Conservative Incoherence Over Syria

Too often the complexity of foreign policy gets portrayed as a simplistic, dualist choice between definitive military force and committed nonintervention. Either you’re a Donald Rumsfeld or a Ron Paul. But the real options of foreign policy decision-making are both numerous and nuanced, with both short-term and long-term options and concerns.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton attends the Second Conference of the Group of Friends of the Syrian People at the Istanbul Congress Center in Istanbul, Turkey, April 1, 2012. Despite its continuing support for the Syrian opposition parties, the Obama administration is facing unintelligible criticisms from conservatives for alleged “inaction” on the issue. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

And yet, as concerns the turmoil in Syria, the only two options that seem to be bandying about among conservative thinkers are just those two simplified options—as the neoconservative wing argues for decisive military action, the realists and the noninterventionists call for the U.S. to follow a “hands-off” approach.

Not surprisingly, both of these conservative approaches can be seen in the incoherent platform of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney who calls for caution and prudence in regards to Syria while simultaneously criticizing President Obama for taking a weak stance. Although apparently against any type of unilateral or multilateral military intervention, Romney supports the United States start arming and training the rebels through third parties (rather than directly). This would be an interesting criticism if not for the fact that the Obama administration is already doing just that.

Yet even more hysterical and nonsensical, remains the position of hardcore neoconservatives such as former UN ambassador John Bolton. While beginning a recent article on the topic apparently wary of any military invasion, Bolton quickly moves into Yosemite Sam mode with calls for a more abrasive stance towards the nations who sponsor the Assad regime including: dissolving the START Treaty, pursuing missile defense initiatives, spurn negotiations with Russia and China over alleviating a potential “arms race” in space and (perhaps the most crazy suggestion of them all) be prepared to immediately militarily strike Iran if it does not cease its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But perhaps Bolton’s most delusional statement comes when he suggests that the situation for regime change was riper for success immediately after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Has this man learned nothing from the chaos of the Iraq invasion?

Like Romney, Bolton suggests the U.S. also seek out secular, liberal leaders among the Syrian opposition to support, which, as stated before, the Obama administration is already doing (although Bolton for some reason doubts these claims).

But in response to the rebel support strategy conservative realists and noninterventionists do bring up a valid response: how realistically is the United States to prevent the weapons from falling into the arms of the numerous Islamists who are a key part of the Syrian opposition? Would we not end up simply arming Sunni extremists against Alawi/Shia extremists? Supporting the Saudi theocracy over the Iranian theocracy? These are valid questions.

Yet all this talk amongst the conservative world seems to miss what should be a key concern about Syria for progressives and those of the Left—what is the fate of the average Syrian and how can we best help make their lives better in the long run? This is a much harder question to answer than that of regime change. It’s clear that the Assad regime will eventually fall. It’s time is up sooner or later. But what will follow? And how can we make the post-Assad Syria a stable, more liberal state rather than an anarchic or theocratic society? This really should be our main concern: using U.S. soft power to broker stable relations amongst Syria’s diverse populace, build receptive and strong institutions, and support secular, progressive leaders (both military and nonmilitary figures), just to name a few suggestions.

Of course, ideally the U.S. should not be the only one supporting a brighter future for Syria. As Niall Ferguson writes, really China should be taking a leading role in all this. But “should” is often a meaningless word when it comes to suggesting foreign policy for other states. Indeed, China should take lead role in helping ending the conflict in Syria. But following that logic, just as well the Syrian government should cease its massacring of civilians, realize the futility of trying to remain in power and broker a peace deal. But realistically, “should” does not always translate into “will.”