Whether one thinks that intervention in Syria is a good idea or a terrible one, it’s important to consider the issue within a larger, longer-term, and genuinely strategic context. Thinking strategically about the Muslim world hasn’t been easy for Americans, but we ought to have recognized that there are consequences for failing to do so.
The right point of departure is to recall that, whether we like it or not, the United States is the guarantor of a global security architecture that was established in the aftermath of World War II but has not been sufficiently redefined since the end of the Cold War. This U.S. role as “guarantor” is not formally recognized, as was that of France and Sweden in the treaties of Westphalia. But the intent, responsibilities and supporting structures of international affairs are not dissimilar to those of 1648, though in ways that are not often understood. Indeed, the series of Westphalia pacts are both the most-referenced and least-understood agreements in modern Western history; what had been agreed then was not so much inviolable sovereignty but the rules of intervention. As Swedish chancellor Axel Oxenstierna understood, his country was to “conserve the equilibrium of Europe,” not among states but within Germany, the bone of contention during the Thirty Years’ War, itself.
Over the last 30 years the “greater Middle East,” the Muslim world, has been the bone of international contention. It is no longer sufficient to keep the Soviets out, but to preserve some form of equilibrium among the nations and the peoples of the region itself. And just as Europeans admitted in 1648, the absence of equilibrium in a central, contested region would unhinge the entire international system. It is equally folly today to believe that constant conflict in a critical region like the Middle East won’t threaten the global great-power peace.
Nor has the United States ever been indifferent to the balance of power in “Eurasia,” to invoke the ghost of Nicholas Spykman. We have been sometimes more and sometimes less prudent in expanding or husbanding power, particularly military power, but always taken a global view and seen our purpose–to again paraphrase the guarantors of Westphalia–as preserving the “liberties”–confessional, political and economic–that were seen as legitimating the international system in the first place.
The civil war in Syria may not per se threaten the equilibrium of the international system. On the other hand, it has long been a critical piece of the Middle East puzzle, and the region’s equilibrium is almost everywhere in doubt. Much of what roils the Islamic world originates within, yet another analogue to post-Reformation Europe. Syria, like the German principalities, is the frontline in a quasi-confessional but primarily political struggle between Sunni powers, the Saudis and their proxies, and a Shi’a–at least “anti-Sunni” bloc–led from Tehran.
But if the instability originates in the Middle East, its duration and spread also reflect a failure of the system’s guarantors, and in particular the United States. Militarily, we are withdrawing rapidly after decades of episodic but steady advance, leaving behind not peace or equilibrium but an opportunity for the most violent and the most extreme. The idea that the tide of war is receding is contradicted by each day’s headlines, each moment’s Twitter feed. What has receded is our willingness and immediate ability to dam the tide.
Again, reasonable people can disagree over whether Syria is the place to “re-intervene.” Syria may not be a domino, but it is an important piece in a greater game. Just as those who intervene should not promise quick and cheap success, those who would stay out–or resort to “offshore balancing”–must make an argument not only about Syria but the regional and global equilibrium that looks increasingly precarious.