Most parties greeted last week’s news that Syria had agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, with oversight from the U.N, as the right step forward. Save for a few doubtful warhawks in Congress and talking heads on cable news that say otherwise, the destruction of these weapons represents a solid, if not final, resolution. The specter of an American attack, however, still looms large. American intervention in foreign conflicts is not a new idea, so to further understand the implications of a potential strike, we must understand the past conflicts America has engaged in.
The first major event in the history of American intervention was not a battle or a war, but instead the farewell address written by George Washington in 1796. In it, he discusses the dangers of entering into permanent alliances or rivalries with other nations, arguing that these will only serve to drag America into unwanted and unnecessary wars. He urges the people to hold their isolation dear and not allow America to follow the path of its former colonizer, Great Britain, in getting involved in conflicts around the world.
While the United States had been involved in foreign conflicts by 1900, the turn of the century is truly when American intervention began to flourish. Theodore Roosevelt had issued his “Roosevelt Corollary,” boldly declaring that “chronic wrongdoing” may force the United States “…to the exercise of an international police power.” Though he declares it “forced,” Roosevelt and his successors found many opportunities during the first twenty years of the century to exercise police powers. The U.S. backed rebel groups in Panama and Nicaragua, occupied the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba for extended periods of times, and intervened in the First World War at the expense of the lives of over 110,000 soldiers. This was merely the first twenty-five years of the century.
American intervention, in its present form, materialized during the Cold War. Roosevelt’s fear of “chronic wrongdoing” as an excuse for intervention had morphed into merely “chronic Communism,” and any nation proscribing to such a philosophy was inherently an enemy of America and its values. The U.S. formed N.A.T.O. in 1949, entering a protracted agreement with European allies to halt the spread of communism in Europe. By 1963, the U.S., primarily through the CIA, had been involved to varying degrees in conflicts in Korea, Iran, Guatemala, Tibet, Lebanon, Indonesia, and Cuba.
In 1963, the U.S. began supplying, arming, and eventually fighting for the governments of South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, against the threat of communist militants. The Vietnam War, as it became known, became the low point in the history of the American military, was nearly universally unsuccessful, and severely weakened the credibility of the American government and its foreign policy. Failing to learn the lessons of the past, the Nixon administration organized the destabilization of Chile, eventually ousting democratically elected Salvador Allende in favor of General Augusto Pinochet, who would go on to torture and slaughter countless civilians during his rule. American intervention would flourish once again under Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton.
While these past conflicts are all indicative of a disastrous foreign policy, the neo-conservative movement of the 2000’s is the true harbinger of the present situation in Syria. The dissolution of the Taliban in Afghanistan was followed by the invasion and disastrous occupation of Iraq, eliminating any American credibility in the region and causing the deaths of thousands of civilians and soldiers. Our experience in the region has shown that America, simply put, should not be involved. The level of democracy, freedom, and liberty we are (or claim to be) at was built over hundreds of years of trial and error, conflict and resolution. Iraq, Libya, and Syria are nations with vastly different cultures, languages, and histories. Forcing our values and opinions upon them, in short periods of time, with bombs, bullets, and chaos is no way to a peaceful and stable region.
More than ideology, however, is the practical implications of such a strike. The rebel groups are fractured and splintered, all with different ideologies and values, even amongst each other. They are united solely with the common goal of the ouster of Bashar al-Assad. But what happens if the dust settles, and Assad is gone? Let’s look at Egypt: there was no civil war, no heavy influence from Iran or al-Qaeda, and yet we see chaos and madness on the streets of Cairo. Is the present administration so naive to believe the roads of Damascus will be lined with happy, jubilant Syrians uniting together once Assad is gone? Furthermore, like Vietnam and Korea, there are far more powerful forces at work here. The rain of Tomahawk missiles and 2,000 lb. bombs across Syria would undoubtedly further damage our nearly non-existent reputation in the region, bring Iran closer to the brink of war, and set back once more our relationship with Russia.
In no way is the author arguing for an absolutely isolationist foreign policy. The United States must honor the alliances and the agreements that have been made, and continue to pledge support to those whom we have pledged. But at a time when American cities are rife with crime or bankrupt, the economy is just finding traction, and citizens are completely devoid of trust in the government, is organizing a strike without extensive international support a good idea? Apart from a good idea, is it constitutional? One renowned constitutional lawyer stated in 2008 “the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” That lawyer was Illinois Senator Barack Obama.