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.

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Members have made 34 comments.

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  1. Profile photo of Fred Cole Member

    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.

    • #1
    • June 4, 2013 at 10:39 am
  2. Profile photo of BrentB67 Coolidge

    In response to your title question: No.

    • #2
    • June 4, 2013 at 11:15 am
  3. Profile photo of Douglas Member

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

    • #3
    • June 4, 2013 at 11:20 am
  4. Profile photo of Cato Rand Member

    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.

    • #4
    • June 4, 2013 at 11:30 am
  5. Profile photo of Nick Stuart Thatcher

    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.

    • #5
    • June 4, 2013 at 11:46 am
  6. Profile photo of Schrodinger's Cat Inactive

    Absolutely not! It is a morass.

    • #6
    • June 4, 2013 at 11:54 am
  7. Profile photo of tabula rasa Member

    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).

    • #7
    • June 5, 2013 at 1:00 am
  8. Profile photo of Locke On Member

    Let’s help both sides lose.

    • #8
    • June 5, 2013 at 1:43 am
  9. Profile photo of MSJL Thatcher

    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.

    • #9
    • June 5, 2013 at 2:05 am
  10. Profile photo of MSJL Thatcher

    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?

    • #10
    • June 5, 2013 at 2:05 am
  11. Profile photo of MSJL Thatcher

    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.

    • #11
    • June 5, 2013 at 2:06 am
  12. Profile photo of MSJL Thatcher

    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?

    • #12
    • June 5, 2013 at 2:06 am
  13. Profile photo of Douglas Member
    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? 

    • #13
    • June 5, 2013 at 2:26 am
  14. Profile photo of Rascalfair Inactive

    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!

    • #14
    • June 5, 2013 at 2:29 am
  15. Profile photo of Paul A. Rahe Contributor

    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.

    • #15
    • June 5, 2013 at 2:48 am
  16. Profile photo of Cato Rand Member
    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.)

    • #16
    • June 5, 2013 at 2:56 am
  17. Profile photo of flownover Inactive

    The United States of 2002 should intervene.

    The United States of 2013 can’t handle it.

    • #17
    • June 5, 2013 at 3:28 am
  18. Profile photo of Vince Guerra Member

    When Mordor orcs are fighting Isengard orcs, let them.

    • #18
    • June 5, 2013 at 3:34 am
  19. Profile photo of Indaba Member

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

    • #19
    • June 5, 2013 at 6:00 am
  20. Profile photo of Zafar Member

    Oh, Indaba….true words, but blunt!

    • #20
    • June 5, 2013 at 6:33 am
  21. Profile photo of Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Cato Rand f/k/a GFL
    Paul A. Rahe: . . . 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.) · 16 hours ago

    Something like eighteen months ago, Erdogan wanted to send his army in. What he wanted from us was backing — arms, etc. The Obama administration balked.

    • #21
    • June 5, 2013 at 7:40 am
  22. Profile photo of KingsKnight1 Inactive

    If we go in it should be short, simple and destructive. Destroy the Asade regime, seize any WMDs we find and destroy anything else of military value. Then get out. Pronto. No nation building, no school building just do what the military does best, kill people and break things that get in the way of the mission. And I mean that with great honor and bride in our armed sevices.

    • #22
    • June 5, 2013 at 7:51 am
  23. Profile photo of Byron Horatio Member
    Paul A. Rahe:

    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.

    We abetted in the overthrow and assassination of Ghadaffi. That earned us 4 murdered Americans, and from what I can tell, not a single friend. 

    And to be clear, it was Assad’s enemies, and not the regime, that just the other day slaughtered hundreds of Christians. These are the characters McCain and for some reason, a lot of other conservatives are suggesting we give guns to. And if McCain can’t even recognize a terrorist in the same room as him, how can we expect the rest of the government to be more discerning in who we arm? 

    A lot of contributors on here have spoken in favor of arming the rebels, but few seem to be able to give concrete strategic goals or explain how the rebels would be an improvement.

    • #23
    • June 5, 2013 at 8:11 am
  24. Profile photo of Cato Rand Member
    Paul A. Rahe
    Cato Rand f/k/a GFL
     

     

    Something like eighteen months ago, Erdogan wanted to send his army in. What he wanted from us was backing — arms, etc. The Obama administration balked. · 55 minutes ago

    I wasn’t aware of that. Seems incomprehensible to me. Seems painfully clear the Turks are the only real hope of damage control, to say nothing of anything resembling a civilized outcome.

    • #24
    • June 5, 2013 at 8:38 am
  25. Profile photo of Yeah...ok. Member

    Long term Middle East foreign policy.

    Drill baby – Drill.

    • #25
    • June 5, 2013 at 9:31 am
  26. Profile photo of Indaba Member

    Zafar, sorry to be rude but I have lived in Africa and experienced US foreign policy. The IBMs, MacDonalds, Coke, Sylvestir Stallone, Levi jeans, Nikes and Apples and Microsoft do a hundred thousand more good results than a single US government intervention.

    IBM did more to end apartheid as it changed the rules and people liked it. I woukd prefer Bill Gates to go into Syria than who is the state guy with all his Botox – Kerry? Apologies, Zafar, again for choosing the baseball bat rather than a scalpel.

    • #26
    • June 5, 2013 at 10:06 am
  27. Profile photo of Douglas Member
    Cato Rand f/k/a GFL
    Paul A. Rahe
    Cato Rand f/k/a GFL
     

    Something like eighteen months ago, Erdogan wanted to send his army in. What he wanted from us was backing — arms, etc. The Obama administration balked. · 55 minutes ago

    I wasn’t aware of that. Seems incomprehensible to me. Seems painfully clear the Turks are the only real hope of damage control, to say nothing of anything resembling a civilized outcome. · 1 hour ago

    The Turks invading a culturally Arab country would open a can of worms that modern people can’t really imagine. There’s still a lot of historical memory and resentment over Ottoman rule. Arabs are funny people when it comes to friends and enemies. Alliances shift very, very fast. The Arabs like to say “I and my brother against my cousin, I and my cousin against the world”. If the Turks go into Syria, watch how fast the Arab world… Baathist and Islamic both…. rally to to Assad’s side.

    • #27
    • June 5, 2013 at 10:23 am
  28. Profile photo of Douglas Member
    Byron Horatio

    We abetted in the overthrow and assassination of Ghadaffi. That earned us 4 murdered Americans, and from what I can tell, not a single friend. 

    This needs to be said over, and over, and over again. This is a lot like amnesty for illegal aliens, where if we give the other side the amnesty hamburger today, they promise to pay us the border enforcement next Tuesday (see 1986). In the “Arab Spring”, every time we’ve supported “freedom fighters”, they’ve turned out to be exactly the opposite. They are, in fact, mostly the kind of people that like to fly airliners into buildings.

    • #28
    • June 5, 2013 at 10:28 am
  29. Profile photo of Ontheleftcoast Member
    Paul A. Rahe: …Obama dithered as is his wont.

    Or not. To Obama, supranational bodies (UN, OIC) are the sole legitimate authorities when it comes to the use of force. They should have had the means to enforce their dictates a long time ago. National sovereignty, including (especially, given that the USA actually has the means to defend and enforce that sovereignty) American sovereignty has to go since its exercise has impeded the orderly empowerment of the duly constituted international authorities. Obama is voluntarily withholding the forcible exercise of that sovereignty. In addition, the USA must become legally bound by international treaties limiting that sovereignty.

    As one step in the service of that agenda, Secretary of State Kerry will sign the UN Small Arms Treaty. The Obama administration undoubtedly intends to enforce it even in the absence of Senate ratification. 

    These things are of a piece. At the local level, police are the sole legitimate users of force. As in the UK, private citizens must depend on the police for protection and have only extremely limited rights of self defense; they certainly should be disarmed. Any unfortunate incidents will be the price of creating a properly ordered society. Omelette, eggs.

    • #29
    • June 5, 2013 at 10:30 am
  30. Profile photo of Cato Rand Member
    Douglas
    Cato Rand f/k/a GFL
    Paul A. Rahe
    Cato Rand f/k/a GFL
     

    Something like eighteen months ago, Erdogan wanted to send his army in. What he wanted from us was backing — arms, etc. The Obama administration balked. · 55 minutes ago

    I wasn’t aware of that. Seems incomprehensible to me. Seems painfully clear the Turks are the only real hope of damage control, to say nothing of anything resembling a civilized outcome. · 1 hour ago

    The Turks invading a culturally Arab country would open a can of worms that modern people can’t really imagine. There’s still a lot of historical memory and resentment over Ottoman rule. Arabs are funny people when it comes to friends and enemies. Alliances shift very, very fast. The Arabs like to say “I and my brother against my cousin, I and my cousin against the world”. If the Turks go into Syria, watch how fast the Arab world… Baathist and Islamic both…. rally to to Assad’s side. · 1 hour ago

    Comment withdrawn. 

    • #30
    • June 5, 2013 at 11:27 am
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