It is an unavoidable argument these days which seems to admit of no adequate rebuttal: arming the moderate rebels in Syria, whoever and wherever they are, will ultimately end up benefitting the extremists. To avoid another Afghanistan (where the U.S. aided the mujahideen in a proxy war against the Soviets and contributed to the rise of the Taliban), the U.S. should therefore simply stay out of the conflict in Syria.
First off, this argument elides a plain truth: there are tens of thousands of soldiers in the moderate opposition, and we know who and where they are. While arming these rebels may benefit extremists if they manage to obtain these weapons (as indeed they have), one could argue that the moderates’ inability to defend their weapons caches is a reason to increase our support for these rebels – not decrease it.
Indeed, the seemingly vanishing presence and power of the moderate opposition is largely a result of the West’s meager, halting, and unreliable assistance to these forces. It is because the U.S. has betrayed its promises to support the moderate opposition that thousands of rebels have defected to the better-armed extremist groups over the course of the civil war.
The call to abstain from arming the rebels because it will strengthen the extremists is therefore not exemplary of prudent realpolitik but rather of a self-fulfilling prophecy: there is no better way to weaken the power of the moderates relative to that of the extremists than to withhold support from them.
The Realists' Argument
Foreign policy realists – ranging from Rand Paul to Henry Kissinger on the right to Colin Powell and President Obama (under the spell of Kissinger) on the left – believe that limited or non-intervention is the best policy in Syria. While Assad is a brutal dictator, they will argue, his reign is preferable to ISIS-style theocracy. Therefore, so long as Assad has the upper hand in the civil war, foreign powers should largely refrain from meddling so as not to empower the jihadists.It is better, realists argue, that we tolerate stability – even the stability occasioned by the presence of dictators – than enable the instability that comes from the defeat of an autocrat like Assad, in which extremists tend to flourish.
However – and this is the crucial point – we must never refer to a country or region controlled by sadistic and repressive tyrants as “stable.” What situation could be more unstable or volatile than the imposition of hated and illegitimate family rule (very often by a minority sect) over an ethnically and religiously diverse society? It is precisely under these political conditions that noxious, illiberal movements – like those of Islamists and jihadists – incubate and spread, thus further justifying the preservation of the oppressive incumbent regime, ad infinitum.
What realists are therefore saying is that in order to avoid theocracy, Syrians and others in unfree and restive countries must forever suffer autocracy – or at least not expect outside intervention to help achieve their freedom: if those in countries like Syria want to depose their leaders and establish democratic rule, realists argue, then they should carry out these revolutions on their own.
However, is this not precisely what has happened – and continues to happen – in the Arab world? Did the Iraqis not attempt this in 1991, only to be brutally repressed while the American military watched the atrocities unfold?
Indeed, the entire folly of foreign policy realism can be exposed by studying its application to Iraq, dating back to America’s policy toward the country starting in the 1970s.
Iraq: Three Decades of Failed Realpolitik
It was Kissinger himself who designed and implemented a “cynical enterprise,” in the words of the Pike Commission report, to secretly support the Kurds in the 1970s, only to abandon them when the Iraqi government took action against the Kurdish rebels. The Kurds, in other words, were pawns in a geopolitical game in which the U.S. tried to weaken Iraq and bolster the relative strength of a major U.S. ally in the region – the shah of Iran.
In this case, humanitarianism – improving the lives of the Kurds or Iraqis – was not the aim of U.S. policy, but a mere pretense. As Kissinger put it, “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”
Realpolitik also had disastrous consequences in the 1980s, when the U.S. supported both sides in the Iran-Iraq War in order to mire both sides in an attritional and bloody stalemate and to prevent the emergence of a regional power capable of challenging American hegemony.
In 1991, after Iraq invaded Kuwait and then was later expelled, the U.S. and the international community finally had a chance to depose Saddam, but – in exercising realist caution – the world refrained and watched as the Iraqi leader quashed an uprising, encouraged by President George H.W. Bush himself, that was given no outside help.
Thereafter, under President Clinton, the U.S. implemented a policy of “dual containment,” and, in regards to Iraq, it instituted a rather shortsighted and aimless plan: the U.S. punished the Iraqi people with sanctions and bombings but had no intention of deposing Saddam, despite adopting a nominal commitment to regime change. In other words, throughout the 1990s, the U.S. purposefully did little to alter the status quo for the purpose of maintaining “stability” – the hallmark of foreign policy realism – by keeping Saddam "in a box."
After three decades of using realpolitik with Iraq, the consequences were as dismal as they were predictable: hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis (caused by Saddam himself and excessively punitive and misdirected economic sanctions), the repeated betrayal of pro-democracy rebels, and the survival and even enrichment of a genocidal and psychopathic ruling family that repeatedly flouted international sanctions and resolutions and that supported terrorism across the region to undermine its neighbors. And this was stability?
(As an aside, I write all of this not as an apologist for the 2003 invasion per se – there is much to criticize in the way the administration justified and conducted the war – but primarily as a critic of its critics).
Beyond Realist "Stability:" The Case for Supporting Democracy
So, if supporting autocrats is not likely to produce long-term stability, then how should the West respond to uprisings in the region? Is it possible to oppose the autocrats, support the rebels, and avoid empowering radical groups like ISIS?
The case of Iraq today shows that a predominantly Muslim and Arab country make the transition from autocracy to democracy and keep Islamists from hijacking the political system and impose theocracy. The example of Tunisia following the Arab Spring proves the same point: there, while the moderate Islamist party Ennahda won the first elections, it graciously entered into a unity government with a secular party that won the plurality of votes in the latest parliamentary election in 2014.
Of course, there is the troubling case of Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood won the first election after the fall of Mubarak and managed to make a mockery of democratic governance. Yet while the country has been under military rule since it ousted President Morsi, the country is readying itself for new elections later this year, and it is hard to imagine that Egyptians, who protested en masse against Morsi, will vote the Islamists (who are suffering from a significant internal rift) into power again.The public should keep these developments in mind when it listens to realists parrot the talking points of dictators like Syrian President al-Assad who promote
a false choice between autocracy and theocracy.
Finally, realists should consider their own values. They recognize that Americans, Westerners, and others around the world cherish freedom and the right to self-determination, but they seem to believe that others – particularly those in the Middle East – either do not have the same values or are not prepared to enjoy them.
Not only is this attitude on the cusp of bigotry (that is, the bigotry of low expectations), but it is, again, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Naturally, countries that suffer under tyranny for decades – often imposed and protected with the support of Western powers overly-concerned with short-term stability – will not be predisposed to seamless transitions to democracy once Ozymandias finally and inevitably falls.
Consider the case of the United States. Despite at least one hundred years of semiautonomous republican governance prior to the Revolution, one could argue that it was not until the resolution of the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the guarantee of legal equality for all that the U.S. became a true democracy. The American transition to democracy was neither a rapid nor a bloodless one.
Given the political progress that countries like Tunisia and Iraq have made in just a few short years, one should not write off countries like Syria as being unprepared to experiment with democracy.
Moreover, for those who are skeptical of the ability of outside powers to steer the course of a civil war, one can again look to the United States. Had it not been for the assistance and intervention of the French, who provided nonlethal as well as military aid (including a decisive percentage of the colonists’ gunpowder), the colonists may never have thrown off the yoke of the British Crown.
Deep down, I suspect that everyone, including realists themselves, recognizes that the removal of dictators is a true precondition for lasting stability in Syria and across the Middle East. When realists argue in favor of supporting dictators like Assad – the fons et origo of the conflict in Syria – we must always remember to ask, "Then what?"
It is not for liberal interventionists and neoconservatives to apologize for their conviction that the survival of and protection for dictatorship is – in the long run – incompatible with a prosperous region. The onus is on realists – whose approach is so discredited by its fruitless application to Iraq over three decades – to explain how accommodating Assad and abandoning pro-democracy rebels is any way to achieve lasting peace and stability in Syria.
The best way to ensure long-term stability and prosperity is, self-evidently, not to prop up illegitimate regimes that will inevitably collapse (does anyone truly believe they won't?). The U.S., the West, and the international community as a whole must therefore recognize that the only way to have genuine stability is to reject the false promises of realism and support groups and movements that are committed to freedom and democracy in Syria and across the Middle East.