United States is meddling in a Civil War

Before Christmas, amid the drama of the fiscal cliff, and before the horrible shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama announced that our government would recognize the Syrian opposition as the legitimate representative of the country’s people, stating:

“The Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, and is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population, that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime.”

Since the March 2011 protests turned to armed conflict, more than 40,000 people have been killed, with countless civil rights violations inflicted by the Assad regime on his own people.  Nations including the U.S. have provided aid to the rebels through back channels, the extent of which is unknown, with calls from the Council of Foreign Relations to do more.  As of this writing, rebel forces have captured nearly 60% of Syrian territory.

But now there are reports that most of our aid to the region is going to “hard-line Islamic jihadists.”  In fact, the day Obama announced our recognition of the opposition, rebel groups across Syria signed a petition pledging allegiance to the Jihad and asking America by name not to intervene.

So in the fog of war, is providing aid and recognition to the opposition the proper response to a brutal civil war in a foreign country?  Bear in mind President Obama did not give hard justification for intervention, which in itself, should not be out of the question.  Official avenues exist to take decisive action - even with international forces - which have not been pursued nor realized.

If humanitarian reasons were indeed the basis for action, the President could go to Congress for a declaration of war, or an Authorization for the Use of Force, the way George W. Bush did for Iraq and Afghanistan, and multilateral intervention could be achieved through the UN Security Council.  Total intervention, however, would require the kind of state-building we have been trying to avoid since the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, according to a study by Brandeis University, limited intervention is only making things worse:

“The distillation of historical experience with civil war and insurgency, along with a sober reckoning of conditions on the ground in Syria, make clear that limited intervention of this sort will not serve the moral impulse that animates it.  To the contrary, it is more likely to amplify the harm that it seeks to eliminate by prolonging a hurting stalemate.”

Worse still, Syrian rebels are expecting aid from other nations;  Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow and Syrian expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said about our recognition of the opposition:

“It’s happening in the context of resentment among the Syrian opposition, especially armed elements, of the White House’s lack of assistance during the Syrian people’s hour of need.  This is especially true among armed groups.”

So we are caught in a dilemma, held hostage by those we are aiding: If the opposition fails, it looks as though we are impotent, and if the opposition succeeds, it looks as though we meddled.  Either way, support – for either side – undermines democratic processes being leveraged now to obtain a more representative government.

Just imagine if another nation undermined the U.S. government by recognizing any internal opposition to it.  That is, in fact, not an unfathomable scenario; during the American civil war, while the British maintained a strategy of neutrality, they sold weaponry and warfare to both the Union and the Confederacy.  In the aftermath, the American government demanded reparations from the British for damages inflicted by “commerce raiders,” particularly the British-built CSS Alabama. We risk a similar backlash by supporting rebel forces now, while undermining our own credibility around the globe if things do not play out the way we intend.

Another problem with choosing sides is the credence we lend to leaders we may soon oppose, as Nancy Pelosi did with Bashar Assad, and Barack Obama did with both Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.  But how do we, in keeping with our core values, support freedom and democracy abroad when it renders results with which we disagree?

First, we must recognize the difference between freedom and democracy.  Whereas democracy is necessary but not sufficient to achieve freedom, maximizing freedom for minority interests will beget democratic representation.  We must then treat regimes based on the degree of freedom they allow within their country, not to advance democracy within their borders.

Muddying the waters between freedom and democracy has been a bipartisan problem.  Obama’s agenda – to advance democracy around the world – is not much different George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda,” summarized by two maxims stated in his 2005 Second Inaugural Address:

“We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.  The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”


“So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Bush, however, was merely echoing Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, on the precipice of war, stated in 1939: “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger.”  In recent years, from Condoleezza Rice to, Hillary Clinton, and now, to John Kerry apparently, our chief diplomats have been fulfilling this vision.

While we pursue the goals based on these noble intentions, we must ask: Are they achievable?  If they are not, perhaps we must go another way.  Supporting both freedom and democracy is achievable if we adhered to a simple thumbrule:  To always support the democratic process, no matter the outcome.  We must not publicly endorse one side over the other.  

In keeping with this thumbrule, the United States would reserve the right to publicly oppose any outcome achieved through democratic means which disagrees with our core values – namely, civil rights violations – while encouraging more representative governments throughout the world.  If we have learned anything through our three decades worth of Middle Eastern excursions, it is much more difficult – if not impossible – to deal effectively with an unrepresentative government.  In those cases, in the fog, we should take caution not to meddle.

Of course, adhering to this thumbrule would result in a much more restrained foreign policy.  What’s more, supporting the process regardless of outcome takes unwavering resolve against temptation, as certain despots with certain assets may seem more acceptable than those who lack assets.  But perhaps now, while we replace our Secretaries of both Defense and State, is the time to seek a new course.  After all, non-interventionist foreign policy strategy is at the root of our founding.  In his farewell address, George Washington called for the United States to extend commercial relations with foreign nations and “to have with them as little political connection as possible.”  Maybe more famously, Thomas Jefferson stated his own thumbrule in his 1801 Inaugural Address: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

But even Jefferson proved fallible to meddling impulses.  Although initially a supporter of the French Revolution, Jefferson, who had previously “sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” revealed in a 1793 letter his dismay over the excesses of bloodshed in France, expressing “too great a sensibility at the partial evil by which it’s object has been accomplished there.”

There is nothing new under the sun, and I fear we are making similar mistakes with Syria now.  If we maintain American neutrality in the midst of another country’s civil war, we can avoid pitfalls in the aftermath.  The broader lesson is that, as Americans, it is acceptable to question the outcomes of democracy, and indeed, the values of our foreign policy.  Doing so is a testament to those very values.

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