Originally appeared at The American Conservative.
There are a lot of questionable assumptions informing this New York Times piece about Syria and U.S. support for the YPG. This quote from Stavridis sets the tone for the entire article:
“In the course of American history, when we have stuck with our allies in troubling circumstances, from the U.K. and Australia under attack in WWII to South Korea in the Korean War, things tend to work out to our benefit,” said James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral and former supreme allied commander for Europe. “When we walk away from loyal allies, as we did in Vietnam and are now threatening to do in Afghanistan and Syria, the wheels come off.”
Why does the US have allies and partners? Are these relationships meant to advance US interests, or are they ends in themselves that must be sustained no matter what? To listen to Stavridis and quite a few others, they seem to think it is the latter or they are incapable of making the distinction between the two. In all of the examples he cites, he is referring to local partners in wars that the US either should never have fought (Vietnam, Syria) or should have stopped fighting long ago (Afghanistan). This problem keeps coming up because the US chooses to take part in conflicts in which the US has no vital interests. If the US has no vital interests in a conflict, it will sooner or later “walk away” from the conflict and the partners that it had. The policy failure happens when the US commits to unnecessary and unwinnable wars and gives local partners unreasonable expectations of the amount of support and protection they can expect. Our government tends to go to war recklessly and without thinking through the implications of our involvement, and it throws its support to local groups too easily and makes promises that it can’t or won’t keep. The solution is not to keep US forces in these places in perpetuity, but to refrain from sending them there to begin with.
The US makes too many commitments to too many mutually opposed states and groups. That creates absurd scenarios where the US either has to defend a proxy from an ally or stand aside while the ally attacks the proxy. No matter which side the US chooses, it will be betraying someone in the name of supporting one of its partners. That is an argument for reducing the number of partners and commitments that the US has. That shouldn’t be done in an arbitrary, irresponsible way, but it does need to be done if we are to avoid more of these dilemmas in the future. As Ben Friedman observed earlier today, reducing commitments is not even considered as a real alternative:
This @nytimes article actually argues, by quotation, that we should fight for the SDF in Syria now because we saw the consequences of abandoning allies in Vietnam and Iraq, where our failure to aid the Kurdish uprising in 1991 caused us to invade in 2003.https://t.co/lMtlUnRfzMpic.twitter.com/b8cnwiQZ6V
— Ben Friedman (@BH_Friedman) October 10, 2019
Having too many contradictory commitments is what comes from trying to “shape” political outcomes in other countries and police foreign conflicts. As long as the US aspires to exercise global “leadership,” it is going to make more promises than it can realistically keep, and it will end up “allying” with mutually hostile forces again and again. The more “allies” that the US accumulates, the more likely it is that Washington will leave one or more in the lurch on a regular basis. That should tell us that the US needs to be more selective and discerning in the extent and nature of the support that it offers, and that requires pursuing a very different strategy of restraint that minimizes the need to acquire so many “allies” in the first place.
Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.