What is liberalism supposed to be about on the world stage? What values and goals do American liberals wish to promote around the world? I’m pretty certain most would say free democratic societies; full political rights for ethnic minorities; equal rights for women and, with any luck, gay people; a free press; an independent judiciary; and so forth. And, where those cannot be achieved, at least a base-level opposition to tyranny, reaction, religious fundamentalism, and so on.
Most would name these things. But, I have to say, most rank-and-file liberals don’t seem to me to be very passionate about them. What most liberals are passionate about is one thing: opposition to U.S. militarism. That’s what really roils the loins. Ever since Vietnam, there’s been this template, this governing notion that every military action the United States undertakes is by definition both immoral and bound inevitably to lead to a quagmire; that the U.S. military can do only bad in the world. Lord knows, there’s plenty of evidence to back up the claim, and a posture of deep skepticism about all military plans and promises is the only serious posture (abandoned by most of the “serious” people back in 2003).
I’ve described here two impulses: the desire to do good in the world, or at least to prevent the bad; and opposition to American force. Often these desires can exist in harmony. But what if they conflict? Why is opposition to any projection of force always the deciding factor? At times it can lead people into some very illiberal little corners.
I say this is one of those times. Taking no action now, after what Assad did, strengthens the hand of murderers, theocrats, and some of the most illiberal people on the planet. Yes, I have concerns about what might happen. You’ve read many columns, I’m sure, and heard many Democratic members of Congress on cable television talking about the potential catastrophic effects of a strike. I don’t deny them. I worry about them daily.
But I bet you haven’t heard many people talk about the potential harmful effects in the region of not striking the Assad regime. Yes, you probably saw Lindsey Graham and John McCain talk about how Iran would be emboldened in its nuclear ambitions, but that’s not even the half of it. Here are six consequences of not launching a strike against Syria, all of which could harm small-d democratic hopes in the region and, indeed, potentially increase the carnage.
(1) An Emboldened Assad
If the U.S. doesn’t strike, Assad would be emboldened to intensify the fighting in rebel-held areas. Rebel groups of different kinds hold a large number of cities and towns, as this map will show you. What if, concluding that the war-weary West doesn’t really care what he does and isn’t going to lift a finger to stop him, Assad (with Iran’s help) launches savage campaigns in these areas?
No strike is a green light for Assad to take over all the liberated areas by any means necessary, maybe including, again, chemical weapons. The CWs weren’t used last month just because he’s a big meanie. They were used to ferret rebel fighters out of their strongholds. Why wouldn’t he do it again if no one does a thing to stop him? And again?
(2) More Radicalized Rebels
Also within Syria itself, it’s possible that a failure to strike will radicalize more rebels and turn more of them against the United States and send them into the waiting arms of ISIS and al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliates. It certainly seems safe to say that the “good” elements of the anti-regime forces, the people looking to the West for help, would be the losers if we don’t strike. Both the regime and the rebel Islamists have been killing members of the better rebel factions, and both groups would get the message from no U.S. strike that those factions have no protector.
(3) A Win for Hezbollah
Hezbollah, Assad’s ally and Iran’s terrorist proxy army, could more easily take over in Lebanon if the U.S. holds back. Right now in Lebanon, there is no government. I don’t want to drag you too deeply into Lebanese politics, but Hezbollah wants one of two things: either to be in the government, or at least to have what is called the “obstructing third” privilege that permitted it in the last government to block anything the government wants to do. On the other side are pro-Western politicians who have sought to reduce Hezbollah’s influence. No strike would only embolden Hezbollah, which could then decide on key military and security appointments in the next government.
(4) A Strengthened Iran in Iraq
Why? Because of the ongoing competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for Iraqi influence, no strike would probably make Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tilt more toward Iran (Saudi Arabia supports a U.S. strike, albeit not quite openly). Lately, according to Ken Pollack, Washington and Tehran have been in a kind of unexpected entente in Iraq. And Tehran probably has enough on its plate in Syria to prevent it from starting to make power moves in Iraq. But it’s possible, if the U.S. stands down over Syria, that Iran could start doing just that in Iraq, even as the country seems to be sliding back into civil war.
(5) A Blow to Israel
And there’s Israel to think about it. If Nos. 2 and 3 above come to pass—a strengthened al Qaeda and Hezbollah—well, that can’t be very good news for Israel. There are now “resistance brigades” affiliated with the Syrian regime operating in the long-disputed Golan. These brigades, too, will take note if the United States does nothing here.
(6) A Nuclear-Trigger-Happy Iran
There is, yes, the ultimate question of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. I think it’s hard to argue that a U.S. strike would delay those ambitions. But it is not hard to argue the opposite—that the lack of American action against Syria would make Tehran feel that much freer to proceed with that much more impunity.
Looking back over my list, who could benefit from the U.S. not taking action here? Assad, the dictator with the blood of 100,000 on his hands. Iran, one of the world’s most reactionary regimes. Hezbollah, a terrorist force that crushes the democratic aspirations of the Lebanese people. And al Qaeda, the extremist fanatics behind 9/11. Are those the kinds of people liberals want to help? I’m sure liberal members of Congress who’ve announced they’re voting no—Raúl Grijalva, Alan Grayson, Charlie Rangel, Barbara Lee, and about 17 others—have spent a heck of a lot of time thinking about what could go wrong if we do strike. I bet they haven’t given a moment’s thought to what could go wrong if we don’t.
I say that’s worth thinking about. Also worth thinking about is the fact that many liberal-minded people from the region, and certainly many or virtually all of the nonextremist rebels, want the United States to act. From their point of view, without the United States’ engagement, the region is buried in slaughter, theocracy, and darkness. I would expect American liberals at least to stop and think about that.
Again, no one is talking about 130,000 ground troops. That was a qualitatively different thing, and I opposed it from the start. Yes, an American attack might escalate matters. But it also might not. We got in and out of Libya. It’s not clear what that one accomplished yet, although we did presumably prevent a slaughter of many thousands in Benghazi. It is clear what we accomplished in Kosovo, where another murderer was removed from office and hauled to the Hague (without one American life lost). So it doesn’t always end badly. And it isn’t always immoral. This is one of those cases where, if the scale of the action is appropriate and if it works, a military incursion can actually serve liberal ends. No, that’s not for sure. But it is for sure that doing nothing helps the reactionaries.