The U.S. Has Done Enough to Syria
“You break it, you bought it.”
Colin Powell’s apocryphal “Pottery Barn Rule” — which was coined by neither Powell nor Pottery Barn — is still a decent warning to presidents who would engage in foreign adventures. It should be kept in mind as the U.S. again considers a larger role in the civil war in Syria.
As with most of the world’s current and recent conflicts, the roots can be traced back to the global conflagration that ended one century ago. After the First World War, arrogant Europeans with little regard for regional histories and ethnic divisions scribbled lines on maps, creating ersatz new nations that could only be held together by strongmen.
Sixteen years ago, George W. Bush’s ill-advised invasion of Iraq tore a fragile region apart. Like most bad foreign policy, it was based in both hubris and idealism. Bush’s advisers believed they could remake the Middle East by force, and that the spirit of liberal democracy would do the rest.
The Iraq intervention was at least ostensibly related to the larger war against Islamist terrorism. But the concept of idealism-by-force is nothing new for the United States. Bush’s predecessor intervened in the Balkans conflict, ignoring international law by targeting state sovereignty. Bush’s father sent forces to Somalia on a humanitarian mission that resulted in little but the bloody Battle of Mogadishu.
President Obama inherited the wreckage of Bush the Younger’s foreign policy, setting in place a sensible drawdown from Iraq. But Obama’s foreign policy was largely emotional and reactive, and when the Arab Spring came into sudden bloom, he chose to intervene in Libya, despite any immediate U.S. strategic interest or threat.
Thus, well-intentioned interventions by two successive U.S. administrations gave the world the Syrian civil war. Bush’s removal of the thuggish Saddam Hussein left an anarchic state of 35 million to be fought over by factions; Obama’s eventual impatience led him to rush the U.S. exit, clearing the way for the emergence of ISIS. Later, Obama’s Libya intervention inspired rebels to rise up against Bashar al-Assad, confident that the U.S. would do for Syria what it had done for Libya. Instead, Syrians got ever-shifting red lines and the siege of Aleppo.
The U.S. now arguably has a moral responsibility to Syria — we broke it, so we have to buy it. It is hard enough watching the images of suffering without facing up to the fact that America is at least somewhat culpable. However, we cannot change the course of events in Syria with occasional bombing strikes. As the Iraq war proved, we cannot even remake a nation with a full-blown invasion.
The sunk cost fallacy is at play here. We are already somewhat committed to the region, this reasoning goes, so we must see it through. But it was bad policy that created the situation, and more bad policy cannot undo it. The notion that the United States can stop the world’s suffering by dropping bombs — and the further conviction that the U.S. has a moral obligation to do so — is nothing more than a modern take on the White Man’s Burden.
The world does have a role to play in alleviating suffering in any of its component states. But it is the world’s duty, not that of any one power, charging into places it knows nothing about. America has done enough damage in the Middle East in the 21st century. It is time to holster our missiles and support international efforts at resolution.