In an election cycle that has pushed American politics to new heights of partisan acrimony, the Washington foreign-policy elite has represented a singular bastion of bipartisan comity. A large segment of the GOP’s neoconservative wing broke with Donald Trump in the early days of his general-election campaign. A significant number took shelter in Hillary Clinton’s coalition, where they’ve gotten along amiably with liberal interventionists who share their belief that Obama has betrayed America’s obligation to lead.
That point of agreement has now been ratified in a flurry of new reports — from an array of think tanks that span partisan divide — all calling for an escalation in U.S. military involvement in the Syrian civil war. Per the Washington Post:
The studies, which reflect Clinton’s stated views and the direction she is likely to take if she is elected, break most forcefully with Obama on Syria. Virtually all these efforts, including a report that will be released Wednesday by the liberal Center for American Progress, call for stepped up military action to deter President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Russian forces in Syria.
The proposed military measures include calls for safe zones to protect moderate rebels from Syrian and Russian forces. Most of the studies propose limited American airstrikes with cruise missiles to punish Assad if he continues to attack civilians with barrel bombs, as is currently happening in besieged Aleppo. So far, Obama has staunchly resisted any military action against the Assad regime.
The foreign-policy elite’s frustration with President Obama’s reluctance to engage in a large-scale military intervention in Syria is nothing new. And the desire to do something to ameliorate the suffering of the Syrian people is, of course, understandable.
But there are a few problems with the narrative advanced by the papers and foreign-policy thinkers quoted in the Post — which is to say, the notion that the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria illustrates the perils of America withdrawing from the world.
Or as Philip Gordon, a senior foreign-policy adviser to Obama until 2015, put it in an interview with the paper, “There’s a widespread perception that not being active enough or recognizing the limits of American power has costs … So the normal swing is to be more interventionist.”
For one thing, this summation suggests that America has not been active in Syria under Obama’s tenure. Which is false. Among other things, the United States has provided weapons and training to Syrian rebel groups and conducted air strikes against ISIS in eastern Syria.
Of course, Obama’s critics are suggesting a radically different approach to the conflict, one that would target Assad’s regime more directly. Still, it isn’t the case that America tried withdrawing entirely from the conflict only to see it blossom into a humanitarian nightmare. And, in fact, some analysts maintain that by arming the Syrian rebels, the United States helped extend the duration of the civil war, and, thus, its death toll.
That analysis may be wrong, but it’s one that supporters of greater intervention should at least contend with.
Another issue that the bipartisan consensus on Syria seems to elide was actually articulated by none other than Hillary Clinton, in a leaked speech to Goldman Sachs in 2013.
“To have a no fly zone you have to take out all of the air defense, many of which are located in populated areas,” Clinton said. “So our missiles, even if they are standoff missiles so we’re not putting our pilots at risk — you’re going to kill a lot of Syrians. So all of a sudden this intervention that people talk about so glibly becomes an American and NATO involvement where you take a lot of civilians.”
Clinton has campaigned in support of a no-fly zone throughout the 2016 campaign, despite the fact that this policy is likely more risky today than it was three years ago. As one Obama administration official told the Post, “You can’t pretend you can go to war against Assad and not go to war against the Russians.”
Maybe American military escalation will force Assad to agree to step down and allow a more humane, western-friendly regime to take power and secure political legitimacy. But it’s hard to have enough faith in that prospect to be confident that a direct confrontation with a nuclear superpower is an acceptable risk for pursuing it.
Finally, there’s the fact that, if the United States wishes to use its power to deter war crimes in the Middle East, pressuring the Saudis to abandon their heinous intervention in Yemen seems like a far easier task. And yet there’s decidedly less appetite among foreign-policy elites for that project than there is for confronting Russia in Syria.