A Folly We Are Determined to Commit

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 3, 2013

I am pleased that President Obama has decided to seek congressional approval prior to using military force in Syria. One does not know whether the president will go ahead and use force in Syria even if Congress disapproves, but at the very least, if he does so, he should be all alone in the endeavor.

Unfortunately, it would appear that some in the Republican leadership have decided not to leave the president alone. Both Eric Cantor and John Boehner have decided to give the president’s Syria adventure their backing, and presumably, they will help the White House round up votes for a military mission that won’t change a thing on the ground, that Assad knows he can ride out (because we have shouted from the rooftops that it will be limited in scope), and that is being embarked upon primarily in order to make us feel like we have tried to do something in order to stop the bloodshed in Syria. I am glad that Mitch McConnell remains skeptical–though I fear that at some point, even his skepticism will give way to what may at the very least be a reluctant endorsement–but the congressional Republican leadership failed to uniformly disapprove of what is very likely to be a military/foreign policy misadventure, one with only one ally–France–and not “dozens” of them. George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” was much more coalesced, much more willing, and certainly larger than Barack Obama’s is.

Just as much of the congressional Republican leadership deserves to be taken to task for its decision to endorse the Syria misadventure, much of the center-right punditocracy class deserves a trip to the woodshed as well. Jennifer Rubin seems to think that people who recognize that the United States has no strategic interest in intervening in Syria are “isolationists.” This is entirely silly. Refusing to enter the Syrian civil war has nothing whatsoever to do with telling Bashar Assad to kill as many people as he wants. It has nothing to do with telling other dictators that they can feel free to use chemical weapons as well. Rather, it has to do with the fact that the United States has no strategic interest in entering the Syrian civil war and that it has no good way in which to bring about a positive change in Syria without possibly putting boots on the ground. And as that is the case, it is futile to waste time, materiel, and possibly lives in bombing the Syrian regime and its facilities for two or three days–and no more, as we have repeatedly reminded Assad–just so that we can pat ourselves on the back and claim that “we’re not isolationists.” Incidentally, last I saw, many of the people opposing the Syria misadventure are perfectly content to remain in NATO, like engage in an international liberalized trade regime, and would have been willing to continue to engage militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq, where we actually do have national security interests at stake. I count myself among that group. Am I and are people like me still “isolationists”?

Bret Stephens–whose writing I normally like–also sounds the alarm about “isolationists,” or “Robert Taft Republicans,” though at least he is kind enough to admit that not all Republicans who oppose intervention in Syria are “isolationists.” Still, the use of “Robert Taft Republicans” is silly, because it suggests a facile comparison between people who see no reason whatsoever to engage militarily in Syria, and Republicans of decades past who opposed intervening in World War II, engaging in NATO, and launching the Marshall Plan. The Stephensian argument appears to be as follows:

If (a), then (b) and (c)

where (a) is “opposing intervention in Syria,” (b) is “opposing entry into World War II,” and (c) is “opposing participation in NATO and the Marshall Plan.” No one really has to make the argument that just because one adopts (a), one automatically becomes the intellectual descendant of those who adopted (b) and (c) back in the day, right? No one really has to make the argument that just because one adopts (a), one would have adopted (b) and (c) if one could travel back in time, do we? Because if time really does have to be taken to make that argument to the masses and to reject Bret Stephens’s faulty logic, then I despair for humanity.

It’s bad enough that we appear to be committing to a military mission that will be useless at best, and will set back our tactical and strategic objectives at worst. It is even worse that we are doing it with transparently bad logic and bad arguments as our justification.

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