September 3, 2013
Last week began with certainty that an attack on Syria was inevitable and even imminent. It ended with the coalition supporting the attack somewhere between falling apart and not coming together, and with U.S. President Barack Obama making it clear that an attack was inevitable, maybe in a month or so, if Congress approves, after Sept. 9 when it reconvenes. This is a comedy in three parts: the reluctant warrior turning into the raging general and finding his followers drifting away, becoming the reluctant warrior again.
Begin with the fact that the United States was not the first country calling for military intervention in Syria after pictures of what appeared to be the dead from a chemical attack surfaced. That honor went to France, Turkey and Britain, each of whom called for action. Much as with Libya, where France and Italy were the first and most eager to intervene, the United States came late to the feast.
The United States did not have any overriding national interest in Syria. It has been hostile for a long time to Assad's regime. It has sympathy for the Sunni insurgents but has drawn the conclusion that the collapse of Assad is not likely to lead to a democratic regime respecting human rights, but to an Islamist regime with links to al Qaeda. The United States is in the process of recovering from Iraq and Afghanistan, and is not eager to try its hand at nation building in Syria, especially given the players. Therefore the American attitude toward Syria has been to express deep concern while staying as far away as possible, much as the rest of the world has done.
What started to draw the United States into the matter was a statement made by the president in 2012, when he said that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line. He didn't mean he wanted to intervene. He set the red line because he figured that it was the one thing Assad wouldn't try. It was an attempt to stay out, not an announcement of interest. In fact, there had been previous evidence of small-scale chemical attacks, and the president had dodged commitment.
Washington's Human Rights Faction
This time, with major foreign partners demanding action, the president felt he had no choice. A significant faction pressed him on this in his foreign policy apparatus. There were those, like National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who favored the use of military force in the events of war crimes and human rights violations on a major scale. One would have thought that she would have supported the war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein, the epitome of war crimes and human rights violations, but she didn't, and that's another matter. The point is that, leaving Iraq, this faction felt that the United States failed to carry out its moral obligations in Rwanda, and applauded the intervention in Kosovo.
This faction is not small and appeals to an important tendency in American political culture that sees World War II as the perfect war, because it was waged against an unspeakable evil, and not for strategic or material gain. That war was more complicated than that, but there was an element of truth to it. And the world, on the whole, approved of American involvement there. For them, this was the model of U.S. foreign policy. Secure behind distance and power, the United States ought not be a typical insecure political power, but should use its strength to prevent the more extreme injustices in the world.