In or Out?

Jewish Light Editorial

“Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.”

— John F. Kennedy, news conference, April 21, 1961, after failure of Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba 

The foreign policy debate in this country often divides between those who advocate for greater intervention and those who for whatever reason — isolationist bent, or financial limitations, or the rule of unintended consequences — support staying out of the fray.

Military hawks tend to believe that action is often superior to inaction, and chastise those who opt against military action as weak-minded and capitulatory. But while that’s sometimes true, the best-intentioned interventions can have as much or more lasting damage as sitting on the sidelines.

Last Sunday and Monday, The New York Times ran a two-part, in-depth series of articles headlined, “Clinton, ‘Smart Power’ and a Dictator’s Fall,” by Jo Becker and Scott Shane. The articles, which are comprehensive in breadth and depth, explore the pivotal role by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in persuading a reluctant President Barack Obama into joining a British-French effort to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi from power.  

The articles should be required reading by all of the presidential candidates and the public at large.  The steps leading up to the U.S. decision to join the Libya action, the toppling of Qaddafi and the lack of an effective “day after the ouster” strategy raise the specter of what inartfully planned interventions can bring.

In the conflict in Libya, for instance, while the vicious dictator was ousted, what followed comprised utter chaos, with rival Libyan “governments” vying for power, and ISIS setting up a major foothold in Libya, tapping into its rich oil resources.

Clinton, now the Democratic front-runner for her party’s presidential nomination, spoke of “smart power” as her approach to possible military interventions by the United States.  It is clear that “smart power,” if that is an apt description of what happened in Libya, has come up short.  

But that’s not the only place where well-meaning investments of military might have ultimately enabled perilous results. Dictatorial regimes in several Mideast states have been replaced by weak governments as a result of war. In Afghanistan, the U.S. was successful in ousting the Taliban from power. But since that relatively speedy military victory, two ineffectual governments in Kabul have failed to unite the country and the Taliban is once again making strong gains in fighting the central government.

The Iraq War succeeded in ousting Saddam Hussein from power with relative ease. It was clear soon thereafter, however, that there was not a manageable “day after victory” plan to assure that the post-Saddam government would be strong enough to maintain order among the competing constituencies. The weakness of the Iraqi Army paved the way for Shia militias, supported by Iran and Hezbollah, to step into the vacuum, and emboldened the rise of ISIS there.

Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq present examples of interventions that have brought mixed results —deposed dictators but massive disorder and incursion by violent, ideological zealots.

But as we’ve seen in Syria, the lack of aggressive intervention can create disastrous results as well.

In the four-year Syrian civil war, Bashar Assad has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against his own innocent civilians. The United Nations estimates that more than 250,000 Syrians have died in the conflict, and millions more have been forced from their homes, thousands of them flooding into Europe to seek safe haven.  Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has intervened aggressively in Syria, attempting to keep Assad in power with air strikes against opposition forces.  At this writing a fragile Russia-U.S. backed ceasefire is holding, but tenuously.

Is there a takeaway from this mishmash of decisions and results? Perhaps that while a moral compass must always take precedence — that principle would have dictated more aggressive involvement by Obama in Syria — a lack of smart planning for the back-end decisions can undo even the best-laid plans.

To be sure there is no “one size fits all” policy — go in or stay out — that will work in the various hot spots in the always volatile Middle East.  Neither massive military intervention, nor total isolation from any kind of intervention, makes sense.  But before the U.S. plunges into any conflict in a major way, an analytical and dispassionate approach to the potential complications that always ensue is an absolute mandate. War is horrific in the best of situations, and well beyond horrific in the worst.