Syria and the Scope of the “National Interest”

Last week, the Obama administration announced that it would be sending a small number of Special Operations forces to Syria. These troops will “work with resistance forces battling the Islamic State in northern Syria but will not engage in direct combat.” The deployment is open-ended and will be accompanied by the movement of attack planes and fighter jets to Turkey to support ground operations in Syria.  (Why we’re sending the fighters is unclear—are we worried about Russian planes? The Islamic State certainly won’t be launching its own fighters anytime soon.)

Sigh. This is a terrible idea and it makes Obama look somewhat ridiculous after having promised at least 8 times not to send ground troops to Syria. I wish I could say that this move surprised me.  I had been hoping that we would have the good sense to avoid further escalation in Syria, but that would have required a degree of coherence and prudence on foreign policy from an administration that has demonstrated itself to be incapable of such behavior.

This strategy will not work. First of all, who will these troops even advise? We have already discussed the abysmal failure of the plan to train rebel forces. The United States has claimed that we don’t like Assad’s regime, and we don’t like IS and al-Qaeda affiliates for obvious reasons, so that leaves…who, exactly? Do we really think the Kurds could win this fight and successfully govern Syria when the smoke clears?

Second, and more importantly: sending 50 advisers will have no real impact on anything that happens in Syria, except for possibly prolonging the fighting.  There is a nasty sectarian conflict unfolding on the ground over who will govern Syria, and we are not going to resolve that conflict by sending 50 advisers and a few aircraft. Remember how well our plans for Iraq went? Even after spending hundreds of billions of dollars, deploying more than one hundred thousand troops, and sacrificing the lives of thousands of Americans, Iraq remains the most dangerous country in the world for civilians. (In case you’re wondering, Syria, Gaza, Nigeria and Pakistan make up the rest of the top 5.)

But sure, send 50 advisers—what’s the worst that could happen? The worst that could happen is that this opens the door for additional commitments in Syria without having any positive impact on the fighting (and possibly making it worse). At this point, the best-case scenario is that the advisers have no impact on the fighting and come home after a few months, having achieved…a political victory for Obama? That seems unlikely, given that both Democrats and Republicans are criticizing this strategy.  I’m not sure what the Obama administration hopes to gain from this.

What this policy does highlight, however, is the extent to which our conception of the “national interest” and what it includes has become so bloated as to be essentially meaningless. Why does it matter to the United States who governs Syria? Why have we now defined the United States’ national interest as essentially “anything that happens anywhere?” We have become so caught up in our self-image as the world’s liberal policeman and the world’s greatest military power that we now seem to believe that we can and should dictate the outcome of any fight anywhere in the world. Our experiences in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan demonstrate that our ability to control events in other countries is much, much more limited than we would like to believe, and yet we continue to insert ourselves into these fights (while promising that our efforts will be limited) and we continue to delude ourselves into thinking that leaving a few thousand troops on the ground in Afghanistan will result in a lasting and democratic peace there.

“But what about the people who are suffering in Syria?” you say. “Isn’t it in our interest to help them?” I hate to break it to you, but there are people suffering at the hands of their own governments or as the result of domestic unrest all over the world. The fact that this is true does not mean that it is the responsibility of the United States to fix those problems, and intervening with such limited force as we are using in Syria can often have the unintended effect of prolonging the fighting, i.e., increasing net suffering. It is the responsibility of the United States government and the U.S. military to protect the United States and its citizens.  There are plenty of people suffering here in the United States, and I would rather spend our resources on them than on another limited intervention in the Middle East that will at best have no impact on total human suffering in Syria and at worst drag us into another bloody and costly quagmire.