Imperialism Is Not Just An American Game

“Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must…knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do,” state the Athenians in Thucydides famous Melian Dialogue section of his History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides recognized that where some powerful states refused to intervene, others would take up their place. Such is the case in Syria where foreign powers besides the United States continue to impose themselves in the country's increasingly sectarian civil war.

Thucydides recognized that where some powerful states refused to intervene, others would take up their place. Such is the case in Syria where foreign powers besides the United States continue to impose themselves in the country’s increasingly sectarian civil war.

As the Athenians explained, in most cases, the strong dominate the weak, and where one strong actor does not act another will. This rule still applies today, especially in the global arena.

And those who argue that the United States should stay out of the Syrian civil war because the conflict is best left to Syrians should take this rule into account. For, the absence of U.S. intervention and/or influence rarely results in the simplicity of local actors solving their disputes free from outside, imperial influence.

Currently numerous foreign actors interfere on multiple sides of Syria’s civil war. The Assad regime receives support from Russia, Iran, and the Shia power’s Lebanese non-state proxy, Hezbollah. On the other side, the eclectic rebels – a mix of Islamists, secularists, Syrian nationalists, and Kurdish autonomists – receive varying levels of support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and various foreign jihadis who are either from organizations or fighting for individual ideological aspirations.

Yet, the regionalization of the Syrian conflict is not simply a case of imperialist acts upon the country. The conflict also affects events and conflict in neighboring states, such as Lebanon and Iraq.

All of this is happening and will continue to happen whether the United States gets more involved in the conflict or not.

Such is the case with numerous other conflicts in the region. As the late Christopher Hitchens argued, even if the United States did not invade Iraq in 2003, the state would have eventually fallen into chaos following Saddam Hussein’s demise, leading to foreign interference in the diverse state by neighboring Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and various jihadi organizations and individuals. These actors became involved in the domestic affairs of Iraq following the U.S. invasion and continue to do so, to varying extents, following the U.S. departure.

In Afghanistan, the Pakistani government and Pakistani nonstate actors will continue to act upon the region once the United States leaves – as will Iran, India, and China.

Even conflicts such as genocide, where the refrain is often that “the world failed to act,” involved foreign interference to some extent. In Rwanda, the 1994 genocide and the civil war that surrounded it involved elements of French imperialism, Zairean influence, and Ugandan assistance in its escalation and resolution. In Darfur, during the early- to mid-2000s, the genocide, which was a microcosm of a greater Sudanese conflict, was both augmented and attenuated by outside actors, such as Uganda, Chad, China, and various nonstate actors.

Even the American Revolution involved outside interference. Arguably, the colonists could not have succeeded against the British Empire without the assistance of the French and Spanish.

Almost no conflict is perfectly local. Outside actors will always be motivated to interfere when they see their interests at stake. The absence of U.S. interference will not prevent other imperialisms or foreign influence from seeping into local conflicts. Thus, the argument that the United States must stay out of all foreign conflicts for respect for local autonomy is an ill-conceived one.

This does not mean, however, that the United States should get involved in every conflict – nor that it should get involved in the current Syrian one. There are other, numerous good reasons why the United States should not get too deeply involved in the Syrian civil war – ranging from pure national interest considerations to humanitarian repercussions.

Perhaps a stronger anti-intervention argument is the question of whether U.S. assistance to Syrian rebels would hurt the legitimacy of these domestic forces in the eyes of factions necessary to building a future Syrian state. Whereas Libya’s rebellion was widespread amongst most tribes and sectarian divisions, with a small percentage of the population supporting Muammar Gaddafi’s reign (which was mainly sustained through the violence of foreign mercenaries), important swathes of Syrian society (such as Alawites and Christians) still either support the Assad regime or fear the sectarian nature of its possible usurpers.

To relate this argument to U.S. history, we should ask ourselves: would the Union victory have been more or less legitimate in the eyes of the entire American population had the British intervened to help defeat the Confederate secessionists?