MESOP TODAYS OPINION : BY SHADI HAMID / NEW YORK TIMES – Not Intervening Can Be as Great a Risk as Intervening

18 May 2015 – Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, is the author of “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.”

In what could be the epitaph for the Obama administration’s Syria policy, “do no harm” did harm. It goes well beyond Syria, however. The last six years are an interesting test case of what a policy that quite self-consciously tries to undo the mistakes of the last war might look like. The results are not encouraging. It is possible to learn the wrong lessons from the wrong war. As an overarching premise, what some have termed the Obama administration’s “Responsibility Doctrine” – basically stepping back to allow others to step in – sounded wise and prudent, after what came before. But, in practice, the sharing of responsibility depends on good allies who share not only your interests but your values as well. Outsourcing military interventions in the Middle East to Middle Easterners sounds promising, until you realize that, as careless as the U.S. has sometimes been with the safety of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, our Arab allies are usually more careless. Our most repressive allies, such as Egypt, have a tendency to project their domestic political struggles abroad, leading them to fight not just actual terrorists but imagined ones as well. (Before anything else, effective counterterrorism depends on correctly identifying who the terrorists are).

Among the many Middle Eastern conflicts, Syria is perhaps the most tragic as well as the most instructive. Opting to remain disengaged in Syria, especially when tens of thousands of innocents are being killed, is not policy neutral. Non-intervention is a conscious policy choice – just as military intervention would have been – and therefore should be judged accordingly, for its effects and consequences, unintended or not.

We know now – as many knew then – that the Iraq war was or would prove to be one of the great strategic blunders of modern U.S. foreign policy. The lessons and legacy of the invasion and its aftermath should not be forgotten. But it is also possible to learn the wrong lessons from the wrong war. (That the memory of Munich is misused and abused nearly 80 years after the fact is testament to the danger of well-intentioned but imprecise analogizing).

Raising the specter of Iraq in Syria was a red herring, since no one calling for military action in, say, 2012 was thinking of an Iraq-style invasion. The actual options being discussed were targeted airstrikes against regime installations, significantly increased support for mainstream rebels, and the establishment of safe zones and humanitarian corridors to protect civilians and allow rebels to hold territory without the fear of indiscriminate bombing. To the extent one felt compelled to analogize, Bosnia or Kosovo were better examples, but those had faded from memory. In hindsight, the sequencing in Syria was almost the exact reverse of Iraq. In the former, a civil war raged in the absence of international intervention, while, in the latter, it was military intervention which helped give rise to civil war.

Debating the dangers of military intervention is important, but it’s also a somewhat odd conversation to be having. There has probably never been an administration so attuned to the risks of mission creep and over-entanglement. There is no risk, at least until a new president is elected, of the kind of adventurism which gave rise to the Bush administration’s most destructive decisions. That’s not to say we shouldn’t remain vigilant – we should – but, today, the greater danger isn’t doing too much, but too little.