Many different arguments about attacking Syria are underway among media voices and policymakers. One unfortunate result of the Obama administration’s wavering is that it has served to conflate various strands of the pro-intervention position. What we’re left with is an unintelligible mush that can be hard to defend. The moment one makes a case regarding interests they are mocked on grounds of ideals. Defending intervention in terms of ideals guarantees an objection regarding precedents, and so on. It is, therefore, useful to untangle the different aspects of the case for action. There are three levels to the pro-intervention argument.
1. What we want out of the Syrian situation. The United States wants Bashar al-Assad out and wants the moderates among the rebels to shape the post-Assad future. This would be good for the Syrian people and bad for the radicals. It would also remove Iran’s biggest ally, put Vladimir Putin back in his place, and give the U.S. some degree of influence in a post-Assad Syria (and, however minimally, in the region).
If you think not acting is good, look at what inaction has done so far: It’s allowed for more than 100,000 dead; the repeated use of chemical weapons; and the strengthening of Assad, and thus of Iran and Russia as rising powers who oppose an American-led global order. Perhaps worst of all, American inaction has reinforced the idea for thousands of Syrians (and Arabs and Muslims generally) that they should not look to America for help when fighting off tyrants. Even if one is not sentimental about such things, this is hugely problematic because it has driven these thousands into the arms of Islamist radicals they increasingly see as the only hope for support in fights of liberation. If this is the wisdom of restraint, we’ve become wise beyond comprehension.
2. What kind of world we want to live in. The abolition of all dangerous tyrants and oppressive regimes is, of course, a silly dream. But the idea of moving toward a world with fewer and fewer of them is completely possible. In fact, it’s been happening ever since the U.S. took the lead in ensuring global security after WWII. The world is a freer place than it was and this is not only good in the moral sense. It is also good because free countries are less likely to go to war with one another and more likely to trade with one another.
The problem is this doesn’t happen on its own. Peace doesn’t keep itself, as some have put it. Although there are many downsides to America’s policing the world, a) the benefit of a more peaceful order is invaluable and b) the U.S. is the only country that can do it. Without American intervention, imperfect as it is, for humanitarian (and pragmatic) reasons, a power vacuum emerges and the global order spirals out of control. That’s how we got into the current crisis to begin with. Many of the sinister developments mentioned in the first point might have been prevented or curbed if we had spent the last five years continuing to act as the strong and self-assured defender of a (relatively) free and peaceful global order. Staying away creates chaos. This very chaos, if left to grow, will manifest on a larger scale and ultimately cause us great harm—even, perhaps, on our own soil. Rising bad actors like to challenge America to affirm that their rise is real, official, and inevitable.
3. What kind of America we want to be. Many who believe in intervention in Syria want us to take the assertion of our founding documents seriously—particularly the points about all men being free. The United States is unique in world history: it is a country founded on the idea of God-given personal liberty. It hasn’t always honored this idea in managing its foreign affairs, but past infractions only obligate us even more to do the right thing when we can. If we believe that the God-given right to freedom is universal, and if we alone can defend that right around the world, then we must do so. All over Europe, love of country is based on a simple affection for one’s own kind. That type of nativism is the norm in Asia and Africa. Americans are different. We love our country because we love the idea it was founded on and love the perpetuation of that idea. If the United States decides that it’s too risky to defend freedom around the world we will have fundamentally changed the understanding of what our nation is. We will be, as Marco Rubio once put it, just another big country.
These are good reasons for wanting to intervene in Syria. The question is: are they President Obama’s reasons? Despite some fine speeches from John Kerry, it doesn’t seem so. It is widely assumed Obama is looking to make good on his “red line” with minimal sacrifice. But what the administration sees as restrained and measured is, paradoxically, provocative. Obama’s preference for a less ambitious American campaign in Syria is more likely to foment long-term unrest than if he called for decisive action against Assad. But the latter would mean embracing American power as a force for good in an unfriendly world; that’s not likely. The president’s inability to make a strong case for intervention in Syria, however, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.