Foreign Affairs

The risks of playing ‘Risk’ in Syria

Socialist dictator Bashar al-Assad is a bad guy. Might his successor be an even worse guy?

This possibility doesn’t seem to occur to American politicians.

Senator John McCain wants the U.S. military to intervene “quickly” in Syria by establishing no-fly zones and arming rebels. “Look,” he reasons, “they’re massacring their people.” Rick Santorum opined at last week’s Republican presidential debate that “we can do no worse than the leadership in Syria today.” Mitt Romney responded that we should encourage our allies to “provide the kind of weaponry that’s needed to help the rebels inside Syria.”

Why are Republicans talking like Democrats?

The limited government philosophy apparently stops at the water’s edge. Doubts about intervening in the economy don’t extend to intervening in foreign civil wars. The healthy skepticism about Uncle Sam delivering a parcel to the correct address the next town over morphs into blind faith in Uncle Sam delivering nations halfway round the globe from evil.

The Arab Spring turning into an Islamist Winter should have been a lesson.

Libya’s new rulers lifting the ban on polygamy, prohibiting interest on loans, and officially embracing Sharia law makes last week’s ghoulish grave smashing of the burial markers of World War II vets par for the barbarous course on the Barbary Coast. Egypt arresting foreign journalists, trying non-governmental organization workers on trumped up charges, and randomly arresting Coptic Christians isn’t what the Obama administration envisioned when it abandoned longtime U.S.-ally Hosni Mubarak. A movement known as “the party of God” capturing the Tunisian government makes one wonder if sane Westerners should continue to “hope” for “change” in the Middle East.

Contra Senator Santorum, it can always get worse. Contra Governor Romney, some of the “rebels inside Syria” are al Qaeda. Contra Senator McCain, humanitarian interventions occasionally hurt humanity in the long run.

Projecting oneself upon foreign revolutionaries was once the domain of liberals whose enthusiasm for change overrode their judgment.

Herbert Matthews reported to readers of The New York Times that “there are no Communists in positions of control” among Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries. Mother Jones predicted that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s victory would bring “democratic reforms, freedom for political prisoners, an end to the astronomical waste of huge arms purchases, and a constitutional government.” Following Muammar Gaddafi’s 1969 coup, The Nation boasted that “all Libyans are now equal under the law” and “no form of racism exists in Libya.”

In Iraq, and again with last year’s “Arab Spring,” some conservatives saw nascent New England-style town meeting members in Middle Eastern Muhammadans. In most cases, one set of brutes replaced another. 

A prudential restraint once served as the hallmark of conservative foreign policy. Young Americans for Freedom’s founding document insists that “American foreign policy must be judged by this criterion: does it serve the just interests of the United States?” Syria, 5,000 miles away and the buyer of just a quarter-billion-dollars worth of U.S. goods last year, doesn’t much factor in our interests. And there’s a question of whether intervening even serves justice.

Conservatives used to lament America becoming the world’s policeman. Now America has become the world’s social worker, doling out welfare checks and mediating disputes. And as any social worker will tell you, intervening in domestic disputes is the most dangerous part of the job. The fighting in Syria doesn’t threaten America’s national security, our vital interests, or the lives of our fellow citizens. Syria isn’t our business. A favorite Ronald Reagan quip certainly applies here: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

The foundational text of modern conservatism considered whether uprooting a hereditary ruler necessarily advanced justice, a question certainly familiar to anyone following the fighting in Syria.

“The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori,” Edmund Burke cautioned. He continued in Reflections on the Revolution in France that “it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.” Who follows Assad is a question that should be asked but isn’t.

Conservatives shouldn’t side with the brutal socialist dictator. Conservatives shouldn’t side with the Islamists seeking his overthrow. Conservatives should side with Burke.

Risk is best played on a cardboard rectangle with plastic pieces.

Sign Up