Syria: The end of U.S. interventionism?

The American people and their elected representatives have made a stunning show of opposition to yet another foreign intervention.

Sorry, President Obama: The American people are tired of being “the world’s judge, jury, and policeman,” said Jeff Faux in The president and members of his administration spent the past week urging Congress to authorize a “limited” military strike on the Syrian regime, in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians. But the American people, and their elected representatives, have made a stunning show of opposition to yet another foreign intervention. Polls show that 63 percent of voters are against striking Syria, compared with just 37 percent who opposed U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003. That anti-war mood is echoed in Congress, where both Republican and Democratic House members were overwhelmingly opposed to any attack even before this week’s Syrian offer to hand over the country’s chemical weapons to U.N. inspectors. This war-weariness was inevitable, said Michael Cohen in The Guardian (U.K.). Since Sept. 11, 2001, the American people have been persuaded to back wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and each time were told that a quick intervention would give birth to a flowering democracy. “The result has been quagmire after quagmire, trillions of dollars in costs, and tens of thousands of dead and maimed Americans.” In rejecting a strike on Syria, the nation is showing that it has finally learned not to buy “the war-makers’ tonic.”

This “new isolationism” is understandable, said Bill Keller in The New York Times, but it’s dangerous and shortsighted. Isolationism is not just an “aversion to war, which is an altogether healthy instinct. It is a broader reluctance to engage, to assert responsibility, to commit.” And as shown by our nation’s last experiment with isolationism, in the 1930s—when America Firsters argued that Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany wouldn’t bother us if we just ignored them—it’s also deeply naïve. The planet is full of murderous dictators—some of them armed with chemical and nuclear weapons, said Tom Rogan in They’re only kept in check by the ever-present threat of U.S. intervention. If Iran senses we’re no longer prepared to enforce the global prohibition on chemical weapons, it will go ahead and build nuclear bombs. North Korea’s “Kim Jong Un will feel free to resort to nuclear blackmail” against South Korea, Japan, and even the U.S. Is this the future isolationists want? “Is this stability?”

But interventions, even “limited” ones, rarely produce stability, said Byron York in Take Libya, where U.S. and NATO air power helped topple dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011. The rebels we backed turned out not to be the natural democrats many in the administration had claimed. Since Qaddafi’s overthrow, the country has lacked a functioning government, with power “wielded mainly by a group of militias left over from the revolution.” In that chaotic hellhole, al Qaida–aligned terrorists now operate with impunity, and gave us Benghazi. In Syria, there are also no good guys, said Andrew Sullivan in Its civil war is primarily a sectarian showdown between the repressive Alawite minority and Sunnis, some of whom are radical jihadists. What could we possibly gain by taking sides over which sect should “run a crumbling French colonial remnant?” It would be “like walking into a bar in a foreign country, seeing a brutal fight going on, walking up to the parties slugging it out, and saying, ‘Why not hit me instead?’”

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Whatever the U.S. ultimately decides to do in Syria, said Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times, it really can’t afford to retire from its “role of global policeman.” The U.S. has acted as the main protector of international security since 1945. It may have made a mess of Vietnam and Iraq, but its intervention in the bloody civil wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s was a success, ending a spasm of ethnic cleansing and setting up a lasting peace. Syria may not be so easily subdued, but the problem is that Obama drew a “red line” over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. America’s red lines underpin much of the world’s security architecture: They discourage China from grabbing Taiwan, disputed islands in the East China Sea, or other neighboring territory, and protect Eastern Europe from Russian bullying and Israel from its hostile neighbors. If the U.S. doesn’t succeed in enforcing its red line in Syria, every one of our allies inevitably will feel less secure. “The world relies on the American policeman more than it realizes.”

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