By: Mike Landes
I’ve known since I was seven that arming Syrian rebels against the al-Assad regime is a bad idea. Mitt Romney still hasn’t figured it out.
When we were kids, my brother and I used to fight every day. It didn’t matter what we were fighting about; we’d pick an issue and decide not to agree on it. It could be anything – he wanted ice cream for dessert, so I wanted cake. Inevitably, we’d turn to our parents to help decide the issue, and, just as inevitably, they’d point out that we were just arguing for the sake of doing so. I didn’t really like cake; I just didn’t want Josh to get away with having the ice cream he wanted. We finally learned our lesson when we realized our disagreements didn’t get us anywhere (and often cost us our desserts).
On October 8th, shortly after his successful first debate with President Obama, Mitt Romney told a crowd in Lexington, Virginia, that he would provide arms for the Syrian rebels currently fighting President al-Assad’s regime. His proposal doesn’t make any more sense than fighting with my brother over cake. Rather, it sounds like a campaign platform designed to create distance between Romney and his opponent. Romney can hardly be faulted for wanting to distinguish himself from the president, who has called for an end to the fighting in Syria but has refused to consider direct intervention. This is one issue, however, where campaign strategy makes for bad policy. America has tried arming insurgents before and the consequences have usually been disastrous.
Consider Nicaragua in the 1980s, a scandal that cost President Reagan dearly. The Contras rebelled against the Sandanista government, and the Reagan administration, against the orders of Congress, supplied them with the financial and military support by selling arms to Iran that would then be shipped to Nicaragua. President Reagan admitted knowledge of these illegal sales, but was never held accountable for them. The Contras went on to extort, torture, rape, conscript, and publicly execute civilians, and the media skewered Reagan for his timely donations. The rebels turned out to be just as corrupt as the Sandanistas, and Nicaragua’s economy and political system have been in shambles ever since.
This story is reflected in America’s role in the rebellion against Soviet rule in Afghanistan. The United States supplied the mujaheddin with surface-to-air rockets, firearms, anything they needed to beat the Soviets. We’re at war in Afghanistan now, fighting those very people who we supported in the 1980s… and thirty years later, they’re using the weapons we sold them to kill American soldiers.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that arming emergent rebel groups can come back to bite us. Sending arms to a rebellion – in a region that’s already bristling with dictatorships, unrest, and anti-American sentiment – is a dangerously misguided idea. Syria’s rebellion is a civil and humanitarian crisis. It isn’t the type of issue that candidates should posture on just for the sake of distinguishing themselves. Right now, Romney sounds like I did when I was seven, fighting for the cake because my brother wanted the ice cream. As my mother often said, “Keep it up and you won’t get anything at all.”