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MAY 2016



The Nature of the Beast

This is exactly the point at which a kind

of Hippocratic oath for statesmenmight

be a better guide to policy than the urge to

do good. Is the nature of the regime in the

respective country a matter of vital interest

to the United States, or is it not?

My personal view is that the essence

of vital national interest is defense of the

homeland against armed or economically

crippling attack from abroad. A regime

that undertakes or advocates such attacks,

or harbors and supports those who do,

is operating in a Hobbesian system, and

should be treated accordingly.

Short of such a threat, however, domes-

tic developments in a foreign country will

rarely affect American vital national inter-

ests. Thus, actions to effect regime change

should not be undertaken unless there is

reasonable certainty that they will not do

more harm than good.

There is a certain inherent legitimacy

in acting with appropriate force to defend

one’s vital interests. There is no inherent

legitimacy in using force to overthrow an

established government, even a bad one.

Before undertaking such an action,

three questions need to be answered satis-

factorily: (1) Howwill the action be made

legitimate? (2) Are those undertaking it

able and willing to bring enough power

to bear to achieve the overthrow expedi-

tiously and with limited harm to the gen-

eral population? (3) What is the probability

that the people of the country will be better

off, rather than worse off, as a result?

Legitimacy in such cases is what I

would call “process” legitimacy. The

United Nations is the institution that can

provide it, and a Security Council resolu-

tion the means. An essentially unilateral

“coalition of the willing” will not do.

Getting such a resolution will generally

be difficult, and it should be. The grounds

must be weighty enough to overcome the

presumption that states do not interfere in

the internal affairs of other states.

It would be irresponsible to seek such a

resolution unless one were certain of being

able to bring sufficient power to bear to

accomplish the objective without inordi-

nate loss of life among the people affected.

A people may be fully justified in over-

throwing a corrupt, authoritarian regime,

but encouraging them to assume the risks

of doing so gives the outside power some

responsibility for what follows.

The United States never recognized the

incorporation of the Baltic states into the

Soviet Union during the ColdWar, but it

was responsible enough also to never let

them think that it would be able to help

thembreak away.

The greatest uncertainty may lie in try-

ing to predict whether the result of regime

overthrowwill leave the population better

off or worse off. But the question cannot be

answered if it is not asked, something the

United States has often failed to do.

There is enough expertise available

here and in other countries to address

such questions, and to put together a

course of action that leads to the reason-

able conclusion that the affected country

can be left better off.

But the question needs to be asked in

advance, not during or after the event. And

if the answer is not affirmative, the outside

powers need to have the integrity to step

back, lest they domore harm than good.

ISIS and Syria: Paved

with Good Intentions

In Syria, the Obama administration did

the opposite of doing no harm. It declared

publicly in 2011 that Assadmust go, while

greatly underestimating his ability to resist;

overestimating the strength, cohesion and

morale of the moderate opposition; and

failing to appreciate the danger posed by

the radical opposition.

That opposition, in the formof the

so-called Islamic State group (ISIS), has

emerged as the genuine threat to fun-

damental U.S. interests that Assad never

was. ISIS has amply demonstrated that it

is willing to organize attacks on the U.S.

homeland, or at least to harbor or support

those who would.

America’s ineffectual support for the

overthrow of Assad did not create ISIS;

but together with its failed democracy-

building effort in Iraq, Washington did

help create the power vacuum into which

ISIS moved.

The United States now faces increas-

ingly hard and unpleasant choices in Syria.

Its preferred outcomes—defeat of ISIS

and removal of Assad—are potentially

mutually contradictory and can only be

achieved by bringing a lot of force to bear.

There is little stomach in the United States

for any substantial ground force involve-

ment in this civil war, in no small part

because there is little confidence that such

involvement would produce a desirable


America’s preferred proxies, the moder-

ate opposition to Assad, are unable or

unwilling to fight ISIS, and will be crushed

by any likely successor regime in Syria.

The Assad regime is willing to fight ISIS,

but equally determined to fight the other

groups opposing it.

In aligning itself with the Kurds in Syria

and Iraq, Washington has found a group

that is willing to fight ISIS, and capable

of doing so effectively—but only in the

context of advancing the Kurdish desire for

a homeland, if not a state of their own.

This desire for self-determination sets

up a direct conflict with Turkish, Iraqi and

Syrian interest in preserving their territo-

rial integrity. And our provision of military

assistance to the Kurds puts the United

States on a potential collision course with

the vital interests of a NATO ally.