False Dichotomies

Syria, 2009.

An op-ed  in Sunday’s New York Times, about renewed talk of U.S.-led war in Syria, illuminates the deep flaws of the government’s strategic thinking. Here are some choice quotes:

… a prolonged stalemate is the only outcome that would not be damaging to American interests.

Given this depressing state of affairs, a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States. An Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the entire Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda terrorism.

There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

The article’s author, Edward N. Luttwack, goes on to reason that the civil war is the most favorable available situation for American interests. This is because a four-party war in Syria would consume the energies of al-Qaida (a decentralized militant outfit that is being implicitly discussed as a nation-state here,) Iran (which recently elected the reformist Hassan Rouhani, who is Washington’s best opportunity to thaw relations with the country in well over a decade,) Hezbollah (which has a strong enough presence in Lebanon that its involvement in Syria may restart the bloody 1975 – 1990 civil war,) and the al-Assad regime.

It is difficult to imagine a colder and more heartless analysis, but Luttwack is merely relaying a perspective that has been advocated in Washington for the better part of the last two years (and certainly since Hassan Nasrallah‘s Iranian-brokered pledge to deploy Hezbollah to fight for al-Assad earlier this year.)

It is a perspective that can only be born in the drawing rooms of a post-imperial power: where there is no conception of where events in Syria will lead, but an ill-defined consensus that ‘American interests’ must be reflected in the country. Luttwack tries to defuse his moral void in a way that doesn’t harm his argument with this halfhearted line:

That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.

But they are not facing the same predicament. The Syrian people are not attempting to simultaneously end the civil war and also create a situation where the world’s greatest power can levy its own interests in the country, against its regional ‘enemies’ (Iran) and ‘friends’ (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the rest of the GCC.) Syrians aren’t viewing themselves as raw material that need to be prevented from becoming threats to vaguely-defined ‘American interests.’

These are not the only logical problems in Luttwack’s editorial.  Just one example: the fact that “let them fight it out!” is still an American military strategy, after it had horrific long-term consequences in the Soviet-Afghan War and Iran-Iraq War, astonishes me. These conflicts ultimately did come to hurt ‘American interests.’

And what is congealed in this perspective itself is an attempt to navigate dichotomous thinking, where the only path ahead for the Obama Administration is to either intervene or not. Here the piece is explicit:

Those who condemn the president’s prudent restraint as cynical passivity must come clean with the only possible alternative: a full-scale American invasion to defeat both Mr. Assad and the extremists fighting against his regime.

However, there are a number of moves that the White House could have taken by now that have little to do with military intervention. For instance, there is a refugee crisis that needs immediate attention, and is certainly a better use of American power and resources. It is the deplorable conditions of Palestinian and Afghan refugees that has served as a Salafi jihadist recruiting tool, if only rhetorically, for decades. Why aren’t they an option?

I think that there is a bit of cognitive problem here. When cynics want something done, they argue it in terms of all-or-nothing thinking, that completely suffocates discourse. Either the Obama Administration intervenes completely, or it doesn’t intervene in any way whatsoever. This creates a situation where President Obama advocates an equally-invented middle approach, which is then hailed for “holding the center” among different voices. These trends previously led to the 2009 Afghanistan troop surge.

The problem is that the very idea of intervening militarily may be completely wrong. “Holding the center” could just be a lighter way of committing to doomed policy. As the war-talk heats up, it is our responsibility to problematize that.


Photograph courtesy of Erik Barfoed. Published with a Creative Commons license.

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