As the horrific carnage in Syria continues, a depressingly familiar chorus is rising from Washington. The new consensus is the same as it was in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan: Bombing isn’t working, so let’s bomb more. A familiar coalition — generals, defense contractors, and politicians, along with think tanks and much of the press — is demanding escalation of our military campaign in Syria. There may be a limit to how many unwinnable wars the United States wants to wage in the Middle East, but it evidently has not yet been reached.
Refusing to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria is nothing new for the Obama administration. In 2012, the United Nations and the Arab League launched a peace process and named former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to direct it. Annan’s first proposal was that all parties to the conflict meet for discussions. The United States flatly refused. Our policy then was to reject all contact with the Syrian government or any faction that did not announce in advance that it supported the overthrow of President Bashar Assad. Making that political point was considered more important than stopping the killing. Annan recognized that the US position doomed his mission, so he abandoned it. If the United States had placed peace ahead of misguided principle in 2012, much of Syria’s agony might have been avoided.
This callous disregard for the destruction of a nation and the suffering of its people has remained central to US policy toward Syria. Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state delivered the message to Annan that the United States would not join his peace effort, is among those calling for escalation. In one of her e-mails as secretary of state, Clinton asserted that deposing Assad would be “a massive boon to Israel’s security” and that “only the threat or use of force will change the dictator Bashar Assad’s mind.” She wants to impose a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, which could lead to the shooting down of Russian planes — a prospect that has some in Washington salivating. General Martin Dempsey, until recently the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has estimated that establishing and protecting this no-fly zone would require the deployment of up to 70,000 troops.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has gone so far as to suggest using NATO forces to invade Syria. That might be expected from the man who runs the Pentagon, but he is hardly alone. Last month, 51 State Department employees signed a letter calling for a more militarily assertive US role in Syria. The specter of professional diplomats pushing for war over diplomacy is further proof, if any is needed, of the Pentagon’s absolute triumph over the State Department in setting American security policy. It also suggests that these diplomats can read the political winds and have concluded that embracing militarism would help their careers in a new Clinton administration.
The woman widely expected to become Clinton’s secretary of defense, Michèle Flournoy, has called for “limited military coercion” in Syria, and said that up to now, “military dimensions of the strategy have been under-resourced.” She said she opposes negotiation because conditions on the battlefield “do not support the kind of negotiating conditions we would like to get to.” This is correct. Any solution we might negotiate now would have to take into account the interests of Iran, Russia, and the Assad government. It is the same reasoning that led us to reject diplomacy four years ago: Better to keep the war going, and even escalate it, than concede anything to forces we consider hostile.
An escalation of the US military campaign in Syria would certainly lead other outside powers to respond with escalation of their own. It could also produce more self-radicalized Americans ready to launch terror attacks inside the United States. Yet rather than seeking to calm the Syrian crisis, we seem determined to intensify it — and may well do so after a new president takes office in January.
This not only condemns Syrians to more suffering. It also undermines American security interests. Making political concessions would not weaken us nearly as much as the full collapse of Syria. That would create a failed state, at least part of which would be ruled by Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, and a new haven for terrorists. Deposing a dictator we don’t like may feel good for a short while. As the people of Iraq or Libya can attest, however, it is often followed by military, political, social, economic, and ecological catastrophe.
Thinly disguised calls for war are a standard part of American political campaigns. Democrats, eager to avoid being considered weak, are especially quick to promise bombing campaigns, no-fly zones, and other forms of escalation. Yet our national interest would be served by the kind of negotiations over Syria that we have up to now refused to accept. It is mind-boggling that despite the stark lessons of the last decade, prominent Americans want to plunge into another war in another Muslim country. The diplomatic option may be unpalatable to some, but more years of war in Syria would be far worse.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.