Jones: I ought to kill you right now.
Belloq: Not a very private place for a murder.
Jones: Well, these Arabs don’t care if we kill each other. They’re not going to interfere in our business.
—Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, and Paul Freeman as Rene Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark
I am not a pacifist or an isolationist. But I’ve been wondering for some time why we are bothering with Syria.
Not that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes me all warm and fuzzy, because he doesn’t. I get it that he’s a dictator, and I agree that to the extent his regime is oppressing or even brutalizing opposition factions among his own people that’s a bad thing. But there’s a serious question being missed in a lot of the discussion over the civil war currently being waged there, and that is: what business is it of ours?
It’s a mistake we’ve made repeatedly over the last 100 or so years, and we don’t seem to learn.
One could argue that the U.S. had little self-interest in intervening in World War I or in the European theater of World War II. A German victory in either case was not going to pose a threat to the U.S. or to U.S. interests. Hitler wasn’t going to invade North America, a German-controlled Europe would still have been open for business, and you could argue that (had Hitler confined his Eastward ambitions) the Nazis would have provided just as good a buffer against the Soviets as did NATO. To be sure, the Nazis were horrific mass-murderers, but it’s not the United States’ job to police that sort of thing on a global basis. Nothing in the Constitution gives our federal government a mandate to spend untold amounts of taxpayer money and citizens’ lives trying to protect the citizens of other nations from dictatorial tyranny.
At least the Germans were invading other countries, and there is something to be said for helping to defend your allies when attacked. But in the latter half of the twentieth century and continuing to the present, we have repeatedly involved ourselves in (and in some instances have instigated) other nations’ civil wars.
In the 1950s it was Korea. Ostensibly, that was to prevent the spread of Soviet communist influence, although query what real difference the tiny Asian peninsula would have made to U.S. interests. I guess we might not have Hyundai and Psy today. 37,000 dead Americans later, we have a 60 year old stalemate, with soldiers permanently monitoring a demilitarized zone established by their great-grandfathers. We repeated the mistake in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s, with even worse results. After some 10 years, billions of dollars, and the loss of 58,000 more American lives, we—due to political failings, not military—accomplished none of what we claimed to be trying to achieve. The communists overran the south, and to this day are the ruling party in Vietnam. Adding to the disaster, U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese Civil War at least indirectly led to the rise of the charming Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the communist takeover of Laos.
Small-scale U.S. involvement during the 80s and 90s in civil wars in El Salvador, Bosnia, and Somalia yielded ambiguous results at best, but still begged the question what U.S. interest was at issue justifying the expense of blood and treasure?
Fast-forward to the new millennium. Bush 43 took us into Afghanistan to hunt down al-Qaeda in what was initially an arguably legitimate response after 9/11. But the manhunt soon became a quest to oust the ruling Taliban from power—something almost wholly unrelated to the 9/11 attacks—essentially creating from whole cloth a civil war to replace a regime that was irrelevant to U.S. interests. The “democracy” we have installed there hasn’t exactly resulted in a replacement government that is all that U.S.-friendly. Meanwhile, we’ve lost 2,200 American lives (and counting); ironically that’s almost as many as were killed in the 9/11 attacks the Afghan war was supposed to avenge, and nearly a quarter of those losses have occurred since the death of the very man we were there to hunt down in the first place.
Bush 43 also took us back into Iraq, originally to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. But as in Afghanistan, the original purpose morphed into a quest for regime change, once again basically creating a civil war in the interest of democracy. And, as in Afghanistan, the government we set about removing from power was all but irrelevant; Iraq had been militarily neutralized in the first Gulf War, and wasn’t a serious threat to U.S. interests, nor was Saddam Hussein particularly destabilizing. He was a bad guy, but he was a known quantity. After another 4,400 American deaths, we have no WMDs, and an unstable democracy highly vulnerable to infiltration by radical Islamists.
Although Obama has gotten U.S. troops out of Iraq, we inexplicably remain deployed in Afghanistan now two full years after the original objective—getting Osama bin Laden—was achieved. And Obama has given varying degrees of support to opposition forces in civil unrest/wars in Egypt and Libya as part of the continuing “Arab Spring,” ultimately resulting in the ouster of established governments. All of this was undertaken in the interest of promoting democracy; but what about the interest of the U.S.? Hosni Mubarek in Egypt was a stabilizing presence in the region; he was a reliable ally, and was at least able to coexist with Israel. Moammar Gaddafi was no friend, but his regime hadn’t been a serious threat to anybody since the late 1980s; as with Saddam Hussein, at least he was a known quantity. Now both have been replaced by unstable “democracies” run by Islamist majorities heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The lesson from all of this experience should be that attempting to export democracy by force rarely if ever works to our benefit. None of these examples present a case where U.S. interests were clearly advanced, and in several cases our efforts have been demonstrably counter-productive, if not outright failures.
Which brings me back to Syria.
Our track record alone counsels against getting involved there. But more to the point, I don’t see what interest we have in that fight. Assad wasn’t threatening the U.S.; he wasn’t really even threatening Israel. Recent experiences with Egypt, Libya, and Afghanistan demonstrate that replacing a known dictator with an unknown “democratic” government doesn’t necessarily result in a new U.S. friend. And while you might argue that it’s a humanitarian thing and he was brutalizing his own people, that doesn’t answer the question of whether that’s an appropriate business for the U.S. federal government.
Moreover, one of the problems with these conflicts is it is often very difficult to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Witness last week’s story about Assad using chemical weapons against the rebel forces; it turns out it may actually have been the rebels who used them. And it’s been known for some time that the rebel coalition is infiltrated by elements of al-Qaeda.
Every time we go trying to make some place safe for democracy and turn people who are not historically or culturally predisposed to self-rule into little Americans, it goes bad. At the very best, it costs us enormous amounts of money and thousands of lives. Any meaningful attempt to establish a new government requires a long-term U.S. military presence to prop it up, and even then there’s no guarantee that what you get with the new is any better for U.S. interests than what you had with the old; in some instances—like Syria—the potential downside is actually much worse.
The lesson, as always . . . be careful what you wish for.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sorry for the absence, but the truth is I’ve been a little tired and needed a break from the fight.