Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional—in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all.
—President Barack Obama, United Nations, September 24, 2013
A decade ago, during a few exciting weeks in the spring of 2003, United States soldiers and Marines “liberated” Iraq. Americans saw the great yellow and red nighttime explosions of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign and then the columns of tanks storming headlong to Baghdad. Iraqis, their views unconstrained by the imposed inhibitions of American television executives, saw enormous carnage. During the four weeks of the American advance, more than three thousand Iraqi civilians were killed.1 How to grasp this number? An equivalent proportion of the American population would give us 36,000 American civilians killed. (During the decade of the Vietnam War, more than 58,000 US soldiers and Marines died.) Today, a decade after the triumphant fanfare of the American invasion, and two years after the last US troops departed in quiet ignominy, the war rages on: Sunnis and Shias go on killing one another at the rate of nearly a thousand a month. The collective death toll of the war Americans launched likely falls somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 Iraqis, and counting.
To many Americans, Iraq now seems little more than a bad dream, best left unmentioned. Still, as the debate in the United States has turned to “the Syria dilemma” next door—and, more recently, to the US’s obligation to “stand up…for the interests of all” by enforcing President Obama’s declared “red line” against the use of chemical weapons there—the shadow of Iraq falls darkly over the landscape. We see it most prominently in a reluctant American public that has shown itself distinctly unimpressed by the familiar evangelical exceptionalist rhetoric, even when President Obama tried to use it to justify what his secretary of state called an “unbelievably small” military strike on Syria. We see the shadow also in certain basic and ineluctable changes in the politics of the region.
Before the war, Iraq was void of an anti-American Islamic jihadist movement; today Iraq is filled with thousands of motivated Islamic guerrillas, many of them veterans of the Iraqi army the United States dissolved, who have taken up arms not only against the Shia government the US helped put in place but against the regime of Bashar al-Assad across Iraq’s western border. Before the war Iraq served as a rival and geostrategic counter to the Islamic Republic of Iran, for three decades the United States’ main adversary in the Middle East; today “liberated” Iraq is a staunch ally of Iran, the nation that, along with Russia, is now aiding most actively that same Assad government. Together, Iraq’s Shia government and Sunni opposition are fueling both sides of Syria’s civil war, and that civil war, in turn, through a perverse “boomerang effect,” is further destabilizing Iraq—all to the detriment of US interests.
The world may be “better off without Saddam Hussein,” as former officials of the Bush administration never tire of insisting, but it is a stark fact that the war to unseat him, which cost more than $1 trillion and nearly five thousand American lives, has left the United States dramatically worse off in its strategic position in the Middle East.
It is against this background of political and strategic weakness that one must view the surprising series of events that began on August 21 with a chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus. This led in early September to President Obama threatening a military strike on Syria to enforce his self-proclaimed “red line” against the use of these weapons, and ended with the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution, strongly supported by Assad’s Russian sponsors, to rid Syria of them.
Even if all Syria’s weapons and precursor chemicals are eventually removed and destroyed, this lesser strategic goal will have been achieved at the cost of abandoning the greater: removing Bashar al-Assad and his regime from power. Indeed, the agreement would seem to guarantee Assad’s survival, at least in the short-to-medium term. All this emerged from the ruins of the Iraq war: the hesitations and improvisations of a reluctant president who owed his improbable election in large part to his opposition to that war, and now the lingering suspicion and fatigue of the American public, embodied in Congress’s reluctance to grant him the resolution approving the use of force he’d requested.
“In my meetings with American policy makers,” the Israeli ambassador told The New York Times (quoted in the introduction to this excellent collection of essays, The Syria Dilemma), “I often detect a conversation between ghosts. The ghosts of Afghanistan and Iraq are vying with the ghosts of Rwanda and Kosovo.” Those spectral voices dominate the public debate as well. The ghosts of Iraq and Afghanistan intone that wars are easier to start than to finish, that murderous dictators are more often the product of political dysfunction than the cause of it, that it is simpler to destroy an old order with bombs and tanks than to construct a new and lasting one in its place. The ghosts of Rwanda and the Balkans respond that in the face of genocide and extensive killing and mass displacement, the world community—and America first and foremost—has a duty to act, or will face an eventual reckoning, as President Obama put it at the UN, with “the cold logic of mass graves.”
Syria does not lack for graves: the war’s death toll has exceeded 115,000, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Here is the Observatory’s tally of the dead2:
Civilians 41,533 36%
Rebels 23,707 20%
& Militia 47,206 41%
The numbers are horrific—and, when we add to the civilians who have been killed the two million who have fled their country, and the four million made homeless within it, they describe a humanitarian catastrophe.3 But they are the numbers of an increasingly brutal, and maddeningly complicated, civil war, not a genocide. However insistent the voices of its ghosts, Syria is not Rwanda, or even Bosnia—at least not yet.
Syria’s is a multidimensional battleground: the struggle by a confusing congeries of rebel groups—some of them called moderate and democratic, some Islamist, some linked with al-Qaeda—to unseat a dictatorship, launched with the Arab Spring demonstrations of 2011, is overlaid by a region-wide, sectarian war fought between Shias and Sunnis. In Syria this formerly cold war, simmering since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and then ignited by the US invasion of Iraq, is now raging: here the Iranians and the Saudis, leaders of the Shia and Sunni blocs, are fighting out their differences “to the last Syrian.”
These intricate fault lines are overlaid and intercut by others: between Alawite and Kurd and Sunni and Christian, for example, and between moderate and “extreme” Islamists. This “patchwork quilt of ethnicity and sectarian identity,” as Ambassador Christopher Hill, a veteran of negotiations in the Balkans, puts it with elegant understatement, “suggests that ruling Syria would not be an easy task for anyone.”
The Assad dictatorship, like Saddam Hussein’s, is a national security regime of interlocking and overlapping intelligence and military agencies led and largely staffed by a besieged and increasingly ruthless minority. Like Saddam’s, it is as much a product of political dysfunction—what Hill calls “the failure to create workable political arrangements”—as the cause of it. Removing the regime is less likely to remove that dysfunction than to expose and exacerbate it, as it did in Iraq. If it is removed, what will follow, as Michael Ignatieff notes, in a moving essay comparing Bosnia and Syria, “is hard to define because the Syrian rebels do not constitute either a united front or a believable alternative to the Assad regime.” He adds that in Syria, unlike in Bosnia, “there are no good guys, no victims whose cause can be sold to reluctant publics to ennoble a humanitarian rescue.”
On the one hand, mounting carnage at the heart of the “strategically vital” Middle East with no end in sight. On the other—with direct intervention forestalled by memories of the too recent folly of Iraq—no clear policy that would seem to hold promise of gradually lessening the violence and marking the way to a stable outcome.
Faced with this bloody conundrum, haunted by Iraq and other ghosts, the Obama administration has floundered about, led by a reluctant president who has shown a tendency to substitute rhetoric for policy and then to find he has trapped himself in his own words. More than two years ago, Obama declared that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Perhaps he believed that Assad would fall quickly, as had Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt before him. But his words undermined a fledgling diplomatic effort in Geneva; and when Assad did not fall, it soon became clear that Obama’s demand would not be followed by any plausible policy meant to achieve it. Confronted with this vacuum and with worsening bloodshed, the Washington national security elite has gradually coalesced around a classic bureaucratic compromise: arm the “moderate rebels.” The president, however, has been slow to embrace it.
In hearings last spring Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let slip that they had advocated a “CIA plan” to arm the so-called “moderate opposition.” The two officials’ unusual public statements, Ambassador Hill remarks, “created the unsettling impression that Obama was at odds with his national-security officials.” Perhaps the president was recalling his own admonition about entering into “dumb wars.” (Clinton’s support of the Iraq war had done much to lose her the 2008 Democratic nomination to Obama.) Perhaps he recognized in the proposal what Marc Lynch of George Washington University calls “a classic ‘Option C’”—a bureaucratic trap disguised as the sensible middle ground:
Whether or not Option C has any chance of actually working is almost an afterthought…. In Syria, the most likely effect of arming the rebels is simply to set up the president for another decision point six months later as the battle rages and the rebels seem unable to close the deal. And at that point, the president would face an even starker decision: Option A, give up and be tarred forever for cutting and running; Option B, full-scale military intervention, which of course would be rejected; and Option C, escalation through some combination of no-fly zones, a bombing campaign, and safe areas.
That prominent voices in Washington, most notably Senator John McCain, are already loudly advocating such an escalation underlines the point: almost no one believes that the US arming “moderates” among the rebels would lead anytime soon to an end of the war, or indeed do anything more than exacerbate it, while pushing the US inexorably deeper into an increasingly violent and open-ended conflict it will have little power to control. As Lynch points out, Obama had seen this movie before, with the so-called “Afghan Surge” in 2009–2010, an escalation championed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “which lacked even a plausible theory of how it might work.” With visible reluctance, the new president had found himself going along for the ride, but managed to extricate himself before reaching the logical destination: a much more ambitious, and open-ended, counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan.4 Instead, the remaining US troops will come home next year.
1 See “Iraqi Civilian Death Tally at 3,240,” USA Today, June 11, 2003. This count, performed by reporters of the Associated Press, relies on a careful survey of Iraqi hospitals, and only those that separated military and civilian deaths. Excluded, of course, were Iraqis who died during the invasion but were never brought to hospitals. It is fair to assume the actual death toll was much larger. ↩
2 “More than 115,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war,” Agence France-Presse, October 1, 2013. I have listed only the numbers of the major groups. ↩
4 See Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (Simon and Schuster, 2010). ↩
See “Iraqi Civilian Death Tally at 3,240,” USA Today, June 11, 2003. This count, performed by reporters of the Associated Press, relies on a careful survey of Iraqi hospitals, and only those that separated military and civilian deaths. Excluded, of course, were Iraqis who died during the invasion but were never brought to hospitals. It is fair to assume the actual death toll was much larger. ↩
“More than 115,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war,” Agence France-Presse, October 1, 2013. I have listed only the numbers of the major groups. ↩
See Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (Simon and Schuster, 2010). ↩