Abandon the Syrian civil war? Isolation is never splendid

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Wounded civilians arrive at a hospital in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war. Credit: Voice of America News/Scott Bob via Wikimedia Commons.

Among the handful of post-war leaders who could always be relied upon to support the United States unstintingly, the name of Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, stands out.

Blair wasn’t content to merely support U.S. foreign policy. He energetically advocated for American engagement and warned of the negative global consequences of an America in retreat.

In April 1999, at the height of the NATO operation against the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo carried out by Serbian forces, Blair delivered an historic speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, in which he addressed precisely this theme.

“We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violations of human rights in other countries if we want to be secure,” Blair declared, urging his American hosts to “never fall again for the doctrine of isolationism.” By spreading “the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society,” Blair insisted, we ourselves would become safer.

I thought of Blair’s stirring words when I came across an editorial in the latest edition of the liberal Jewish newspaper, The Forward. Entitled “Letting Syria Go,” the editorial was candid in contrasting the “lame” American commitment to the Syrian rebels against the active backing that Bashar al-Assad’s foul regime has received from its allies in Russia and Iran.

According to the Forward editorial, America’s inaction over the Syrian civil war reflects “who we are now.” Obama’s “‘leading from behind’ foreign policy expresses the will of the people,” the editorial stated, because America has been “traumatized” by the combined experiences of intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Jane Eisner, the Forward’s editor, told me via email that the editorial “did not state support for isolationism or interventionism.” Eisner added, “If we accept what is our de facto isolationism, let’s at least also understand and face up to the moral implications. And if we intervene, let’s remember what we have already learned, that such a path is rife with unintended consequences and costly in blood and treasure.”

If Eisner is correct, and we really are faced with this profound choice in our foreign policy, then it’s worth examining the assumptions of those who lean towards isolationism. After all, this is a loose grouping that spans left-wing Democrats, who falsely suggest that there is an irreconcilable contradiction between educating our children at home and defending human rights abroad, and right-wing Republicans, who are quite content to live, to resurrect a term that was popular in the 19th century, in “splendid isolation.”

To begin with, not everyone agrees that Iraq and Afghanistan were traumatic experiences. As Commentary magazine’s Abe Greenwald has pointed out, in both theaters, America “gained the essential skills for counterinsurgency and nation-building.” In Afghanistan, our military prowess resulted in the killing of Osama Bin Laden, as well as the chance for thousands of girls to attend school, in open defiance of the misogynistic Taliban. In Iraq, we got rid of one of the ugliest regimes on the face of the earth, paving the way for peaceful and genuinely free elections in 2009.

Additionally, not every military engagement involves putting thousands of our own troops on the ground. In Syria, we’ve had the option of arming and training the Free Syrian Army, as well as imposing a No Fly Zone, a measure supported by U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) among others.

Yes, yes, the isolationists will say, but beware the unintended consequences of such actions: we will get sucked into a quagmire from which we cannot escape. Well, if avoiding unintended consequences is the primary goal of our foreign policy, then perhaps we should dispense with having a foreign policy in the first place.

Whether we like it or not, regional conflicts are a reflection of the global power balance. In Syria, our fear of unintended consequences has caused us to shrink in the face of Moscow’s aggressive backing of Assad. No wonder that Russian President Vladimir Putin granted asylum to the fugitive traitor Edward Snowden; Putin did so because he thinks we’re weak. He will continue to test that weakness again and again, especially over Iran.

As things currently stand, our failure in Syria has cost more than 100,000 lives in a conflict which, says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is the worst since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. In turning our backs on the Syrians, we have also effectively ditched our commitment to the “responsibility to protect,” a concept that emerged from the pained international debate about defending human rights that followed both the Rwandan genocide and the war in Bosnia. And in taking such a stance, we are denying the linkage made by Tony Blair between our own security at home and the development of prosperous, stable democracies abroad.

The question of whether or not to intervene in such brutal conflicts should concern us as Jews, as well as Americans. We remember only too well how outside indifference to the Holocaust aided the Nazis in their program to eliminate the Jews. And we are well aware that Israel’s security can only be enhanced by promoting, in Tony Blair’s words, “human rights and an open society” in the countries neighboring it.

Finally, let’s be honest and admit that isolationism is selective. As practiced by the Obama Administration, it involves shying away from the tough conflicts in favor of focusing on the easier ones, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because Israel is our closest ally, it is therefore amenable to our suggestions, worries and even pressure.

Ben Cohen

We don’t have anywhere near that level of clout with the Assads of this world. Yet it is these nasty regimes colluding with our great adversaries, Russia and China, who pose the greatest threat to our security and our values. If we are worrying about unintended consequences, how about this one? A chastened, humbled America universally regarded as having betrayed its founding principles.

Because that’s where isolationism will take us.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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Posted on August 5, 2013 and filed under Opinion, U.S., World.