RUBIN: A responsible debate on Syria

Listening to some of the political discourse about whether the United States should “intervene” in Syria, I wonder if neoconservatives have learned from the mistakes of the invasion of Iraq.

While Iraq in 2003 was a fundamentally different foreign policy dilemma than Syria is today, the neoconservative approach to these and other complex challenges seems to be unchanged. Leaders like Sen. John McCain continue to bluster about military intervention overseas without mentioning the associated costs to the American people. They mock coordination with our allies and partners as “leading from behind.” And they pine for fiscal responsibility even as they refuse to entertain any trimming of the defense budget.

These sentiments do a disservice to our national debate on foreign policy and, specifically, on American involvement in humanitarian crises overseas. Today’s debates seem to revolve solely around the question of when we should intervene in crises overseas. But just as important as when we should intervene is how we should intervene.

In Syria, foreign policy hawks consistently promote the false dichotomy between doing nothing and military intervention. In fact, the Obama administration is currently providing humanitarian assistance and communications equipment to select elements of the Syrian opposition, and has been working both unilaterally and within the United Nations to pressure the Assad regime through diplomacy and economic sanctions. (Not to mention covert intelligence-gathering taking place in the region.)

Have these actions achieved their desired effect? Clearly not. The Assad regime is still in power, and the bloodshed continues. Does that mean arming the rebels would achieve the desired result? Not necessarily.

Let’s take two very real contingencies that could result from flooding arms into Syria too hastily, before we have credible information on the various factions within the Syrian opposition. First, U.S.-supplied arms could be intercepted by al-Qaida and used against Americans and our interests in the region. Second, the same surface-to-air missiles intended to shoot down Syrian military jets might instead be used to shoot down Turkish or Israeli airliners.

These are risks that may eventually be outweighed by the potential benefits of arming the rebels, but they are still possibilities that should be publicly considered before, not after, the decision to arm the rebels is made. It is alarming that proponents of this type of intervention seem eager to avoid this public debate.

Moreover, for neoconservatives, the military seems to be the only element of U.S. foreign policy worth considering. But diplomacy and development are also key pillars of American power. We know from history — and certainly from the Iraq War — that American leadership and the success of our efforts overseas stem from the investments we make and the emphasis we place on the intelligence community, State Department, USAID and our international partnerships. Using the military should be our last resort.

As we consider next steps in Syria, we must avoid falling into the same intervene-now-figure-it-out-later mentality that led us into Iraq. Our politicians cannot simply demand more American involvement without explaining why or how this would further U.S. interests. Clamoring for American leadership does not make much sense if it leads us into the middle of a civil war. Calling opponents of arming the rebels in Syria “weak” doesn’t explain why that type of intervention would be effective in the first place.

No one is satisfied with the status quo in Syria, but we must still evaluate whether our policy options would improve or exacerbate the situation.

Instead of devolving into a political debate over who is “strong” and who is “weak” on national security issues, our discourse should instead revolve around whose approach is responsible. It should address whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and whether we have done all we can do to reduce uncertainty and the risk of failure. In the case of Syria, that’s a debate that is still yet to be had. It’s a debate that some would rather avoid.

Josh Rubin is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at joshua.a.rubin@yale.edu .

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