Should the U.S. Get Involved in Syria?

That’s the question I ask in my newest piece for Hoover’s Defining Ideas. The libertarian position, I suggest, is not quite as simple as one may think:

The basic principle of libertarian thought is its blanket prohibition against the use of force (including the threat of force) and fraud to achieve personal gain at the expense of others. That principle translates easily into the international context to say that one nation cannot wage war against another.

However easy it is to state that basic principle, it is just that hard to implement it, especially in a world of self-help where there is no common sovereign to stop the use of force. It is easy to allow the use of force in self-defense, but difficult to prevent that excuse from being used by scoundrels for their own ends.

It is even harder to get to the bottom of the simple question of when and where one person (or nation) should come to the assistance of another. The basic legal rule is that such intervention is permissible but not obligatory, and only on behalf of the victim of the attack. The general private law rule that there is no duty to rescue a stranger in a condition of imminent peril from natural forces, even though there is an obvious right to do so, carries over to the matter of self-defense.

The great tragedy then is that the clear moral principle can easily become overwhelmed by a series of subsidiary conflicts that extend from difficult factual disputes about the past to uncertain predictions about the future, all set against a background that allows for the exercise of good faith judgment without clear guidelines on how it is best exercised. I do hope that I am wrong, and that the President is doing the right thing. But all things considered, I think that there is a serious risk that his policy of studied disengagement may well turn out, down the road, to drag us into some larger conflict against our will.

  1. Fred Cole

    With all due respect (and not having read the full column), I’m not sure that is at all the principle to apply in this situation.

    I think the notion of individual A coming to the aid of individual B who is being attacked breaks down when you’re not talking about an individual doing the aiding, but a nation state and when individual B isn’t an individual being rescued from attack but an uncertain number of uncertain groups with uncertain membership and uncertain allegiances.  

    I think a better analogy (setting aside to my above objection to individual A being a nation state) would be someone seeing a gun fight between rival street gangs in the midst of a shootout and coming to the aid of one over the other.

  2. BrentB67

    In response to your title question: No.

  3. Douglas

    Let me keep it short and sweet: Hell no, and stay out of it.

  4. What Fred, and Brent and Doug said.  I agree with every word of it.  This isn’t a question of principle or moral reasoning.  It’s a question much better informed by prudence and experience, hopefully tempered by a realistic appraisal of the limits of our resources.

  5. Nick Stuart

    Anyone who wants the US involved in Syria should send their kids, not mine.

    This basic sentiment is exponentially increased by my complete lack of confidence in our current civilian and top level military leadership.

  6. Schrodinger

    Absolutely not! It is a morass.

  7. tabula rasa

    I tend to be a guy who is more hawkish than not.  

    Syria, however, looks like a monumental tar baby.  If anything, a no-fly zone and, of course, assistance to Israel to help keep this mess from spilling onto it.  No boots on the ground, unless Senator McCain wants to go help (in which case, we must limit to his pair of boots).

  8. Locke On

    Let’s help both sides lose.

  9. MSJL

    1. On the question of Syria – Before we decide to act, let’s first ask what our interest is and what we expect to accomplish by our action. Syria has been a hostile and disruptive regional power under the Assads, and I have no soft spot for them. But this is a civil war and we have no idea of all the various issues they are fighting over. And the opposition is increasingly radicalized and anti-Western.Perhaps there was a moment when we could have intervened at some level (we should not automatically assume we always need boots on the ground to affect change) and brought about an outcome with a government respecting the rule of law. Now we are looking at the choice between a Baathist totalitarian and Islamic radicals. I’m not sure we have an option between the least bad solution.

  10. MSJL

    2. If we do not get involved with U.S. forces, then what do we do? We have an interest in the outcome, as these troubles can boil over through the region. The former Yugoslavia didn’t create the domino effect of ethnic conflicts through Europe that many worried about, but the situation got sufficiently out-of-hand and egregious that we had to abandon our “we don’t have a dog in that fight” position.

    3. If we do nothing, the upside is that very likely we will watch two sides we dislike bleed each other dry. But we will also stand by and watch a lot of civilians get butchered in the crossfire. This will be Lebanon on a larger scale. Syria will collapse into a failed state and we will be dealing with the after-shocks for many years to come. What messages will we send with our indifference? If the fighting drifts into Turkey (a Nato ally) or into Israel, what are we prepared to do to support them? Will we give Israel a free hand?

  11. MSJL

    4. If we go in, what can we accomplish? At this point too many outsiders have gotten into the fight to think that we can have any assurance as to what a post-civil war Syria would look like if the opposition prevails.

    5. If Assad prevails, what does he have? He will be considerably weakened and his days will likely be numbered. He will be propped up by Iran; that will make them more confident in the region, but also drag on their resources.

    6. The best solution might be to create a safe-haven for the inevitable flow of refugees with a no-fly zone and backed up with forces that can’t be walked over (read: No Blue Helmets), but not to get involved with the outcome of the civil war. At least this way we can minimize the risk of a humanitarian disaster and minimize the threat of further regional disruption. As between the participants, treat this as an exercise of containment and watch them wear themselves down.

  12. MSJL

    7. On the question of the Libertarian response – I have also not read the article, but am curious how to deal with the issue of a revisionist ideology (e.g., fascism, communism, Islamism, etc.) that engages in disruption without a direct attack. Must you let everything go to hell and wait until the bombs are dropping in your own back yard before responding to a threat?

  13. Douglas
    Locke On: Let’s help both sides lose. · 24 minutes ago

    Indeed, I look at situations like the this the same way I look at the Eastern Front in WWII: What good guys? 

  14. Rascalfair

    What is this “clear moral principle” stuff?  What’s clear about an unlimited obligation to anyone?  How about this clarity: Our obligation to another is directly in proportion to his obligation to us.  Our obligation to a “moral principle” is directly proportional to his obligation to that moral principle? 

    Is there a sentient person alive who sees the events in Syria as operating in the sphere of “clear moral principles?’ 

    These guys will gut us in a heartbeat; does anyone doubt it?  Does anyone think they’re committed to us or to our “clear moral principle?”

    Sorry, no cigar.  No!  Hell no!

  15. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    I sympathize with Richard.

    Given the connection between Assad, on the one hand, and Hezbollah and the Iranian regime, on the other, we should have acted long ago to tip the balance against him. I am not suggesting boots on the ground. That would have been and probably still is unnecessary. But harming our enemies is generally a good idea, and thereby we can make some friends.

    If there are ever foreign boots on the ground, they will be Turkish boots; and when the Turks were ready and willing, Obama dithered as is his wont. If the Islamists now dominate the opposition to Assad, it is because the Saudis and the Qataris were more forthcoming than we were.

    Richard has the virtue of understanding that developments in Syria are connected with developments elsewhere in the Near East. Anything that hurts the Iranian regime helps us.

  16. Paul A. Rahe: I sympathize with Richard.

    Given the connection between Assad, on the one hand, and Hezbollah and the Iranian regime, on the other, we should have acted long ago to tip the balance against him. I am not suggesting boots on the ground. That would have been and probably still is unnecessary. But harming our enemies is generally a good idea, and thereby we can make some friends.

    If there are ever foreign boots on the ground, they will be Turkish boots; and when the Turks were ready and willing, Obama dithered as is his wont. If the Islamists now dominate the opposition to Assad, it is because the Saudis and the Qataris were more forthcoming than we were.

    Richard has the virtue of understanding that developments in Syria are connected with developments elsewhere in the Near East. Anything that hurts the Iranian regime helps us. · 1 minute ago

    What were the Turks prepared to do and how did Obama dither?  (I’ve always thought that if anything good could come of the Syria mess, it would have been through Turkish intervention, but I wasn’t aware they were prepared to do much other than seal their own_border.)

  17. flownover

    The United States of 2002 should intervene.

    The United States of 2013 can’t handle it.

  18. Vince Guerra

    When Mordor orcs are fighting Isengard orcs, let them.

  19. Indaba

    No. Look what happened in many other countries. Stay home and pay down your debt. No one thanks you, just sees you as bumbling.

  20. Zafar

    Oh, Indaba….true words, but blunt!

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