A group of State Department officials recently sent a confidential cable chiding the administration for not adding another war to America's very full agenda. The 51 diplomats called for "targeted military strikes" against the Syrian government and greater support for "moderate" forces fighting the regime.
One of the architects of current policy, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, also has turned against the administration's more disengaged approach. She urged creation of a no fly zone, an act of war, as well as greater support for insurgents.
The conflict is horrid, of course, but no one has explained how U.S. entry into Syria's multi-sided civil war would actually end the murder and mayhem. Nor has anyone shown how America making another Middle Eastern conflict its own would serve Americans' interests.
Washington policymakers seem addicted to intervention and war, unable to imagine there is any international problem they cannot solve. In fact, such an admission would be seen as almost obscene in Washington culture.
Despite the repeated failure of social engineering at home, leading officials believe that they can transcend culture, history, religion, ethnicity, geography, and more and forcibly transform other peoples and nations. Those who resist America's tender mercies via bombs, drones, infantry, and special operation forces are assumed to deserve their fate.
It has become a dangerous bipartisan nightmare. There are occasional outliers--Ron and Rand Paul, for instance, and Donald Trump, who appears ready to break with interventionist orthodox. However, there is little apparent difference between Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush.
This interventionist impulse is particularly inappropriate for a devilishly complex conflict like Syria. The war hawks contend that if the U.S. had acted, in some theoretical yet far-sighted fashion, there would have been no vacuum to be filled by the Islamic State. The "moderate" rebels would have triumphed, and members of all factions would have joined to sing Kumbaya while creating a democratic, peaceful, and liberal future for Syria.
Unfortunately, Washington's early insistence on Bashar al-Assad's overthrow thwarted hope for a negotiated settlement. The claim that the U.S. could have provided just the right amount of assistance to just the right groups to yield just the right outcome is a fantasy, belied by America's failure get much of anything in the Middle East right. Even when Washington seemingly enjoyed full control in Iraq the U.S. did just about everything wrong, triggering the sectarian conflict which spawned the Islamic State.
Military action would be even more dangerous today given Russia's involvement. Americans have a humanitarian interest in ending the conflict, but no effective way to do so. Washington has no comparable security interest in Syria warranting military confrontation with Moscow.
Syria matters much more to Russia, which has a long relationship with Damascus, enjoys access to the Mediterranean from a Syrian base, and has only limited influence elsewhere in the region. No fly proponents blithely assume that Moscow would yield to U.S. dictates, but America would not surrender if the situation was reversed. A no fly zone would not bring peace to Syria but would risk a military incident with a nuclear-armed power.
The State Department dissenters argued for limited strikes on Syria in service of diplomacy, a position more reasonable than that offered by most war advocates. Nevertheless, what if such attacks failed? What if Damascus deployed Russian anti-aircraft systems? What if Moscow escalated against U.S.-supported insurgents? Would Washington concede or double down?
In fact, no one has a realistic scheme to put the Syrian Humpty-Dumpty back together again. America's allies, like Saudi Arabia, are no more interested than Russia and Iran in democracy.
Ousting Assad would effectively clear the way for the Islamic State and other radical factions. So far supporting so-called moderate insurgents has done little more than end up indirectly supplying ISIL and al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, with recruits and weapons. Turkey is at war with the same Kurdish fighters America supports.
While horror is the appropriate reaction to Syria's civil war, the U.S. has no solution to offer. No doubt, the conflict is destabilizing--but expanding the conflict would be so as well. Indeed, events in Iraq and Libya, both triggered by maladroit Washington military intervention, also are destabilizing.
The U.S. should adopt a policy of first do no harm. Stay out of the conflict. Don't add to the tragedy. Accept refugees fleeing for their lives. Provide humanitarian aid to those within reach. That would be an agenda of which Americans could be proud.