Speaking last week at Stanford University, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated that United States policy towards the conflict in Syria includes removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. Such action will likely create another power vacuum, making it bad for Americans and worse for Syrians.
Russian support for Assad complicates any plan for a peaceful transition of power. They will fight tooth and nail to keep him, since they have no assurances that whoever follows Assad will be as accommodating to Moscow’s significant military and economic interests in Syria. Russia’s U.N. Security Council veto can keep the transition from being sanctioned by international law, which will make foreign intervention appear illegitimate.
Yet global political concerns are the least of our problems.
In the last 15 years, the U.S. has supported regime change in Iraq and Libya – Arab countries whose names are now synonymous with “chaos” in the American foreign policy lexicon. These experiences, along with our forays into Afghanistan, have shown that we do not have the assiduity for nation-building or reconstruction, even when it appears to be in our best interest.
It takes decades of work and billions of dollars to rebuild a country. That means American taxpayer dollars being spent on programs whose benefits are not immediately apparent at home. Considering Congress can barely agree to fund American children’s healthcare for just six years, it is unlikely that legislators in 10 or 20 years will still prioritize funding infrastructure in a country that only half of Americans could find on a map.
The U.S. has a disappointing track record when it comes to these projects as well. Even before Iraq and Libya, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a report that characterized nation-building attempts by outside powers as, “notable mainly for their bitter disappointments,” and called the results of American democratization efforts “sobering.”
The story often followed a predictable pattern. Under foreign rule – or the perception thereof – the local population did not see the American-approved government as legitimate. Once Washington decided a country was stable enough to run itself, that government then had to crack down heavily on dissent in order to maintain control. Inevitably, this led to a consolidation of power within the military, from which a strongman emerged to supposedly ‘restore stability.’
With the intense fighting that has been ravaging Syria for seven years now, it is very likely that the only person with enough support to be the country’s next leader comes from the military.
But let us suppose that a solution in Syria is not modeled on the American nation-building efforts of the 20th Century. In this millenium, the Iraq process presents a whole new slate of problems.
Bad Calls in Baghdad
Leaving aside the shifting explanations for invading Iraq in the first place, once the Bush Administration decided U.S. troops were there to spread democracy, it set out to replace Saddam Hussein with a Western-style economy and representative institutions.
There is a popular misconception that Washington simply failed to follow through on its promises to help Iraq’s post-war recovery because the political will died. In some ways, that was true by 2011, when Americans, weary of an almost decade-long conflict, saw their military finishing its withdrawal and wondered if it was worth adding to the $60 billion already spent on reconstruction after a multi-trillion-dollar war.
However, a 2013 review of U.S. involvement noted that the attempted nation-building was doomed from the start. Not only was there rampant corruption in the process of awarding contracts, but also the entire endeavour was mismanaged by a White House that failed to get Executive Branch agencies to coordinate.
If that was a problem under Bush, whose government ran relatively efficiently (if in the wrong direction), imagine how much the current president’s West Wing pandamonium would exacerbate it. Statements from various cabinet secretaries and aides are frequently contradicted by the president on Twitter. If they are unable to coordinate a media strategy, how could they possibly rebuild a country?
The Bush White House and the Pentagon grossly underestimated the time and costs associated with Iraq’s recovery. Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed, “If you think we’re going to spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly mistaken.” This blindly confident low-balling, once mocked for its inaccuracy, has become the norm, particularly in immigration talks. Any claims from this president about the costs of intervening further in Syria should therefore be met with skepticism.
The Trump Shuffle – Obama with a Twist
As a candidate, Donald Trump was heavily critical of President Obama’s policy on Syria, and rightly so. The administration failed to clearly signal American interests, and U.S. threat credibility took a hit with the “red line” comments. While it may not have warranted the disaster characterization it received from the right, there was an obvious need for a new direction.
Part of the Obama policy was regime change. After years of brutally repressing his own people, Assad had to go. American involvement would buoy Syrian resistance, “and that’s when regimes start to crumble and transitions begin,” one official predicted. Such optimism ultimately proved naive.
Trump lauded a number of isolationist policies on the campaign trail, among them a diminished role in the Syrian conflict. He seemed to be following through when, halfway through his first year, he ordered the reduction of U.S. funding for supposedly moderate rebels. This move signaled a step away from regime change and was praised by conservatives.
Yet members of his cabinet have gone back and forth on whether or not Assad’s removal is official policy. Some have taken advantage of the inconsistent messaging to assert, “regime change is inevitable,” though it was unclear if the president agreed. Then, following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Trump launched a missile strike on a Syrian government airfield in response to a chemical attack.
His decision was reportedly a highly emotional one. He saw images of the victims and wanted to punish the perpetrator. There is also a theory that this was done to ease pressure from the Russia investigations; if Trump was attacking a Russian ally, how could he be Moscow’s puppet? Considering not a single plane was hit and the airfields were up and running the next day, this idea has merit.
Either way, chemical attacks have been far from rare in this conflict, so there was no tangible change in the course of events to support a complete policy reversal. In other words, Obama’s plan had problems, the situation did not change, yet Trump continued that policy.
As Managing Editor at the Center for Public Integrity points out, the Iraq report’s “most depressing conclusion is that the U.S. government is no better prepared for reconstruction work in other countries than it was in 2002.” Once again, there were problems, nothing has changed, so repeating the process will likely see the problems recur.
Dictators are a threat to the sanctity of human rights, but a power vacuum helps neither us nor the people living in chaos. The first duty of the U.S. government is to the American people and our interests. While the horrors perpetrated by these monsters are a blight on the world, the U.S. should consider all its options before supporting regime change.