Tulsi Gabbard and Hillary Clinton have recently been trading shots over the question of regime change. The former Democratic candidate for president supported the Iraq War, convinced President Barack Obama to bomb Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya, and remains committed to the idea that overthrowing foreign governments should be a regular part of American foreign policy.
Few among establishment politicians and thinkers still defend the wars in Iraq and Libya. Nonetheless, interventionists have adopted a strange talking point. If Iraq and Libya show the dangers of regime change, they argue, then the war in Syria shows the dangers of inaction.
For example, Trump’s tenuous decision to pull out of Syria led many on the right to point the finger at Obama. According to Fox News pundit Buck Sexton, “[a]round 500,000 human beings were killed in Syria while Barack Obama was president and leading for a ‘political settlement’ to that civil war.” War hawks like Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and the late John McCain have similarly pointed to what they call Obama’s “moral failure” that resulted from his refusal to act. On the left, Shadi Hamid, of The Brookings Institution, recently argued that the “failure to confront Assad” was the “original sin” of the Obama administration.
Such discussions tend to take a simplified, moralistic view of the world. Bad governments do bad things because they are run by bad people. They can only be stopped through moral courage on the part of American leaders. If you care about innocent people being slaughtered, then you need to favor greater intervention abroad to remove evil governments, at least under certain circumstances.
International relations are rarely that simple. In this case, the interventionist narrative in Syria flies in the face of both the academic study of the causes of mass killing and the facts of American involvement. Indeed, a closer look shows that it was American intervention in Syria that, despite the intentions of decisionmakers, amounted to a policy almost tailor-made to create a greater likelihood of such atrocities.