To intervene or not to intervene in Syria

As demand starts to build for President Obama to “do something” about the situation in Syria, let’s review where the United States and its citizens stand on the general question of using military force abroad.

On this issue, Americans are divided in strange ways. There are liberal hawks and conservative doves, and vice versa.

Liberal doves oppose almost any use of U.S. power because their mind-set hardened during Vietnam: War kills children and other living things; we can’t be the world’s policeman; and so on. This sounds dismissive, but it’s not meant to be. In fact, it’s more or less where I come out.

Then there are liberal “bleeding hawks,” who see a humanitarian catastrophe developing in Syria — or virtually any place in the world where there is strife of any kind — and feel that the world’s only superpower (for the moment) must not stand idly by. That is what we did for too long in the Balkans, while thousands died.

Conservative doves have roots that go back to the pre-World War II isolationism — and sometimes overt fascist sympathies — of groups like America First and people like Father Coughlin. They are nourished by pathological hatred of Democratic presidents from FDR through Obama, and tend to reflexively oppose anything these presidents propose or do.

Conservative hawks, by contrast, reflexively favor almost any use of American power because, well, it’s American, and powerful. That sounds dismissive, and it is meant to.

This group includes the so-called neocons, and because, since the end of the Cold War, most of the action has been in the Middle East, they are sometimes suspected of carrying water for Israel. That’s unfair. An odd combination of macho and scaredy-cat, they see peril to the U.S. everywhere, and want to stamp it out.

This taxonomy leaves out the foreign policy “realists,” mainly but not always Republicans (of the no longer extant “Rockefeller” or “liberal” Republican school), and mainly but not always anti-intervention. Self-described realists pride themselves on their steely focus on national interests and power politics — no idealism, here, please. Their high priest is George F. Kennan, who came up with the Cold War policy of containment.

Another group in this debate that crosses party and ideological lines might be called the “new constitutionalists.” These people have noticed that the Constitution requires a president to get the approval of Congress before going to war, a provision largely ignored during the Cold War. It was considered impractical when possible conflicts were likely to be low-grade guerrilla wars, or top-secret CIA mischief, or quick nuclear exchanges that would be over, with millions dead, in 45 minutes.

Today’s wars, however, are perfectly suited to what the Constitution requires: They are deliberate, highly optional decisions made by the United States to initiate hostilities, after months of TV yak that is no substitute for a relatively dignified senatorial debate. (The Constitution requires the debate, not the yak.)

The situation in Syria is further complicated by the familiar question of who’s the good guy. The bad guy is clearly Bashar Assad. But his opposition is a mixture of unattractive clerics and their followers, liberal reformers and left-wing radicals. Traditionally we have anointed a pro-American figure as our boy, such as Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam, or Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq, or the current favorite, Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, and traditionally he has disappointed us.

Our guiding star in questions of intervention used to be the so-called Powell doctrine, which held that the lesson of Vietnam is this: If you are going to intervene in some distant land, do so with maximum force for a quick victory and the uncomplicated support of the citizenry back home. But this standard can almost never be met (which may have been Colin Powell’s point). It was, in effect, a recipe for isolationism.

And so the Powell doctrine has been ignored: successfully, in places such as Kosovo, and somewhat less successfully in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both these latter cases, we forgot another supposed lesson of Vietnam, which is that to avoid a “quagmire,” you need an “exit strategy.” But your exit strategy cannot be a “hard and fast deadline,” as Obama has promised in Afghanistan and achieved in Iraq, because that tells the bad guy that all he has to do is hang on until Date X and he wins.

People used to make a great distinction between America’s interests, America’s values and purely humanitarian concerns. Intervention to protect the first was regarded as mandatory; serving the second and third was not. But in practice, at least in the Middle East, they all get muddled. We have an interest in promoting our values. A Syria without Assad, like a Libya without Moammar Kadafi or an Iraq without Saddam Hussein or an Iran without nuclear weapons, is a safer place for Americans as well as a healthier place for the locals.

However, when weighing the pros and cons of some potential use ofU.S. militaryforce in a distant land, we tend to credit our good intentions as if they had been realized.

One lesson of recent interventions is that we aren’t very good at these things. We squeezed Iraq’s economy for a decade between the two Persian Gulf wars. How many innocent lives did that cost? Developments in military technology, such as drones, make intervention less costly in blood for us, and thus possibly easier to contemplate. But they do less to change the equation for the people we are sincerely trying to help.

Intervention never will be, and maybe never should be, an all-or-nothing decision. There are goals that are worth attempting but that may not be worth giving our all for.

We will never have logically consistent rules about such things. To questions like, “Why Iraq but not Iran?” or, “Why are we standing by while a Syrian dictator tears apart his own country?” the answer is, “Just because.”

Decisions about using force will always be affected, if not determined, by extraneous factors. Is it an election year? How is the economy? Have we had a lot of these situations lately?

Too often, when we weigh the costs and benefits of intervention, we take credit for our intentions rather than the results. Whether the invasion and occupation of Iraq would have been worth the costs if we were leaving behind a stable democracy as promised is a very different question than whether the war was worth it as it actually turned out.

Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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