The U.S. can’t remake Syria

Andrew J. Bacevich writes: As you contemplate the ongoing violence in Syria, here are the three things to keep in mind.

First, the United States undoubtedly possesses the wherewithal to topple the regime of Bashar Assad. On this score, the hawks are surely right. Whether acting alone, with allies, or through proxies, Washington over the past decade or so has demonstrated an impressive capacity to overthrow governments. Skeptical? Consider the fate of various evil-doers on whom we trained our gun-sights in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

Second, once Washington has removed Assad as it did Saddam Hussein, the likelihood of the United States being able to put things right — creating a “new” Syria that is stable, humane, and grateful for American assistance — is approximately nil. Here the evidence supports the doves. Skeptical? Again, consider the course of events in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya once the evil-doers departed the scene.

These two points define the poles around which the policy debate in Washington incessantly revolves. In one camp are those who are fired by humanitarian concerns or persuaded that Assad threatens US (or Israeli) security. They are keen to put American muscle once more to work, and chastise President Obama for his reluctance to act. In the second camp are those wary of the United States once again stumbling into a quagmire. They commend Obama for (thus far) exercising restraint, fearing that American meddling will create more problems than it will solve.

This debate overlooks the third point, which obviates the first two: Whatever Obama does or doesn’t do about Syria won’t affect the larger trajectory of events. Except to Syrians, the fate of Syria per se doesn’t matter any more than the fate of Latvia or Laos. The context within which the upheaval there is occurring — what preceded it and what it portends — matters a great deal. Yet on this score, Washington is manifestly clueless and powerless. [Continue reading…]

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