If Syria is a Proxy War, What's the U.S. Interest?


Syria has become a global proxy war, in which every other participant is more invested than the United States. Russia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia — along with Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and now the Muslim Brotherhood — aid the forces that seem to serve their interests. U.S. support for the moderate opposition that began the Syrian revolution, in contrast, has been hesitant, late and restricted.

So writes former Bush speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. Recall that Gerson supports what he calls "heroic conservatism." In 2007, I reviewed his book of the same name and spelled out what he meant:  

This is not your grandfather's—or Barry Goldwater's—conservatism. Out with libertarianism—"the elevation of personal and economic freedom over other values like compassion and community"—and in with what Gerson and others have cham-pioned as "compassionate conservatism," only on a global scale.

The list of appropriate interventions covers a lot of ground: "When a 15-year-old girl in the inner city lives in an atmosphere of squalor and daily abuse . . . when a Down syndrome fetus is casually killed as a life not worthy to be lived . . . when an infant in Africa grows burning hot, then cold with death from the lack of malaria pills that cost a few dollars."

So Syria is a proxy war in Gerson's mind. But a proxy for what?

Outside of a pretty straight-on humanitarian intervention, it's not clear what the U.S. interest could possibly be. In Korea and Vietnam, the paradigmatic Cold War proxy battles, the idea was that we were defending Western-style democracies against insurgents backed or perhaps directed by international communists. We were also showing the Russians and the Chinese that we would pay any price, etc. to help keep people free (never mind the rotten record of the South Korean and Vietnamese governments).

In Syria, who is our proxy? Not the Assad regime, obviously. But it's not clear we're on the side of the rebels, either, many of whom seem to be precisely the sorts of Islamic radicals we stand against. More important, I guess, is that the international stakes in Syria are far from clear. What happens in the United States if Hezbollah or al Qaeda takes over? Are they that much closer to establishing sharia law in Oklahoma? Will they be emboldened to undertake another 9/11 (which they did when the U.S. had already beaten secularish Iraq and was playing footsie with the Taliban in Afghanistan).

Perhaps Russia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are "more invested" because they actually have more at stake in the outcome of the Syrian civil war—not only geographically but religiously, culturally, and ethnically.

Gerson makes the semi-conventional wisdom case that the time for action was a couple of years ago. But we should stick it out anyway, because, don't you see, we're already engaged:

Disengagement would shift the worst case once again: further spreading cross-border radicalization, refugee flows and uncontainable Shiite-Sunni warfare across the Middle East. Iran would see a United States unable or unwilling to accomplish its goals in the region and draw the obvious conclusions.

That's arguably the most novel argument for intervention I've seen in a long time: It's not really intervention because we're already involved even though we're still debating what sort of involvement we may or may not do. As for the larger point about Iran: If that past decade—or perhaps the past 60 years—has proven anything, it's that the U.S. is unable to accomplish its goals in the Middle East.

Apart from offering to take in as many displaced persons and refugees as possible via immigration (to his credit, Gerson is far more pro-immigrant than most cons, whether heroic or not), perhaps it's time—finally—for the U.S. to let countries with more obvious stakes in a region take the lead.