The White House insists that whatever we do, it will “not be about regime change.”
Why not? Should we not seek to change a regime engaged in “moral obscenity?” And if not, what are we aiming at?
More half measures; more too-little-too-late. Earlier in the game, a fairly limited intervention might have tipped over the then-tottering Syrian regime, with at least some hope of a reasonable replacement (as I argued in March 2012). This was a classic situation where reluctance to act only makes the eventual and inevitable action harder, messier, and costlier. Since then, the Syrian regime has regained its military footing, reinforced by Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters, while the opposition has become dominated by unpalatable radicals. Now our options are all much uglier.
My canny daughter says that from our national interest standpoint, the best outcome is actually none: continuation of war, because either side’s victory would be bad for us. But that‘s too realpolitik for me; I say we cannot avert our eyes from human suffering on this scale.
The desire to punish evil is deeply rooted in the human psyche; I certainly share it. Lobbing a few missiles at Syria may assuage that justice hunger. And be worth doing, in lieu of nothing. It’s a better world when crimes are punished.
However, while that principle makes us feel better, I doubt Bashar Assad will feel worse. To the contrary, seeing that a gross atrocity incurs what’s really just a pinprick can only embolden him. And if punishment is the only point, then it fails to come to grips with what’s really at stake.
In Libya – even if too squeamish to say so – our aim was to end the war in a way favorable to our interests. Which did include prevention of humanitarian disaster. And if Libya today is not (yet) a Jeffersonian democracy, broadly speaking our global interest is removal of the vilest, bloodiest, most troublemaking dictators, with replacement by less vile regimes, in order to make a more peaceful and prosperous world wherein more people can thrive and contribute. In those regards we succeeded in Libya.
We should – hard as it may be – strive to do likewise for Syria. But I doubt America is up for such a daunting challenge.