Yesterday, I attended an event at the Capitol sponsored by the Holocaust Memorial Museum that exhibited photos taken by the Syrian photographer Caesar of torture committed by the Assad regime. Yet along with the demonstration of the bravery of Syrian activists and the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, speakers said the Iranian nuclear deal was at fault for these atrocities, that the U.S. could have stopped the atrocities with military action in 2013, and that removing the Assad regime will lead to the fall of ISIS. I was jarred by this spirit underlying much of the event, one in which passion to protect others from atrocities is poisoned by blind faith in military force and American power.
The consistent message propagated by the speakers- primarily Congressmen- was that the U.S. was not doing enough, encapsulated by the hashtag created for the event, #ObamaMustAct. But what would they have him do? Anger at the lack of military action against the Assad regime often fails to consider what that military action would actually look like. Leaving aside non-military options, some of which could help but are excluded by the clear assumption that only military action counts as real action, there is an assortment of bad or unrealistic options available to Obama.
Perhaps the action called for by #ObamaMustAct is the forceful arming of Syrian rebels, but that has been a failure when implemented, with arms invariably ending up in the hands of rebel groups they were not meant for. Bob Corker and others suggested that the problem was that Obama did not act early enough, but there is little reason to think arming Syrian rebels early in the war would have led to a better result. Probably, a few of the speakers would want an all-out invasion, in an indefinite mission intended to nation-build and expected to easily win over a population due to widespread dislike of an authoritarian leader. The parallel is obvious and the unintended consequences would be extensive. Many of the speakers meant a no-fly zone designed to stop Assad’s air raids. First, as a formal declaration of war against the Assad regime that will not get UN Security Council approval, there is little to no chance of it happening, and Congressional Republicans probably know that and are using the option to score political points. Still, although there is a case to be made for a no-fly zone, there are also many reasons to think that it would not be the easy fix that it is made out to be, such as the fact that external interventions lengthen civil wars, that it would have no end date and an unclear mandate, and that it seems unlikely that Syria’s allies would not escalate their support for the Assad regime in response. Likely, once implemented, the same people promoting it now would denounce it as not enough and call for more extensive military actions.
Indeed, this hawkish vision of Syria is littered with ideas that are extremely difficult to defend. There is of course the jaw-dropping hypocrisy of Congressional Republicans pointing to pictures of torture as proof of the immorality of the Assad regime (with John McCain a notable exception). The event also displayed the speakers’ blind faith in Syria’s moderate opposition as a reasonable political solution, despite the fact that the FSA controls less than 5% of the country’s territory, struggles to conduct operations without the support of the Islamic Front, and has always been highly fragmented. Considerations of Assad and ISIS’s status as the two most powerful actors in Syria were calmly swatted aside without looking next door at what can happen when there is a power vacuum filled by a weak government propped up by Western actors. Indeed, at an event where multiple Iraq War supporters called for aggressive U.S. military intervention as the solution to a Middle Eastern conflict, Iraq was not mentioned. The last time the US implemented a no-fly zone, Libya, was similarly ignored (liberal interventionists should not be let off the hook, either). Representative Kinzinger’s speech included a claim that “no nuclear deal is worth 230,000 lives,” vastly overstating the role of Iranian action and U.S. inaction in Syria’s violence, discounting that the U.S. will have increased leverage over Iran with the deal, and making the far-fetched assumption that Obama would have intervened militarily if not for fear of upsetting Iran. Above all, the majority of the speakers rested on the assumption that the simultaneity of Syrian atrocities and U.S. military inaction is evidence enough that military action would have prevented them, a logic that is used so frequently I forget how shockingly weak it is.
But that those who push their hawkish views towards Syria are perfectly able to make these claims without evidence to defend them is kind of the point, because in their minds, the U.S. is strong enough and righteous enough that if it responds forcefully to an atrocity everything will work out. What saddens me the most is that this is what the message of “Never Again” is largely taken to mean. The atrocity prevention community often falls for these pernicious ideas, letting the way the world has ignored atrocities so regularly convince it that any action is beneficial. But preventing atrocities means, well, preventing them, and preventing atrocities requires a clear idea of how you are going to do that. Approaches that scorn non-military actions, considerations of unintended consequences, and the recognition that we are not all-powerful allow moral outrage to turn into calls for aggressive military action with little to no evidence in between. Don’t fall into the trap. It will do nothing to help those whose suffering we seek to stop, and could very well make it worse. “Never again” is a goal to aspire to but one that must be implemented in the real world; assumptions that the U.S. can solve any problem with enough force are pure fantasies.