I don’t consider myself a realist, not truly. I believe that there are instances where motives other than power and gain thereof should promote policy-making. I believe that it’s part of the national good to work through multilateral organizations whereever possible and to share the burden of keeping the peace with friends and allies. I believe it’s possible to make moral decisions and good decisions and sometimes, just sometimes, have them wind up being the same thing. Which is why I’ve had such a problem with attempting to square myself with the ongoing problems in Syria. I’ve devoted more digital ink to the situation there than any other subject, barring the United Nations itself.
For observers of Syria in the Western world, the sense has been growing that the situation, if ever within the realm of possibility to control, is no longer within our ability to influence in a positive manner. To be frank, it hurts. It is frustrating beyond measure that the best we can hope for in this situation rapidly seems to be becoming “a short civil war”. It feels somehow wrong to even admit that possibility that there won’t be a solution that can be imposed from outside, as we sit here in front of our computer screens and watch atrocity after atrocity be committed. Today’s publication from Mother Jones on a “target list” circulated by the Syrian government, while well known to Syrian activists for months, is yet another look into the lengths the Assad regime is willing to go to cement its rule that is jarring to tuned-in liberals and conservatives alike.
A large part of this feeling comes from what has been a core part of our national identity for several generations now. The belief that the United States, due to its unique placement in the international system, is omnipotent and therefore can and should be able to fix all the world’s ills is a meme that has been proliferate and gaining strength since we charged to the rescue in 1917 and only grew with the end of the Cold War. However, that sort of belief, in ourselves and other states in us, is a falsehood that we should be quietly working to correct. The Syrian opposition may well have learned the lesson from Kosovo and Libya that eventually, the United States is coming. That we have to be coming, because that’s what the United States does. That belief can’t continue; as Robert Caruso made clear earlier today, the footprint for even a “limited” intervention would be far greater than many in the United States would be willing to consider. And no matter how gung-ho she may be in private, Secretary Clinton’s public concerns over arming the Syrian opposition are most certainly valid.
I don’t believe that this sort of thinking marks a belief in American Decline, or worry that we’re going to lose our status of preeminence in the international order. Rather, the exact opposite is true, that this viewpoint is one of a country that is finally comfortable with its role in international affairs. A large part of being a mature, responsible Great Power, or superpower even, is knowing that you can’t be everywhere at once. Even the world’s greatest power has limits and must reach a point where it determines whether its core interests are at stake. I truly want to have faith that the international community can unite to end the killing in Syria, and wish Kofi Annan the best of luck in his role as the joint United Nations-League of Arab States envoy in trying to strike a cease-fire. But the United States can’t do everything alone. Indeed, there are some lifts that are too heavy even for a coalition to achieve, as lack of consensus at the Friends of Syria meeting showed last week.
I haven’t given up hope that Syria surprises me in a positive way, clearing a path towards a solution. This became less likely than ever this morning with the announcement that the Syrian National Council, which the United Kingdom has indicated it will support as the legitimate government of Syria, has splintered with the formation of the Syrian Patriotic Group. The lack of a united opposition is just one of the reasons that United States is looking less and less likely to become directly involved, though indirectly providing material through our sales to allies. And it may be time for those of us who advocate for changes in norms, as represented by the Responsibility to Protect and other liberal international causes, to recognize that not every problem has a solution that can be pushed down by the United States. Or if there is one, there are associated costs and off-sets that we must be willing to accept. There are many responsibilities that Great Powers face, including one to their own people, and to the system at large, to maintain that status. To paraphrase a recent post by Jay Ulfelder, the moral response here may well be to act in the interest of the greater international community by forgoing intervention in Syria and be able to take on the world’s problems that we can solve.