Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JUNE 2012

To intervene, or not to intervene, that's the question President Obama and his national security team are considering as the killing of civilians continues in Syria.

The key question they must answer is: How important are U.S. interests in Syria?

There are four basic national interests that guide all American foreign policy: defend the U.S. homeland; advance the economic well-being of Americans; build a favorable world order (balance of power); promote American values and ideals abroad.

How does Syria shape up in terms of these interests?

It's not realistic to think that it registers any higher than peripheral regardingdefense of the United States and its neighbors. Similarly, America's commercial and economic relations with Syria are minimal when compared with other states in the region.

But two other interests, favorable world order and promotion of values, form the basis of demands by those who want Obama to show "American leadership" and stop the killings that took nearly 10,000 civilian lives in Syria over the past year.

Here are the major arguments for and against using forceful measures in Syria:

For intervention

* The U.S. has responsibility as a world power to stop the massive killing of civilians. President Clinton sent 20,000 troops, as part of a NATO force. to end the slaughter during an ethnic war in Bosnia in 1995-96. Three years later, Clinton authorized U.S. air power for use against Serbia, to stop its ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo. In 1982, President Reagan sent Marines to Lebanon to help end a war between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that claimed thousands of civilian casualties.. George H.W. Bush deployed troops to Somalia in 1992 to prevent armed gangs from high-jacking food shipments to starving peasants. In sum, America has often intervened with force when humanitarian outrages occur. Syria is such a case. *

* The U.S. has a major, perhaps vital, strategic interest in ending Syria's alliance with Iran's Islamic regime and its meddling in Lebanonā€˜s politics. Major Middle East countries, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Emirates, are eager to oust Syria's Assad regime and to support new leaders who are not beholden to Tehran.. They look to Washington for leadership of a major Arab effort to organize opposition Syrian forces by providing arms, training, and logistical support. For its part, Israel will applaud any plan to topple Assad and end Syria's alliance with Iran.

Three U.S. senators, John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham, are the principal advocates of U.S. intervention to bring down Assad's regime. They favor arming the opposition and providing it with U.S. air support.

The Washington Post supports this view and criticizes President Obama's "passivity" to the massive killing of civilians. It supports the creation of "safe zones along, and eventually inside, Syria's borders with Turkey and Jordan." These zones would protect tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, it argues, and they "could be defended by air power and a modest force of Turkish troops." ("What to do in Syria," May 31).

Against intervention

* The United States doesn't have the resources or public support for more military interventions to stop domestic conflicts abroad, unless they seriously endanger world order and threaten the security of key allies. Syria does not rise to this level. In the case of Bosnia, President Clinton agreed to intervene only after NATO allies persuaded him that a larger Balkan war would endanger the security of all Western Europe. Similarly in Libya, Barack Obama reluctantly agreed with Britain and France to join a bombing campaign to bring down the Gadaffy regime, but he stipulated "no boots on the ground." Intervention in Syria would commit the United States once more to engage in nation-building, as in Iraq whose huge costs resulted in a major drag on the U.S. economy.

* NATO allies, except Turkey, do not support military intervention in Syria. And Russia and China are strongly opposed. Without support from allies or the United Nations, America would intervene unilaterally in a civil war that requires the use of air power and probably the insertion of special forces on the ground. Given this scenario, Congress is not likely to approve using U.S. forces in Syria, as it did in 2002 in Iraq.

A compelling case against intervention was offered by a former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, in a commentary "The Perils of Intervention in Syria." He argues, "We cannot afford to be driven from expedient to expedient into undefined military involvement in a conflict increasingly sectarian in character." He cites the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and asks: "How can a new commitment in the same region be justified, particularly one that is likely to face similar challenges?" (Washington Post, June 5.)

The recent dramatic TV photos of body bags of civilians killed in Houla, and the reports of Syrians on the ground, cause many Americans to demand "we should do something." But the hard reality in Syria is that this is a humanitarian crisis which the United States is unlikely to stop unless we are willing to intervene alone and bear the costs of rebuilding Syria. Unfortunately, we have reached the limit of what we can reasonably do under these circumstances.

File last modified on Tuesday, 12-JUN-2012 4:27 PM EST

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