How Syria Is Like Iraq
I supported the war in Iraq. It was an agonizing mistake. I made the mistake because I did something a serious foreign policy thinker should never do: I allowed my emotions to affect my thinking. My emotions were stirred by several visits to Iraq I had made as a reporter in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq with the machinal, totalitarian intensity employed by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. Iraq under Saddam was like a vast prison yard lit by high wattage lamps, in which everyone was watched all the time, and everyone lived in absolute fear. I had my American passport taken away from me by Saddam's secret police for ten days in 1986 while I was reporting on the Kurds in the north of the country. I had tasted the fear with which Iraqis themselves lived.
I thus assumed for years thereafter that nothing could be worse than Saddam's rule. Following 9/11, I did not want to forcibly spread democracy in the Arab world like others did; nor did I want to topple dictators per se. I wanted only one dictator gone -- Saddam -- because he was so much worse than a mere dictator. He was a tyrant straight out of Mesopotamian antiquity.
I was wrong.
I was wrong because of the following reasons:
- I did not adequately consider that even in the case of Iraq, things could be worse. Though, in 1994, I had written extensively and in depth about the dangers of anarchy in the Third World, I did not fully consider how dangerously close to anarchy Iraq actually was, and that Saddam was the Hobbesian nemesis keeping it at bay. Saddam was cruel beyond imagining because the ethnic and sectarian differences in Iraqi society were themselves cruel and bloodthirsty beyond imagining.
- I was insufficiently cold-blooded in my thinking. I did not fully consider whether it was in the American interest to remove this tyrant. After all, President Ronald Reagan had found Saddam useful in trying to contain neighboring Iran. Perhaps Saddam might still be useful in containing al Qaeda? That is how I should have been thinking.
- I was thinking only two steps ahead, not the five or six steps ahead required of serious analysis when the question concerns going to war. I wanted to remove Saddam (step one) and replace him with another general (step two). As I said, I had serious misgivings, in print, back then about democracy in the Arab world. But I should have been thinking even more about the consequences of such a newly empowered general not gaining control of the Kurds in the north, or of the Shia in the south. I should have been thinking more of how Iran would intervene on the ground with its intelligence services. I should have been thinking more about how once Saddam were toppled, simply replacing him might be a very complex affair. I should have been overwhelmed by the complexities of a post-Saddam Iraq. I wasn't sufficiently.
- I did not consider the appetite for war -- or lack thereof -- of the American public. The American public was in a patriotic frenzy following 9/11. I should have realized that such a frenzy simply could not last. I should have realized that there would be a time limit regarding how long public support could be sustained for having boots-on-the-ground in large numbers in the Middle East. World War I for the United States had lasted less than 20 months. World War II for the United States lasted little more than three-and-a-half years. Americans tired of the Korean War in about that same time-frame, and revolted against the Vietnam War when it went on longer. The fact that I was emotionally involved in toppling Saddam did not mean the public would be so.
-Finally, I did not consider the effect of a long-term commitment in Iraq (and Afghanistan) on other regional theaters. The top officials in any administration -- the president, secretary of state, and so on -- have only a limited amount of hours in a day, even if they work 70-hour weeks. And if they are spending most of those hours dealing with the Middle East, America's influence in the Pacific, Latin America, and elsewhere must suffer. America, therefore, must be light and lethal, rarely getting bogged down anywhere: in fact, I wrote and published exactly this -- but in mid-2003, after the invasion of Iraq had already commenced. I just did not foresee American forces getting bogged down as they did. That was a failure of critical thinking. For the truth is, nobody seeks a quagmire: a quagmire only occurs when people do not adequately consider in advance everything that might go wrong.
On its face, Syria resembles Iraq in much of the above. The supporters of robust military intervention are not sufficiently considering how things could become even worse after the demise of dictator Bashar al Assad, with full-scale anarchy perhaps in the offing; how Assad might still serve a cold-blooded purpose by containing al Qaeda in the Levant; how four or five steps ahead the United States might find itself owning or partially owning the situation on the ground in an anarchic Syria; how the American public's appetite for military intervention in Syria might be less than they think; and how a long-term commitment to Syria might impede American influence in other regional theaters. The Obama administration says it does not want a quagmire and will avoid one; but that was the intention of the younger Bush administration, too.
Of course, each war or intervention is different in a thousand ways than any other. So while I have listed some similarities in the ways we can think about these wars, Syria will unfold in its own unique manner. For example, it is entirely possible that the Obama administration will not get bogged down, and that its intervention, if it still ever comes to that, will pivotally affect the situation for the better by serving as a deus ex machina for a negotiated cease-fire of sorts. For the very threatened use of power can serve as its own dynamic, revealing, in this case, the limitations of Russia and Iran which were obscured as long as America did relatively little to affect the situation.
The problem, however, is that such a happy outcome in Syria usually requires a finely calibrated strategy from the beginning. The Bush administration did not have one in Iraq, evinced by the absence of post-invasion planning. And, at least as of this writing, the Obama administration seems to lack one as well. Instead, it appeared until recently to be backing into a military action that it itself only half-heartedly believes in. That, more than any of the factors I have mentioned above, is what ultimately gives me pause.