Rethinking America, Richter Scale, American Bystander

The Dumbest U.S. Foreign Policy Question Asked This Century

What do U.S. politicians mean when they say they want to save Syria?

A young boy with rebel soldiers in Syria. (Credit: Dona_Bozzi -


  • Only Syrians can save #Syria -- just as only Iraqis can save #Iraq and only Afghans can save #Afghanistan.
  • “Who lost #Syria?” is perhaps the dumbest US foreign policy question so far this millennium.
  • “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice and I am George Bush. Fool me three times and I am #HillaryClinton.”

Who lost Syria? This is perhaps the dumbest U.S. foreign policy question so far this millennium.

For starters, was (and is) Syria really America’s to lose?

The American right – which on this issue reaches into the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party – thinks the United States missed an opportunity to hold onto Syria. In their view, the opportunity was missed by failing to provide arms to the Syrian rebels at the outset of the revolution, when Syrian rebels were perceived as moderate.

Had this support been given, the theory goes, the moderate Syrian rebels would not only have defeated Assad. They would also have managed to suppress the rise of radical Islamic factions.

Taking sides in ethnic and sectarian conflicts should not be America’s business. In the past, supplying arms to one side or another in age-old conflicts has only served to give rise to endless internecine warfare.

Afghanistan as an example

Look at Afghanistan — after the Russians left in 1989. A bloody civil war based on ethnic, sectarian and tribal differences ensued. The violence was fueled by a reservoir of arms supplied to the Mujahedeen in a policy instituted under U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

This policy helped bring down the Soviet Union by giving it its own Vietnam, but it left Afghanistan in utter chaos. America’s favorite ally in that conflict, the Mujahedeen, turned out to be a disjointed coalition of warlords, drug lords and religious fanatics. They turned against each other violently as soon as the Russians left.

No real wonder that the Afghan people welcomed the Taliban into this chaotic environment. They were able to bring order out of the chaos.

But, lest we forget, out of this order rose Osama bin Laden.

We see a similar dynamic taking place in Iraq now. A Sunni uprising is empowering an Islamic fundamentalist “vanguard” force — ISIS. In Iraq, it was the U.S. government that dove head first into ethnic, sectarian and tribal conflict — without ever really thinking through the implications of its actions.

Fool me once

And when the United States left, those conflicts immediately rose to the surface, with the pattern of 1980s Afghanistan repeating itself. The U.S. government had provided arms to specific sides in the conflict.

In the current Iraqi case, control of large stocks of those arms has fallen into the hands of ISIS – which the U.S. government has just decided is a global threat to U.S. interests. Consequently, the U.S. served de facto as the armaments provider to ISIS.

Unperturbed, those on the American right, including the Clintons, now propose to do this yet again. They want to provide arms to give this often-irrational hatred a means of violent expression — American weapons against American weapons.

To paraphrase a line made famous in the run-up to the Iraq war: “Fool me once — and shame on you. Fool me twice and my name is George Bush. Fool me three times, and my name is Hillary Clinton.”

Which Westerner really “gets” Syria?

Syria is full of hard to detect cross-currents. There is the Sunni-Shi’a divide. Given all the treacherous entanglements, a central question for U.S. policymakers ought to be: Why do these sects hate each other? No one in the U.S. policy establishment provides an answer. That alone is a compelling reason for non-intervention.

Does U.S. foreign policy even have a prayer in addressing these age-old fault lines – never mind solving them by supplying one side or the other with weapons?

The next battlefield in a blame war

In Syria, Hafez al Assad is holding both ISIS and the more centrist elements of the revolution at bay. In fact, he is winning the war.

And this begs the question: What are U.S. politicians saying when they say they want to save Syria?

The answer to this can only be found in American hubris. Syria is not America’s to save. The reality is that only Syrians can save Syria — just as it is only Iraqis who can save Iraq and only Afghans who can save Afghanistan.

Seeking an answer to the question “Who lost Syria?” is a foolhardy quest on the part of U.S. politicians. Rather than a serious question, it is just another manifestation of Washington’s favorite political sport – blamesmanship.

To fuel this conflict further by supplying one side or the other with arms would be an abrogation of the trust the world has placed in the United States to provide smart leadership. Another round of impulsive decisions are definitely not part of what the world expects.

President Barack Obama seems to believe that leadership must be moral, not interventionist. On this issue, Obama is spot on.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter, from Berlin, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

About Richard Phillips

Richard Phillips is a New York-based international analyst with extensive financial sector experience. [United States]

Responses to “The Dumbest U.S. Foreign Policy Question Asked This Century”

Archived Comments.

  1. On August 19, 2014 at 4:00 am Dennis Rodwell responded with... #

    Syria was a multi-ethnic multi-faith country held together by Assad. He not handled dissent well and he is not my friend; but then my government in the UK set the army on a civil rights march in Northern Ireland in 1972 killing 14 unarmed civilians and setting in train a 30-year civil war than killed nearly 4000, including a prominent member of the royal family. The scale is different, but there is no moral righteousness in this.
    The US-UK support for terrorism in Syria has destroyed the country and its communities. The 60,000 Christian population of Homs has been evicted or killed. ISIS/IS is a predictable consequence of the mayhem that the US+UK+others have supported with substantial aid. The US+UK should have listened to Russia and China and not sought to destroy Assad. It was a fatal mistake for the country and region, with self-evident consequences in Iraq.
    The answer, unpalatable as it may be to the jingoistic political ‘elite’? Meet, sit down and talk with Assad together with Russia and China and work out a peaceful solution. We have already started talking to Iran.
    The alternative? The chaos, displacements, refugee situation and massacres will intensify without foreseeable end. We have created this mayhem. We must now resolve it. The people of Syria and the wider region are more important that the self-righteousness and illusory pride of US+UK politicians.
    Even a modicum of understanding of the history and millennia-long human make-up of the region should have informed outsiders from the West.

  2. On August 19, 2014 at 10:22 am H. H. GAFFNEY responded with... #

    This article is right-on. One of the things that some of discuss is whether there is a sense among those populations of being “Syrian” or “Iraqi.” We generally concluded that there is — but those identities may have all fallen apart because of Assad and Hussein identifying themselves as “the only real Syrian or Iraqi.” Weirdly, we could use both back — or to support Assad now. Big mistake in the article. I was Director of OASD/NESA in 1979-80, watching Pakistan and Afghanistan closely. We watched the big conflict between Kalq and Red Banner — and knew that’s why the Soviet went in on Christmas 1979 — “Carter” did nothing before that. I was on the team that went to Pakistan in February 1980 to see what we could do to bolster Pakistan’s defenses, nothing to do in Afghanistan. It was not until the Reagan Administration tried to get the Saudis and Egyptians (SA-7s) to do something in Afghanistan — thus the “Arab-Afghans,” with OBL to follow. The Reagan Administration began sending them Stinger missiles around 1984. So it was them that created what has now evolved into ISIS. By the way, we never really bothered much with Syria for a long time — we even kind of supported their pacifying Lebanon.

  3. On August 19, 2014 at 11:58 am Richard responded with... #

    Hi H. H., Thanks for the comment. Just to be clear, President Carter instituted the policy of supplying arms to the Muj when he signed the first covert directive to do so on July 3, 1979.

  4. On August 21, 2014 at 9:06 am lopezcalling responded with... #

    good essay, but an incorrect use of the phrase “beg the question”. That entire sentence in the fifth paragraph from the bottom can and should be re-written as something like this: “So, what are US politicians saying when they say they want to save Syria?” At least you didn’t use another stupid written tic like some sentence ending in “redux”. That’s something anyway.

  5. On August 21, 2014 at 11:31 am Richard responded with... #

    Thanks, lopez calling, for English 101 redux. I’ve been misusing that phrase forever and never even gave it a second thought. In fact, I’ll bet that most Americans today infer the same meaning, which begs the question: what is the correct usage of “begs the question”. Thanks.

  6. On August 21, 2014 at 12:29 pm cynic8 responded with... #

    We, ALL people, fail to learn from history. The division of the region was done alter the defeat of the Ottomans. The division was not arbitrary. Each boundary was established so that a MINORITY was the ruler. We are most aware in Baghdad and what we call Syria. I can only wonder what Obama would have done if he were president rather than W. In my view he is trying to be rational in an irrational world. That is dangerously apparent by trying to negotiate with Iran and Hamas, etc… Our governmeents, since WW ll have not recognized the intent of the Qur’an to establish a world exclusively Islamic. The notion that Islam is a religion of peace,ignores, for openers, the military conquests of Mohamed, and his intolerance for those that did not accept him as ‘the prophet’.

    We have ignored the declaration of war on the ‘Great Satan’, the US, by the Islamic Republic as well as Hamas, etc.Those declarations do not permit a diplomatic solution, which the US has expected to be accomplished since the formation of ARAMCO.

  7. On August 22, 2014 at 2:40 pm Dennis Rodwell responded with... #

    Some leading figures in the UK have at last come out and admitted that we have to talk to Assad, just as we much more than talked with Stalin in WWII. Is the US going to follow or lead?

  8. On August 25, 2014 at 11:58 am Dennis Rodwell responded with... #

    And now Assad himself is offering to help the US fight IS terrorism. If the US(+UK) is serious about the IS threat, it would do well to enter the real world of Middle East Jihadism and get down from its ‘moral’ pedestal. How many more John Foley’s can we tolerate? How many more civilian deaths? Refugees? Displaced millions? Massacred minority communities? …? …?