Writing that piece about Libya on Friday put me in mind of a couple of articles I flagged months ago but never did anything with. The first was this June Politico piece by Philip Gordon, who was the Obama White House’s coordinator for the MENA region until earlier this year. Gordon is admittedly biased toward defending his former boss’s record, but he makes a pretty decent argument here for reducing and realigning America’s role in the region:
Given the stakes, the desire to “do something” is understandable but this approach is potentially even more dangerous than walking away. Only recently, we saw that U.S. interventions in the region (Iraq) can be enormously costly ($1 trillion, 5,000 U.S. lives, half-a-million Iraqi lives and the United States’ global reputation) and only bring unintended consequences—like the exacerbation of the Sunni-Shia divide and the creation of ISIL. Using force to get rid of Assad is a noble goal and no doubt would remove one real problem—but it would surely create many others, including potentially even more instability and sectarianism in Syria, as well as creating genuine U.S. ownership of the problem. The notion that limited airstrikes would lead Assad to abandon power—and turn leadership over to moderates—would be a particularly egregious case of placing hope over experience.
When implying the United States can “fix” Middle Eastern problems if only it “gets it right” it is worth considering this: In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster. This record is worth keeping in mind as we contemplate proposed solutions going forward.
Granted, the US has actually intervened in Syria, but that intervention came well after the situation there had become a “costly disaster,” and that’s Gordon’s point. If there’s some correct calibration of American policy that can make things better in the Middle East, rather than worse, we haven’t figured it out, and we’ve been trying since the end of World War II.
Not intervening at all feels impotent and callous. The desire to Do Something is powerful both for people who see war as the only answer when confronted with perceived threats to American interests and for the “Responsibility to Protect” crowd, people who want America to alleviate humanitarian suffering by force, if necessary. Obviously real threats need to be countered, but the definition of a “threat” and of “American interests” always seems pretty broad. On the other hand, I sympathize with the humanitarian interventionists and kind of used to be one of them myself back before I’d really started thinking about these issues. But now I believe that, as in bioethics, there’s a powerful case to be made that “first, do no harm” should be the guiding principle behind all foreign interventions.
“First, Do No Harm” is the title of the second piece I thought of on Friday, a 2010 essay from analyst David Reiff in The New Republic. Reiff also went from being a liberal/humanitarian interventionist to a skeptic of intervention altogether, and he addresses the question of whether the US has an obligation to aid people who are suffering in places like Darfur, Iraq, Syria, etc. head on: Continue reading