Congress’ Last Stand against Syrian Intervention

by Benjamin Studebaker

Talk about strange bedfellows–a last alliance of anti-war democrats and Tea Party republicans in the senate is attempting to derail the president’s plan to arm the rebels in Syria by passing legislation banning the defense department, the various intelligence agencies, and all other government entities from funding operations in Syria.

The ringleaders are:

  • Tom Udall (D-NM)
  • Chris Murphy (D-CT)
  • Mike Lee (R-UT)
  • Rand Paul (R-KY)

I have been extremely critical of Rand Paul previously. He has, whether intentionally or not, mislead the public about the Arms Trade Treaty, and I am very much opposed to the libertarianism which he and his father jointly espouse. That said, he is quite right about the Syrian intervention. From the US point of view, the Syrian conflict, properly viewed, is a no-win scenario. All of the potential outcomes are in some way or other not especially helpful:

  1. Assad wins–Iran retains an ally and a conduit through which it can transport weapons to its various proxies.
  2. Fundamentalists win–Syria becomes a potential hotbed for anti-US terrorism and a permanent source of regional instability.
  3. US causes the secularists to win–the secularists end up indebted to the United States for their victory and become reliant on US aid. Eventually, the Syrian people tire of a government that puts the US interest ahead of their own, and the secularist regime falls, resulting in #2.

It is naive idealism to imagine that the United States will intervene in Syria and the result will be a stable, benign, US-friendly regime. If the regime is US-friendly, it won’t last. If the regime is stable, it won’t be US-friendly.

In Iraq, pre-2006, the government was US friendly and highly unstable. Post-2006, it has been ruled by a single increasingly autocratic individual, Nouri al-Maliki, who has aligned the country with Iran. His regime enjoys relative stability, but under it, Iraq is not especially US-friendly. In recent weeks, it has famously awarded oil contracts to Chinese companies instead of rewarding the “liberator”. It receives only peripheral coverage in the US press, but Maliki has used his political office to undermine opposing parties, corrupt the country’s financial system, and subjugate minority groups. The non-partisan Institute for the Study of War details Maliki’s consolidation of power–you can read their report here.

Our intervention in Afghanistan has produced an even less effective government run by Hamid Karzai, who has ruled the country since 2001.  Afghanistan currently ranks dead last on the Corruption Perceptions Index, tied with North Korea and Somalia. Karzai loots the wealth of the country for the personal gain of himself and his family, and all the while Karzai continues to sabotage US policy in the country. As recently as yesterday, Karzai has been said to have been obstructing peace talks. Afghanistan’s corruption is very nearly matched by Iraq’s–while Afghanistan ranks 174, Iraq ranks a pristine 169:

Corruption Perceptions Index 2012


Our track record on these military interventions is extraordinarily poor. The resultant governments are usually corrupt, dictatorial, and, whether immediately or later on, anti-American.  Worse, our intervention in Syria will not receive the sanction of the Russians, which means that Assad will be able to continue to buy weapons from Russia. If Assad is buying weapons from Russia and we are arming the rebels, we enter into what is in effect a proxy war with Russia, only the Russians are profiting from the conflict while we are contributing charitably.

Assad’s government exchanges money to the Russians in return for weapons, while what the Obama administration proposes to do is to offer the rebels military aid–to arm them for free. This kind of conflict produces perversity of incentive. The Russians have nothing to lose from its continuation and everything to gain. They profit from weapons sales, and our continued aid to the rebels will ensure that the Assad regime continues to need to buy weapons. The Russians aren’t the only ones contributing to Assad’s military strength. Iran is also involved, and we’d have to fight them too, again, by proxy.

If this kind of story sounds familiar, it should–countries that seek to weaken America’s position of relative strength often sell arms to America’s opponents. In this way they force the United States to remain in conflicts longer than planned at great financial cost while simultaneously profiting from doing so. China was implicated in selling weapons to Iraqi insurgents. Both China and the Soviet Union consistently armed and supported both North Vietnam and North Korea during those respective conflicts. These countries are smart–rather than directly engage with the United States, they bleed US strength white in obscure foreign conflicts from afar, profiting from the weakening of a competitor. It’s a free lunch for them.

I am glad to see many republicans, who but a few years ago were expected to defend the Iraq War and argue for us to “stay the course”, objecting to the Syrian invasion. While I have far-reaching disagreements with many of them, their words encourage me. I am also glad to see some democrats rejecting the party line, as they refused to do in 2003 when the Iraq decision came up. Here are a few solid lines:

Ted Cruz (R-TX):

President Obama needs to explain why arming the Syrian rebels is now worth our intervention, when it wasn’t two years ago.


Engaging in yet another conflict in the Middle East with no vote or Congressional oversight compounds the severity of this situation. The American people deserve real deliberation by their elected officials before we send arms to a region rife with extremists who seek to threaten the U.S. and her allies.


I’m deeply skeptical about plans for military intervention in Syria, given the dangerously fractured state of the opposition, and the very real risk of American weapons and money falling into the hands of the same terrorist organizations we’re already fighting around the world.

More Murphy:

We should be extremely wary of allowing the United States to be drawn into a complicated proxy war that could mire our country for years at a potentially incalculable cost to U.S. taxpayers and America’s reputation at home and abroad.

Will they succeed in blocking the intervention? I very much doubt it. But I commend them for their effort, all the same.