Exit Strategy

Skepticism About Syria Isn't A Left Or Right Problem

06.24.13 7:00 PM ET

At the New RepublicJohn Judis argues that the left has forgotten its history of interventionism in the name of justice. He points to an over-arching history: "The left in the United States and Europe repeatedly pressured sympathetic governments to defend liberty and independence internationally," he writes. "By identifying Obama’s impulse in Syria with Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada or Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the left rules out any possibility of a benign intervention for humanitarian or for worthy geopolitical ends."

This is a strong argument against those of us on the left who remain skeptical of American intervention in Syria. Though Judis's target is the claim that involvement in Syria would be imperialism—something I don't personally believe—the historical context he offers makes a wider case. But it's not without holes.

Judis illuminates the largest of these—one that you could drive an M1 Abrams through—for us in his conclusion:

I am not a military expert, and I don’t know what is involved in setting up a no-fly zone. I think that whatever we do, we have to do with other countries. And I believe that we have to avoid any commitment to policing a post-Assad Syria. These are reservations that the Obama administration seems to share. But I have no doubt that we should try to do something to rid the world of the Assad regime.

You don't need to be a military expert to see the difficulties with all the various modes of U.S. intervention. It should give us some pause that the military experts in government—that is, those in the Pentagon—remain incredibly wary of trying a full-throated intervention. And that some of those military experts without government, such as Michael O'Hanlon, make cases for intervention that precisely violate those conditions Judis wants to restrain U.S. involvement.

The real reason to be skeptical of intervention knows no political spectrum. (Since when have left-wing anti-imperialists influenced Washington at all?) And in this case we must, despite protestations, turn precisely to the recent history that Judis sought to minimize in the context of the broader thrusts of the left's history: Iraq.

The gaps of logic remain the same: the course of an intervention can never be known with certainty, but those political and intellectual leaders willing to advocate for it should do their best to suss out the possibilities in an open debate. That means sober tellings of foreseeable risks, which are legion in Syria. That means a serious discussion that balances the limits of proposed actions against their grandiose aims (small arms, for example, only escalate without any apparent significance to the military balance between the government and the rebels). That means discussing the possible quagmire that awaits: Can the U.S. get involved in Syria then divorce itself if and when Assad falls? It bears repeating: we can never know with certainty how these things play out, but it'd be nice to have advocates of intervention at least attempt to address them before the American people.

And, may I ask, when was the last time the American government led either a "benign intervention for humanitarian or for worthy geopolitical ends"? We should diabuse ourselves of the notion that transferring arms to the rebels is a humanitarian intervention—arming one side of a civil war is neither here nor there when it comes to protecting civilians. And talk of "geopolitical ends" opens up a pandora's box of other pressures. We can't pretend hawks don't exist and won't seize on this logic to push confrontation with Iran—that is, after all, what many of them are already pushing in Syria.

I don't consider myself a pacifist, but I think we're owed a more forthright explanation for what U.S. involvement in Syria would look like and—most importantly—how it could end. At least a plan to the effect of stating some kind of exit strategy, an off-ramp, would be refreshing; I haven't seen one. Judis, a writer I know and respect tremendously, seems to want to sacrifice recent history at the altar of a broader view. He'll have to forgive those of us who came of age in the era of 9/11 and the Iraq war for seeing it the other way around.