History itself demands action: Part 2

Are we really going to allow innocent people to be killed in Syria because the next government could be far from perfect?

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Pressure is building on Clinton and co.
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Lawrence J. Haas
On 12 March 2012 09:36

In response to last week’s column, in which I bemoaned U.S. and Western dithering while Bashar al-Assad slaughters his people, I received a friendly but skeptical e-mail from Diana West, the engaging conservative columnist and one of Western civilization’s most ardent defenders.

“Hi, Larry,” she wrote. “Hope you’re well. Before we pull another Libya/Egypt – enabling the sharia ascendancy with new al Qaeda/MB [Muslim Brotherhood] regimes – in Syria, take a look at this!”

On her website, she had linked to a recent National Review Online piece in which John Rosenthal documented the strong al Qaeda links of Libya’s “rebels,” making clear that Western intervention in Libya had strengthened dangerous forces that seek America and the West’s demise.

Two days earlier, she had quoted Andrew McCarthy, the former Assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and who, for much the same reason as Rosenthal, disparages calls by leading conservatives for Washington to mount forceful efforts to stop al-Assad’s butchery.

Lest anyone misunderstand my earlier piece, I acknowledge the reasoned arguments against forceful U.S. intervention, such as arming the rebels, protecting them from the air, or creating a “safe haven” on the Turkish border. Yes, by helping to topple al-Assad, we might help empower radical forces that are profoundly anti-American and anti-Western, making the Greater Middle East riskier for the West in the short term.

Nevertheless, beyond my argument of last week – that the United States should defend freedom against the autocrats of Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran who are threatening its further advance by assisting al-Assad’s slaughter – here’s why I lean toward a stronger U.S. and Western effort in Syria.

Stability is no option: Facing no further pressure, al-Assad could prevail, strengthening the status quo. That will merely embolden the region’s autocrats and anger the millions of young people who increasingly pine for the political freedom and economic opportunity that their counterparts beyond the region enjoy.

It is this frustration that helps make the radical ideologies of al-Qaeda and other groups so tempting for so many. For the United States, that’s hardly a winning formula for greater security and more grassroots in the long run. And, after all…

The long run is what matters: Yes, change is hard, often ugly, and frequently violent. That’s true in general and even more true in this region. The legacy of autocracy, lack of civil society, absence of democratic tradition, suspicion of the West, and influence of radical ideologies are formidable barriers to the kind of changes that we’d like to see.

But, we must keep our eye on the long run. The United States and its allies would benefit greatly from greater freedom and more democracy in the region, for that would provide truer stability and more economic opportunity for its people and, in turn, more security and prosperity for us. We must not let our fears of short-term change distract us from, or convince us to discard, the long-term goal that we seek.

Al-Assad’s demise is Iran’s pain: However unpredictable and potentially troublesome, short-term change would prove welcome in at least some immediate ways. If, as I believe, Iran represents the greater threat to U.S. and Western security now and in the future, than we should welcome al-Assad’s demise.

Syria is Iran’s strongest regional ally, its partner on the terror-sponsoring front, its collaborator in enabling the entry of Iranian-backed foreign forces into Iraq to kill American troops, and its supporter on the nuclear issue. Al-Assad’s fall would deliver another body blow to a regime that’s already besieged by sanctions over its nuclear program and opposed by U.S.-leaning Sunni states in the region. Why wouldn’t we welcome such an outcome if only for this reason?

Al-Assad’s demise does not guarantee a fundamentalist replacement: The Arab Spring – or, Arab Winter if you prefer – is a work in progress. Yes, Muslim Brotherhood advances in Egypt, al-Qaeda’s growing strength in Yemen, and Libya’s uncertain future should worry us. But, though not perfect by any means, democratic progress in Tunisia and Morocco should inspire us as well.

Will radicals continue to exploit regional turmoil for their own gain? Sure. Will they succeed? We’ll see. If they succeed, can anyone predict for how long? No. Perhaps they’ll succeed for a while in some places, until public dissatisfaction forces another change in government that’s more to our liking.

Humanitarianism demands action:Making the case against U.S. intervention, McCarthy suggested the Muslim Brotherhood would replace al-Assad if the latter fell and, in light of that, concluded this way:

Of course it is tragic that some innocent victims and authentic liberal democrats are caught in the carnage. It is not our burden, however, to prevent that or to become enmeshed in other countries’ civil wars – not when there is no vital American interest in one side’s prevailing over the other. It is certainly not in the vital interests of a country weary of war, out of patience with Muslim madness, and $15 trillion in debt to further insinuate itself so that anti-American dictators can be replaced by anti-American Islamists.

It’s a pity that they can’t both lose. But if they have to savage someone, better each other than us.

That’s compelling – cold-bloodedly so. I remain unconvinced. The United States has the capacity to help stop an unspeakable slaughter. America saved thousands of lives in the Balkans in the 1990s and Libya recently (among other places) and regretted its inaction in East Timor in the 1970s and Rwanda in the 1990s. Along with the reasons outlined above, I favor stronger U.S. and Western action for, yes, humanitarian reasons.

I’m inclined to echo what the New Republic wrote in its March 15 issue:

[W]hile questions about [Syria’s] future are important, right now the question that matters most is how to stop a nasty regime from killing people daily in the streets. Should we really allow innocent people to be killed by this government because the next government could be far from perfect?

Lawrence J. Haas was Communications Director and Press Secretary for Vice President Al Gore. He writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs

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