As President Barack Obama prepares to address the nation on military intervention in Syria, he faces skepticism and opposition across the political spectrum. Some of the president's critics blame this lack of support on his own indecisive approach. But perhaps they have it backward and Obama's ambivalence is a response to a terrible situation with no good choices -- a situation that may represent, at least for now, the last stop on the road of American interventionism.
The use of United States military power abroad in the last hundred years has rested on two rationales: the defense of our national interest and security, and humanitarian goals such as promoting freedom or preventing genocide. Most U.S. military missions, from World War II to Vietnam to Iraq, have relied on both self-interested and altruistic justifications.
In Syria, the reasons for intervention seem extremely muddled -- even with credible reports that the regime of Bashar Assad has used chemical weapons in a deadly attack on rebel-controlled areas. For instance, American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Kagan asserts that "vital U.S. interests are at stake": specifically, "preventing terrorists from acquiring chemical weapons" and stopping al-Qaida from gaining a stronghold in the region.
Yet U.S. intervention -- particularly the limited, no-boots-on-the-ground airstrikes that Kagan believes are better than no action -- may well make these dangerous scenarios more, not less, likely. Secretary of State John Kerry's assertion that Islamist radicals have only minor influence over the rebel forces is disputed by many military and intelligence experts.
Does the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons against its people represent a unique humanitarian crisis that demands intervention? It is clearly a horrific act -- a textbook case of a circumstance where the concept of "responsibility to protect" should apply. According to this principle, crafted in the 2000s and embraced by the United Nations, a state has the duty to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and may be legitimately targeted for military intervention if it perpetrates or condones such crimes.
In practice, this noble doctrine is fraught with problems. One, the responsibility of being the "globocop," tends to fall on the United States, as the world's only superpower, particularly when geopolitical rivalries prevent international consensus. As a result, our resources are drained and we get slammed for inaction or for imperialism.
Two, attempts to avert slaughter may result in slaughter against different victims, particularly in a conflict where the good guys are hard to find. (Witness the recent video of Syrian rebels coldbloodedly executing prisoners.)
Three, how do we decide which crimes merit intervention? Is it the number of casualties (still unclear in the Syrian attack)? The method of killing? Are a thousand deaths by sarin gas worse than tens of thousands by bombs or bullets?
If U.S. interventionism is indeed at a dead end, this is no cause to cheer: None of the known alternatives are good. In a global world, true isolationism is not feasible: Both secular dictatorships and fanatical religious regimes with too much power tend to breed war and terrorism and undermine commerce, which is clearly antithetical to our national interest. And, morally, giving up on the ideal of protection for basic human rights across national lines is a sad defeat for humanity.
Someday that ideal may no longer be a pipe dream -- perhaps when more of the world's major powers are on the side of freedom and human rights. Until then, we should certainly retain the option of intervention abroad. But Syria may be a test case for drawing the line at wars with no clear purpose or benefit.