There are repeated calls for the United States to arm rebel forces trying to unseat Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The most enthusiastic proponents of that course are hawks like the so-called Three Amigos — Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joseph Lieberman. But GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney also complains that President Barack Obama has not done enough to aid Syrian fighters who seek freedom for their country. And despite its continuing caution, the Obama administration has channeled at least nonlethal aid to the Free Syrian Army through that faction's main sponsor, Turkey.
Although Americans are understandably disgusted by the Assad regime's brutal military crackdown, there are good reasons to avoid deeper involvement in Syria's turmoil. Among other factors, Washington has a dreadful track record of being manipulated by thugs and charlatans in other countries masquerading as committed democrats. The decision to aid the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s ended up strengthening radical Islamic forces. Mujahideen alumni later turned up in extremist and terrorist movements throughout the Muslim world. Reagan administration officials even misconstrued the term "mujahideen" itself as "freedom fighters," when it really meant "holy warriors" — a very different connotation that should have alerted U.S. policy makers.
The triumph of hope over logic and evidence also was evident in the administration's support of insurgent forces in Nicaragua. President Ronald Reagan notoriously referred to the Nicaraguan Contras, that motley collection of democrats, opportunists, and diehard followers of former dictator Anastasio Somoza, as the moral equal of America's own founding fathers.