A reader writes:
I doubt the use chemical weapons was the sole “red-line”. My step brother is 82nd Airborne and he’s been drilling in preparation for Syria since last fall. I realize that sometimes we prepare for battles we’ll never fight. But he’s pretty certain we’re going in.
I’m with you – this is very concerning. I supported Afghanistan and the Iraq invasion. In retrospect, I believe invading Iraq was a mistake and not just because of the absence of WMD. On a larger scale, I believe the original sin in the War on Terror was the original authorization of the use of military force with no sunset provision or geographical limitation. We’ve decided to wage war against a tactic. I think that any president, regardless of party, will be tempted and strongly encouraged to maintain this perpetual war. And it is this perpetual war combined with advances in communication technology that is eroding our rights. As much as I respect Rand Paul, I wonder if even he could resist the temptation to continue this misbegotten war. No doubt Hillary will continue it. McCain would have continued it. And it’s no surprise to me that Obama has continued it. Only someone who can resist the temptation to punch back when we’re punched by radical islamist will stop this cycle. But I have no idea who that person is.
(To protect my step brother, please don’t publish my name … but I guess the NSA already knows.)
You asked: “Is there a conceivably dumber war to intervene in than Syria’s current civil one? I can’t see one.” I can: A war with Iran. Consider this:
Right now Iran is going through their elections which have been widely derided as a “selection” because of the fraudulent nature of the whole process. With the main opposition leaders silenced, this round may not turn into a rerun of the Green Movement but it’s definitely going to keep tensions simmering and probably stoke a fair amount of unrest. In the past, one of the main ways that Iran has dealt with this is by playing around with its nuclear program and lambasting the West.
Now, suppose they follow that same script and Netanyahu starts to make noises towards military action against them. In the past, Obama has been able to make the necessary promises to Netanyahu to stop him from being an idiot, but if Obama went back on his word in Syria because of the obvious quagmire, what assurance does Netanyahu have that Obama wouldn’t do the same thing to him? It becomes much more likely for Israel to make a strike on Iran, and if that happens, we’d certainly get drawn in. I would submit that this is not at all a far-fetched possibility.
While I too don’t agree with arming Syria and ramping up our involvement there, one argument I’m not sure I see as being wholly relevant is your assertion that we shouldn’t be seen “(taking) a stand on the sectarian fault-line of the Muslim world and back one side over another.” This is true in principle, but in practice, our involvement in Syria isn’t what has already shown to the Arab world where we stand.
Who are the Shi’a's in Syria that we are ostensibily fighting a proxy war against? Iran and Hezbollah. Does anyone really think that we weren’t already engaged in a shadow war with them? Through our loud support for Israel in the face of Hezbollah intimidation, through the sanctions we’ve inflicted on Iran, and our public assertions that we won’t tolerate them holding a nuclear program? Does anyone think that by having Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan as our three closest partners in the region that we haven’t already thrown in our hat with Sunni powers against Shi’a powers? Now, our complicated relationship with the Shi’a regime we helped prop up in Iraq complicates our relationship to the broader sectarian conflict, but no one has ever accused the United States’ relationship with the Middle East as not being rife with contradictions.
I think that arming the Syrian rebels is a mistake that opens the door for further mission creep, and that we are trying to take control of a situation we have no way of controlling. However, I don’t think that arming the rebels says anything new about our take on the game of power politics going on in the region. On the side of Assad are Iran, Hezbollah, and a Russian government that has actively sought to undermine our diplomatic initiatives. It won’t break new ground to say that we are coming out on the side of the Syrian rebels in this sectarian war when that has been the policy all along. It’s a different strategy, but it’s a policy shift meant to achieve the same ends that we’ve been actively pushing for behind the scenes for two years.
I found Bill Clinton’s comments on Syria yesterday shocking – feckless, narcissistic and condescending. He actually compares Syria to Afghanistan in the ’80s, as an argument for intervention, implying that if we’d only handled the war’s aftermath better, we wouldn’t have ended up with the mess that was a Taliban-run fundamentalist state and a murderous Al Qaeda led by our former BFF Osama bin Laden. It boggles the mind.
Another disagrees with my stance:
You make it sound as though President Obama just ordered 500,000 troops to parachute into Damascus by noon tomorrow. As far as we know, he has only agreed to ship arms – guns and stuff – to the ragtag Syrian rebels. I’m as wary of Middle Eastern involvement as you. However, if there’s ever a time to intervene in such a God-forsaken place, it’s when a dictator is using chemical weapons against his own people. That is evil and brutal by any calculation. Personally, had I been in the Oval Office, I would have ordered Daisy Cutters into the bedroom windows of every presidential palace in the country. Shipping a few thousand M16s and hand grenades? Humanitarians should be outraged at the flaccidity of this response.
Obama is not stupid. He knows his public is war weary and not willing to get embroiled in another Middle East quagmire. But he also knows that the killing in Syria is fundamentally, morally wrong. Still, this looks to me like a half-measure.
Am I all that thrilled about it? Nope. But I also recognize that there comes a time when a President believes that some level of intervention is the right – or the human – thing to do. He drew a line in the sand (at chemical weapons!), and is now tip-toeing into something that can be construed politically as action. I am only sad for the innocent men, women and children, who have been gassed by their own leader, for whom this “betrayal” you speak of is far too little, too late. I fear that this won’t change a thing in Syria, let alone the evil bastard who currently runs that shadow of a nation-state.
Of course, there may be a political calculus here: The McCain Wing of the GOP (whose fissure with the Rand Paul faction is turning into a full blown fault line by the day) has been screaming at him to “arm the rebels” since long before the election. Now he can say, “What else do you want? American boots on the ground? Really?” Is there some meep-meep potential here?
Another is also trying to stay positive:
Let me be clear that this is a reading based on hope, and that I think your reading of a slow cave to the imperialists is as likely or more likely to be the accurate one. The hopeful look for Obama is that he sees diplomacy and force through a completely different lens than the Bush administration did (and than Clinton and McCain do). Under Bush, diplomacy was a fig leaf. It was something you did in order to check the “tried diplomacy?” box before going to the UN and declaring that you were engaging in warfare after having “exhausted all other options” or some other white lie. All of the real action happens with boots on the ground, and if you don’t push over a government or kill some people, then nothing real happened.
If Obama is different, and I still have some hope that he is, force is a very heavy and unwieldy tool in the diplomat’s toolbox. Diplomacy, rather than a fig leaf, is the primary channel through which everything else, including force, operates. In the chess game that is trying to unwind the conflict in Syria, arming the rebels is akin to advancing the bishop into an attacking position. It’s something you don’t do lightly, but it’s also not the endgame.
If this reading is right (and again, I’m not convinced it is), then what Obama is doing is undergirding the credibility of the “credible threat of force” stick without overcommitting it, with the end goal remaining a diplomatic solution. I don’t agree with this tactic, and I don’t like it at all, but in it I see some hope that this isn’t the beginning of another imperialistic adventure.
(Photo: A Syrian young boy runs holding an old rifle as he helps fighters belonging to the ‘Martyrs of Maaret al-Numan’ battalion on June 13, 2013 in the northwestern town of Maaret al-Numan in the Idlib province. By Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)