Why liberal hawks are pushing to strike Syria

Progressive columnists are asking: Do the lessons of Iraq apply to Syria?

Free Syrian Army fighters
(Image credit: REUTERS/Ward Al-Keswani)

In 2011, Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times, offered a mea culpa for his support of the war in Iraq. "When the troops went in, they went with my blessing," confessed Keller. "I could not foresee that we would mishandle the war so badly, but I could see that there was no clear plan for — and at the highest levels, a shameful smugness about — what came after the invasion."

He called his realization "the costly wisdom of Iraq," which, according to his op-ed in the Times on Monday, doesn't seem to apply to Syria. It's hard to deny the first point of his editorial: That President Obama, cognizant of how unpopular the war in Iraq has become, seems wary of getting into another military "quagmire."

But that shouldn't scare the White House from intervening in Syria, says Keller, because the situations in Iraq and Syria are different in four ways:

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"First, we have a genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one," he writes, arguing that we can't have a failed state located right next door to Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. Keller continues:

Second, in Iraq our invasion unleashed a sectarian war. In Syria, it is already well under way.

Third, we have options that do not include putting American troops on the ground, a step nobody favors. ...

Fourth, in Iraq we had to cajole and bamboozle the world into joining our cause. This time we have allies waiting for us to step up and lead. Israel, out of its own interest, seems to have given up waiting. [New York Times]

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons against rebels only strengthens the case for the United States to get involved, Keller adds. And he's not the only liberal columnist beating the drums of military intervention.

"I believe if you want to end the Syrian civil war and tilt Syria onto a democratic path, you need an international force to occupy the entire country, secure the borders, disarm all the militias and midwife a transition to democracy," Thomas Friedman wrote in the Times on Sunday. After facilitating that act of democratic midwifery, the thinking goes, the U.S. would stand aside and let "a homegrown Syrian leader who can be a healer, not a divider" step in and rebuild the country from the bottom up, Friedman explains.

Liberals of the non-hawk variety aren't too keen on the Grey Lady's new interventionist streak. Michael Moore was blunt as always on Twitter:

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Greg Mitchell at The Nation answers Keller's last line — "Whatever we decide, getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq" — with a question: "Remember when Iraq was supposed to help us 'get over' Vietnam?"

At The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald cites evidence that rebels might have been the ones to use chemical weapons (which is being debated by the White House) as a reason that, like in Iraq, claims of use of weapons of mass destruction "deserve great skepticism, which is precisely why starting wars based on them is so foolish, and why Keller has obviously learned nothing despite his claims to the contrary."

President Obama has seen the polls saying Americans do not want the United States to intervene in Syria. Yet pressure continues to mount: Israel has bombed several targets in Syria, hawks of all stripes are pushing for intervention, and Democratic and Republican politicians are calling for action. If the U.S. can prove that Syria's government crossed Obama's "red line" by using chemical weapons, the pressure might become too much to resist.

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Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at TheWeek.com covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.