Whether the United States should intervene in a foreign conflict is always the most difficult decision with which the country’s leaders have to contend. In general, there are two main criteria that dictate whether such an intervention is launched: national interest and humanitarian or moral imperative.
The history of the United States is replete with instances of military interventions in conflicts around the world, from Korea and Vietnam to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia. And, the list of military interventions doesn’t include the many covert operations carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Military interventions that arise out of calculations of national interest appear fairly obvious, but rarely are, except in hindsight. U.S. involvement in World War II, but for the Japanese attack on the naval complex at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was a highly controversial issue. The war in Vietnam constituted one of the most politically divisive periods in the nation’s history. The decisions to intervene in the Balkans following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia were hotly debated in Congress, and the war in Iraq was, similarly, lacking in a firm consensus regarding its viability and rationale.
Decisions on whether to intervene militarily in a foreign conflict or crisis absent a compelling national security rationale hinge on whether the United States has a moral imperative to act to stop atrocities or the spread of famine in disease caused by political instability. It is easy to sit in one’s living room and declare that such an imperative exists; doing so when one is directly responsible for the probable loss of American lives such an intervention would likely entail is harder. The 1992 intervention in Somalia was launched solely for humanitarian reasons, yet disintegrated into a failed military intervention when warring factions proved resistant to U.S. and United Nations efforts.
Which brings us to the case of Syria. Whether the United States should intervene in that conflict should be determined by whether such an intervention can help bring the fighting to a halt and whether a continuation of warfare there poses an unacceptable risk to the stability of the region as a whole. While President Barak Obama famously drew a line regarding his threshold for intervention with the confirmed use of chemical weapons by the government of Syria, recent determinations that such weapons were in fact used has failed to provide the political consensus the president had anticipated. The chemical weapons “red line” was firmly grounded in humanitarian, and legal, considerations, but many analysts and critics have pointed out the fact that around 100,000 people had been killed in the fighting prior to the red line being crossed, and the Administration had not acted.
A decision on whether to intervene in Syria, two years into a conflict that has contributed to the destabilization of the region, is likely to be too little too late. That is why the president has allowed the proposal to refrain from military action in exchange for a Syrian decision to destroy its chemical weapons to develop. Chemical weapons have killed an estimated 1,500-2000 people in Syria. Regular, conventional, weapons have killed 100,000. The moral imperative of preventing the further use of chemical weapons has proven more compelling to many than the consideration of broader regional conflict resulting from the war.