Our Syria Myopia

Why are we debating intervention in Syria but not Afghanistan and Iraq? By Peter Beinart.


In recent weeks, the biggest debate in American foreign policy has been: should we intervene in Syria? Good question. Let me add two of my own: should we intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Yes, “intervene.” Present—not past—tense. You see, both countries appear headed for civil war. Last December, Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (remember him?) tried to arrest his own finance minister, a Sunni. That sparked massive Sunni protests, which Shia troops put down ruthlessly. Now the Sunni militiamen that helped the United States fight al Qaeda during George W. Bush’s famous “surge” are turning their guns on Maliki’s Shia-dominated regime. In April, sectarian clashes killed more than 700 people, the worst monthly toll since 2008. Iraq, notes the International Crisis Group, “has begun a perilous, downward slide toward confrontation.” If all this wasn’t on the tip of your tongue, don’t feel bad. Iraq hasn’t made the front page of The New York Times in over a month.

Then there’s Afghanistan, from which the United States is supposed to withdraw by the end of next year. To fight the Taliban, the U.S. has spent the last few years arming local militias, many of which barely feign loyalty to the Afghan military. When America pulls out next year, many Afghans believe that even the pretense of a unified, pan-tribal army will crumble. (As Dexter Filkins pointed out in a brilliant New Yorker investigation last year, maintaining Afghanistan’s national army and police at their current size costs $8 billion a year, which is twice the Afghan government’s entire budget.) When that happens, Afghanistan could well slide back into the Hobbesian hell it lived through in the 1990s, except with better weapons. “Mark my words,” one pro-Western Afghan told Filkins, “the moment the Americans leave, the civil war will begin. The country will be divided into twenty-five or thirty fiefdoms, each with its own government.” If you’ve missed this too, don’t blame yourself. Despite laudable exceptions like Filkins’s New Yorker story, Afghanistan hasn’t gotten much more press coverage than Iraq. Over the past month, it’s made the Times’s front page twice. Syria, by contrast, has been there nine times.

I’m not saying Syria doesn’t matter. In Afghanistan and Iraq, civil strife could claim tens of thousands of lives a year; that’s happening in Syria right now. Syria has also become the battlefield in a regional struggle between Shias and Sunnis, Iran and Israel, al Qaeda and the West, which the United States can’t afford to ignore.

Still, there’s another, more disturbing, reason that Syria gets so much more ink than Iraq and Afghanistan. American elites aren’t sick of Syria yet. Purely on cost-effectiveness grounds, one could argue that humanitarian intervention, whether diplomatic or military or both, would be more effective in Iraq or Afghanistan than in Syria. It’s usually cheaper to prevent a civil war from breaking out than to end one that’s already underway. But even contemplating new forms of American intervention in Afghanistan or Iraq is virtually impossible because it is American intervention that has helped bring those countries to the brink of civil war in the first place.

The big difference between Syria on the one hand and Afghanistan and Iraq on the other is that in Syria Americans can still claim innocence, which is how we like it. As a country, we’re more attracted to cleaning up messes made by others than the ones we make ourselves. And just as our media generally allows hawks like John McCain to advocate military intervention in Syria without quizzing them about the interventions they advocated in the past, we expect the rest of the world to wipe the slate clean every time America loses interest in one war and gears up for another.

I understand the impulse for America to “do something” in Syria. I grasp the logic behind funding some of the militias fighting Bashar al-Assad, even if America’s history of funding militias may be propelling Afghanistan and Iraq toward civil war. But there’s something disgraceful about our tendency to wax moralistic about preventing suffering in countries in which we have not yet intervened while we brazenly ignore the suffering we have helped cause in the countries in which we have. If we’re going to debate intervention in Syria, let’s also debate intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, countries where we have accrued grave moral obligations, obligations that don’t end just because we’ve decided it’s easier to focus our attention someplace else.