Leave Bad Enough Alone

The United States should forget about intervening in Syria. Asia's what matters.

It is now argued most authoritatively that U.S. President Barack Obama's failure to act decisively to remove Bashar al-Assad's regime from power in Syria is explained by internal divisions within his administration, miscalculations about the balance of power on the ground, and the president's own irresolution. There is another explanation, however: that the Obama administration is showing calculated restraint induced by bitter experience and, even more, by the overriding strategic priority of disengaging from the Islamic arc of conflict to better engage with China.

The all-too-obvious reason to stay out of the Syrian civil war is that the aftermath of dictatorship has already been deeply disappointing in three Arab countries. Tunisia suffers from chronic and sometimes violent instability, Libya is grappling with regional and tribal fragmentation, and Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood has become an almost textbook case in political mismanagement. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy is nearly as authoritarian as his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, much less liberal on social matters and women's rights, and certainly much less effective in supervising the now very badly damaged economy. Having called for Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qaddafi to go, one can understand that Obama might not be thrilled by the prospect of what comes after Assad.

The less obvious reason for restraint in Syria is the underlying cause of these failures. It must be a very fundamental cause indeed, given the extreme differences between the three countries. Tunisia -- with its quasi-Mediterranean urban culture, decades of secular and stable if authoritarian rule, and substantial homogeneity -- would seem to have the preconditions for democratic governance. Yet it is now ruled by an ineffectual Islamist party that is plainly incapable of restarting the economy and cannot or will not protect secular institutions from Salafi attacks. Libya, meanwhile, is as vast as Tunisia is compact, yet with nearly half the population of its western neighbor, it is a tapestry of heterogeneity that devolves into a multitude of rival tribes, some of which are locked in blood feuds. And then there is Egypt, where it was not the well-established liberal community but the Muslim Brotherhood that won the elections, while a Salafi movement that seeks to import Saudi extremism grabbed some 20 percent of the vote. So what is this underlying commonality then?

One is tempted to explain the common fate of these exceedingly different countries by invoking the role of Islam in politics. Islam may well preclude democracy -- to cite Turkey as the counterexample is perverse, for doing so ignores that the country was founded by an authoritarian as a secular state, which its current Islamist rulers are eroding day by day. But there is no reason to trip over the vast problems of contemporary Islam, because the economic level of the populations in these North African states would not support effective democratic governance anyway.

The Arab Spring has indeed been consequential in awakening populations from passivity. But this merely precludes dictatorial rule, even while these countries' fundamental conditions continue to preclude democracy.

Only varieties of anarchy remain. The Syrian civil war is a bloody human tragedy, but the United States could only end it by a full-scale military intervention -- whose ultimate result would most likely be a number of quarreling Alawite, Sunni Arab, Kurdish, and perhaps Druze statelets. One would hope that after more than a decade entangled in sectarian wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, the United States would have learned to steer clear of here.

The simple truth is that Obama has bigger fish to fry. Yes, there is a strong humanitarian argument for intervention -- but it's the Arab League and willing Europeans who should step up to the plate now that Turkey's impotence has been exposed. The United States has other new responsibilities: To respond effectively to a rising China, it is essential to disengage from the futile pursuit of stability in North Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Their endless crises capture far too much policy attention and generate pressures for extremely costly military interventions that increase rather than reduce terrorist violence.

By contrast, China's neighbors increasingly boast democratic governments, with economically advancing populations that seek only the reassurance of American strategic engagement. They welcome Americans who visit in great and increasing numbers for business, tourism, and even missionary work (something that can be a death sentence in the Arab Spring countries). Beijing, meanwhile, continues to cooperate with the United States in a great many ways -- but it now also threatens the maritime domains of Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, as well as the territorial integrity of India.

The challenge is to respond to China's almost daily intrusions in a nuanced, non-provocative way, so as to strengthen Beijing's moderates -- they do exist -- and dissuade its hawks, who may now include newly installed President Xi Jinping. To do that, the U.S. government needs not only aircraft carriers and intense diplomacy, but also a steady focus, undistracted by crises elsewhere, especially in the combustible Middle East.

By refusing to get dragged into the Syrian quagmire, Obama and his like-minded advisors should be commended, not condemned, for their prudent restraint and clear-minded strategic priorities.


National Security

Who Are We Again?

Have Republicans totally forgotten what the 'national interest' means?

Is the apocalypse nigh? Surely when opinion pages of the Washington Post open to two articles from regular columnists George Will (R-1930) and Eugene Robinson (D-1970) agreeing on foreign policy, the world must be coming to an end. But there it is.

The proximate cause of the rather dissonant harmony between two tribunes of left and right is the conflict in Syria, and what's to be done. This is no simple question, with no simple answers. President Barack Obama has muddled the United States into a principle-free position heavy on rhetoric and light on policy. We must feel for the man; his brain is inexorably drawn to comparisons to Iraq. Obama the senator would certainly have opposed any intervention in that small country, far away. And his light foray into Libya is paying unpleasant dividends over Benghazi.

Syria is not, suffice it to say, the heart of the problem. Rather, we are in the throes of a minor revolution in national security policy which has ranged the Obama Left with the Libertarian Right, spawning -- forgive the imagery -- an isolationist Frankenstein monster. Chin-stroking denizens of op-ed pages and journals that preoccupy themselves with foreign policy -- this one included -- are clamoring to align themselves with oracular philosophers of op-ed pages past (Walter Lippmann? D.W. Brogan? Who knew?), seeking a veneer of antiquity authority for their musings about the wisdom of staying home and resting.

Late last year, in the wake of the GOP election debacle, I penned a piece for this fine publication calling on Republicans to "Think Again" on the principles that undergird the party's foreign policy. I called then for a fight...

Realists who opposed the Iraq war will have to confront neoconservatives who think that American power can still accomplish a lot -- in Syria and elsewhere. Tea Party stalwarts will clash with hawks and interventionists over defense spending and the need for robust engagement in places like Afghanistan.

...not quite realizing it would be joined so fast, and so ardently.

In the conversation that ensued, gallons of ink were spilled (does this analogy still work?), but soul searching was notably absent. GOP internationalists nodded vigorously as they read quotes from Ronald Reagan; conservative neo-isolationists responded with Randian eloquence. Democrats and other Democrats posing as independents weighed in. And because this is Washington, dueling speeches were given. Rand Paul lauded the isolationist leadership of Ronald Reagan. John McCain lauded Reagan's internationalism. Marco Rubio aligned himself with McCain. Mike Lee inched over toward Paul. And nothing was decided.

Similarly, we may be forgiven in having expected that the specter of sequestration and dramatic cuts to the defense budget would drag the GOP toward a come-to-Jesus decision about its stand on national security, defense, and America in the world. But it didn't. Instead, the party contented itself with a low-intensity conflict over programs and pork-barrel spending, selectively funding this and that, here and there, without coming to any consensus about the wisdom of arbitrarily slashing U.S. defense. Imagine a prize fight in which neither heavyweight landed a knock out, the bell was never rung, and the audience sat for hours with no prospect of a dénouement. Why are we here?

In several thoughtful responses to my article, it was suggested that the Republican Party needs a reckoning with the past before it can again coalesce around a vision for the future. It's a fair point, particularly apropos for those of us whose values and principles appear so tarnished in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Don't get me wrong: Those wars have been discussed ad nauseam, but there hasn't been a persuasive self-examination by advocates who remain advocates about what went wrong and how to avoid repeating it. Indeed, we can spare some sympathy for those who cherish harsh thoughts about intervention in Syria, and in consequence for those of us who believe it an imperative.

Who is to ensure that the United States is not again mired in a Middle Eastern conflict between the bad and the worse? If the United States must do something about Syria because, as I have written before, it lies at the unique intersection of moral and strategic interest, why is it that John McCain insists troops will never be necessary, but Claire McCaskill thinks they might? If your worldview defaults to Iraq, these are not irrational questions.

Similarly, others criticized the internationalist wing of the GOP for an almost fanatical commitment to defense spending. Speaking as one of those fanatics, it's a fair shot -- not wholly just, but there's more than a grain of truth. Can we tolerate no reductions in spending? No programmatic cuts? No slices into headquarters personnel? No rationalization of defense budgets? The answer, of course, is yes we can. Reams have been written about sensible cost-cutting and reform, including at the American Enterprise Institute. Conservatives have braved the ire of veterans groups in calling for changes to Tri-care, the military health-care system. There are ways to reform the Defense Department and maintain the deterrent America needs to remain safe and carry out a robust national security policy.  But there are some in the party who view every penny as sacred.

Finally, there are those who suggest that the simple answer to GOP woes on national security is that the party is out of power. Why be serious about something that isn't in your control? But that's one critique that falls flat.  Have Republicans forgotten about the conservative doctrine of lower taxes? (OK, some have, but you get my point.) Red lines on social policies like marriage? Nah, because those are rooted in a clear set of principles from which policy flows. And that's the trouble with national security policy: We can't agree about the principles.

The reasons for this disagreement are many: money, war, partisanship -- take your pick. And the solutions are not to be found in quoting, forgive me, dead people -- even ones whom we all admire deeply. In truth, the siren song of isolationism has always drawn Americans and their leaders, until it doesn't. "Nation building here at home" has long and hoary antecedents on both the left and the right. Platitudes about overreaching, returning to "normal," reinvesting in roads and bridges, advance the argument no more than repeating "shining city on a hill" 10,000 times. Nor do tactical returns to internationalism fuelled by crisis and bolstered by partisanship and patriotism answer the basic imperative for a serious set of principles built into a national security strategy.

Here are some of the questions we must ask: What do we seek to influence? How can we do so, and at what cost? What are the opportunity costs for not acting? Do we want free trade? Should we guarantee it? Can we tolerate Chinese hegemony in Asia? Do we need to defeat al Qaeda? Is the prevention of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction a genuine imperative? With growing energy independence, do we care about the Middle East? Israel? Does spreading democracy matter? What is each worth to us? In short, what really defines the "national interest" and what are the optimal strategies for obtaining it? The answers to these questions should inform the shape of U.S. foreign policy, and help refine our vision moving forward.

Fighting about what we don't want to do is an exercise in futility. What is America? What do you want it to be? Answer me that.

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