Donald Robinson: The arguments for and against intervening in Syria

Last modified: Thursday, August 15, 2013

ASHFIELD — The air surrounding American foreign policy is full of contending voices. A debate rages: What should we do about Syria?

Many voices counsel that we must increase our commitment and add, or credibly threaten, stronger military measures. From neo-con “realists” (William Kristol and Robert Kagan) to liberal interventionists (Anne-Marie Slaughter and Bill Keller), they argue that, in the face of a mounting humanitarian disaster and strategic peril, we must stop dithering, arm the rebels and prepare other steps.

Not many yet call for a no-fly zone. That would not only face Russian, Chinese and Iranian objections. It would involve air strikes on radar, anti-aircraft sites and air bases, which the Assad regime has placed in urban and suburban areas, unlike in Libya.

These counselors need to be reminded that there is no legal basis for American military intervention. The Assad regime has not attacked the U.S., nor does it pose an imminent threat to us or our allies. There is no U.N. resolution, and no prospect of getting one that would cover American or allied intervention. Is Congress ready to declare war on Syria? U.S. public opinion, mindful of Iraq and Afghanistan (huge cost, ephemeral gains, a recruiting bonanza for our enemies), strongly opposes armed intervention.

Is there anything we might usefully do that does not involve a military commitment? We could increase humanitarian aid to the growing refugee populations in Jordan and Turkey. We could ask Russia and China (and now maybe even Iran?) to help restrain Assad. We could urge Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to restrain military support for the rebels. And as war-weariness grows in Syria, we could work with regional players to set up a power sharing arrangement.

But could any of these diplomatic endeavors succeed? Who would respect our mucking around in the region? Wesley Clark, who led the assault on Kosovo in the 1990s, offers the Kissingerian advice that diplomacy cannot succeed without at least the credible threat of American firepower.

Two recent books provide context for this debate. Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington and author of “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat,” argues that U.S. influence in the world is declining, not because we are losing strength relative to other nations, but because we have made “bad choices.” Obama’s so-called “pivot” away from the Middle East toward Asia was, he thinks, a big mistake. China saw it as containment; the Middle East as withdrawal.

In truth, Nasr contends, the Middle East is the “single most important region in the world.” While the U.S. searches for a way out, China is moving in. The prime minister of Turkey visited western China in April 2012, the first time a Turkish leader visited China in 27 years. A few months later, Xi Jinping, then vice president of China, now its president, paid a return visit to Turkey. Egypt’s new president, Mohammad Morsi, visited China in August 2012 looking for investments to replace those no longer coming from the West.

Nasr’s case for a stronger American commitment to the Middle East is countered by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order.” What America needs now, he writes, is to “take a breather” from foreign engagements.

This would be an opportune moment for an American respite, he argues. We face no great-power rival. No one can challenge our primacy, not China, Russia, Europe, Japan, India. We are by far the richest, most powerful nation on Earth. We are politically stable. We enjoy “healthy demographics” (not too many elders), a widely shared commitment to the rule of law, a “rich endowment” of energy, minerals, water and arable land and an openness to immigration that is a continuing source of innovation.

Our good fortune gives us an opportunity, Haass says. To seize it, we must avoid “wars of choice and wholesale efforts to remake societies like the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the surge in Afghanistan in 2009.” We could use the pause to “restore the foundations of American power” — for example, by repairing a health care system that spends nearly twice as much as other industrialized nations per citizen, and rebuilding public education, where we spend more per student than most other wealthy countries.

There is another reason to “take a breather” from foreign interventions. We need to think through the data collection issues exposed by Edward Snowden’s disclosures. Obama contends that we need this debate, but who thinks we would be having it if Snowden hadn’t spilled the beans on the NSA? He is the Daniel Berrigan of the Obama era.

What we desperately need is a thorough airing of this data-gathering, conducted in a spirit of profound skepticism. Who is on this Foreign Intelligence Surveillance “court”? What do they do? Is anyone at this “court” responsible to present the argument against a claim of necessity to analyze this data? And what did Congress (its intelligence committees and other members) know about this program, and why have they not shared what they know with the country? Is that not the function of Congress? And where is the loyal opposition?

Have members traded their obligation to exercise checks and balances for a chance to play statesman?

It is indeed time to take a breather and to renew our constitutional liberties.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at


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