are some highlights: Bill Keller, who got Iraq so horribly wrong, is now asking us to trust him that Syria is different, but can’t really say why (after reading Keller’s argument, I think Bromwich is quite right.). Keller is determined that his past “error of judgment” not leave him “gun-shy,” but while he worries about his mojo, I care more about the people at the other end of his vicarious gun. A recent New York Times article “White House Sticks to Cautious Path on Syria” already is slanted, as Bromwich notes, in the very headline (slightly revised in the online version without changing its substance): why would a lack of change in policy count as news unless we’re assuming that intervention is, or ought to be, the default assumption? By the way, Mark Landler, who co-wrote that article as well as what Bromwich shows to be an over-hyped article about chemical weapons, also co-wrote the latest article approvingly citing “[s]ome senior State Department officials” who  “have been pushing for a more aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria.” The man has at the very least a bias; at most, an agenda.

About those chemical weapons, by the way: Even stipulating that Assad has used them, and I certainly wouldn’t put it past him, I deny that this gives the U.S. good reason to intervene. The bright-line taboo on using nuclear weapons is far more dubious when applied to chemical weapons, whose ability to kill and sicken horribly in a limited area is not qualitatively greater, and often less, than the ability of awful contemporary conventional weapons to kill and maim. President Obama was foolish enough to make chemical weapons a “red line”—as we now know, as an off-the-cuff remark that he hadn’t thought out—but neither America nor Syria deserves to pay the price for his gaffe, no matter what the White House thinks.

I realize that the Syrian civil war is horrible. Tens of thousands (perhaps more) have been killed; millions have fled. Assad is a vicious dictator and he does not plan to change. But the pundits eager for intervention have not explained an alternative better than this: another war. For reasons those State Department hawks have explained, this war would start with our bombing airstrips. I submit it would progress, given the need to protect our aircraft against surface attack, to our bombing all kinds of “strategic” targets, killing thousands of civilians (as in Iraq). We would quite likely send ground troops who would instantly become the targets of die-hard Alawites, not to mention Hezbollah. In the best case, and whether or not we sent troops, we would eventually hand over the country to a motley coalition of well-organized Salafis and poorly-organized moderates. Further civil war would almost follow—with no likely end to the killing, nor the flow of refugees.

There’s no shame in having learned the lessons of Iraq. Shame on those who are so determined to deny that they are lessons that they would rather repeat them. We should stay out.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

28 thoughts on “Syria and the lessons of Iraq”

  1. There are more than two sides.

    Europe and the US are going to have to deal with fallout either way. Ignoring the situation simply means we’ve given up any hope to at least direct how badly it affects us.

      1. Well said, Betsy. I’ll take that a step further and propose that entering the war would be evidence that we’re ignoring the situation, just as it was in Iraq.

  2. The subtext of this horror story is that we end up as in Iraq in a conflict between religions. The dirty business is already spilling over into Lebanon with Hezbollah’s intervention and no one knows where it is likely to stop or who will be on top of the heap if and when it does. The religious war continues in Iraq with hundreds of casualities and yet many of our congressional leaders seem to feel that we did something righteous. I don’t know how Obama can possibly escalate our current involvement in this mess, but it will end up badly for all concerned.

    1. This gets all the nuance correct.
      So let’s move on to the really crux of the matter:
      The only justification for feeding arms to the rebels is that it keeps the Shiites and the Sunnis at each other throats–directly and indirectly.

      To wit:

      Enemies busy being enemies with each other will not have the wherewithal to be my enemy.
      We don’t have to fight them over there because they are fighting each other over there…

      However you want to put the Tao of War on this…
      My view is that this is actually Mr. Obama’s secret position. (A la Mr. Reagan years ago).
      And every crappy headline lamenting the lack of DC leadership that Mr. Sabl takes umbrage with actually secretly helps Mr. Obama’s sotto voce policy of choice.

      In short: Obama really is playing multidimensional chess this time.
      This is masterful. And if I were President, I’d be playing everyone as pawns on this as well…

      1. @ koreyel
        I definitely see your point, but the level of cynicism requires at least one more cup of coffee. I keep hoping against hope that Obama is basically a good man, not some kind of Svengali,but I keep getting smacked down. Time for another cup.

        1. Dozens of Shiites Reported Killed in Raid by Syria Rebels
          http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/13/world/middleeast/syria.html?hp&pagewanted=all&_r=0

          What was not in dispute was that several battalions of Sunni rebels, including members of extremist Islamist groups, stormed the village and, in video posted online by antigovernment activists, could be seen setting houses on fire as they shouted sectarian slogans, calling Shiites dogs, apostates and infidels. “This is your end, you dogs,” a man off camera said as he panned across what he said were the corpses of “pug nosed” Shiites, including one with what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the head. “We have raised the banner of ‘There Is No God but God’ over the houses of the rejectionist Shiite apostates,” one fighter chanted in another clip as a black cloud billowed above the village and jubilant gunmen brandished black flags often used by the extremist Al Nusra Front and other Islamist fighting groups.

          I can’t think of one good reason why anybody would give arms and ammunition to this sort unless the other side is just as bad and the strategy is to have them busily calling each other dogs and infidels rather calling me and you curs and apostates. I could be wrong of course. Maybe there is a another good reason…

          1. Oh, come on! The Great Game, Part Deux is afoot! Silly me, I thought the Cold War (now Lukewarm War) was an artifact of the
            wicked and sinful past and now, we all know better. Guess I didn’t get the memo…

      2. So what’s the end game here? Some Republican (call him Robert Nixom) elected in 2016 opens secret talks with Iran and ends up welcoming them as a reliable and stable oil source and bulwark against those crazy Arabs?

        I guess it could happen if the Iranians play their cards right. Really, the biggest problem is having someone as rational as our President Nixom
        (a) being a member of today’s Republican party and
        (b) getting elected to the presidency (or even to town dog catcher) by that same party.

        If we are willing to alter the script slightly, we could imagine say Ms Clinton doing this in her presidency. But the domestic politics of that are tough. Could a “soft on communism” Democrat have opened up to China without the whole thing exploding so badly in the US that it collapsed on itself?

  3. Thank you for this post!!! I hope you re-bleg it (or whatever the word is…) far and wide.

    Iraq wasn’t just a “lesson,” it was a horrendous mistake and I don’t understand why any of the people who advocated it are still influential. Seriously, have the grace to at least be quiet after getting 100,000 plus people killed, for no reason that couldn’t have waited or been decided upon by the actual people whose lives were at stake.

    I think we should definitely stay the bleep out of Syria, and if we did want to help the rebels — maybe just to avoid slaughter? why not consider a nice little partition of some sort? is that possible? — can’t we do it indirectly?

    You know, my knowledge of history isn’t great, but I gotta ask — does anyone else feel like getting rid of the Ottoman Empire was a giant mistake? If anyone needs to intervene in Syria it should be a moderate Muslim country. Definitely not US.

    1. No one really “got rid of” the Ottoman Empire. It collapsed out of its own sheer uselessness. Britain and France (and to a lesser extent Italy) grabbed some pieces in the final stages of that collapse but the fatal wounds were self-inflicted. By the end even the Turks wanted out.

      It’s also important to understand that while the Ottoman Empire was overwhelmingly a religiously unified state (Sunni Islam), ethnically it was a bigger mess than the Hapsburg Empire.

      1. Good points. I wonder though if Turkey couldn’t play a more useful role than we could. If someone has to intervene, in addition to the [insert correct rugby term here, whatever that may be] it’s already becoming, I really don’t think it should be us. So I’m just trying to figure out who that other party might be. I think our motto for Islamic lands should be, “do less. And if something needs doing, talk someone better at it into doing it.”

        1. Keep in mind that Turkey is a) too focused on the Kurdish problem to act as any sort of neutral arbiter, and b) is just as much a former imperial power in the area as the British and the French and so couldn’t be perceived as a neutral arbiter. I can’t see anyone that both could do the job and would be willing to do it. It’s pretty much us or nobody.

          Of those two options, I’m strongly inclined to the latter.

      2. The Ottoman Empire was a relic and not suited to the modern era. But a slow disintegration likely would have been better than the results of the war. It took 1.5 million military casualties on the Ottoman side and the same on the Allied side during the war. And extensive civilian casualties. The Ottomans were the sick man of Europe, but they’d had a cold for more than 100 years by this point. Inertia would have kept much of it together, until the centripetal forces of war flung it apart. Russia planned on taking the most of Anatolia, but its own collapse and revolution put an end to that.
        Interesting to imagine a slightly larger ‘Greater Turkey’ that included parts of Syria and possibly Lebanon…

        1. Well, I’m definitely nowhere close to understanding the history of this region. I’ve read “A Peace to End All Peace,” which was great. And I just generally had this impression that there was a good bit of administrative talent in Turkey. Guess they just chose the wrong side a hundred years ago.

          I don’t mean that people would want them to be an empire again necessarily, but otoh, it does seem like we’re still dealing with all the cr*p that happened because of WWI. So it’s not like the West did any better. And most likely worse. If there were a Muslim country that was good at just organizing the other ones, it seems like that would be so much better, for everyone. And a lot of these countries were basically made up out of thin air. Is Syria a nation? Is Iraq? Of course this is up to them, but I wonder.

  4. In defense of “no fly zone” and air bombing, it worked out pretty well for us in Libya. Benghazi incident aside, we’ve got a regime and populace that mostly seems to be friendly to the US in the aftermath of Gaddhafi going down for good. As long as we can keep from going beyond air bombing in Syria, it might still work out for us, especially since everyone in the region except Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah want to see Assad’s regime go down.

    1. First of all, the Benghazi incident should not be set aside. 4 Americans would still be alive had we not intervened.

      Second, Gaddafi going down for good involved at least one gross human rights violation (he was sodomized by his captors before his murder).

      Third, we actually set an awful precedent in Lybia. We overthrew Gaddafi after he COOPERATED WITH US on Lockerbie. That’s absolutely indefensible and will lead to governments sheltering terrorists in the future because they can’t trust the US’ word. We proved ourselves a bunch of liars who just want to control the world and overthrow governments we don’t like, no matter what we say. It’s reminiscent of the way we treated the Indians in the 19th Century.

      Our intervention in Lybia was unmitigated evil imperialism.

    2. too soon to tell what kind of ‘friend’ we have in Libya. The people were raised on anti-Americanism. It’s tough to shake all those years of programing off.

  5. Thanks for a thoughtful post, and for the pointer to Bromwich. The material there
    about Qatar was especially interesting. Could you say something about what you think we can helpfully do? The scale of the suffering and displacement is becoming enormous, and many powerful outside forces like Iran, Qatar and Russia are not willing to stay on the sidelines.

  6. A question to those who think the U.S. should intervene in the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels: Should Britain have intervened on the side of the Confederacy in our civil war?

    1. Okay, but we would still be singing god save the queen if the spineless, Brie eating frogs had not intervened on our side.

  7. What never seemed to get explicitly mentioned – maybe because it is assumed, I don’t know – is the likelihood that in the event the rebels topple Assad, a massive ethnic cleansing of the Allawites will follow. Wikipedia estimates 2.6 million people. By arming the rebels, are we not indirectly paving the way for this outcome?

    1. One thing seems to be quite clear. Lots of people, maybe millions, are going to be killed or otherwise displaced no matter how this goes down. I think we have drawn enough blood in the Middle East to take a breather.

  8. One big difference with Iraq is that Saddam’s régime was stable and no longer an external threat to anybody. It was a very nasty police state, that’s all. Most of the unnecessary suffering going on was inflicted by sanctions. Syria has been in the throes of a civil war for a year, which has been gradually sucking in in third parties independently of the USA: Hezbollah, Qatar, Turkey, Iraq. In Libya, Gaddadi’s régime was disintegrating and the intervention was also taking sides in a civil war.

    That does not prove that US intervention would improve things of course. The knock-on effects could be very bad. Unlike say French or British or Turkish support of the rebels, the US taking sides would have repercussions, and make the conflict even more of a regional one than it is already.

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