Yesterday afternoon I attended a debate organized around this question. The event was the first organized by a new ‘decision tank’ in Washington DC, the McCain Institute. Named after Senator John McCain, organized in collaboration with Arizona State University, and headed by former NATO ambassador Kurt Volker, the debate was the first in a series it is planning on key decisions facing US foreign policy. Teams of two, for and against the proposition, spoke. The ‘yes’ team featured Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor of the New Republic. The ‘No’ team was Dr. Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Aaron David Miller, former US State Department official and now a Distinguished Scholar at the Wilson Center. Senator McCain introduced the proceedings and Brent Scowcroft was in the first row.
The debate was fascinating. Ostensibly it could be described as a classic ‘idealist’ versus ‘realist’ debate. I think this characterization misses a lot. First, the debate featured generalists versus area experts, commentators with neoconservative principles versus, in Miller, a seasoned and, by his own admission, disillusioned practitioner and, in Landis, a grounded country academic specialist. Second, this was a debate over the best US foreign policy and not the Syrian crisis. All participants held that the US had interests in the region, and in the conflict, but they differed in how important and vital they were. Wieseltier spoke of Syria representing a confluence of both interests and values. From a coldly realist perspective, he argued, it made sense that the US intervene to (i) prevent a failed state in a vital region (ii) be on the side of the opposition to a regime that is doomed (and thus have some credibility with the new regime and (ii) tilt the struggle towards secularist democratic forces and against Islamicist fighters. The longer the US delays in intervening, the more influence it looses. Third, there was little sustained discussion by all parties of the broader regional and international issues involved. Turkey was hardly mentioned, nor was NATO, the United Nations or even Israel. Wieseltier evoked Putin as a problematic player in the crisis and saw the Obama administration as hiding behind UN stalemate to justify a policy of dithering. There are larger geopolitical issues at stake, and Obama (to whom he contemptuously referred to as “the great extractor”) was withdrawing from these. Kagan shared this view and considered the crisis a test for US leadership and fidelity to its values as universal values. Fourth, the posed question revealed a meaningful divide. It was should (not can) and the United States (not the international community). The save construction has obvious problems in evoking missionary foreign policy. Landis underscored the consistent record of US interventionist failures in the region, in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan. To the ‘no’ team, the empirical historical record revealed that the US can’t. This dictated a policy of pessimism: because the US can not control, the US should not intervene and, instead, let it ‘sort itself out.’ Only the Syrians can save Syria. This position has echoes of Edward Luttwak’s ‘give war a chance’ and the realist credo to ‘let civil wars burn.’ Kagan’s response was that the record of US foreign policy exceeds that of the last decade. He pointed to Bosnia as an example of a successful intervention. Unaddressed by this, and the larger debate, is the work required to put together a coalition involving the Russians (as Clinton did with IFOR/SFOR) to pursue a policy of coercive diplomacy eventually leading to a robust interventionist peace-making to peace-keeping force. This hard road was unaddressed by the ‘yes’ team, with Miller calling this failure out: “show me a strategy, something that could work.”
The crisis to Syria, to my mind, is a wicked problem. Kagan and Miller appeared to reach a degree of consensus that the US try a six-month policy of providing military aid to certain pro-western factions on the ground. Landis was skeptical. He pointed out that there are hundreds of different militias on the ground, that the strongest on the battlefield are Islamicist, and that the conflict is now deeply sectarian and ‘ethnic.’ Minorities are clinging to the regime, and if its falls then there will be large scale ethnic cleansing as the Alawites flee. A related alternative scenario is that the country break up into different ethnic homelands: Kurds in the north, Alawites on the coast and Sunnis elsewhere in the country. I found Landis’s easy recourse to ‘ethnic conflict’ language and terms intellectually unsatisfying in that a particular conjunctural national revolution against an oppressive regime is now read in primordial sectarian terms. But perhaps his argument is that it has become that, that the regime has successfully ethnicized the field. Remember that language was also used in Bosnia and it missed many important aspects of that conflict.
My position on the conflict has long been that Turkey holds to key to more robust intervention. To make this happen, however, the Turkish state must have a reconciliation with the Kurdist groups in the north (here its excellent relations with the Kurds in Iraq could help). They should not be threatened by Turkish intervention to establish a humanitarian ‘no fly’ zone in the north. The US should work hard to forge a joint policy with the Russians, and that should involve some level of agreement that Assad should go, but that the new government be one that gives all groups a stake in the country. This will be hard and may not be impossible but an environment that incentives this is preferable. Syria is not a US problem or responsibility. Its a regional one, and an international one. The current levels of brutality and killing should be unacceptable to the international community. Preventing Syria becoming a failed state is a regional and international strategic interest.
Critical geopolitics, I would argue, leads one to reject the prevailing dichotomies of foreign policy debate. I’m neither an idealist nor a realist. I’m for worldliness in foreign policy practice, one that is grounded in the particularities of places/regions and independent of the easily deployed formulaic categories that attend both primordialism and national exceptionalism.