It has been alleged by some commentators that U.S. President Barack Obama -- by doing nothing to halt the carnage -- is responsible for more deaths in Syria than President George W. Bush was in Iraq. There are, to say the least, problems with this analysis.
First of all, the number of Iraqi deaths remains inconclusive and a subject of controversy. It is possible that, say, 200,000 or more people were killed in Iraq, while 146,000 have died in Syria so far. But that is a detail. For the real problem with blaming Obama for Syria's war is the faulty assumption that America has been somehow responsible for a civil war in a complex and populous Muslim society half a world away. Such an analysis assumes Washington is in control of domestic realities around the globe when it demonstrably isn't. It assumes omnipotence on Washington's part that is self-reverential in the extreme.
The argument in favor of early intervention in Syria takes something for granted that is far from clear: that such an early intervention would have gone smoothly, or relatively smoothly. It may well not have. It is easy to design an intervention scenario on a newspaper opinion page, where none of the details have to be explained beyond the 1,000-word article limit. It is another thing to actually have to plan and carry out such an intervention, even if it does not involve the insertion of troops. Advice was legion on the op-ed pages about intervention in Libya. Libya is now a failed state. And Libya was simple compared to Syria. To say that intervention in Syria in 2011 would have been easier than in 2014 is to miss the point: Even intervention in 2011 would have been fraught with great risks.
Three years ago, there was a significant likelihood of an American-led intervention leading to a circumstance where Obama would have midwifed to power a jihadi state -- if not immediately, then eventually. For while jihadi fighters were not as numerous in Syria as they are now, the "moderate" opponents to Bashar al Assad were distinctly unimpressive in their organization, even as Sunni extremist attitudes to al Assad's Shia-trending Alawite rule had been building for decades behind the scenes.
The Israelis, who actually have to live next door to Syria, rather than merely deal with it as an issue from thousands of miles removed, have always been deeply uneasy about toppling al Assad for the very reasons I have outlined.
While it is true that interventionists were never calling for boots on the ground, it is also true that no peace in a country like Syria was ever conceivable without substantial numbers of boots on the ground. And if the United States facilitated the toppling of the al Assad regime, Washington would have come under considerable international pressure to arrange the stabilization force, if not to man it, at least in part.
Bashar al Assad, like his father, Hafez al Assad, has represented something convenient, if noxious, in the Middle East geopolitical equation: a regime that, because it is in sectarian terms a minority one, has always been usefully insecure about Sunni Arab dominance of the region -- a position that is very convenient to Israel, which, with all its faults, is an American ally, remember. Moreover, this minority regime in Syria, whatever its rhetoric and periodic violations, was in a more or less de facto state of peace with Israel ever since Henry Kissinger arranged a separation of forces agreement between the two countries 40 years ago. Toppling such a regime in 2011 could not have been undertaken lightly. As for where we stand now, without al Assad, a Sunni jihadi state, if not an al Qaeda one -- or even a further descent into anarchy -- may well be written into Syria's circumstance.
There are literally hundreds of factions fighting in Syria, with al Assad, if not a functioning president, the most powerful warlord among them. Removing al Assad by force would not bring peace to Syria, as we have already witnessed a plethora of examples of internecine fighting among the rebels themselves. But removing al Assad would accomplish one thing: It would burden the outside powers that orchestrated such a removal with the political responsibility of putting things to rights on the ground in the country. Is that a prudent policy course for the United States?
Of course, an ongoing civil war in Syria could erode whatever stability the region enjoys, including the stability of the pro-Western regime in Jordan -- a de facto Israeli ally. And this is to say nothing of the continued humanitarian nightmare inside Syria itself, where radical groups continue to incubate. There are risks and horrors in every direction, in other words. But to minimize the risks of a military course of action -- boots on the ground or not -- in order to ease a humanitarian concern is not to stand on principle, but to avoid it. Risks can be taken; risks can be tolerated -- but only after owning up to all their possibilities and implications in the first place.
Indeed, between the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and the Iranian plateau there is not one real state, but rather a nest of sectarian and ethnic contradictions in which, for decades, anarchy masqueraded as tyranny until the tyranny itself buckled or was toppled. If the younger Bush had not intervened in Iraq in 2003, it is easily within the realm of possibility that the Arab Spring would have led to massive, blood-chilling sectarian and ethnic violence inside Iraq in response to a popular uprising against Saddam Hussein and the subsequent weakening of his tyranny. For Saddam's Iraq was, if anything, under even greater intercommunal stresses than al Assad's Syria. And thus Bush would have been blamed as a failed president for not intervening in Iraq when he had the chance -- for the absence of weapons of mass destruction would not have been known about in the first place had Saddam remained in power and no outside weapons experts been allowed to survey the country.
There may simply be no way that regimes of such absolute suffocating cruelty, hiding mutually hostile ethnic and sectarian groups beneath their carapace, can have a soft landing, so that American presidents are blamed for whatever action they take or don't take.
To intervene at whatever level in such places is to micromanage at some level, and to micromanage at some level means to claim an understanding of infernally complex societies and an ability to manipulate them. Occasionally, for matters of overwhelming national interest, the United States will have to do this -- but the less it happens, the better.