If the past decade taught Americans anything, it is that there is no getting around the law of unintended consequences, especially in foreign policy.
No matter how good our intentions might be or how carefully we plan, once we "cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war" we no longer control events, they control us.
As I said, this should be obvious by now. But apparently it isn't.
It is difficult to read the news about Syria and not be appalled. As I record this, forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad are shelling the city of Homs, which according to Reuters, "has been at the heart of the uprising against Assad's 11-year-rule."
The scene is eerily reminiscent of what happened in Hama thirty years ago almost to the day: forces led by al-Assad's uncle and acting at the behest of his father, leveled the city as part of the regime's war against the Muslim Brotherhood. Between ten and twenty thousand people were killed.
Apart from the Syrian government, nobody wants to see history repeat itself. The question is: How do we stop it? Syria has ignored entreaties from the UN and the Arab League. Economic sanctions are too slow to prevent the killing, if they work at all.
It's not surprising, then, that at the Republican debate on Wednesday, three of the four candidates suggested some kind of U.S. involvement in toppling the Syrian government. On Capitol Hill, senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham endorsed the idea of arming the Syrian opposition.
Whatever happened to the just war doctrine?
While it may be good politics to want to go after the bad guy, but folks are acting as if the past decade never happened. Set aside the fact that arming the rebels will only prolong the killing. Once again, our leaders and opinion elites are urging the use of military force without thinking about what happens after the "bad guy" is gone.
Syria is a divided nation. The Alawites, who rule the country, are a minority. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. There are also substantial Christian and Kurdish minorities.
Sound familiar? Actually, there are differences between Syria and Iraq: Many Sunnis don't consider the Alawites to be Muslims at all, and they resent them for the way the Assad regime has treated Sunnis. Because of this, one human-rights activist predicts that a Syrian civil war would be "more destructive in terms of human lives, losses and regional instability" than the Iraqi civil war.
And let's not kid ourselves: civil war is the most likely result of Western intervention. Even if Assad could be persuaded to quit Syria, the rest of Syria's 3.5 million Alawites have nowhere to go. They would be facing the prospect of reprisals. Since they control the Army and security apparatus, they would of course fight.
Caught in the middle of all this destruction, loss, and instability would be Syria's Christian minority, which constitutes about ten percent of the population. Like their Iraqi brethren, their fate doesn't figure prominently in the thinking of those urging intervention.
It figures in mine, and it should figure in yours. While I understand the sentiment that led to the so-called "duty to protect," I also understand the history behind the phrase "unintended consequences."
The question is: do our leaders?