In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe’s major powers were scrambling to gain influence in Africa, the last unclaimed land on the globe. All but one nation: Germany. Its steely-eyed chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, believed that such interventions would drain Germany’s power and divert its focus away from its central strategic challenges. When shown a map of the continent to entice him, he responded, “Your map of Africa is all very fine, but my map of Africa lies in Europe. Here is Russia and here is France, and we are in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”
Imagine if today’s interventionists had their way and President Obama escalated force and the Assad regime fell. What would be the outcome? Here are some clues. Washington deposed Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq (Syria’s next-door neighbor, with many of the same tribes and sectarian divides). It did far more in Iraq than anyone is asking for in Syria, putting 170,000 soldiers on the ground at the peak and spending nearly $2 trillion. And yet, a humanitarian catastrophe has ensued — with roughly 4 million civilians displaced and at least 150,000 killed. Washington deposed Moammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya but chose to leave nation-building to the locals. The result has been what the New Yorker calls “a battle-worn wasteland.” In Yemen, the United States supported regime change and new elections. The result: a civil war that is tearing the country apart. Those who are so righteous and certain that this next intervention would save lives should at least pause and ponder the humanitarian consequences of the last three.