The US may have been tempted to support Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s nominal head of state, in his fight against Islamic State (IS). His army remains the best trained and best equipped of the many belligerents fighting for control of Syria. If the US had the single goal of wiping out IS, then backing Assad would be a good strategy. But the US, prudently, is not fighting militant Islam at any cost – surely not at the cost of aiding a secular authoritarian who has himself demonstrated exceptional brutality. The Obama administration and a majority in Congress are wise to eschew that unsavory liaison, and to support the Free Syria Army (FSA) instead.
There are many factions competing for control of Syria. But the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) stands out as by far the best bet for the cause of liberalism and democracy. Not coincidentally, a growing number of countries have recognized the SNC as Syria’s government, and have been arming their fighting force, the FSA. By denying aid to Assad, and instead favoring the weaker SNC/FSA as part of its newly elaborated campaign against IS, the US affirms that the era of convenient dictators is over.
While grappling with the USSR during the Cold War, the US faced the threat of total annihilation: of civilization, the species, the planet’s ability to support life. And so from Batista to Somoza to Trujillo to Pinochet to the Shah to Hussein to Mubarek, no dictator was too brutal – so long as a regime opposed the USSR and opened its markets to US firms, it could count on unfettered US support. Thus it was that US foreign policy during the Cold War frequently served to subvert democracy and liberalism abroad, as winning the Cold War took precedence. Liberalism within the US took a beating too, with the McCarthy era’s war on free speech and assembly, and the lingering scar that is the phrase “under god” inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 – ostensibly to distinguish the US from “godless communists.”
Today the stakes are different. While the rise of theocracy in the Middle East – and the ability of terrorists to project power out of that region – are real and serious threats, they are not existential threats; and they therefore cannot justify the abandonment of what must be the US’s long-term interest in the worldwide proliferation of liberalism and democracy.
It’s for this reason that the Obama administration’s newly devised policy – aiding the FSA in its ground war against IS, Assad, and others (such as the Islamic Front, another nasty Islamist faction fighting in Syria); while itself prosecuting an air campaign against IS across Syria and Iraq – is a good one, and deserving of support.
Like the Cold War, the “War on Terror” has also taken a toll on American liberty, with Americans, under the auspices of the Patriot Act, subject to an outrageous degree of electronic surveillance. One hopes that that ill-considered law will be allowed to lapse next year. As for the Pledge of Allegiance, Americans may have to endure its bastardized form for another 60 years, albeit while (cynically) savoring the irony that religious zealots have replaced godless communists as America’s enemy du jour.
Militant Islam, like communism, shall also pass – as will the next affront to liberalism, whatever form it takes. But our commitment to liberalism must not be compromised along the way.