I know it’s periodically fashionable to argue that liberals who are skeptical of the Bomb Bomb Assad plan are The Real Racists, but look: nobody is deriving pleasure from the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians except maybe Bashar al-Assad himself (and even that I think is unfair; Assad would probably kill every last Syrian man, woman, and child if it bought him one more day in office, but there’s no evidence that he’s a psychopath who would enjoy doing it). All people like me are saying to people like the diplomats who signed that State Department dissent cable is that, after Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and, yes, Syria (America is involved there despite what you may have heard), it’s time for you pro-intervention folks to start showing your work instead of the other way around. It’s the intervention supporters who need to answer some questions instead of continuing to demand that skeptics justify their skepticism. For example:
Will bombing Assad-controlled Syria make life better for Syrians? Has bombing the parts of Syria under ISIS control made life better for Syrians living in those areas? More to the point, have humanitarian airstrikes ever actually worked as intended?
Will standing off and lobbing ordinance at Bashar al-Assad’s forces substantially increase the chances that Syria will emerge from this civil war and begin to rebuild? Afghanistan still hasn’t emerged from the civil war we started there, with significantly more direct US involvement than I’m told would be needed in Syria, and it’s been 14 years.
Can we be sure that the limited stated objectives of such an operation (protecting civilians, allowing aid into besieged cities) will not morph into something more expansive? Mission creep turned “we have to bomb Gaddafi to stop an imminent humanitarian disaster” into “eh, let’s keep bombing until Gaddafi is dead.” What assurances are there that a limited set of strikes intended to force Assad to the bargaining table won’t become another regime change effort (if, say, Assad refuses to budge)? What assurances are there that this won’t end with a substantial commitment of US ground forces?
When the mission (inevitably?) becomes about regime change rather than peace talks, how can we be sure that this operation will produce a better outcome than the invasion of Iraq? Because I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but that mess still isn’t close to being cleaned up.
Along those same lines, will you pro-interventionists finally put the same effort into lobbying for reconstruction aid that you put into lobbying for destruction? Or are you all just going to move on to the next place you’d like to blow up, like you did after Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya?
Finally, and really most importantly, do you all have an actual plan for how the United States is going to blow up Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-supplied (and in some cases maybe Russian-manned) air defenses and either ground or blow up his Russian-supplied air force without generating some kind of response from Russia? And I’m sorry, but just writing the sentence “We are not advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia” in your cable is not an actual plan for avoiding that slippery slope. Wishing doesn’t make it so.
We are very likely to get a substantial surge in American involvement in Syria if/when Hillary Clinton takes office. There will probably be an effort to impose a no-fly zone, which at a minimum means threatening to down Assad’s planes and Russia’s as well, which in turn means taking out anti-aircraft batteries that could target American fighters. Clinton can talk about “deconflicting” a no-fly zone with Russia all she wants, but since the very concept of an NFZ is contrary to Russian aims in Syria it’s very hard to see how or why they’d be interested in talking about how to deconflict one. Grounding Assad’s air force, in a vacuum, could certainly improve the humanitarian situation in Syria and have positive impacts at the peace talks. But we don’t live in a vacuum. There all sorts of complications that will go along with ramping up US involvement in Syria, and for once it would be nice to see the people pushing for increased US involvement actually try tackling those complications before the intervention instead of after.