How the Right Went Wrong on Syria

by John R Guardiano on September 6, 2013

Peggy Noonan’s latest column perfectly captures the foreign policy errors of the ‘non-interventionist’ cons.


Peggy Noonan wrote some fine speeches for President Reagan, including his memorable address commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

However, her Wall Street Journal columns are, sad to say, too often unserious, and today’s column about Syria is especially lamentable. But because Noonan articulates much of the misguided thinking of conservatives opposed to U.S. intervention in Syria, her column warrants a response.

  • Noonan agrees with the Pope that the world cannot remain indifferent to “‘the senseless massacre ‘unfolding’ in Syria.” However, reportedly like the Pope, she believes that a military solution is a “futile pursuit.”

Now, this is true insofar as military action in Syria is necessary but insufficient. But Noonan rejects military action in Syria altogether.

The Pope, moreover, is a religious leader, not a military strategist. As for morality, it is morally irresponsible — and wrong — to stand by while evil triumphs.

  • Noonan insists that the world “must stand up for civilization,” but that “a military strike is not the way, and not the way for America.” Yet, she offers absolutely no way, short of military intervention, for the world to affirm longstanding civilizational norms against the use of chemical weapons.

Words matter, but only if they’re backed up by serious action, and our enemies — in Syria and Iran — know this.

  • Noonan discounts concerns about American credibility. “We don’t have to bow to the claim that if we don’t attack Syria we are over as a great power.”

This is a straw man. Advocates of U.S. intervention are not worried about a loss of great power status. The United States, of course, will remain a great power. But we will be seen, by friend and foe alike, as a weak and impotent great power — useless, unwilling and incapable of acting.

Noonan says this won’t matter because Iran and North Korea will still fear us. Yes, they’ll fear our power, but increasingly less so will they fear our willingness to use that power, and that’s what counts.

Indeed, power that is not marshaled and employed for decisive strategic effects is no power at all. It is not status that concerns us, but results.

  • Noonan applauds the “ ‘wise men,” the foreign policy mandarins of the 1950s and ‘60s, who so often and frustratingly counseled moderation, while a more passionate public, on the right and left, was looking for action. ‘Ban the Bomb!’ ‘Get Castro Out of Cuba.’”

Sorry, but this moral equivalence between left and right during the Cold War cannot stand. It is simply — and dangerously — wrong.

For starters, as Dinesh D’Souza points out in his excellent study, Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, the so-called wise men were profoundly wrong about the Soviet Union.

They counseled peaceful coexistence with the Soviets, while we conservatives counseled rollback — and Reagan’s policy of rollback was successful: It brought about the demise of the Soviet Union.

As for Castro, our failure to take him out when we had the chance (in the early 1960s) created serious foreign policy problems for us for decades. In fact, much of Reagan’s presidency was consumed with battling Castro-supported communist governments in Central America (Nicaragua) and Africa (Angola).

In much the same way, I would suggest that our failure to take out Assad now, when we have the chance, will create serious foreign policy problems for us for decades, and in a region, the Middle East, that is absolutely critical to our national security. And, unfortunately, it will be left to a more serious and sober-minded future president to deal with these problems.

In short, the much-vaunted “moderation” that Noonan cheers is a myth. Don’t laud the “moderation” of the so-called wise men. Instead, rue their ignorance and naivety; and thank God we had a president, Ronald Reagan, who was willing to buck them.

In fact, Reagan’s lesson then applies today. Reagan armed rebel groups to defeat the Soviets

In much the same way, we must arm rebel groups in Syria to defeat Assad and, by extension, Iran. And yes, despite all the loud noises that argue otherwise, there are moderate-minded rebels who are not radical Islamists and jihadists. Part of American grand strategy must be to identify, strengthen, arm, and train these rebels — now.

  • Noonan, like many ill-informed conservatives, doesn’t want to arm the rebels because, she says, look what happened to Egypt: “We threw over a friend of 30 years [Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak] to embrace the future. The future held the Muslim Brotherhood, unrest, and a military coup.”

It is true that democratization in Egypt has not gone well. There are many reasons for this, including unrealistic expectations of people like Noonan. Democratization in Egypt and the Middle East, as I have argued, is a long and messy process that will take decades to achieve.

But more to the point, the United States did not “overthrow Mubarak”; the Egyptian people did that. And Egypt has suffered from a decided lack of American interest and involvement.

In short, the problem in Egypt has not been too much American intervention, but too little. Obama, by his own admission, is more concerned with “nation-building at home” than with conducting a serious and concerted U.S. foreign policy.

Unfortunately, the president is making the same mistake in Syria. But let’s not compound that mistake by having the Congress turn its back on Syria and the Middle East, with a no vote on military intervention there. A no vote will be seen in the eyes of our enemies as a clear and unmistakable sign of American weakness and retreat.

  • Noonan credits Obama for having “determination and guts in getting Osama bin Laden.”

Sorry, Peggy, but our Navy Seals and CIA covert action teams took out bin Laden; and that effort had been initiated long ago by one, George W. Bush.

Indeed, all Obama did was approve an effort begun by his predecessor and presented to him by his military advisers. He would have been seriously derelict had he not approved their plan.

  • Noonan warns that “a Syria strike may become full-scale war.”

My goodness, where has Peggy been? There’s already a full-scale war in Syria, and it’s been going on for a couple of years now.

That war, moreover, is part and parcel of a larger-scale war that the United States has been waging for more than 12 years against radical Islamic extremism.

A new and important front in that war has opened up in Syria, and the question before the Congress is: will we fight or retreat, win or lose? Like Reagan, I want to win. So, too, should all conservatives.

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