President Obama says that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad must go–must be removed from office. This is not a distinctively Democratic position. It is shared, for example, by Republican senator and presidential candidate Lindsay Graham (see here).
I have nothing to say in defense of Assad. I wonder, however, whether this is a prudent line of policy for the United States. One could raise at least three questions about it.
First: Is it prudent to lay down something as an object of American policy that the United States probably lacks the power to bring about. Obviously America has in some sense the power to remove Assad. But it just as obviously lacks the political will to do it. There is just not sufficient support in public opinion to use the military force necessary to remove Assad, especially when doing so would mean that America would bear some responsibility for what happened in Syria after Assad was driven from power. And in a democracy like America, when the public lacks the political will to do something then the government also lacks the power to do it.
Second: Speaking of bearing responsibility for what happens after, would we in getting rid of Assad be making the same mistake a second time? A few years ago it was common for leaders who wanted to sound like high-minded and determined statesmen to say that Saddam Hussein had to go. And he did go. But as we now see, the results were not exactly what we had hoped.
Third: Is this moralistic insistence that Assad, because he is bad, must be removed from power really in keeping with the successful and upright foreign policy that America pursued in the past? ISIS represents a form of barbarism that is comparable in wickedness–though not in scale–to Nazism. It makes sense to seek the destruction of ISIS just as it made sense to seek the destruction of the Nazi regime. But in working to destroy Nazism the government of the United States was willing to cooperate with Soviet Russia ruled by Josef Stalin. Is Assad as bad as Stalin? He’s not even close. So if we could tolerate cooperation with Stalin to bring down Hitler, why couldn’t we tolerate Assad’s continuance in power if he would be helpful in destroying ISIS?
This last question makes me wonder if there is some lack of realism in the thinking of the present generation of statesmen that did not cloud the thinking of the generation that guided American through WWII. We are drilled in the belief in progress so much that we perhaps find it inconceivable that foreign policy may really require undesirable choices in order to minimize the scope of evil. But the fact that we find it inconceivable does not mean that it is not true.