As the United States begins its attempted intervention in Syria, there are a lot of fears creeping into the media and American populace.
My biggest worry is that we’ll succeed. Why?
First, let’s define success.
“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” President Obama said in 2011, according to the Washington Post. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
So removing Assad from power is success. That seems like a very reasonable goal. He’s killed more than 90,000 of his people so far and used chemical weapons in some of those killings. I think it is safe to say he’s a bad guy. The world will be a better place when he’s dead.
But what happens to Syria if we remove him from power and send him either to some peaceful resignation and trial like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or to meet his maker like Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya? Who will run the country? Will that person or people be better?
The United States has learned the hard way in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya that we’re far better at removing despots from power than rebuilding the nations they ruled. In Afghanistan, we’re now trying to negotiate with the same Taliban that we initially removed. Our struggles in Iraq are well-documented. If you watch Fox News, you are certainly aware that our ambassador was murdered in Benghazi, Libya last year.
President Obama surely would get a triumphant press conference if Assad left; however, that would be short term. Obama’s triumphant posture following Gaddafi’s death in Libya would have backfired in the 2012 election if not for some convenient deception from the State Department. President Bush received bounces — complete with triumphant press conferences — following the fall of both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s regime.
But then events changed.
The only good the Iraq Mission Accomplished banner brought us was jokes on “Arrested Development” so dated that many freshmen reading this article don’t even get them.
Military victories give fleeting public opinion bounces to the president, but that typically leaves quickly. Instead, the United States is inevitably stuck with a very tough rebuilding operation.
But Syria could be different. The rebels clearly oppose Assad, which means they have to be better, right?
Removing Assad would almost certainly leave a power vacuum that our principal enemies in the War on Terror could try to exploit. Such a vacuum might make it possible for Al Qaeda to gain formal control of a nation — a slightly different view than the administration’s public stance, which is that the terrorists are on the run and we’re winding down the war on terror.
To be fair, that’s a worst-case scenario. Let’s assume Al Qaeda doesn’t take over. How are the other rebels?
Well, there is a viral video circulating of one cutting out the heart and liver of a fallen opponent and eating both. But even that has to be an extreme … right?
What if we just installed a dictator? Someone strong enough to keep Al Qaeda and the heart-eaters out of control. That would be a slam dunk, right? Not really. We’ve tried supporting dictators before.
Mubarak in Egypt probably would have been considered a success prior to 2011. Even today’s freshmen could probably tell you how that ended.
Back when many of our professors were in college, a similar arrangement with the Shah of Iran backfired on the United States as well. That gave us the Ayatollah and his decidedly anti-American regime.
Up until the end of the Cold War, we supported Saddam Hussein. Donald Rumsfeld, then a special envoy from President Reagan, even met with him in the 1980s.
And that’s just the lowlights from our Middle East interventions. If you want more, google Pinochet.
To be fair, none of these scenarios are certain. The United States arming rebels could embolden them to overthrow Assad, adopt real democracy, embrace human rights and even abandon the horribly sexist policies that plague most of the Middle East.
But somehow I doubt it.
If history is any guide, our success has a ceiling of marginal improvement to a regime for which our nation would become responsible. The floor is probably Al Qaeda gaining formal control of a major nation and its chemical weapons stockpiles.
Somehow, success sounds a lot less exciting in those terms.