POMED Notes: “Should the United States Save Syria?”
On Wednesday (1/30) the McCain institute for International Leadership held its first debate, “Should the United States Save Syria?” in its Debate and Decision series at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater. Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor of the New Republic, Dr. Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Aaron David Miller, Distinguished Scholar at the Wilson Center, took part. Elise Labott of CNN moderated the debate.
For full event notes continue reading, or click here for the PDF.
Ambassador Kurt Volker opened the event by introducing the work of the McCain Institute, its new Debate and Decision series on critical U.S. foreign policy challenges facing America’s national interests and values abroad, as well as the institute’s namesake, Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Senator McCain briefly outlined the divergent views concerning the U.S. approach to the Syria crisis and followed with a quick assessment of the situation facing the Syrian people today. Despite the focus domestically on the national debt/deficit situation which draws attention away from the humanitarian crisis in Syria, McCain pointed out the grave threat the situation in Syria poses to America abroad.
Elise Labott introduced the panelists and outlined the debate’s form and rules: Each pair of panelists – Josh Landis/Aaron David Miller and Robert Kagan/Leon Wieseltier – would have 10 minutes for an initial statement, followed by two rounds of rebuttals lasting three minutes each.
Robert Kagan stated that, despite the limits facing American involvement in the crisis – military capability, resources, national attention – the U.S. should act because Syria is a place where our humanitarian and strategic national interests converge. Citing the threat posed by extremists who emerge from failed states, he argued that failing to intervene will destabilize the region and harm America’s security interests. Similarly, Kagan called for a no-fly zone over Syria, much like the U.S. introduced for humanitarian reasons in Iraq and in Somalia in the early 1990’s.
Leon Wieseltier made the case that everything President Obama feared would happen in Syria if the U.S. intervened has already happened without American involvement in Syria’s crisis and that intervention serves both our moral and strategic interests in the region. “We will discover…that pursuit of our moral values abroad turns out to have strategic benefits…strongest position abroad is [our] relationship with peoples, not regimes.” Wieseltier also noted that toppling the Assad regime and supporting the Syrians’ fight against him will deal a strategic blow to American enemies in the region such as Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Regarding an economic argument against intervention, he stated that the connection between our economic situation and national security in no way should inhibit the U.S. with such a strategic imperative.
Dr. Joshua Landis advanced the argument that only the Syrian people can save Syria and that the U.S. should not become involved in a deteriorating situation, which is increasingly becoming a sectarian civil war, citing the results of American interventions in similar conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan. He explained that a “major sorting out” ethnically is occurring in the Middle East currently, the U.S. should not “pick winners,” and that regional ethnic rebalancing of power will occur on its own regardless of U.S. intervention. Should the U.S. become involved, he said, it would cost the country billions of dollars, and American attempts to “unradicalize Syria” are futile.
Aaron David Miller charged that the Syria conflict and any U.S. involvement therein is not a fair test of what’s wrong with U.S. foreign policy or the state of American leadership in the world, but rather about a “dumb” and “smart” choice for intervention. Given how much violence has occurred, it is inconceivable to see a peaceful transition, or a group with a clear mandate to govern, emerge, he said. Furthermore, the eventual end state in Syria is unclear, and, he charged, the U.S. doesn’t even understand how to get a conclusion that America hasn’t yet decided on.
Rebutting the argument against U.S. intervention posed by Landis and Miller, Wieseltier argued that the U.S. will never have clarity on the eventual outcome because of the “fog of war,” and that failure to act now will only make the Syrian people see no reason to look favorably on the U.S. in the future. Landis retorted by claiming that the idea that the U.S. will find the “democrats” in the Syrian conflict, and that they’ll come to power, is false, and noted that extremists are hijacking the opposition. He said, “Democracy will not be the outcome.” He argued that pro-Western elements of the opposition have no grassroots base of support in Syria and are asking for U.S. financial support when there is no proof they can win any internal struggle against extremist elements.
In the second rebuttal period, Kagan pointed out that opposition forces are always disorganized before an outside force lends support, arguing that the longer the U.S. waits to help, the worse the chances for the opposition to succeed become. Refuting the claim that U.S. intervention in sectarian conflicts in the past has always been negative, Kagan charged the U.S. has a mixed record and that it should not prohibit the U.S. from lending support in a humanitarian crisis. Miller asked Kagan whether, at this point, the U.S. could deliver enough strategic military assistance to change the arc of the conflict, and further asked, “What consistency is there [in U.S. commitment to moral imperatives],” citing American negligence on human rights abuses in Bahrain.
Labott opened the debate, asking Wieseltier to assess the U.S.’s role in policing Syria. The “fall of a dictator is not the same as [the] birth of a democracy…democratization [is] an era, not an event.” Kagan stated that the outcome in Syria will not be perfect, but asked what the outcome will be if the U.S. does nothing. Miller charged that the U.S. must develop consistent and long term policies regarding humanitarian intervention across the board, applicable to any country around the world, but argued that if the U.S. were to be involved in the Syria conflict, it could not take “half measures” and must commit fully to the project of transition. Wieseltier asked, in rebuttal to Landis’ assessment, whether the U.S. should not “level the playing field” against the extremists and provide weaponry to pro-Western forces within the opposition, to which an attendee in the audience declared that radicalization in Syria is occurring because the U.S. is forcing the opposition to turn to God when it won’t step in and help.
Each panelist was asked to provide closing remarks in the form of a U.S. policy approach to the conflict. Wieseltier argued that, in order to prevent jihadists from taking power, the U.S. should arm secular members of the opposition and do whatever it can to enhance the Syrian National Coalition and provide a safe haven. Kagan prescribed a no-fly zone and to refute any fatalist argument. Landis charged that picking a winner is folly, and aside from humanitarian assistance, the U.S. cannot involve itself in the conflict. Miller said that, based on failed U.S. experiments in peacemaking and war-making in the past 20 years, it is not clear that America is capable of succeeding.