A major issue splitting America and world opinion is whether the US should bomb Syria because of the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. My answer is “no”, despite the colossal blunder by President Obama in promising retaliation if Syria crossed the “red line” by using chemical weapons.
I say blunder for two reasons. The president clearly is not enthusiastic about ordering a cruise missile or other strikes on Syria. If he were, he would already have ordered the attack since he admits he has the power to do this without getting congressional approval. By seeking their approval before he goes ahead, the president is demonstrating a reluctance to do this on his own.
It would also be unwise to get involved in the civil war raging in Syria (I am indebted to very informative discussions with Guity Nashat Becker). Although the Assad government is clearly authoritarian and has not allowed any opposition to speak openly, it is no more repressive than American allies like Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Syria has not caused much trouble in the explosive Middle East or elsewhere. In addition, the rebels are split between radical Sunni Islamists, and other groups that appear to be pro democracy. The Islamists seem to be the better-organized and stronger fighters, with many of them coming from other countries. US intervention would increase the likelihood that they would come to power if the Assad government fell.
Of course, chemical weapons are awful and kill civilians. But without chemical weapons, 100,000 or so deaths have occurred during the civil war in Syria, many of them in cruel and painful ways. Although chemical weapons are a violation of international law, the US and other countries stood by while Iraq apparently used chemical weapons on a large scale in its protracted war against Iran in the 1980s. Indeed, the US supplied arms to and remained an ally of Iraq throughout this war.
There was some limited support within the United States for intervention in Syria on the side of the non-Islamic rebels even before the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. However, our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan should caution against doing this. Vast uncertainty about how the future unfolds, and the “law of unintended consequences”, make it is extremely difficult to predict the eventual outcome of any intervention in another country’s battles, especially in as confused and volatile a region as the Middle East. One can hardly argue that the intervention in Afghanistan has been successful, and it is also dubious whether the Iraq intervention has been worth the cost to both the Iraqi and American people.
I originally supported the 2nd Iraqi invasion as necessary to bring down a cruel and dangerous dictator. Cruel and dangerous Saddam Hussein was, but he was also in retrospect a self-inflated rather minor figure. More importantly, one should have appreciated that the longer-term outcomes of such a disorganized and destructive activity as war are disturbingly uncertain.
My conclusion is that except under extreme circumstances, it is not worth intervening in another country’s squabbles, even when the government is undemocratic and cruel. The extreme circumstances would include that American interests are very seriously threatened by the outcome, or that killing of non-fighters is on such a large scale that humanitarian reasons justify intervention to put an end to these killings.
Neither of these criteria applies to the Syrian civil war. Many deaths have occurred, but the rebels presumably are responsible for many of these. Further, even an Islamists win probably would not seriously threaten American interests. The president’s red line is very worrisome because the US does not want to appear like a paper tiger. Obama could launch a few missiles to combat this perception, but overall I think it best if we punt on military action, and blame our inaction on a divided Congress.