When pundits debate military options for any of the many U.S. foreign interventions, most of them buy into, whether knowingly or not, some version of the "America-as-World-Policeman" approach to foreign policy. They usually either skate over the question of why the particular target nation is strategic to U.S. vital interests or simply say that issue is irrelevant, because whatever tragedy has occurred is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportion.
This predictable debate is now happening over U.S. intervention in Syria. To deal with the latter canard first, the 1,400 people killed in the most recent alleged chemical weapons attack and the more than 100,000 souls killed in the Syrian civil war are truly tragic but are dwarfed by other much more lethal recent conflicts in which the U.S. did nothing. The United States did not intervene militarily in Congo, where 5 million people and counting have been killed, in Sudan, where the civil war and famine killed 2 million people, and in Rwanda, where the Tutsi tribe killed 800,000 members of the Hutu tribe. Even if the United States could have intervened and done something effective to make these places better – unlikely if the recent U.S. debacles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are any indication – the "responsibility to protect" doctrine advocated by U.N. ambassador Samantha Power and others is against international law for a reason. In the world’s system of nation-states, in which only self defense is recognized as a legitimate excuse to use force, the "responsibility to protect" is illegal because of the tremendous potential to cause many more deaths by its huge potential for abuse. For example, the United States has used the "humanitarian" excuse for intervention many times, but the absence of intervention in the above most heinous cases and the existence of other underlying agendas in cases of U.S. intervention show the potential for cynical exploitation; other great powers have done the same.
Even if one buys into the dubious doctrine, why does it always have to be the United States that assumes the responsibility? It’s advocates say, using goading flattery, because the United States is the "indispensible nation" (the implication is that the United States is the only country with a military that is powerful enough to make such interventions successful). However, other nations have forces that can be used for such interventions and peacekeeping–although the world would be better off and probably have many less deaths overall if all nations followed international law and stayed out of other nations’ business as much as possible, even in cases where people are doing stupid things to themselves in brutal civil wars.
As for chemical weapons, hypocrisy reins here too. First of all, chemical weapons have killed far fewer people over human history than conventional bullets and bombs – in the Syrian civil war, it’s about 1 percent of the more than 100,000 people killed thus far in the conflict. Chemical weapons hardly have been a "weapon of mass destruction" compared to conventional munitions. Also, in 1988, when Saddam Hussein, then receiving U.S. support in his war with the Iranians, used chemical weapons against his own people, the United States not only didn’t attack him, but looked the other way and lent him another billion dollars six months later.
By saying that any significant use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war was a red line implying U.S. intervention, Barack Obama fell into a trap of his own rhetoric, as John F. Kennedy acknowledged he did during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy admitted that if he hadn’t made a speech saying that any Soviet nuclear missiles installed in Cuba would be a grave threat to U.S. security, he would never have had to do anything about the Soviet deployment that didn’t really change the strategic nuclear balance between the superpowers. Likewise, Obama has painted himself into a rhetorical corner in this case.
More important, although what happens in Syria may have strategic relevance to the nearby regional powers of Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, it has little real strategic importance to the United States, which is half way across the world. Yet the principal neighboring countries affected, Turkey and Israel, have done little to help stabilize Syria and want U.S. intervention to do their dirty work for them. In fact, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are aiding the Syrian rebels, which are now dominated by Islamist radicals that could very well be worse than the Assad government in Syria.
One argument for U.S. intervention in Syria is as a message to Iran to take seriously U.S. threats toward its nuclear program–on which Obama has also painted himself into a corner by saying he will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. Yet military options to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons or a nuclear capability have never been very credible – bombing likely will not get all of Iran’s nuclear facilities and will likely only spur Iran to accelerate the program to deter further attacks. In fact, limited U.S. intervention in Syria may not only fail to intimidate Iran, but act as a similar nuclear accelerant.
U.S. intervention in Syria is a slippery slope. If initial military measures don’t work, pressure will build for stronger action using the argument that American credibility is even more on the line. With a $17 trillion national debt and war fatigue from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the American public, as shown by opinion polls, has no stomach for the deep involvement in Syria that the pundits crave.