Stephen Walt, David Aaron Miller and others have argued that intervention in Syria is not in US vital interests. Absolutely. Trouble is, the argument is a bit too easy to make.
You'd think a country's vital interests are what it needs, or its citizens need, to survive. Energy and food, mainly.
These days very few countries have to worry about their vital interests. If their citizens are starving, that's not because the country can't obtain what's needed. This isn't the 18th Century and there's no energy crisis. The world produces plenty of everything to go around, and if you don't have it, plenty of people who will sell it to you at less than prohibitive prices. This isn't complacency about the world; shortages of vital commodities could recur. It's a description of current conditions. But
Foreign policy isn't about vital interests.
If you think about what's NOT in a country's vital interests, you'll probably surprise yourself. Sea access? Bolivia, not a rich country, lost it in the 19th Century and is doing just fine. Territorial integrity? Austria isn't worse off, much less dead, for its shrunken borders. Not even military defeat need be a matter of vital interest; Germany and Japan are famous examples. The US, then, has no vital interests anywhere in the world. It would have to lose Canada, Venezuela and the Middle East as oil suppliers, all at once, for its vital interests to be called into question. That won't happen. To say that Syria isn't in US vital interests is to assert nothing much. Instead it betrays a perhaps deliberate misunderstanding of how rational nations determine their policies.
Nations look ahead a bit. They realize the unforeseen can happen; they try to provide against unpleasant surprises. That makes them want, in a nutshell, power. The US would get upset if Mexico bought advanced anti-aircraft missiles and the latest fighter-bombers from Russia. Would that be because US vital interests were compromised? Not at all. The US has no reason to think that Mexico would make war on the US. Mexico has no motive to do so and it knows that if it tried, no level of Russian armament would save it from catastrophe. But US interests would indeed be compromised because, who knows? Nut cases might get hold of the arms and do a lot of harm. Russia might be on its way to encircle the US with a genuinely daunting ring of well-armed enemies. What is China, Brazil and Venezuela piled in? Again, no vital interests to worry about: the US would survive perfectly well as a cowering third-rate power. But people do worry all the same.
Syria and US policy
So the real question is not whether doing something in Syria is in US vital interests, but whether it's in US interests: throwing the word 'vital' in there is just a way to abandon strategic thinking altogether. If you stop doing that, the case against doing something in Syria gets much harder to make. Yes indeed, the US will survive no matter what happens in Syria. It will survive if Syria ends up a nuclear-armed client of some US enemy. It will survive if Israel gets into a war with Syria and US commitments - not to mention Congressional pressure - draw the US into that war. It will survive if the Mediterranean becomes dominated by Russian and Chinese naval forces. It will survive if, fearing this, the US gets involved in ever more expensive and provocative arms races. It will survive if Syria becomes a base for dozens of successful attacks on US citizens, resulting it thousands of deaths and really crippling security restrictions on US air travel. What's more, none of these things are at all likely to happen. But it's somewhat more likely that one of these unlikely possibilities occurs, which is why it would make sense for the US to care about Syrian outcomes. Add to this one thing that has happened already and will mushroom - a contempt for American power that invites increasingly bold challenges to US interests - and maybe what-me-worry policy about Syria isn't such a great idea.
At what cost?
But HOW MUCH to worry? It turns out that the whole 'vital interest' case against action on Syria rests on a hidden and false premise. Even if 'vital' is just taken to mean 'substantial', the assumption is that doing something about Syria would be a big deal: indeed this is at the core of virtually every anti-interventionist argument. But doing something about Syria would be a very little deal.
What the Syrian opposition wants - and anti-interventionists go la-la-la-la not to hear it - is just two things: arms and money. Not troops, no training, and, given sufficiently advanced weapons, not air strikes. Certainly not, as Miller so dishonestly suggests, a Bush-style 'build democracy in funny Arab countries' campaign. What would satisfying these needs cost the US?
Usually when Syrians are asked this question, they say millions, or hundreds of millions. Let's multiply what's asked - one figure is 300 million - by ten, to get 3 billion. That's far less than 1/10th of 1% of what the US has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan - not to mention that it will cost 0 American lives. And very likely it will cost far, far less, than that 1/10th of %1.
Why? Because the arms Syrians want are, by current US standards, old, stuff that the US armed forces would regard as obsolete. This means the arms exist already, and are sitting in depots, waiting for decommissioning or disposal. To provide these arms will cost the US nothing but transportation. However it needn't cost even that much, because Gulf State countries would very likely be happy to finance that transport. So the best guess is that supplying arms would cost only a few million dollars, or less, possibly nothing.
Just how vital, how substantial, would US interests have to be to do that? The question amounts to whether there is any chance of any bad consequences from the utter disgrace and contempt the US has drawn on itself, and will draw on itself more and more with the prolongation of slaughter in Syria. Seen in this light, the case for doing something in Syria is not so easily dismissed.