The Syrian Disconnect

It's not just that Americans don't want to go to war against Assad -- it's that they know America's not good at going to war anymore.

The longer the Syria debate goes on in the United States, the clearer and clearer it becomes that it is not about Syria at all. The American public is simply exhausted and has little or no appetite for yet another intervention, particularly one where it is self-evident that the commander in chief is at best a reluctant supporter.

Yet, there has been a recent rash of stories essentially complaining that the American public's leeriness toward a Syria intervention is somehow illegitimate. The Washington Post's chief art critic argued that Americans are simply too inured to images of violence against children and had grown uncaring. In those same pages, author Sebastian Junger insisted that Americans simply don't understand that force is needed to end such messy wars and that humanitarian interventions almost always go swimmingly well.

Yet, as someone who reluctantly supports an intervention in Syria, I believe firmly we need to be much more honest about the potential perils of such a course -- and in doing so give the American public far for more credit for its collective wisdom.

Most Americans, regardless of their political stripe, don't think we can get it right when it comes to the use of force or trying to reshape nations after an intervention, and that opinion is grounded in the hard realities of the past 12 years.

What is the average American taxpayer supposed to think when he or she is told that, by even the most conservative tally, the United States has already spent $657 billion in Afghanistan and $814 billion in Iraq? Credible estimates suggest that the two conflicts will cost the United States a combined $4 trillion to $6 trillion by the time they are done because of the high long-term costs of caring for wounded veterans. Bipartisan studies suggest that between $30 billion and $60 billion of U.S. funds in Iraq and Afghanistan have simply been lost, stolen, or wasted. Put another way, that's about $12 million going down the drain each day, every day, for a decade. In some cases, those lost funds have flowed directly to the same insurgents U.S. forces have battled on the ground.

But not only have we lost staggering sums of money in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression -- at a time when roads, schools, and worker training in the United States all desperately need investment. No, the losses have been much more personal. Some 4,486 U.S. servicemen and servicewomen were killed in Iraq; another 2,271 in Afghanistan. Another 50,000 have been wounded in those two wars. All told, some 1.5 million U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are still deployed in war zones or combat missions worldwide. And staggering numbers of Iraqis and Afghans have been killed since the invasions of their countries.

And what did all this achieve? Is Afghan President Hamid Karzai a worthwhile fruit of so much lost blood and treasure? Does anyone look at Iraq today and think we got it right?

The expert class has been quick to suggest that Afghanistan and Iraq are somehow anomalies, atypical U.S. interventions in the modern era.

But a closer look at other modern interventions makes clear that these are far less easy than billed. Libya today remains chaotic, and the American public is still mourning the loss of a U.S. ambassador killed in the aftermath of the successful effort to remove Muammar al-Qaddafi. U.S. military force was very effective in toppling the Libyan regime, but we are still trying to manage the aftershocks, including caches of weapons that have made their way all the way from Egypt to Mali and to Somalia.

Keeping the peace in Kosovo after the 1999 U.S. intervention required 50,000 NATO troops to effectively patrol an area the size of Tennessee, and more than 5,000 troops are still in place 14 years after the conflict. So it is no surprise that a Pew Research Center poll released Sept. 16 finds that the American public strongly backs the emerging deal on chemical weapons in Syria, yet has little faith that Syria will respect the deal -- and still remains opposed to a military strike on Damascus.

The American public seems to understand the bottom line. A few days of drone or missile strikes against Syria may offer some visceral satisfaction for punishing a tyrant, but those strikes would be unlikely to fundamentally change the situation on the ground. A more robust commitment to oust Bashar al-Assad would require an open-ended military commitment and necessitate peacekeepers on the ground when he fell. The risks of such a course are obviously immense.

The choices are messy and hard. It is fine to make a moral case for ending the slaughter in Syria, but the American public deserves some honesty at long last about how difficult it would all be. The days of telling Americans that they will be greeted with flowers in the streets as liberators have long since passed for Syria and beyond.

Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images


Own Goal

Why Dilma Rousseff's decision to stand up Obama hurts Brazil more than the United States.

Dilma Rousseff just snubbed the president of the United States. Scheduled to meet with Barack Obama and attend a state dinner at the White House in late October, the Brazilian president announced on Tuesday that she's postponing the visit over revelations that the National Security Agency has been spying on her government, as well as Brazil's largest oil company, Petrobras. It's a move that will surely play well at home, but ultimately it hurts Brazil more than it hurts the United States. Rousseff might not be coming to Washington, but few in the U.S. capital will even notice.

To be sure, the NSA allegations -- which singled out U.S. snooping on governments and corporations in Germany, the European Union, Mexico, and Brazil -- are deeply troubling. More than just a frightening overreach by a rogue agency and program, the charges (and rather cavalier response by U.S. officials) demonstrate a remarkable disregard for national sovereignty on the part of the United States. They also smack of hypocrisy coming from the self-proclaimed global protector of individual rights and freedoms. What they don't do is merit the cancellation -- or indefinite postponement -- of a planned state visit that could have advanced Brazilian interests and deepened ties between the hemisphere's two largest economies.

The decision to forgo the long-anticipated visit -- Brazil's last was in 1995 -- was clearly intended to send a loud public rebuke to the United States and rally Rousseff's leftist domestic political base ahead of next year's presidential election (Rousseff and her center-left party, Partido dos Trabalhadores, have seen their public approval ratings battered by a series of corruption scandals and the mass social protests that swept the country in June and July.) Accordingly, her diplomatic affront to the colossus to the north has been splashed all over Brazilian and Latin American media. But elsewhere, few paid much attention. In Wednesday's New York Times, for example, the cancellation only warranted a short, one-page article on A4. In fact, it didn't even make the small news summary at the bottom of the front page, which gave the spot to a story of how China's influence is ebbing in Africa. 

In reality, the trip matters far more to Brazil than it does to the United States. Sure, the United States has spent years cultivating its relationship with Brazil, expanding commercial, cultural, diplomatic contacts, and dispatching top officials -- including Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry -- to Brasília (the latter to hold discussions with the Brazilian government over the NSA revelations). But Rousseff's visit to the White House would have featured discussions on a range of issues directly related to Brazil's national interest, including cooperation on energy, closer commercial ties, and potential advances on a bilateral investment treaty. In addition, with the debate over U.N. versus near-unilateral U.S. action in Syria still pending, the visit would have been an opportunity for the world's sixth-largest economy to advance its much-sought after role as a multilateral broker. It would have also provided a far more effective forum to raise the Brazilian government's concerns about NSA spying, without engendering resentment within the U.S. administration over a spurned invitation. 

But instead, whether for reasons of domestic politics or personal pique, the Brazilian government chose symbolism over substance. 

World powers don't behave like petulant victims. Some have cast the U.S. response to the Brazilian decision as a vestige of paternalism -- just one more slight in a long history that has seen the United States treating South America like its backyard and the continent's governments like lackeys who should be grateful when Uncle Sam bestows attention or praise on them. There may be an element of that at play. But it hardly excuses the Brazilian reaction. The European Union and Germany -- both targets of NSA spying similar in focus and scope to that revealed in Brazil -- arguably have far more reason to feel betrayed by the United States given their close historic military and diplomatic alliances, and the current negotiations to establish a U.S.-EU free trade agreement. Yet both have dealt with these issues quietly and diplomatically, without all the grandstanding and sense of victimization. 

Brazilian hostility toward the United States in the wake of the Edward Snowden affair is not a new development. All summer, Brazil has consistently made the NSA revelations an issue, even before it became clear that the espionage program had targeted Rousseff and her government personally. At a snap meeting of the Union of South American Nations in Cochabamba, Bolivia, on July 4, the Brazilian government added its voice to a regional declaration against the grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane in Austria when it was thought to be ferrying Snowden from his hideout in the Moscow transit lounge. Then, a few weeks later, Brazil joined with the other governments of the Southern Cone Common Market in temporarily pulling its ambassadors from the European countries that had denied Morales' plane over flight rights -- again citing the insult to national sovereignty. The move seemed excessively symbolic for a country that aspires to have a seat at the table of the world powers.   

This is the first time in recent history that a country has canceled a state visit to the United States, an event offered only to select allies and partnerships that goes well beyond a bilateral sit-down.  And this particular invitation was intended to be a celebration of sorts -- of Brazil's arrival as a world power and of a new era of equal partnership. Sure, Brazil doesn't need America's blessing or the pomp and circumstance of a state visit to realize its new status. But it will need its support on a number of issues, including increased access to the U.S. market and its desire for an expanded role in multilateral organizations. More importantly, if Brazil wants to be seen as a diplomatic world power, it will need to move beyond symbolic posturing and a knee-jerk sense of victimization.

It's possible that if Rousseff wins reelection next year, she may get a new invitation to the White House. Indeed, the U.S. administration's strained patience in accepting this snub -- and making the best of it -- may help her achieve reelection. But having been stood up once, she shouldn't expect Obama to take a new offer lightly.