I don't know how the Syria business is going to turn out, and neither do
you. But I think everyone ought to take a deep breath and ratchet down their forecasts
of how deep, significant, and meaningful this event is.
On one side, advocates of military strikes have been using increasingly
overheated rhetoric over the past week, employing the familiar tropes and
arguments that hawks have relied on ever since World War II. Comparisons to
Hitler and the Holocaust? Check. Obligatory reference to Munich? Got it. Lurid
warnings about a loss of American "credibility"?
Uh-huh. Repeated attempts to portray opponents of a military strike as
"isolationists" or worse? Roger.
This approach makes it appear that what is at stake in the Syria debate is
nothing less than America's Future Role in the World. If the United States doesn't
act, so the argument runs, this one decision heralds a progressive retreat of
the United States from its global responsibilities (whatever those are), its steady
decline as a great power, and the onset of a new era of global anarchy. But if the
United States can just find the will to send some cruise missiles into Syria,
then all those terrible things can be avoided and American leadership will be
restored (until the next time it is hanging by a hair, of course -- probably a
few months from now).
Dire warnings can be just as lurid on the other side. Opponents warn that
bombing Bashar al-Assad's forces will start the United States down a slippery
slope to a major ground-force commitment (it might, but it's unlikely). They
suggest that attacking Assad will bring al Qaeda extremists to power (a
possibility, but far from certain). Or they believe it will just reinforce
America's tendency to use force first and do diplomacy later, a tendency that
has gotten the United States into trouble repeatedly over the past two decades.
And some more overwrought doves worry that attacking yet another Middle Eastern
country will further intensify Islamic radicalism and produce a lot of nasty
blowback down the road.
I remain opposed to military intervention because I do not think it will
advance U.S. strategic or moral interests, and because I do not believe we have
a magic formula for solving the Syrian civil war. But I also believe that both
sides in this debate need to take a deep breath and to stop portraying this moment
as an all-important fork in the road that will shape world events for decades
In fact, what happens in Syria is not going to affect America's overall
position in the world very much. Syria is a small and weak country, and what
happens there isn't going to alter the global balance of power in any
significant way. It's not even clear it will alter the regional balance all
that much. (Israel will remain the region's strongest power no matter what
happens in Damascus.) America's global position will be determined primarily by
the state of the U.S. economy and by what happens in places like China, the European
Union, India, Turkey, and Brazil in the years ahead.
To be more specific: If America's economic recovery continues and if the
advent of hydraulic fracking and cheaper energy gives the U.S. economy an
additional boost, then America will remain the world's No. 1 power no matter
what happens to Assad, the Free Syrian Army, or the al-Nusra Front. If China's
economy hits a wall, if Brazil, Turkey, and India hit economic headwinds, and
if the EU remains hampered by its various economic woes, then the United States
will be in relatively good shape whether it bombs Damascus or not.
Ditto "American engagement." Contrary to what people like Bill
Keller seem to think, the United States is not becoming
"isolationist." Opposition to the Syrian adventure stems from the
fact that U.S. strategic interests are not deeply engaged (here the American
people have got this one right), and moral considerations do not mandate
intervention because we might easily make things worse and increase the level
of human suffering. But comparisons to World War II are deeply misleading:
Assad is a thug and a war criminal, but he's not genocidal or bent on world
domination, and Syria is not a great power like Germany was. No matter what
happens in Syria, the United States will remain the single most formidable
international actor, and other countries aren't going to lose sight of that
reality in the years ahead. I'd even bet that the pivot to Asia continues no
matter who is elected the next U.S. president, unless China slips badly and
doesn't seem like an emerging threat anymore.
Instead of becoming "isolationist," the American people seem to be
returning to a realistic degree of prudence. To oppose a military response in Syria because it won't
make Americans more secure and may not help the Syrians very much isn't
cowardly, irresponsible, or feckless; you might just call it common sense.
Postscript: There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity today,
based on a Russian proposal to take control of Syria's chemical weapons
arsenal. If the U.S. goal is merely to reinforce the "red line" against chemical
weapons use, then it has little choice but to take the deal and spin it as a
great success for "tough" U.S. diplomacy. But it is likely to take some time to
work out the procedures and actually secure the weapons, and there's always the
risk that Russia would renege (or Assad would cheat) so as to retain a chemical
weapons option in extremis. More
importantly, this arrangement doesn't by itself get us much closer to settling
the war, which should be our primary objective. To do that, the United States
is going to have to engage with Russia and Iran, and we might even have to
agree to leave Assad in power for a while. That's not a very satisfying outcome,
perhaps, but it is one that would save a lot of lives.
Thumbnail image: The Keep Calm-o-Matic (www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/p/keep-calm-and-dont-bomb-syria-1)