The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has discussed the mess in Syria a lot in recent weeks, to the point of accidentally midwifing a conspiracy theory. Other things happening in the world should probably be talked about as well, so I’d like to pivot away from this topic.
As a parting shot, however, I was struck by this exchange Sunday on “Fareed Zakaria GPS” between Zakaria and the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens. For anyone familiar with Stephens’s oeuvre, it should come as no surprise that he wants to intervene more forcefully in the Syrian civil war. Then Zakaria asked him the following question:
ZAKARIA: But when we think about Syria, which is to my mind more messy, because what you’re talking about is any U.S. involvement would have to be aimed at essentially dislodging Assad from power. Okay. We dislodged Hussein from power. We thought we had good guys who are going to take — pick up, total chaos, civil war, 10 years, 400,000 people dead. We did it in Libya, we dislodged Gaddafi, we thought it would work out well. We had democrats, total chaos. We did it in Yemen. Total chaos.
It feels like we know how this movie will end. If Assad is dislodged from Damascus, what do you think is going to happen? Total chaos.
STEPHENS: Look, the — we don’t say, ‘Okay, we have overcommitted in the past.’ But the answer to that is not completely —
STEPHENS: First of all, Syria is many countries. And just because we can’t solve the riddle of Syria doesn’t mean that we can’t do a lot for places like the Kurdish areas of Syria to help sustain some kind of opposition. Something in that country that is decent and a source of instability.
Stephens’s attempt at an answer gets to the crucial distinction between foreign policy outputs and foreign policy outcomes that Spoiler Alerts has harped on in the past. When hawks talk about taking action in Syria, they tend to focus on their desired outcomes: checking Russian and Iranian power, ousting Assad, defeating the Islamic State and ending the slow-motion humanitarian disaster. These are attractive goals that the current administration is not pursuing. Hawks sound very good when they talk about foreign policy outcomes in Syria.
The question is how the foreign policy output of greater military intervention in Syria will achieve those desired outcomes. That’s why Zakaria’s question is important, and that’s why Stephens’s failure to offer a credible answer matters. There is a strong and bipartisan 21st-century record of U.S. administrations applying military force in the Middle East with the most noble of intentions and then making the extant situation much, much worse. So any hawk who makes the case for more action has to marry that to a detailed argument for why this time would be different. Simply put, why would the foreign policy output of a more aggressive U.S. posture in Syria lead to a better outcome than the status quo?
Stephens’s counter is that just because the United States has messed this up in the past is not a reason for not trying again. But all else being equal, most Americans and most policymakers probably would prefer a Syrian mess without heavy American investments to one where the United States expends significant blood and treasure for an altogether different Syrian mess.
I don’t have a lot of good things to say about the Obama administration’s Syria policy, but I will say that it possesses one virtue: The president has determined that Syria is not a core American interest and therefore does not warrant greater investments of American resources. It’s a cold, calculating, semi-competent strategy. But it has the virtue of being better than the suggested hawkish alternatives.
The next time a hawk proposes to ramp up American activity and effort in Syria, see how they answer Zakaria’s question. Because if they can’t tie foreign policy outputs to foreign policy outcomes, then they are simply puffing out their chest in the hope that you will be impressed.