This is a favorite question asked by isolationists and it was recently asked by the patron saint of libertarians, Ron Paul. The question has an attractive ring to it. After all, it costs America money and lives to fight terrorists around the world. It is much easier to say stuff like we shouldn’t be the world’s police force or we should focus on issues at home. Many of these locations are, to use a Trump phrase, shit-holes that don’t seem worth a single American life. On top of that, the countries in which we fight (and much of the world) often condemn America for their actions designed to make the world safer. In short, it’s a thankless and costly job of fighting in places like Syria. But it’s a job that must be done for moral reasons and to protect American interests because the world is a safer place with a strong, active, and interventionist America.
The classic example is the build-up to World War II. Those that warned of the danger such as Winston Churchill were marginalized. The dominant positions back then was to denounce war, shrink the size of the military, and avoid military conflict against aggressors like Japan, Germany, and Italy. Americans were particularly isolationist as they believed that problems far across the oceans weren’t America’s problems. But that myth came crashing down during Pearl Harbor. Active and timely intervention by the allied powers could have stopped the Axis powers before it came to that. For example, German generals had tentative plans to overthrow Hitler for his reckless behavior, particularly during the Anschluss with Austria. But Hitler’s miraculous success cemented his position. The Japanese war machine in the Pacific relied upon key imports like oil from the United States, so we had leverage short of conflict that could have been applied.
The civil war in Syria had many competing sides, including a legitimate moderate force in 2011. But after a red line that wasn’t enforced, feeble negotiations with congress, and leading from behind in Libya, the civil war in Syria produced hundreds of thousands of deaths, war crimes, 11 million refugees and displaced persons, as well as ISIS and other militant groups in a much stronger position. They stormed through the power vacuum in Iraq, created a nightmarish regime across both countries, and millions of refugees. The coming fight in Idlib promises up to 700,000 displaced people who will face a difficult time getting food, water, and basic medical care.
Isolationists like Ron Paul would rather claim the area is just held by a bunch of terrorists, insult Neocons, and wash their hands of the whole matter. But if anything should have been learned over the last seven years of internecine civil war and atrocities…it’s that inaction often has as many negative consequences as action.
For example, Turkey recently attacked Kurdish forces in the northeast corner of Syria, which led to strain among two key U.S. allies in the region. Iran is using the war to place military personnel and weapon systems closer to Israel. Russia has used the conflict to gain a foothold in the region. And this is before we consider the magnitude of the refugee crisis across Europe and America, which presents both humanitarian and security concerns. It strains credulity to believe that the U.S. will have more influence in the region and that they could avoid the problems from this war if they withdraw the advisors and support from their allies in the region.
So why can’t we leave Syria alone? It is very tempting to leave the problems over there, but the lessons of Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attack, the rise of ISIS, bad actors and strategic competitors taking advantage of the region, and terrorists using asylum claims and refugee passports to infiltrate Western countries all suggest that problems over there become bigger problems once they finally make it over here.