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Should the U.S. get militarily involved in Syria?

REUTERS/Yazan Homsy
A street lined with buildings damaged by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the besieged area of Homs.

A reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria or to bomb or invade North Korea does not make you an “isolationist.” More on that below.

Time Magazine commissioned short pieces for the current issue from John McCain and Zbigniew Brzezinski making the case for and against U.S. military intervention in Syria.

The little whiff of reformism that Syrian President Bashar Assad briefly aspired to represent when he first inherited the job from his monstrous dictator father has long since disappeared. Turns out the son is also a hideous butcher willing to spill unlimited quantities of innocent blood to perpetuate the rule of his minority tribe. Tragically, cases like these are all too common. The question is whether this is a case that justifies U.S. military intervention.

McCain’s piece is almost humorously circular. He says the U.S. vital interests and values are on the table. What interests? What values? Writes McCain: “For America, our interests are our values, and our values are our interests. “

He mentions that the fighting is causing significant suffering, that U.S.-hating terrorist groups are active in Syria, that several U.S. allies are nearby and some (Jordan and Turkey) have already been drawn in by their willingness to accept refugees from the fighting, that the Syrian instability could destabilize the neighborhood and that chemical weapons are in the picture. All true. But these factors are at play in most of the world’s trouble spots and certainly apply to any unrest in the Middle East.

McCain’s enthusiasm for intervention has become sadly predictable over his long public career. A great many of the wars he recommended, certainly including most recently in Iraq, have not turned out as well as he hoped, but he has never acquired the knack of seriously considering whether this might also be true of the next one. He shows little concern about that track record as he advocates using the U.S. military to shape the outcome in Syria — short of “boots on the ground” for now.  

In rebuttal, Brzezinski warns bluntly that “the Syrian conflict is a sectarian war in a volatile region whose potential to spread and directly threaten American interests would only be increased by U.S. intervention.”

Especially now that Israel has already intervened by bombing weapons sites in Syria, Brzezinski worries that any U.S. military role will reinforce the overall anti-American recruiting argument about America and Israel combining against Arabs. He also mocks the idea of a “tiddlywinks intervention” in which the U.S. could advance its interests without getting fully engaged. He writes:

“To minimize these potential consequences, U.S. military intervention would have to achieve a decisive outcome relatively quickly through the application of overwhelming force. That would require direct Turkish involvement, which seems unlikely given Turkey’s internal difficulties, particularly its tenuous relations with its substantial Kurdish minority.

The various schemes that have been proposed for a kind of tiddlywinks intervention from around the edges of the conflict—no-fly zones, bombing Damascus and so forth—would simply make the situation worse. None of the proposals would result in an outcome strategically beneficial for the U.S. On the contrary, they would produce a more complex, undefined slide into the worst-case scenario. The only solution is to seek Russia’s and China’s support for U.N.-sponsored elections in which, with luck, Assad might be “persuaded” not to participate.”

Those of us old enough to remember his days as national security advisor don’t think of Brzezinski as any kind of dove. I associate him with mind-numbingly complicated calculations of how everything that might be done influenced the ultimate outcome of the Cold War.

Personally, I appreciate President Obama’s patient, fairly mysterious attitude. My gut feeling is that he wants to be remembered for successfully extracting us from the two wars he inherited and not for getting us involved in a new one unless the reasons are extremely compelling.

I hope the president won’t be guided by polls, but for now, the U.S. public seems to be in sync with his instinct to try to avoid another war. A Rasmussen Poll out yesterday found that 73 percent of Americans hope the U.S. will not get involved in the Syrian civil war.

Last week, a New York Times/CBS poll also investigated how the public was feeling about U.S. military involvement in Syria or North Korea, over its nuclear program. The answer was that big majorities in both cases hope it can be avoided. But what set off my long-ago first sentence about “isolationism” is the way the poll results were characterized by the Times and also in the Strib.

The Strib’s headline on the Times poll read: “Americans feeling isolationist.” The first sentence of the story in the Times “Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to U.S. intervention in North Korea or Syria.”

Louis Brown, 50, a poll respondent from Ohio, was held up as the poster child of this isolationism because he “described Syria and North Korea in a follow-up interview as ‘political hotbeds.’ In his view, ‘we don’t need additional loss of American lives right now.’” Apparently, according to the way the Times throws the word around, that makes him an isolationist. Really?

The two poll questions that measured the new “isolationism” went as follows:

“Do you think the United States has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria between government forces and anti-government groups, or doesn’t the United States have this responsibility?”

Sixty-two percent said that the U.S. does not have this “responsibility,” which is a far cry from saying that the United States should not get involved in helpful ways short of putting U.S. troops’ lives at risk and at a reasonable cost.

On North Korea, the pollsters asked respondents to embrace one of these three attitudes:

1. North Korea is a threat to the United States that requires military action now. (15 percent chose this answer.)

2. North Korea is a threat that can be contained for now. (56 percent said this.)

3. North Korea is not a threat to the United States at this time. (21 percent chose this.)

None of these responses reflects any hint of isolationism in the real meaning of that term.

“Isolationism” actually meant something fairly concrete before World War II. It meant a U.S. policy of having as little as possible to do with the rest of the world, especially “old world” outside of the Americas.

George Washington, who managed to get through his two-terms as president without starting or joining in any international wars and who warned in his farewell address against “entangling alliances,” could be said to have been advocating a policy of “isolationism,” although Washington certainly intended for the United States to have diplomatic relationships with foreign nations. 

The deep and powerful resistance to U.S. entry into World War I reflected an element of isolationism. The senators who successfully kept the United States from joining the League of Nations after World War I (even though the U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, had been the leading figure in the creation of the League) could accurately be described as isolationists and would not have shrunk from the term. The last gasp of a real, serious, widespread isolationist streak in mainstream U.S. policy was represented by the deep reluctance to get the U.S. into World War II until Japan foolishly attacked Pearl Harbor. (Even most isolationists understood that a military attack on U.S. territory could not be ignored.)

If you look up “isolationism” in dictionaries, including modern ones, you will still find the word denoted accurately as, for example “A national policy of abstaining from political or economic relations with other countries,” or “a policy of nonparticipation in or withdrawal from international affairs” or even “a policy of national isolation by abstention from alliances and other international political and economic relations.”

A real isolationist would advocate U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations and NATO (either of which could require member states to get involved in joint military actions), and the many bilateral relationships that include a presumption of U.S. military action in the event of an attack on an ally. A properly isolationist nation would avoid such relationships.

 A real isolationist would presumably advocate shuttering the dozens of permanent U.S. military installations around the world. A hard-core isolationist would also be discommoded by the many bi- and multi-lateral economic (and perhaps cultural and perhaps environmental) organizations to which the U.S. belongs that presumably also limit its freedom of action.

There may be a few Americans who have that view, but certainly not enough to register much in any poll.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/10/2013 - 04:59 pm.


    No. We simply cannot afford to be the policemen of the world, both in terms of money and lives lost. There reaches a point when the countries in that region need to step in and do something to stabilize the situation. As it sits now, the U.S. needs to pare its military budget so we can make more investments at home.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/10/2013 - 05:23 pm.

    Let McCain

    join the Syrian air force.
    Given his flight record, he’d destroy it in a week.

    And one would think that by now we’d all know the dangers of intervening in civil wars, which is what Syria is right now.
    We may prefer one side (although which one is actually aligned with American interests is another matter, given the various links of the different rebel factions).

    And finally, ‘involvement’ is a relative term.
    The odds are good that we are supplying some form of clandestine aid to at least some of the rebel factions. The question is whether we should publicly supply direct military aide in the form of arms and ammunition, and instruction in their use, which means boots on the ground.

  3. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/10/2013 - 05:42 pm.

    I’ve always felt that the REAL isolationists

    are the people who see the world entirely in terms of “American interests” and “projecting American power in the world.”

    Such people are unlikely to remember that other countries have legitimate interests, that internal divisions arise for very good reasons, that a government leader who is “a friend of the United States” may be bad for his country, that a government leader who is “anti-American” may be good for his country, and that interventions cause huge messes and harm America’s reputation more often than they do any good.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/11/2013 - 07:50 am.

    Answering the rhetorical question

    n the headline is easy:


    What compelling interest of the United States is currently threatened by the bloodshed in Syria? There may well be multiple genuine humanitarian arguments for American involvement, but “involvement,” at least in the ordinary English language usage of the term, does not automatically imply military intervention. I don’t claim any particular expertise regarding Syria, but what I’ve read suggests that we’re already significantly involved, diplomatically and perhaps economically.

    Recent decades in the Middle East suggest that pursuing those avenues, rather than a military one, is a course more likely to benefit not only American interests, but also those of at least some of the parties most directly involved. Karen Sandness’ points in this regard are well-taken. Since World War II, we have often supported foreign leaders and groups whose agendas primarily benefit American corporate interests rather than the long-term well-being of their own societies (and of ours, as well).

    To argue that a military response ought to be the last resort, rather than among the first, doesn’t strike me as “isolationist” by any generally-accepted definition of the term. Recent history suggests that we would do well to embrace the application of American influence in other parts of the world in ways that don’t invite or involve organized bloodshed.

  5. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/11/2013 - 09:26 am.

    No and No

    I’m hopeful that North Korea will simply be bluster and that sometime soon the regime will collapse and those poor people can become as prosperous as the South Koreans. Ideally, there will be no military need.
    In Syria, our potential to make things worse is just too big. We’d probably just unite people to fight against us. Better to simply stay out. Plus, right now I don’t trust this administration to do even simple tasks well, much less extremely complicated ones like fighting in the Middle East.

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/11/2013 - 09:58 pm.

      Simple Tasks

      Tunisia – Check
      Libya – Check
      Egypt – Check
      Yemen – Check
      Withdrawal From Iraq – Check
      Withdrawal From Afghanistan – Check….

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/11/2013 - 10:21 pm.


        Are you seriously considering Libya and Egypt to be successful? Seriously? And, regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, I don’t know that you could really say that we’ve withdrawn from either one. Iraq to some extent but not wholly. And frankly, I’ll believe withdraw from Afghanistan when it happens.

        • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/13/2013 - 12:20 am.

          Yeah Check

          As far as Third World Democracies go, yes Egypt and Libya are successful. Seriously.

          Egypt has a man elected who is now facing the music of his electorate. Libya also has a transitional leadership that seems to be functioning. Our presence in Iraq is dwindling, and we are negotiating a bases agreement with Karzai.

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/13/2013 - 08:33 pm.

            Third world democracies

            don’t go very far (I won’t quite say it’s an oxymoron but….).
            Come back in a year and see how checkered the record is.

            • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/14/2013 - 08:54 am.

              Third World Democracies

              Shall we say India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philiphines, South America ……The record is a whole lot better than implied….

              • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/14/2013 - 03:20 pm.

                Pseudodemocracies at best

                And of course South America is composed of 12 separate and politically varied countries (and this does not include Central America).
                I’m not sure you’ll find many Third World countries that would meet the democratic standards of Chicago in the 1930’s.
                This does not mean that they are not making progress, but there’s a long way to go.

                • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/15/2013 - 07:30 am.

                  A tenuous statement at best

                  Sorry to state, but a bunch of South American and Asian countries have vibrant democracies. America may be the most prosperous, but it does not mean it is the only gold standard out there. For example many of these countries have elected women as leaders. Now is that a standard that America can claim to have achieved. Wonder, who has a long way to go.

                  • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/15/2013 - 09:41 am.

                    Define ‘elected’.

                    Catherine the Great was a female leader.
                    Hardly democratically elected.
                    It’s the process, not the label or gender.
                    Autocracy is an equal opportunity employer.

                    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/15/2013 - 09:23 pm.


                      Means being voted into power by a plurality of your people. Ya, the rules for getting elected in those countries also.

  6. Submitted by David Frenkel on 05/11/2013 - 09:40 am.


    The US is involved via Israel who has been using US made fighter jets to bomb Syria, probably us weapons an probably US intelligence. The US is the largest arms dealer in the world and to say the US is not involved in conflicts that use US weapons is a fallacy.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/11/2013 - 10:22 am.


    Ahhh wars, so easy and inexpensive to get into, so hard and expensive to wage and get out of!

  8. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/13/2013 - 04:29 pm.

    You might be surprised how soon the US will get involved in the politics and subsequent military disputes when Syria’s government falls and Israel has on it’s borders the new Egypt, the new Syria, the tottering Jordan, a Hamas-dominated Palestine, and a Hezbollah-dominated southern Lebanon.

    It’s kind of the “inkspot” theory in action.

    Do you suppose it is the collapse of a “Israel first” policy?

    McCain’s just early to the party–AIPAC speaks through the voice of a patriot.

    The recent AIPAC convention had the following keynote speakers: Vice President Joe Biden, Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, House Leader Eric Cantor (R) and US Senator John McCain (R).

    Look for further involvement in a Mid-east country near Israel.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/14/2013 - 08:45 pm.


    We cannot fix this or control the outcome. The only way we would have to get involved is if Syria actually attacked Turkey, then we’d be bound by NATO treaties to act as if we had been attacked as well.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/15/2013 - 02:51 pm.

      I suspect that Turkey

      could handle Syria without any (more) help from us, if you’re referring to the Assad government. The problem is still that Turkey would have to deal with who (if anyone) ends up in control of Syria. It could very well be the group that has recently attacked Turkey.

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