This Christmas season, it’s worth remembering just how horrible things have gotten in Syria. This Washington Post dispatch is worth reading in full to get a taste of the privations and challenges the people of Aleppo are facing on a daily basis:
…the onset of this second winter since Syrians rose up against their government 22 months ago is bringing new calamity to a people already ground down by violence and war. Hunger, cold and disease are emerging as equally profound challenges in the desperate daily struggle that life has become for millions, not only in Aleppo but across Syria, where the quest for greater freedoms sparked by the Arab Spring has gone badly, horribly wrong.
Not to harp on the same sad note over and over again, but the West could have been much more effective in averting the more dangerous and devastating disaster in Syria had it not intervened in Libya first. This is not to say that solving Syria would have been simple absent the toppling of Qaddafi. But statesmanship is all about making prudent choices, and the choice we made was anything but. Qaddafi’s fall has left Libya an unstable question mark and has created new problems in Mali and beyond. The consequences of the Libyan intervention dissipated the political capital of the interventionist wing of the Obama administration; even the noblest and most multilateral Wilsonians can launch only so many wars in a presidential term. And by choosing to intervene in Libya while making lots of empty boasts and vain noises about our commitment to universal human rights and principles, we encouraged the Syrians to believe we would help them at the same time we made help less likely. This has cost both us and the Syrians much already; the bill will continue to mount.
The Syrian war is a many sided catastrophe and it has no one cause. From the failures of Ottoman rule and the Sykes-Picot agreement to the Sunni-Shiite split and the problems of nationalism and tribalism, many cooks labored together to spoil this broth. But a contributing factor to this as to much else in the Middle East is the failure and inadequacy of American policies constructed along humanitarian lines.
Wilsonians didn’t start screwing up in the Middle East last spring; they’ve had more than a century of policy failure there. America’s long engagement with and support of the Armenians ended in mass killings that we did nothing about. 160 years of American efforts to bolster the situation of Christians throughout the Middle East materially contributed to the destruction of these communities. American calls on Iraqi Shiites to rise against Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War ended in the massacres and betrayals for which today we are still paying a price. The democracy Americans paid such a price to establish in Iraq has been a mixed blessing at best for the people of that still-violent land. The intervention in Libya has probably led to a greater loss of life, and certainly done more to undermine the stability of both Libya and its neighbors, than if we had stayed out.
American motives in all these cases were mixed, but were basically good. Yet the consequence, as with our periodic backing for the aspirations of the Kurds, followed by periodic pirouettes away, have often been catastrophic for those we sought to help.
In Syria today the effect of our intervention in Libya, our fine sounding words about our noble humanitarian goals, and our subsequent dithering and slow diplomatic slog has been to exacerbate a situation that we hoped to relieve. American policy has once again helped push a situation in a direction that we would have preferred to avoid.
American idealists and human rights activists often do more damage in the Middle East than hard headed “selfish” realists, while the realists are generally more successful in achieving their policy goals. This is a consequence of many things. There are deep cultural and value differences that divide the Anglo-American, secularized Protestant missionary culture that continues to shape the American human rights community from the cultural roots and ethical values of the Middle East. We sometimes look at our most imperialist and meddling to many in the region when we see ourselves as noble and self-sacrificing.
Additionally, the Middle East is both far from the United States and closely connected to it through our affinities to Israel and our interest in its oil; the mix of interests and distance affects the politics of American foreign policy in the region in dramatic ways that human rights advocates and humanitarian interventionists rarely understand and even more rarely master. The United States goes from a desire to jump in with both feet to a desire to stay out at all costs and our policy in the region never has and likely never will achieve anything like the consistency and steadiness that American Wilsonians would like.
Combine our own lack of deep understanding of the region and the unsteadiness and mixed motives behind our policies with the complexities and tragedies of a region where nationalist, tribal and sectarian passions burn bright, and where the road to stable prosperity and jobs for an exploding population is hard to find, and it is not hard to see why so much humanitarian American policy in this part of the world ends so unhappily.
What one would like to see, but doesn’t see much sign of, is some humility and self reflection on the part of the humanitarian lobby about its own long record of exacerbating problems in this part of the world. A more “selfish” policy—doing less in Libya and more in Syria—would likely have had better strategic and humanitarian results than the dog’s dinner of a policy that we have actually followed.
At the end of the day, the United States can neither control events in the Middle East or remain unaffected by or indifferent to them. For the foreseeable future our policy must be more about securing our interests through a complex balance of forces than about promoting regional harmony based on a common consensus about values and norms. The balancing process cannot be indifferent to questions of norms, and the big historic developments in the region—a rise of democratic sentiment accompanied by intensification of sectarian and ethnic hostility—cannot be ignored by our policymakers. But while Wilsonians always have something important to add, they are the worst people to be in charge of our Middle East policy right now; Hamilton, with some Jeffersonian whispers of caution, is the guy who most needs to be heard from and as always whether you like it or not, Andrew Jackson will put in his two cents.
And in the meantime, the suffering in Aleppo, the prospect of worse to come, and the still undiminished chances of war with Iran should keep us all in a sober frame of mind as we contemplate the difficult choices that will face an administration that, six months ago, thought it had found a clear and workable line of policy in the Middle East.