When hawks talk about taking action in Syria, they tend to focus on their desired outcomes: checking Russian and Iranian power, ousting Assad, defeating the Islamic State and ending the slow-motion humanitarian disaster. These are attractive goals that the current administration is not pursuing. Hawks sound very good when they talk about foreign policy outcomes in Syria.
The question is how the foreign policy output of greater military intervention in Syria will achieve those desired outcomes. Thatâ€™s why Zakariaâ€™s question is important, and thatâ€™s why Stephensâ€™s failure to offer a credible answer matters. There is a strong and bipartisan 21st-century record of U.S. administrations applying military force in the Middle East with the most noble of intentions and then making the extant situation much, much worse. So any hawk who makes the case for more action has to marry that to a detailed argument for why this time would be different. Simply put, why would the foreign policy output of a more aggressive U.S. posture in Syria lead to a better outcome than the status quo?
Stephensâ€™s counter is that just because the United States has messed this up in the past is not a reason for not trying again. But all else being equal, most Americans and most policymakers probably would prefer a Syrian mess without heavy American investments to one where the United States expends significant blood and treasure for an altogether different Syrian mess.
I propose there are two kinds of hawks. One kind is the sort who refuses to accept that America can’t “fix” everything to our liking, and unless we apply massive military force, we aren’t trying hard enough. The other kind of hawk just likes war, as long as it’s somewhere else and he doesn’t have to fight it. Or maybe hawks take both positions.
Do read all of Drezner’s column, and then go to Daniel Larison at The American Conservative, who has an even better question.
The principal hawkish error in Syria is in assuming that the U.S. should be involved in the conflict at all. Drezner describes the outcomes that the hawks seek as â€œattractive goals,â€ but it hasnâ€™t ever been clear why they should be attractiveÂ for the U.S.Â The most important question that hawks canâ€™t answer, and which they are almost never asked: â€œHow are American interests protected and advanced by taking sides in Syriaâ€™s civil war?â€ There has never been a remotely persuasive answer to that question, and I suspect that there never will be because no vital U.S. interests were ever at stake there.
Larison may be a bit myopic here, but if he is, I don’t see anyone really addressing this question of why except on humanitarian grounds. Larison also makes some good points about the hawks never being held accountable for their “outcomes.”
Speaking of humanitarian grounds, Larison writes,
There has always been a glaring contradiction at the heart of the hawkish argument on Syria that they never address. They cite the destabilizing effects of the Syrian civil war as a reason to intervene, and they frequently dress up their interventionist arguments in humanitarian rhetoric, but at the same time they want the U.S. to carry out policies that will kill and displace more Syrians, create more refugees, and make the country even less stable than it currently is. They frame the problem in Syria as one of continued conflict and instability, but their so-called â€œremedyâ€ promises much more of the same. Itâ€™s as if they see a country mostly on fire and ask, â€œWhat can our government do to burn the rest of it?â€
Both Drezner and Larison are worth reading in full, and then see Kevin Drum, who has some questions for Drezner.