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Stop Trying to Overthrow Assad

Saddam Hussein and Ashar al-Assad

General David Petraeus recently told Congress that the United States is not doing enough in Syria. On the contrary, we have been doing too much.

There is no such thing as an ideal foreign policy. An ideal world would have a universal government with no need to conduct foreign relations. Unfortunately, recent American foreign policy fails to achieve even the lesser evils allowed by an imperfect world.

Much of the problem results from Americans’ failure to understand that moral standards appropriate at the personal (or “micro”) level cannot be applied uncritically at the “macro” level in which governments operate.

America’s approach to Syria is a clear example of the problems caused by failure to understand this distinction. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad presides over a civil war which has killed hundreds of thousands and driven crowds to flee. American policy is that Assad is an evil man and has to go. Russian and Iranian support for his regime is considered outrageous.

We need to reconsider. Assad’s forces face several rebel groups and the Islamic State. Wholesale atrocities, committed by all sides, will end only when the civil war ends. If rebel forces destroy Assad, war will continue while the various groups fight to see who would rule. So the fastest way to end the war would be victory by Assad’s loyalists.

Whatever their reasons for supporting Assad, therefore, Russia and Iran are promoting more humane results than is the U.S. Our support for rebels prolongs the misery.

Assad, like Saddam Hussein, has done terrible things , so evaluated at the micro level he is indeed despicable. But remember the actual consequences of removing Hussein: chaos, large scale killings, the Islamic State. The average Iraqi would be better off today if Hussein remained in power.


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When evaluating leaders remember, as Charles A. Beard noted, that “The bee fertilizes the flower it robs.” Even terrible leaders provide a valuable service if they can keep their people from beating each other’s brains out.

As the U.S. learned (or did we?) in Iraq, it is much easier to destroy bad governments than to replace them with better ones. Unless our national security absolutely requires it we should therefore refrain from overthrowing even terrible foreign leaders since the one thing worse for the people of a country than a bad government is no government at all.

Thomas Friedman argues that our planet is divided into areas of order and areas of disorder. Noting refugees pouring into Europe, he says “we have only two ways to halt this refugee flood, and we don’t want to choose either: build a wall and isolate these regions of disorder, or occupy them with boots on the ground, crush the bad guys and build a new order based on real citizenship, a vast project that would take two generations.”

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We do have a third choice that could minimize expanding the world of disorder: stop military interventions to overthrow bad regimes, and stop supporting domestic insurrections.

When he met with Vladimir Putin, President Obama was unable to endorse Russia’s support for the Assad regime. Complete reversals of policy are politically embarrassing. But at least we could stop our current expensive and ineffective support for rebel groups. There are signs that we are doing this in fact, despite continuing rhetoric to the contrary.

Many recent commentaries about Syria have lamented the high price of our foreign inaction. But Syria is just one of many places where American inaction is the best possible action.

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Paul F. deLespinasse

Paul F. deLespinasse, who now lives in Oregon, is professor emeritus of political science at Adrian College in Michigan. He can be reached via his website,

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