On Syria and Delusions of Isolation

There’s a piece I’ve been meaning to write for months about the end of Pax Americana. This is not the post, but it is a prelude.

Traveling in Turkey last week, American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “longer-term status of President [Bashar] Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” This may not sound shocking, but it’s a thinly-veiled euphemism (similar to ones employed by long-time Assad ally Vladimir Putin) for a shift in American policy away from overthrowing the Assad regime and towards allowing Assad to finish suppressing the Syrian rebels and retain power.

Within a few days of that, Assad’s forces apparently launched a chemical weapon attack that killed at least 69 civilians, including women and children. It’s not hard to draw a line from the first event to the second. Although Obama infamously and catastrophically failed to back up his “red line” threat, global disapproval is the key feature that has kept the Assad regime from repeating the chemical weapons attacks of 2013. In signalling the shift in American policy, Tillerson effectively handed the Assad regime a blank check. They cashed it.

What’s fascinating to me is the reaction by American isolationists to this fairly mundane and predictable series of events. If the implacable foe of a murderous, WMD-deploying dictator suddenly decides that they’re placcable after all, it shouldn’t shock us when that murderous, WMD-deploying dictator uses his suddenly longer leash to go out and use those WMDs to murder his enemies. That is what murderous, WMD-deploying dictators do. And so this is what American non-intervention looks like.

But the isolationists–led by Ron Paul–can’t face that reality because they have been telling Americans for literally decades that the real source of all the violence in the Middle East is American meddling. If only America would back off, they say, the level of violence would diminish. In order to preserve that narrative, we suddenly get outlandish conspiracy theories about how the attack was a false flag operation at the behest of American neocons. Yes, according to Ron Paul (and a lot of his followers), it is more plausible that John McCain, the CIA, and Syrian rebels are in a conspiracy to frame Assad for using chemical weapons than that Assad himself used chemical weapons.

This is not the post where I present my full case for continued American participation on the global stage. That will come soon, I hope. This is the post where I remind everyone that extremism is almost always a symptom of absolutism. Absolutism is a natural reaction to a tragic world in which tradeoffs, ambiguity, and complexity are unavoidable. Humans hate all of these things at a visceral level. We would much rather live in a simple, black-and-white world with easy answers to all of our toughest problems.

When I was a little kid, I was viscerally upset about the Chinese crackdown of the Tiananmen Square protests.[ref]Yes, that’s the kind of thing that really bothered 8-year old Nathaniel.[/ref] I fantasized about the US sending F-15s to blow up the bad guys and save the student protesters. Real life doesn’t work that way, and it seems that some of the loudest voices calling for us to “do something” in Syria never learned that lesson. As though it was self-evident that anything we did would have a net-positive impact. That’s one kind of extremism. The other is the kind that says if the US just packs up and goes home, vicious dictators won’t take advantage of that power vacuum to drop chemical weapons on unarmed families. As though it was self-evident that anything we did would have a net-negative impact.

So let me be clear: this isn’t an argument for more or for less intervention in Syria. I don’t know the best strategy for us to take there. This is simply an argument against oversimplification and the vilification that inevitably follows. Why does oversimplification lead to vilification? Because if the world is simple and the answers are easy, then you have to come up with an explanation for why all our problems still exist. The only plausible answer is that there are really bad people who just want everyone to suffer and somehow they are in control. That is why belief in a fundamentally simplistic world leads directly to belief in astonishingly ornate conspiracy theories and cartoonish supervillains. It’s just the cost of sustaining the illusion that the world is orderly, predictable, and comprehensible.

No matter what we do in Syria, there will be costs, they will be high, and they will be borne by the most vulnerable. I hope we can try to debate with a little more good faith and sobriety what–if anything–we can do as a nation. It might not seem like the emotionally appropriate response to tragedy, but it’s the only responsible one.

6 thoughts on “On Syria and Delusions of Isolation”

  1. One of the other isolationist arguments is that Assad wouldn’t use chemical weapons because it’s not in his best interests and he’s rational. Two points. First, it’s entirely possible that the decision was made lower down in the hierarchy. Second, well, for the second one let me just copy-paste a comment I made in a Facebook discussion (no link cause it wasn’t a public post):

    The more the US backs down in Syria, the more Assad will ruthlessly crush his enemies with the backing of Russia. This isn’t just about Assad. It’s also about Putin.

    Putin comes from a long line of KGB ideologues (like Andropov) who are absolutely convinced that it was decisive, murderous repression in Hungary and Czechoslovakia that held the USSR together and that it was precisely the reluctance to murder civilians in Poland that led to their collapse.

    Add that to the fact that the Syrian civil war is essentially ethnic. Assad and the leaders are Alawites, a small minority. They are fighting their tribal-ethnic enemies. And the final solution in all ethnic conflicts is always the same: ethnic cleansing.

    You think that this is against Assad’s interests, but you’re wrong. *IF* he thinks he can get away with it, then this will be only the beginning of the slaughter to come, and Putin will be there to protect and encourage him every step of the way.

  2. Bravo, Nathaniel! Looking forward to the next post. I’ve long held that if one wants to understand Putin then one should study Andropov. In between Hungary and Czechoslovakia there was also a little-publicized, bloody crackdown on a student protest in Novocherkassk, a Russian town. The town was a major Cossack centre, and while not a separate ethnos, Cossacks do have a distinct identity which the Soviet Union perceived as a threat. So they struck hard, and it worked. So you have this mentality backing Assad, who is acting according to the Assad family playbook (see Homs), only he lacks the natural charisma of his father and elder brother which helps explain why he has hit harder than any of them when threatened.

  3. I am not sure if the United States last nights missile attacks on the Syrian Airbase are indicative of anything but feel rather surprised based upon the quote you provided by Rex Tillerson saying essentially that the Syrians had win their country back themselves.

  4. Great writing. I am deeply disturbed by Trump’s decision to send missiles to Syria for several reasons:
    – No one is questioning that Assad is “a bad guy.” He’s already shown he and his party are willing to violate human rights and murder the opposition. It’s just that the situation in Syria, as you noted, is complex as hell. Between the many different ethnic and religious groups, you have all sorts of rebels and refugees, plus the different political parties. It’s not a “let’s bomb them” situation because “them” includes so many different groups that are fighting each other. Sending missiles to Syria last night is a scary, unworldly move. It’s only going to fuel the flame of the many different groups’ anger, including Assad and Putin.
    – Putin is also “a bad guy,” there is no arguing against it. But, in 2013 he made a case for not starting war in Syria and that international anti-war maneuvers should be kept in mind (Trump didn’t even bother to get Congress’s permission). He seems to understand the complex, tragic, scary situation Syria is in. I also can’t believe I’m writing all of this, and that Putin is looking higher on the moral chart than our President. Trump sent bombs after seeing children dying. Children have been dying in Syria for a long time. It’s terrible. But this knee-jerk reaction is disturbing. What is the solution to Syria? Is there one? Should we really meddle in these things, despite how terrible they are (again pointing to history, look at the other times we’ve meddled. It doesn’t go well)? By not doing anything, are we sitting back and being complacent against egregious violations of human rights? These are all complicated questions and I certainly don’t have any answers. I’m just saying Trump’s move to send missiles to Syria demonstrates how the worst of our worries have truly been validated: Trump does not understand the complex histories of the world we live in (and doesn’t seem to care to), he is as macho-trigger finger mannered as he appears to be, and we just entered into war with Syria. The simple concept of thinking about the consequences of one’s actions is absent from our President’s cognitive abilities.
    – Then today you can also read about all sorts of conspiracy theories about how and why we send missiles to Syria. They are crazy and certainly keeping me alert. Despite the many theories going around, the fact is we sent missiles to Syria. We just entered into war.

  5. Well, that looks just like an astonishingly ornate conspiracy theory with cartoon irrational murderlusting villains providing mindless inefficient attacks that would lead to more pressure on them with military invasion (but somehow at the same time beliving that noone will do them nothing bad).
    With such theories promotion, one surely can be afraid of further gas attacks, murdering, missle strikes, and more, and more of these.

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