How to Debate Non-Interventionists

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say “the U.S. should mind its own business” or “we should leave the Middle East alone” or “alliances with none, trade with all.” Every time I do, I cringe a bit; not only because I disagree, but also because points like that are quite difficult to refute. I mean, as a policy, noninterventionism seems like a simple fix. If the United States chooses not to get involved in the affairs of other countries, “calamities” like the Iraq and Afghan wars, for example, never would’ve happened. Yet people fail to realize the justifications for these wars and conflicts like them, the fact that hindsight is 20-20, and that they can’t exactly prove that things would’ve been better without these events.

Yet people fail to realize the justifications for each of these wars, the fact that hindsight is 20-20, and that they can’t exactly prove that things would’ve been better without these events.

Take Iraq for example. Were you to go up to anyone on the street and ask them what they thought of the war, they would tell you that it was, one, not justified, and two, stupid in every way. Tell that to the Kurds, against whom genocide was committed by the Hussein regime in the al-Anfal campaign of 1988. Tell that to the near million Iraqis who were killed by the Hussein regime over its reign. Tell that to the UN weapons inspectors who were kept from inspecting Hussein’s weapons facilities in the months leading up to the invasion. Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 practically begged the international community to remove that cancer of a government. And in 2003, Hussein finally got what was coming to him.

Now, what if Iraq hadn’t been invaded? One must consider two premises in this scenario. The first is the intelligence community being correct in their assessment that Hussein harbors weapons of mass destruction. To this day, speculation abounds about what he had. My Garden: The Secrets of Saddam’s Nuclear Mastermind presents chilling evidence of the existence of WMDs and how scientists under the Hussein regime were forced to hide the weapons near their houses. Had it turned out that Hussein did have some type of weapon of mass destruction, the United States would’ve looked quite stupid. This would have been not least because Hussein had used chemical weapons against the Kurds and because he refused to allow UN weapons inspectors to study his weapons facilities in the months leading up to the invasion.

For the second premise, consider the country through the lens of a policymaker in 2011. The Arab Spring has just begun. Revolutions are springing up across the Arab world. And in Iraq, Hussein is poised to put down any uprising, just as he did in 1992, when he brutalized even more Kurds.

Much like Assad in Syria, Hussein not only refuses to give up power, but kills hundreds of thousands of his own people in the process. The result is worse than the Syrian Civil War. Over the span of a few months in 1988, over a 100,000 Kurds were gassed to death. Imagine the carnage over the length of a few years.

Let’s move on to a more uplifting example. Afghanistan, though the Taliban was brutal, was not nearly as rogue as Iraq. For most of its history, it’s been a collection of tribes all just trying to get along with their lives. But there’s a problem.

Al-Qaeda has taken root in Afghanistan, the Taliban being a complicit host. And the terrorist group has just killed nearly 3,000 Americans one cold September morning. Barring any emotional response (which would be completely justified), it made complete sense to go after Al-Qaeda wherever it sat, even if that meant overthrowing the governments that gave it asylum.

A common rebuttal to that might be, instead of invasion, why not special operations? I find that the people who suggest such a thing have no idea what it takes to go through with just one. According to Brookings, “spec ops” take a tremendous amount of planning, intelligence, money, and luck. Compared to an invasion, which would still be costly but get the job done much more quickly, a series of “surgical strikes” over the span of decades makes no sense to choose.

But one might respond that even with the invasion, Al-Qaeda is just as strong, if not stronger than it was sixteen years ago. I suppose that should demonstrate, then, how tough of an organization it is, and how it would have been much stronger without any substantive action taken. President Bush’s surge of troops in Iraq from 2007 to 2008 virtually destroyed Al-Qaeda and its affiliates by 2010. Iraq was, compared to the beginning of its civil war in 2014, a stable, mildly prosperous parliamentary democracy. Our withdrawal in 2011 endangered that progress, directly leading to the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in 2013 and the capture of Mosul the following year.

Now, let’s address the elephant in the room: Syria. If Iraq is the reason for why we shouldn’t intervene, Syria is the reason for why we should. Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, President Assad has gassed his own people multiple times, caused over 75 percent of civilian casualties (according to UNHRC – Syria Emergency), killed over 500,000 of his own people and displaced millions more, abetted the rise of the Islamic State by making deals with and fighting it only in token fashion, and promoted Russian and Iranian interests to the detriment of his majority Sunni population.

If Iraq is the reason for why we shouldn’t intervene, Syria is the reason for why we should.

The best we did for Syria was fund certain rebel groups, and even then, once the Islamic State came on the scene, we restricted ones like the Syrian Democratic Forces to fighting only that terrorist group. As a result, several other rebel groups bolted to fight the regime, usually joining the Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham or the formerly Al-Qaeda affiliated jihadist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Beyond that, because of the indifference of the world’s greatest superpower, American allies like Israel must now negotiate with Russian counterparts to keep its mortal enemies, Iran and Hezbollah, from strengthening themselves just outside the Golan Heights and in Lebanon. Syria is now a puppet state of Iran, as most of Assad’s forces are loyal to the Persian country. Sunnis have been alienated to the point of having to live under the rule of HTS and the Islamic
State, as these groups unfortunately provide the most competent governance in the region. And to top it all off, no one trusts our word. How could they when we vowed to intervene should Assad use chemical weapons, and settled for the “removal” of said weapons when he did? How could they when we declared that Assad had to go in 2011, yet in 2017, he remains? How could they when we say “never again” when “every few years” is more apt?

And if humanitarian arguments don’t work for you, consider American interests. Since the end of the Second World War, it has been in the interests of the United States to maintain a global presence. This influence is threatened when the United States refuses to use its soft and hard power. For an example of this, look no further than President Obama’s foreign policy of “benign neglect” in the Middle East. In 2007, Iraq was relatively stable, the Gulf countries weren’t sanctioning each other (see Qatar), Iran was much weaker, and Al-Qaeda was all but destroyed. In 2017, Iran has made puppet states out of Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq, Gulf countries have sanctioned each other, and Al-Qaeda is poised to expand across the Muslim world.

Neutrality will always take the side of the oppressor.

The fact that, following our attack on al-Shayrat in April (in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons), people began comparing any military action against Syria to Iraq, shows a dangerous level of ignorance among the general populace. Americans, and, most of all, humanity, must realize and embrace their obligations to stop madmen like Assad and Hussein. Dictators will never have proper legitimacy, and, as a result, their regimes will be inherently unstable. This makes neutrality in the face of repression painful for all actors. Nonintervention will always take the side of the oppressor.

Nicholas Kinberg ’20 studies  in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at

Nicholas Kinberg

Nicholas Kinberg '20 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at

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