Ethics and the Syria Withdrawal

Jan 3, 2019

This article originally appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

All of the questions I wanted to pose about the ethics surrounding the question of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria have been raised in Conor Friedersdorf's December 26 column in The Atlantic. (In fact, the only ethical question he does not address about a Syria withdrawal is the one raised recently by Josh Rogin, about the fate of some 50,000 refugees who have taken shelter in the shadow of U.S. facilities.) Rather than re-write Friedersdorf's points, let me excerpt several portions of the essay, because the points he makes about the ethical questions surrounding a Syria withdrawal—the nature of promises made or not made to the Syrian Kurds, whether commitments made in the name of the United States without the express approval of the appropriate bodies are binding, etc., are the ones which ought to be considered.

He writes:

For the foreseeable future, Turkey will be hostile to Syrian Kurds and strong enough to vanquish them militarily if it so chooses. If it is a betrayal for the U.S. to pull out while those conditions hold, that would seem to imply an American presence in the country for years or even decades.

But neither Congress nor the public favors the indefinite occupation of Syria to protect its Kurds from hostility by the Turkish government. Recall that Congress failed to pass an authorization to use military force in Syria even when ISIS was orders of magnitude stronger there than it is today. Would Congress or the public have approved an agreement whereby Kurdish forces helped us fight ISIS and we agreed in return to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Syria as long as Kurds there faced danger? Of course not.

Still, many now say that the United States would be betraying our allies if we leave. It's reasonable to ask, given the positions of Congress, the president, and the public: Who took on that ostensible obligation on the nation's behalf? What gave them the right to do so? What other checks are they writing? And is there anything that the public can do to stop them?

He continues:

Any such promises were made without the backing of Congress or the citizenry in a conflict the U.S. entered without significant debate. It was always easy to see that the American public would eventually sour on having "boots on the ground" in Syria. Only a reckless gambler would've wagered that the public would tolerate an indefinite occupation as long as Syrian Kurds faced any danger.

Syria hawks pressed for American boots on the ground anyway. And they got their way in part because they were willing to proceed in spite of a public that was largely ignorant of the intervention—a public likely to stay ignorant longer because foreign allies were minimizing U.S. troop needs and casualties. To urge an intervention despite those factors is to dramatically increase the likelihood of an unpopular deployment, a populist backlash to it, and withdrawal before hawks find it prudent. If anyone told Syrian Kurds that America would always have their backs, that person behaved irresponsibly and probably dishonestly.

All of this touches on the overall ethics of intervention—as well as the ongoing use of the paradigm of low costs and no casualties to guide American action—that the U.S. public will tolerate interventions as long as the doorstep costs are low.

Friedersdorf also touches on a separate issue: whether an intervention should be carried out by a president whose critics do not trust his ability to carry it out.

Whether you agree with the author or his conclusions or not, the piece ought to be read for the difficult questions it is posing.

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