It is hard to imagine that a book of three hundred pages on affirmative action and associated subjects, pages written…
Rights in America
Ethnic Dilemmas 1964-1982.
by Nathan Glazer.
Harvard University Press. 359 pp. $20.00.
It is hard to imagine that a book of three hundred pages on affirmative action and associated subjects, pages written over eighteen years of fierce and emotional debate on the issue, could be a model of clarity, measured reasoning, and, to use a word of unnatural political appeal nowadays, fairness. Nathan Glazer’s Ethnic Dilemmas 1964-1982, a collection of essays (a number of which first appeared in these pages), is such a book. The achievement is all the more remarkable because Glazer is not neutral on the subject. As between color-blind and color-conscious social policy, he is, as was the civil-rights movement before 1964, for color-blindness. Moreover, in the course of these eighteen years he has seen the cause of civil rights transformed from a struggle for universalized individual rights into a lobby for selective group rights. In what must be for him a major disappointment, color consciousness and group privilege have won victory after victory in the federal bureaucracy, in the courts, in the media, and even in the language: to be for civil rights today is to be for group quotas, or, to cite the euphemism of the 1984 Democratic platform, “goals and timetables,” adherence to which must be “verifiable.” Characteristically, Glazer’s response to these developments is not outrage but genuine puzzlement, which in turn elicits curiosity, and which finally engages his analytic talents. What, he asks, is the meaning of this transformation, and, most important, what are its consequences?
In some measure, it is the emphasis on consequences which accounts for the civil tone and the sense of equilibrium of these writings, an unusual feature in the literature of affirmative action. “I am a sociologist, not a political philosopher or a lawyer,” Glazer writes. “As a political philosopher or a lawyer, I would try to find basic principles of justice that can be defended and argued against all other principles. As a sociologist, I look at the concrete consequences, for concrete societies.” This leads him to judge affirmative action according to a “pragmatic principle”: “What policies to overcome discrimination give us the opportunity to best satisfy all the groups of a multi-ethnic society so they can live in some reasonable degree of harmony?”
Glazer is quite candid in assessing the effects of affirmative action on social harmony. He argues, with common sense on his side and in opposition to radicals who denigrate the achievements of affirmative action, that in the last two decades it has indeed contributed to the improvement in the social condition of blacks, particularly in facilitating entry into the middle class. Yet it is questionable how much quotas accelerated this movement, since there was already rapid improvement between 1964 and the early 1970’s, i.e., before “soft” affirmative action (aggressive recruiting, advertising, etc.) turned into the “affirmative discrimination” (Glazer’s phrase) of quotas.
Now, it is obvious that the existence of permanently depressed minorities, in whose midst class and ethnic differences coincide and reinforce one another, produces despair, alienation, and, ultimately, threats to social harmony. The reality of social mobility, and the hope it engenders among those still immobile, help defuse that threat. The (accurate) percepton among blacks that avenues of opportunity are opening, and indeed are being preferentially opened, fosters a crucial sense of participation and inclusion in the larger society. There is also a more cynical view of the same phenomenon: Marxists have long noted, to their sorrow, that one of the geniuses of capitalism is its ability to recruit the most able among the working class, thus depriving revolution of its natural leadership. In America, this process is known as cooption, and though it tends to be practiced on ethnic, not just class, elites, its social effects are similar.
So much for the benefits. The cost, argues Glazer, is greater: the Balkanization of American society. Once individual rights are made to yield to group rights, and these group rights are accorded only to some, all will scramble for the designation “disadvantaged,” with all its advantages: preferential treatment in government contracting, in admission to professional schools, in employment, promotion, protection from firing, and so forth. The result is not just a nasty system of racial classification, but also profound questions of equity.
The notion of group rights was originally intended for blacks to undo the legacy of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow. Yet as early as 1965 the federal government had extended the idea of special protection to American Indians, “Spanish-Americans,” and “Orientals.” The principle underlying the choice of favored groups had to do with a history of past discrimination resulting (presumably) in present underachievement. Yet “Spanish-Americans” included Americans from Spain and Cuba, neither group a victim of discrimination. “Orientals” included Japanese-Americans—if anything, chronic overachievers. Today, these categories extend to new immigrants from the Philippines and Vietnam who, on their day of arrival, before even acquiring a history in the United States, let alone a history of discrimination, are granted special protection. Not surprisingly, other groups clamor for inclusion, and, if they are deemed racially and ethnically worthy, get it. Indian-Americans (from India), certainly not an economically or socially depressed community, have successfully demanded inclusion as “Asian-Americans” (the correct term in today’s post-Orientalist world).
Glazer’s concern is that such policies set group against group, and, by elevating group rights over individual rights, violate the sense most Americans have of the social compact that ties the country together. The policies breed resentment among those denied these rights, principally the successful (or, as with, say, Polish-Americans, less successful) immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century. Among newer groups, they create bitter, often absurd, competitions of ethnic credential-flashing for a choice classification. And they anger original designees who fear the dilution of affirmative action as it is made to encompass more and more groups. Last year in the District of Columbia, for example, there was vigorous opposition to extending to some Asian-American groups preferential treatment in government contracting.
Glazer’s predictions of Balkanization, made ten or fifteen years ago, no longer seem so speculative in 1984. Consider, for example, that corner of American political life where group quotas have been most enthusiastically embraced: the Democratic party. What was so curious about the 1984 Democratic convention were the frantic attempts of party leaders to “bring the party together”—in the almost total absence (unlike 1968 or 1972) of ideological conflict. In San Francisco there were no war or antiwar factions, no regulars or insurgents, no establishment or counterculture to be reconciled. Even the fight over affirmative action was simply a dispute over whether to say the word “quota”; both sides had accepted the principle. The great fear of the party’s falling apart derived almost exclusively from divisions based on group identification: blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals, Southern whites, women, white ethnics, Jews. Not that coalition politics did not exist in the past. But it is one thing for political parties to broker conflicting interests; it is another to arbitrate claims for official recognition, official protection, and official favor, which are the principal demands of the emerging new groups today. These are constitutional changes in the social compact; to many Americans, indeed to a majority, they are constitutional violations.
Defenders of quotas counter that these are mere temporary measures, that their own ultimate goal is color-blind and group-neutral arrangements in a future that will come into being as soon as the effects of past discrimination have been eradicated. Glazer curtly dismisses their argument. Even if color-blindness truly is the intent of the group-rights advocates, it will not be the effect. It is hopelessly naive to believe that any group will relinquish hard-won special status, and the political and economic power that comes with it. And what kind of evidence for the final eradication of discrimination is a group likely to accept? Glazer’s concern is that the emerging new order is not easily revocable. Once transformed into a confederation of groups, the polity will not easily revert to the traditional American arrangement whereby groups were granted social legitimacy, but not legal and political standing.
In the end, Glazer’s assessment of affirmative action is based not so much on the balance of costs and benefits as on a vision of how a multi-ethnic society should constitute itself. His own preferred vision is perhaps best embodied in the 1964 Civil Rights Act itself: a nation that defines fraternity in the largest sense, encompassing the whole country and endowing all its people with equal and interchangeable citizenship. But he is not dogmatic on the issue. He does not claim that his is the only vision compatible with democracy or justice. He points quite fairly to other democracies, like Canada and Belgium, that accept the confederational idea, and that constitutionally sanction group rights, often at the expense of individual rights. Indeed, this experience is not wholly alien to the United States: American Indians have long been granted special protection and privileges.
But these examples bring us to the rub of the argument. American Indians enjoy—or perhaps, suffer—the official status of a separate nationality, joined to but not merged with American nationality. The confederational idea carries with it the germ of separate citizenship, which inevitably means super-citizenship for some, sub-citizenship for others. We have not yet reached the point of internal passports, stamped with one’s “nationality,” but they lie along this road. Indeed, Canada and Belgium are cautionary examples: they are the Western countries most threatened by Balkanization. Had they the choice, as the United States does now, they might not choose confederation.
For the United States, Glazer is against confederation, because of the consequences. But what of justice? One of the most refreshing parts of this book is its lack of interest in the question. This is not simply because, as Glazer modestly confesses, he is not a political philosopher—he is of course well-acquainted with the arguments on both sides—but because he suspects that abstract claims for and against affirmative action tend to degenerate into the self-serving searches for a theory to justify one side or the other. And while he refuses to dismiss meritocratic arguments completely, à la John Rawls, he prefers to ground his opposition to quotas in their consequences, and not in first principles.
It is, I think, a wise decision. On the one hand, Allan Bakke, to take a celebrated example, was denied admission to the University of California medical school because of his color. Had he been black, he would have been admitted. That is a direct and powerful violation of the notion of justice as fairness. Justice should be blind.
On the other hand, justice makes other demands. One can make a good case that individuals growing up in this country, who enjoy its bountiful endowments, should also share its historical burdens. Allan Bakke, after all, did not spring up full grown at the door of the University of California admissions office. He was the beneficiary of national assets—an educational system, an abundant economy, a free and liberal polity—which helped him achieve what he did, and to which he had contributed nothing. He had also contributed nothing to America’s historical crimes against blacks. But it is hard to see why justice should exempt him from bearing a share of a collective remedy. There is such a thing as historical guilt and resulting collective obligation. Democratic Germany today, for example, has special obligations to the Jewish people (e.g., not to sell arms to Israel’s enemies) and will retain those obligations even after the last Nazi has died. Furthermore, society routinely allocates social costs to blameless individuals, for reasons often of mere expediency, not even justice. In times of high inflation, for example, government will induce a recession, which exacts a disproportionately heavy penalty from the poor and working classes. It does so in the name of a higher necessity—saving the currency—because it knows of no other way to solve the problem. If it weren’t the only way, justice would dictate trying something else.
Given the difficulty of resolving the justice issue, it is a pleasure to encounter a discussion of affirmative action which focuses on the question of whether there is another way (like “soft” affirmative action) and whether the current way (quotas) really works at all—whether it might not destroy the social currency while trying to save it—and which leaves the question of justice to the political philosophers and other metaphysicians.
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Ethnic Dilemmas 1964-1982, by Nathan Glazer
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Smeared for doing the job.
When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump famously declared his intention to be a “neutral” arbiter of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories and put the onus for resolving the conflict on Jerusalem, few observers could have predicted that Trump would run one of the most pro-Israel administrations in American history.
This year, the Trump administration began relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to the nation’s capital city, fulfilling a promise that began in 1995 with the passage of a law mandating this precise course of action. The administration also declined to blame Israel for defending its Gaza border against a Hamas-led attack. Last week, the administration shuttered the PLO’s offices in Washington.
The Trump administration’s commitment to shedding the contradictions and moral equivalencies that have plagued past administrations has exposed anti-Zionism for what its critics so often alleged it to be.
This week, Department of Education Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus announced his intention to vacate an Obama-era decision that dismissed an alleged act of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University. Marcus’s decision to reopen that particularly deserving case has led the New York Times to publish an article by Erica L. Green full of misconceptions, myths, and dissimulations about the nature of the anti-Israel groups in question and the essential characteristics of anti-Semitism itself.
In reporting on Marcus’s move, Green declared the education activist and opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes,” a designation the paper’s editor felt fine printing without any substantiating evidence. You could be forgiven for thinking that BDS itself constituted a cause of “Palestinian rights” and not an international effort to stigmatize and harm both Israel and its supporters. If you kept reading beyond that second paragraph, your suspicions were confirmed.
Green contended that Marcus’s decision has paved the way for the Education Department to adopt a “hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism” that includes: denying Jews “the right to self-determination,” claiming that the state of Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and applying a double standard to Israel not “expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” As Jerusalem Post reporter and COMMENTARY contributor Lahav Harkov observed, this allegedly “hotly contested definition” is precisely the same definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2010, the IHRA’s working definition was adopted almost in total by Barack Obama’s State Department.
Green went so far as to say that this not-so-new definition for anti-Semitism has, according to Arab-American activists, declared “the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.” So that is the Palestinian cause? Denying Jews the right to self-determination, calling the state of Israel itself a racist enterprise, and holding it to nakedly biased double standards? So much for the two-state solution.
Perhaps the biggest tell in the Times piece was its reporters’ inability to distinguish between pro-Palestinian activism and anti-Israeli agitation. The complaint the Education Department is preparing to reinvestigate involves a 2011 incident in which an event hosted by the group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA) allegedly imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israel activists after unexpected numbers arrived to protest the event. An internal email confirmed that the group only charged this fee because “150 Zionists” “just showed up,” but the Obama administration dismissed the claim, saying that the organization’s excuse—that it expected heftier university fees following greater-than-expected attendance—was innocuous enough.
Green did not dwell on the group, which allegedly discriminated against Jews and pro-Israeli activists. If she had, she’d have reported that, just a few weeks before this incident, BAKA staged another event on Rutgers’s campus—a fundraiser for the organization USTOGAZA, which provided aid to the campaign of “flotillas” challenging an Israeli blockade of Gaza. USTOGAZA’s links to the Turkey-based organization Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which has long been associated with support for Hamas-led terrorist activities, rendered the money raised in this event legally suspect. Eventually, as Brooke Goldstein wrote for COMMENTARY, even BAKA conceded the point:
After community members demanded that Rutgers, a state-funded university, hold an investigation before handing over any money to USTOGAZA, the school responded by offering to keep the money raised in an escrow account until a suitable recipient could be found. In June 2011, BAKA sent out an e-mail admitting the University had, after “much deliberation” and despite their initial approval, “decided that they are not willing to release the funds to the US to Gaza effort” due to concerns of being found liable for violating the material-support statutes.
Rutgers prudently limited BAKA’s ability to participate in on-campus events after these incidents, but the organization that took their place—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—is no better. The Times quoted officials with the Center for Law and Justice who praised Marcus’s move and cited SJP as a source of particular consternation, but the reporters did not delve into the group’s activities. If they had, they’d find that the organization’s activities—among them declaring that “Zionists are racists,” supporting anti-Zionist individuals despite credible accusations of child abuse, and endorsing Hamas’s governing platform, which labels the entire state of Israel “occupied territory”—fits any cogent definition of anti-Semitism. This is to say nothing of the abuse and harassment that American Jews experience on college campuses that play host to SJP’s regular “Israel apartheid weeks.”
Some might attribute the Times’ neutral portrayal of groups that tacitly support violence and people like Omar Barghouti—an activist who “will never accept a Jewish state in Palestine” and has explicitly endorsed “armed resistance” against Jews, who he insists are “not a people”—to ignorance, as though that would neutralize the harm this dispatch might cause. But the Times piece has emboldened those who see Israel’s Jewish character as a threat both to its political culture and our own. That worrying sentiment was succinctly expressed by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz: “You don’t have to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause to question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
The benefit of the doubt only extends so far. Even the charitably inclined should have discovered its limits by now.
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A conservative rethinks race and policing.
A week since an off-duty Dallas police officer shot and killed her neighbor in his own home, numerous unanswered questions bedevil investigators. Among them: How and why did the officer, Amber Guyger, end up in a different flat than her own that night? Did she mistake his apartment for hers, as she has claimed, or did she force her way inside, as some eyewitness reports seem to suggest?
More questions: Did the two neighbors know each other? Was there bad blood between them from the past? Or were they like two strange vessels floating in dark waters, the one accidentally ramming the other and sinking it? What really transpired between shooter and victim in that bleak, brief, and irrevocable instant that extinguished the life of Botham Shem Jean—a professional, a stalwart of his church, a black man, a human being?
America’s adversarial system of justice will, I expect, answer most of these questions in due course. But one fact is already inescapable: Even within the four walls of his castle, his home, Jean was not safe from undue police violence. As a CNN observer argued recently, even “living while black” can, well, end black men’s lives. And this should impel those of us on the right to drop the tendency to reflexively rally behind law enforcers in such cases and our corresponding tendency to dismiss claims about racial injustice in our system.
The arguments in favor of these reflexes are well-known to me. I know that day-in, day-out, legions of American law enforcers risk their lives to protect and to serve. That the vast majority of these men and women aren’t power-tripping bigots or trigger-happy lunatics. That, on the contrary, these are well-trained but fallible human beings, whose job requires them to make snap judgments in which life and death are at stake.
I know, too, that street thuggery and “black-on-black crime” are, statistically speaking, the far greater menace to African-American lives than potentially fatal encounters with the police. That often the police officers doing the shootings, whether justly or unjustly, are themselves black or Hispanic. That family members of those unjustly shot by police have many legal means for making themselves whole.
I know that in some of the most notorious cases, the suspects increased the danger to their lives by acting foolishly, defying verbal commands, and so forth. And I know that if officers feel too hamstrung by litigation or public scrutiny, it may actually cause them to become less vigilant in enforcing the law, thereby putting yet more black lives at risk.
All of this is true. I know these arguments through and through, and I have often made them, in these pages and elsewhere. And yet, and yet, there is the inescapable fact that, one night, Botham Shem Jean came to his own apartment, probably seeking a few hours’ shuteye after a long day at work, only to be shot and killed by an off-duty officer with questionable, if not outright malicious, judgment. One minute, Botham Shem Jean was a beloved son, coworker, and church member. The next minute, he was dead. And for what? Who can say?
The typical arguments marshaled in favor of the policing status quo can’t, and shouldn’t, be used to justify or pooh-pooh the raw, awful reality of this violation. Neither procedural safeguards nor statistics about black criminality should deafen us to the cries for substantive justice that ring out from the African-American community when a black man is shot within the four walls of his own home by an intruder with a badge.
Nor should conservatives harden their hearts when African-Americans point to the persistence of a certain racial pattern in these violent encounters. Assuming Guyger’s account is true, for example, did she instantly assume she was facing a “burglar” owing to the color of Jean’s skin? If so, is that evidence that implicit bias exists? We can’t yet be sure. Officer fatigue, bad lighting, a misunderstanding, the coarseness and alienation of American urban life—all of these may have been a factor. All could mitigate or extenuate Guyger’s culpability.
But the point is this: After Botham Shem Jean, conservatives should be a little less quick to insist that we don’t have systemic problems. I know I will.
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The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
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The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.