Earlier this week, an open letter was released by a hawkish group of pundits and foreign policy analysts urging President Barack Obama to immediately take military action against the Syrian regime, warning that if he doesn't, weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of "terrorists," and that the US "must play a more proactive role than it has heretofore in ensuring the end of the Assad regime."
Who are the 62 signatories? They're the people who brought you the Iraq war. Among the signers are Karl Rove, J. Paul Bremer, Fouad Ajami, Doug Feith, Danielle Pletka, and Michael Ledeen, all pundits or officials who insisted the Iraq war was vital to securing America's interests. Nearly 10 years ago, they promised those interests would be secured by a short, low-cost invasion that would replace Saddam Hussein with a US-friendly democracy.
Undeterred by how the Iraq war actually unfolded, they're now running a similar playbook in the case of Syria and asking their judgment be trusted once again. This is not to say that the tragedy unfolding in Syria before the world's eyes isn't heartbreaking, or threatening to US interests and regional stability. It's just that the utility of unilateral US action is far from certain. Could it help? Maybe. Could it make things worse? That's the fear that motivates those urging the cautious approach taken by the US so far.
In their histories, some of the signatories seem to yearn for a new order in the Middle East to be forged in blood and fire. Take signatory Michael Ledeen, who in 2002 chastised Brent Scowcroft for warning that an invasion of Iraq could "turn the whole region into a caldron and destroy the war on terror."
Mr. Ledeen countered: "One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today. If we wage the war effectively, we will bring down the terror regimes in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and either bring down the Saudi monarchy or force it to abandon its global assembly line to indoctrinate young terrorists."
Though the letter, organized by the hawkish Foreign Policy Initiative (all four members of its board of directors were staunch supporters of the Iraq war), describes itself as bipartisan, the vast majority of the signatories have been supporters of Republican foreign policy approaches in the past decade. An FPI spokesman, asked to name some of the signatories on the other side of the political fence, listed the following names: Paul Berman, Larry Cox, Marty Peretz, Leon Wieseltier, Allison Johnson, Irina Krasovskaya, Ausama Monajed, and Radwan Ziadeh.
Mr. Berman is a liberal interventionist who supported the idea of invading Iraq, but not its execution. Mr. Wieseltier and Mr. Peretz, like Berman, are tied to The New Republic, and likewise support liberal intervention abroad. Mr. Monajed is a member of the Syrian opposition-in-exile, as is Mr. Ziadeh. I know less about Mr. Cox, Ms. Johnson, and Ms. Krasovskaya, so will assume they're legitimately from the other side of the fence on this issue.
Nevertheless, with a US election looming, it's hard not to see the letter as having a second purpose beyond its clear suggestion for the use of air power: Making Obama look weak on defense if he doesn't take their advice. After all, Syria could get a lot uglier in the months ahead. "You were warned and you failed" will likely be the commentary from many of the signatories in that event.
Obama, of course, has been far more of a multilateral actor than his predecessor, George W. Bush. Many of the signatories to this letter – from Mr. Bush's political strategist Rove, to Mr. Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy in Bush's first term – argued robustly for the US to act unfettered by multilateral concerns. Feith pushed hard for war with Iraq, including the creation of a new intelligence analysis channel that sidestepped traditional vetting and produced the later disproven claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Their views of the world remain much the same today.
What does the group want? In their words, they want the US to:
"Work with regional partners to establish air-patrolled “safe zones” covering already liberated areas within Syria, using military power not only to protect these zones from further aggression by the Assad regime’s military and irregular forces, but also to neutralize the threat posed by the Syrian dictatorship’s chemical and biological weapons.
Such "safe zones" would serve as a destination for civilians fleeing violence. They would also provide the country’s opposition groups—which have actively stood up to the Assad regime’s relentless aggression, and bravely defended their cities, towns, and villages in the absence of decisive international action — a place to train, be equipped, and organize. Indeed, “safe zones” would make it easier for the United States and like-minded nations to reliably provide critical non-lethal aid, including secure communications technologies and field hospital equipment, as well as self-defense assistance, to carefully vetted recipients. “Safe zones” could also serve as a venue for U.S. and allied officials to work with Syria’s future leaders to plan and prepare for a post-Assad Syria and explore options, such as an international peacekeeping force, that could limit chaos and sectarian conflict and prevent the proliferation of Assad’s weapons of mass destruction."
In their formulation, the "safe zones" would not be demilitarized, not even in theory, but rather designed to help rebels train, organize, and equip themselves to attack President Bashar al-Assad's troops. For "self defense assistance" read "military training." For "peacekeeping force" read "eventual boots on the ground." And if safe zones cannot be maintained by air power alone, the logic of stepping up US involvement with the war will be almost inescapable. Promising to keep people safe and then failing would be disastrous for US credibility. It would almost lock Obama, or any other president, into escalation if the zones started to fall.
Two sentences in the letter in particular require some unpacking: "It is clear that the United States cannot outsource its strategic and moral responsibilities to cynical great powers, regional actors who do not fully share our values, or international mediators. Only resolved US leadership has the potential to halt the bloodshed and ensure the emergence of a Syria that advances America’s national security interests. We urge you to exercise such leadership immediately."
Ah, the "cynical" great powers, rather than the ones on the side of the angels. As it happens, most powers, great and small, act in their perceived self-interest – sometimes with positive effects for
others, sometimes not so much.
"Only resolved US leadership has the potential to halt the bloodshed." That is as clear an assertion of American exceptionalism – that the US is unparalleled in its goodness, and therefore must act unilaterally – as you'll ever read. The argument is that there is nothing else that can be done, no creative thinking possible beyond going to war now.
The assertion that that the US "cannot outsource its strategic and moral responsibilities" is a broadside against multilateralism that is straight out of Neocon 101. The argument has long been that the dithering of the United Nations, NATO allies, and others must never slow the US down. Of course, the counterargument is that the world is a complex place, and even its most powerful nation is both limited in what it can accomplish alone and likely to find its interests are best served in the long run by doing so.
Also worth noting is that Rove and some other signatories of the letter opposed Obama's cautious approach to the Libya intervention, working through NATO, and waiting for UN approval before sending in the bombers. In March of last year, shortly after the UN authorized the attacks, Rove asserted on Fox News that multilateralism "never works" and criticized Obama as seeing the US as this "nice little country on the international stage that’s going to be bound up by multilateral commitments and multilateral leadership. And that the United States makes a mistake when it tries to lead."
Well, Libya (a much easier problem with its homogeneity and the weakness of Qaddafi's military and state in general) was a raging success.
The signatories also seem to forget what happened in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq that most of them strongly argued for, on much the same grounds as the recent letter on Syria. They warn, in urging for US action, that "Syria's escalating conflict ... could provide an opening for terrorist groups like al Qaeda to exploit." Well, yes it could. In fact, it is.
But recent US interventions in the area don't set a happy precedent for keeping Al Qaeda out of a country. Al Qaeda's allies in Iraq prior to the US invasion in 2003, till that point a minor presence there and confined to autonomous and US-friendly Kurdistan, became a major player in the country, killing thousands there (among them many US soldiers) and staging attacks in neighboring Jordan. Al Qaeda's self-described affiliate the Islamic State in Iraq remains a danger to that country's stability today.
Jihadis radicalized by the US occupation in Iraq and toughened by fighting against US forces, particularly in Anbar Province, which neighbors Syria, are now fighting against Assad in Syria, bringing the IED manufacturing techniques they honed around cities like Fallujah to the streets of Syria.