Politics & Policy

The Bad-Good Idea of Removing Assad

Bashar Assad in 2012
The advantages may not merit action.

Who could not despise the tottering Bashar Assad dictatorship?

The Syrian strongman has killed some 10,000 protesters over the last year; thousands of Syrians are now refugees.

The autocracy arms and aids the terrorist organization Hezbollah. It targets democratic Israel with thousands of missiles and still does its best to ruin neighboring Lebanon.

Theocratic and terrorist-sponsoring Iran has few allies — but Syria remains its staunchest. Almost no other country over the last half-century has proved more hostile to the United States than has Syria.

With sanctions not working, and with the Chinese, Iranians, and Russians not eager to see Assad go, there is lots of talk that the United States and its allies must intervene to help the outmanned and outgunned Syrian opposition — with either arms supplies, training for insurgent groups, or air cover.

#ad#At first glance, such a humanitarian intervention seems a good idea. A well-armed insurgency might fight its way to Damascus. Or we could bomb Assad out of power the way we did Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, or Moammar Qaddafi in Libya — and without the use of ground troops or loss of American life.

Would not the spread of the Arab Spring to Damascus be wonderful — especially given that it would weaken Iran and Shiite terrorist groups that have long killed Americans? Would not fewer die from collateral damage than in future attacks by Assad’s thugs?

But intervention, even if by air or through stealthy military assistance, requires some sort of strategy, and right now the United States does not seem to have any coherent one. We expected that post-Qaddafi Libya, and an Egypt without Hosni Mubarak, would be far better. They might be some day. But right now, emerging Islamic republics are hardly democratic. Some seem every bit as anti-American as were the dictatorships they replaced — and they could be even more intolerant of women, tribal minorities, and Christians. 

The point is not that we should support only idealists who promise an Arab version of Santa Monica, but that we do not oust one monster whom we are not responsible for only to empower one just as bad whom we would be responsible for. 

Our last three interventions in the Middle East offer all sorts of different lessons, but one common theme predominates: Those whom we wished to help didn’t seem to appreciate it. In Afghanistan, after a decade-long investment of blood and treasure, America is scheduled to withdraw in two years without any guarantee that Afghanistan won’t be ruled by the Taliban, as it was in 2001. Our biggest problem seems to be our Afghan friends, who keep rioting and blowing up their American partners.

We successfully removed Saddam Hussein from Iraq. And by nobly staying on with thousands of troops, we defeated an insurgency and finally birthed a constitutional system in Iraq that is still viable — but at a cost that the American public felt was not worth the eventual outcome.

In Libya, the model was to boast of United Nations approval, insert no ground troops, bomb Qaddafi, and support the insurgents. But because we far exceeded the very U.N. resolution we bragged about, we are not likely to get another such resolution for Syria. A bypassed Congress won’t want to be snubbed again in favor of the U.N. And so far the Libyan air campaign has reminded us that if we do not send in ground troops and risk casualties, we have absolutely no influence on what follows.

Since we went into Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States government has borrowed more than $9 trillion, and it is currently running serial $1 trillion deficits. We no longer pay for our wars, but instead we borrow the money from the Chinese and others who calculate how to profit better than we from the ensuing chaos. 

After lots of interventions, we have learned one thing about loud Arab reformers, especially those who were educated at Western universities: They damn us for supporting their dictators; they damn us for removing them; they damn us for interfering in their affairs when we help promote democracy; and they damn us as callous when we just let them be.

These cautionary tales do not necessarily mean that we should not help the Syrian dissidents, only that we must ask ourselves: Who exactly are these guys, how much will it cost to see them win, and when it is over, will our new friends rule any more humanely and competently than the monsters that we removed?

And one final consideration: If intervening in Syria is to be a humanitarian venture, why would saving lives there be any more important than saving far more lives from far more dictators in Africa?

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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