Friday, March 2, 2012

The Futility of a US Intervention in Syria - or Iran

I cannot recommend highly enough Gian Gentile's wake-up call posted at The National Interest, where he makes plain what people like Andrew Bacevich have been saying for years:

  • the US cannot fix every crisis (no matter how horrific) across the planet
  • when the US military is inserted into a situation like Iraq in 2003 (or, some would hope, Syria in 2012), it can do as much harm as help to the locals.

Gentile notes:

I am a serving soldier obedient to my political masters. If President Obama directs the military to intervene to protect the Syrian people by stopping the civil war, then that is exactly what we shall do. Yet it is also the responsibility of the American military to provide realistic advice on what that will actually entail—and what it will cost.

Halting the civil war will require a generational effort and significant commitment of boots on the ground. I have been on the business end of an American military force placed in the middle of a civil war in a foreign land. In 2006, I commanded a combat battalion in western Baghdad in that most hellish year of Iraq's civil war between Sunni and Shia. Although my outfit's primary task was to "protect the Iraqi people," we invariably were forced to take sides.

There is much moral weight in "Responsibility to Protect" because the term implies that the foreign military force used to "protect" vulnerable civilians will be effective. Yet the hard hand of war does not always adhere to catchy, moralistic terms. Instead, when the United States applies military force to "protect," it takes part in the destruction, death and devastation of war. Thus the military ends up hurting the civilian population in the very process of trying to protect it. These kinds of interventions in civil wars are never as clean or clear as idealistic policy experts wish them to be.

If the civilian decision makers of United States decide to intervene in Syria to protect its population and end the civil war, the military will step up to the task. But policy experts should do so with a realistic sensibility of what an intervention will require: It won't be cheap. It won't be easy. It will take a very long time. And from the angle of U.S. national interests, it’s probably not worth the cost in American blood and treasure.


Mr. Obama would do well to have a copy of Gentile's essay on hand when Mr. Netanyahu comes calling on Monday.  And we can only hope that someone might pass along Gentile's counsel to McCain/Graham/Lieberman and all those worthies at AIPAC.  Sure sure -  I recognize that no one is calling for US boots on the ground in Iran.  But as Gentile asserts, when military operations begin, all the planning goes out the window.  As with a proposed Syrian intervention, an intervention in Iran will be fraught with blowback - dire consequences, hardly foreseen.

And as Robert Merry similarly makes plain (again, at The National Interest), an Israeli attack that draws in the US is likely to have very damaging consequences for the US-Israel "special relationship":

suppose the already war-weary American people were to find their country in a beleaguered situation—beset by economic woes wrought by a global recession; pulled into further Mideast hostilities that generated growing numbers of U.S. casualties without an end in sight; grappling with an enflamed Middle East that threatened to fray the global order at various points around the edges of its stability. And suppose all this could be attributed to an Israeli military action undertaken over the objections of the American president.


The result would be an entirely new political environment in America for the U.S.-Israeli relationship. When a Mearsheimer or a Friedman spoke up about the divergence of interests between the two countries, the Abramses and Rothmans and Tobins would not be responding with quite the same outrage and aggressiveness. Members of Congress would not be bestowing twenty-nine standing ovations upon Israeli leaders who had just insulted the American president; and, if they did, few indeed would buy the argument that those ovations reflected political sentiment across the country. For a majority of Americans, the idea of an ironclad convergence of national interests between Israel and the United States, in all times and all circumstances, would be seen as not only wrong but dangerously so.


Politics is driven by lesson-laden events. Mr. Netanyahu may want to ponder that reality as he decides whether to unleash such an event that could hit American interests—and the American consciousness—with a bitter force.

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