The dumbest U.S. foreign policy question asked this century

What do U.S. politicians really mean when they say they want to save Syria?

Published September 6, 2014 7:00PM (EDT)

Anti-Syrian government protesters carry banners and a giant Syrian revolution flag during a demonstration in Idlib province, northern Syria.    (Associated Press)
Anti-Syrian government protesters carry banners and a giant Syrian revolution flag during a demonstration in Idlib province, northern Syria. (Associated Press)

This article originally appeared on The Globalist.

TheGlobalist Who lost Syria? This is perhaps the dumbest U.S. foreign policy question so far this millennium.

For starters, was (and is) Syria really America’s to lose?

The American right – which on this issue reaches into the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party – thinks the United States missed an opportunity to hold onto Syria. In their view, the opportunity was missed by failing to provide arms to the Syrian rebels at the outset of the revolution, when Syrian rebels were perceived as moderate.

Had this support been given, the theory goes, the moderate Syrian rebels would not only have defeated Assad. They would also have managed to suppress the rise of radical Islamic factions.

Taking sides in ethnic and sectarian conflicts should not be America’s business. In the past, supplying arms to one side or another in age-old conflicts has only served to give rise to endless internecine warfare.

Afghanistan as an example

Look at Afghanistan — after the Russians left in 1989. A bloody civil war based on ethnic, sectarian and tribal differences ensued. The violence was fueled by a reservoir of arms supplied to the Mujahedeen in a policy instituted under U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

This policy helped bring down the Soviet Union by giving it its own Vietnam, but it left Afghanistan in utter chaos. America’s favorite ally in that conflict, the Mujahedeen, turned out to be a disjointed coalition of warlords, drug lords and religious fanatics. They turned against each other violently as soon as the Russians left.

No real wonder that the Afghan people welcomed the Taliban into this chaotic environment. They were able to bring order out of the chaos.

But, lest we forget, out of this order rose Osama bin Laden.

We see a similar dynamic taking place in Iraq now. A Sunni uprising is empowering an Islamic fundamentalist “vanguard” force — ISIS. In Iraq, it was the U.S. government that dove head first into ethnic, sectarian and tribal conflict — without ever really thinking through the implications of its actions.

Fool me once

And when the United States left, those conflicts immediately rose to the surface, with the pattern of 1980s Afghanistan repeating itself. The U.S. government had provided arms to specific sides in the conflict.

In the current Iraqi case, control of large stocks of those arms has fallen into the hands of ISIS – which the U.S. government has just decided is a global threat to U.S. interests. Consequently, the U.S. served de facto as the armaments provider to ISIS.

Unperturbed, those on the American right, including the Clintons, now propose to do this yet again. They want to provide arms to give this often-irrational hatred a means of violent expression — American weapons against American weapons.

To paraphrase a line made famous in the run-up to the Iraq war: “Fool me once — and shame on you. Fool me twice and my name is George Bush. Fool me three times, and my name is Hillary Clinton.”

Which Westerner really “gets” Syria?

Syria is full of hard to detect cross-currents. There is the Sunni-Shi’a divide. Given all the treacherous entanglements, a central question for U.S. policymakers ought to be: Why do these sects hate each other? No one in the U.S. policy establishment provides an answer. That alone is a compelling reason for non-intervention.

Does U.S. foreign policy even have a prayer in addressing these age-old fault lines – never mind solving them by supplying one side or the other with weapons?

The next battlefield in a blame war

In Syria, Hafez al Assad is holding both ISIS and the more centrist elements of the revolution at bay. In fact, he is winning the war.

And this begs the question: What are U.S. politicians saying when they say they want to save Syria?

The answer to this can only be found in American hubris. Syria is not America’s to save. The reality is that only Syrians can save Syria — just as it is only Iraqis who can save Iraq and only Afghans who can save Afghanistan.

Seeking an answer to the question “Who lost Syria?” is a foolhardy quest on the part of U.S. politicians. Rather than a serious question, it is just another manifestation of Washington’s favorite political sport – blamesmanship.

To fuel this conflict further by supplying one side or the other with arms would be an abrogation of the trust the world has placed in the United States to provide smart leadership. Another round of impulsive decisions are definitely not part of what the world expects.

President Barack Obama seems to believe that leadership must be moral, not interventionist. On this issue, Obama is spot on.

By Richard Phillips

MORE FROM Richard Phillips

By Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, the daily online magazine, and a columnist in newspapers around the world. He is also the presenter of the Marketplace Globalist Quiz, which is aired on public radio stations all across the United States. In addition, Mr. Richter is a keynote speaker at international conferences -- and the author of the 1992 book, “Clinton: What Europe and the United States Can Expect.” Follow him on Twitter @theglobalist.

MORE FROM Stephan Richter

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Afghanistan Bill Clinton Iraq Isis Syria The Globalist