The Burden of Proof on Syria

I haven’t written a lot about Syria in a good while, in part because I keep having these heretical thoughts about how wise it might be to avoid taking both sides in what amounts to a regional religious war. But I echo this excerpt from a column by foreign policy expert Daniel Drenzer about who ought to bear the burden of proof about proposed American interventions in that very complicated country:

When hawks talk about taking action in Syria, they tend to focus on their desired outcomes: checking Russian and Iranian power, ousting Assad, defeating the Islamic State and ending the slow-motion humanitarian disaster. These are attractive goals that the current administration is not pursuing. Hawks sound very good when they talk about foreign policy outcomes in Syria.

The question is how the foreign policy output of greater military intervention in Syria will achieve those desired outcomes…. There is a strong and bipartisan 21st-century record of U.S. administrations applying military force in the Middle East with the most noble of intentions and then making the extant situation much, much worse. So any hawk who makes the case for more action has to marry that to a detailed argument for why this time would be different. Simply put, why would the foreign policy output of a more aggressive U.S. posture in Syria lead to a better outcome than the status quo?

[Some hawks] counter is that just because the United States has messed this up in the past is not a reason for not trying again. But all else being equal, most Americans and most policymakers probably would prefer a Syrian mess without heavy American investments to one where the United States expends significant blood and treasure for an altogether different Syrian mess.

I don’t have a lot of good things to say about the Obama administration’s Syria policy, but I will say that it possesses one virtue: The president has determined that Syria is not a core American interest and therefore does not warrant greater investments of American resources. It’s a cold, calculating, semi-competent strategy. But it has the virtue of being better than the suggested hawkish alternatives.

I’d say it’s a whole lot better.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.