As you contemplate the ongoing violence in Syria, here are the three things to keep in mind.
First, the United States undoubtedly possesses the wherewithal to topple the regime of Bashar Assad. On this score, the hawks are surely right. Whether acting alone, with allies, or through proxies, Washington over the past decade or so has demonstrated an impressive capacity to overthrow governments. Skeptical? Consider the fate of various evil-doers on whom we trained our gun-sights in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
Second, once Washington has removed Assad as it did Saddam Hussein, the likelihood of the United States being able to put things right — creating a “new” Syria that is stable, humane, and grateful for American assistance — is approximately nil. Here the evidence supports the doves. Skeptical? Again, consider the course of events in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya once the evil-doers departed the scene.
These two points define the poles around which the policy debate in Washington incessantly revolves. In one camp are those who are fired by humanitarian concerns or persuaded that Assad threatens US (or Israeli) security. They are keen to put American muscle once more to work, and chastise President Obama for his reluctance to act. In the second camp are those wary of the United States once again stumbling into a quagmire. They commend Obama for (thus far) exercising restraint, fearing that American meddling will create more problems than it will solve.
This debate overlooks the third point, which obviates the first two: Whatever Obama does or doesn’t do about Syria won’t affect the larger trajectory of events. Except to Syrians, the fate of Syria per se doesn’t matter any more than the fate of Latvia or Laos. The context within which the upheaval there is occurring — what preceded it and what it portends — matters a great deal. Yet on this score, Washington is manifestly clueless and powerless.
History possesses a remarkable capacity to confound. Right when the path ahead appears clear — remember when the end of the Cold War seemed to herald a new age of harmony? — it makes a U-turn. The Syrian civil war provides only the latest indication that one such radical reversal is occurring before our very eyes. For Syria bears further witness to the ongoing disintegration of the modern Middle East and the reemergence of an assertive Islamic world, a development likely to define the 21st century.
Recall that the modern Middle East is a relatively recent creation. It emerged from the wreckage of World War I, the handiwork of cynical and devious European imperialists. As European (and especially British) power declined after World War II, the United States, playing the role of willing patsy, assumed responsibility for propping up this misbegotten product of European venality — a dubious inheritance, if there ever was one.
Now it’s all coming undone. Today, from the Maghreb to Pakistan, the order created by the West to serve Western interests is succumbing to an assault mounted from within. Who are the assailants? People intent on exercising that right to self-determination that President Woodrow Wilson bequeathed to the world nearly 100 years ago. What these multitudes are seeking remains to be seen. But they don’t want and won’t countenance outside interference.
Anyone fancying that the United States can forestall this quest for self-determination should think again. Anyone who thinks Washington can bend the process to suit our own purposes needs to undertake a remedial study of the Iraq War.
Americans have long entertained the conceit that we are bigger than history. We provide the drumbeat to which others march. Sorry: Not so.
By way of comparison, think of those stories about the sea encroaching on some Nantucket or Plum Island home. Those immediately affected might delude themselves into thinking that a bit of sand replenishment will save the day. Grown-ups know better. Ultimately, the winds and tides, reinforced of late by climate change, will have their way.
So too with the Greater Middle East. Pressure on Obama to “do something” about Syria continues to mount. Perhaps he’ll refuse. I hope so. Or perhaps he’ll cave, with Syria becoming yet another active theater in what has become America’s endless War To Be Named Later. One thing is certain: US intervention in Syria won’t affect the tsunami of change that is engulfing the Islamic world.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.