Whose Problem is Syria?

Is the Syria crisis a humanitarian disaster, a matter of national security or both? Eli Lake reports on the debate and the passionate argument for intervention from a former CIA agent.

At the end of August when President Obama appeared close to authorizing limited air strikes in Syria, members of Congress and the commentary class compared the moment to the run up to the war in Iraq. But a long time veteran of the CIA and FBI says the real parallel is Rwanda, when America and the world did nothing as the country’s Hutu majority slaughtered at least half a million people in the course of three months.

Speaking at The Daily Beast’s Hero Summit, Philip Mudd, the intelligence veteran, said the Syria crisis was a humanitarian disaster that America’s strategic class has chosen to talk about in the language of national security. “We are morally crippled by war,” he said. “105,000 people are dead, what will tell our children?”

Mudd, who served as the deputy for both the CIA’s counter-terrorism center and the FBI’s national security division in the last decade, made the moral case for air strikes in Syria. It’s not only most national security experts and political leaders that are wary of American involvement in the Syria’s civil war, Mudd’s position is also at variance with many of his old colleagues at the CIA. Last month, CBS 60 Minutes ran an interview with recently departed deputy director, Michael Morell who said the agency had an interest in pressuring Syria’s regime, but it did not want for the regime to collapse. He argued that Syria’s security services should be left intact so they can confront al Qaeda and other jihadists who are fighting along side other less extremist militias against the regime.

When asked about Morell’s remarks, Mudd said, “I don’t get it.” He warned that the choice of what to do about Syria should not be reduced to “doing nothing” and an Iraq style invasion. Instead, Mudd made the case that Assad needed to be punished for murdering so many of his citizens. “Periodically we should look in the mirror and ask a question: is a moral imperative a national security imperative?,” Mudd told the audience. He made it clear that the two don’t always align but argued that in this case the United States should have responded with air strikes targeting critical elements of the regime, like his personal security forces. “I think we should have loaded missiles and locked onto Assad,” he said.

Robin Wright, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former Middle East correspondent for the LA Times and Washington Post, shared the floor with Mudd and acted as his foil on this point. “Once we cross a threshold we bear responsibility for how it turns out,” she said. Wright expressed modest hope that elections scheduled for next year in Syria could provide a formula for ushering President Bashar al-Assad out of power. But she invoked the maxim of President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Colin Powell, known as the Pottery Barn rules. “If you break it you own it.”

Mudd disagreed. “It’s not pottery barn,” he said. “We did not break it and we are not responsible to fix it.”