Advocates for U.S. military intervention in Syria are presently confounded by wide and deep opposition from the American public to additional military interventions abroad. A recent poll by the New York Times and CBS News finds that by better than two to one Americans think the U.S. doesn't have a responsibility to "do something about the fighting in Syria." In addition, only 15 percent believe that "North Korea is a threat to the United States that requires military action now," while 77 percent believe that either "North Korea is a threat that can be contained for now," or is "not a threat to the United States at this time." Such strong public opposition to military interventions is profoundly worrisome to many of Washington's foreign policy elites who, since the triumphalist days following the Cold War, have been fond of using America's powerful military instrument to re-shape the world. John Bolton, a leading conservative diplomat in the Bush administration, recently wrote an article in which he raises alarms about "the specter of isolationism... stalking the Republican Party." In 2011, centrist diplomat Nicolas Burns wrote about "an insidious turning inward by congressional budget leaders whose Draconian cuts will deny us the ability to lead globally."
In the New York Times article reporting on the new polling data, Megan Thee-Brenan asserts that "Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak." There is indeed a minority of Americans who are isolationist in the sense of opposing foreign entanglements and engagements be they military or otherwise. However, Liberal Realist Stephen Walt effectively counters the charge of rising isolationism writing in Foreign Policy:
The overwhelming majority of people who have doubts about the wisdom of deeper involvement in Syria -- including yours truly -- are not "isolationist." They are merely sensible people who recognize that we may not have vital interests there, that deeper involvement may not lead to a better outcome and could make things worse, and who believe that the last thing the United States needs to do is to get dragged into yet another nasty sectarian fight in the Arab/Islamic world. But many of these same skeptics still favor American engagement in key strategic areas, support maintaining a strong defense capability, and see some U.S. allies as assets rather than liabilities.
When strong majorities hold opinions opposing military intervention in Syria there is something other than isolationism going on. Indeed, a majority of Americans are far ahead of Washington in learning the hard lessons of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The war-of-choice in Iraq was a disaster for Iraqis, displacing millions and killing hundreds of thousands.
As far as American purpose in fighting extremism in the Arab world, the Iraq war likely stimulated recruitment of more terrorist operatives than it eliminated. The now twelve-year war in Afghanistan will not end well, in part because the U.S. chose to enter it by taking sides in a civil war rather than more narrowly focusing on going after al Qaeda enclaves. The civil war which the U.S. jumped into will likely not conclude for many years to come.
Getting militarily involved in a civil war is almost always a bad idea. Military power is a blunt instrument and its use has many adverse effects. Using that instrument in someone else's war will more likely make things worse than it will make things better.
Alliance commitments are different. Sometimes those commitments can keep the peace and honoring them in times of war is arguably the price of credibility in all security commitments. But voluntarily taking sides in a civil war, when there is no alliance commitment to one side or the other, is generally a fool's errand. Majorities of Americans understand that.
But what about the humanitarian outrages going on in Syria? There is, of course, an admirable desire by many citizens and their governments around the world to stop mass slaughter of non-combatants. This week the White House said it was "horrified" by reports of a 100 executions in the town of Bayda.
In 2005 the United Nations established the set of principles known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). It justifies intervention in sovereign nations as a last resort when national authorities fail in their responsibilities to prevent genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. Regarding any military intervention, R2P clearly expects the United Nations Security Council to be the legitimizing authority. Therefore it is not a matter for the White House to decide and it is not in particular a responsibility of the United States. It is noteworthy that neither the Bush nor the Obama administration has taken any significant positive steps to contribute to international capacity to carry out responsibilities to help protect non-combatants in places such as Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, a NGO that monitors the implementation of R2P, advocates for the "impos[-ition of] an arms embargo and authoriz[-ation] of targeted sanctions against those within or associated with the Syrian government who are responsible for mass atrocity crimes" and the investigation by the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution of responsible authorities. They also advocate for similar measures against leaders of the opposition forces who undertake war crimes or ethnic cleansing. They do not advocate direct military intervention by the U.S. or any other nation.
Joining a civil war as a contestant or feeding its flames with covert or overt arms shipments and advice actually contravenes the spirit of R2P which affirms protection, not warfare, civil or otherwise.
Establishing and underwriting well-protected and fully-demilitarized civilian zones on non-contested territory is an option awaiting responsible U.S. and international leadership. A useful role for U.S. military power within such an international effort would be provision of air transport and air cover to the protected civilian zones.
Perimeter policing would best be provided by troops from a country seen as neutral by the opposing Syrian sides in the civil war. The intent of the entire international R2P effort must be protection and not regime change.
It is of great importance at this point in time for Washington elites to restrain their reflexive urges to intervene militarily on one side of the civil conflict in Syria. Fortunately, majorities of Americans find that stance sensible, moral, and pragmatic.