THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
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
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
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.