I’ve spent much of the day reading, reading and reading all I can about the events in Syria that I missed while on vacation. The more I read, the more opposed I became to what seems to me a potentially disastrous new war in the Middle East. And yet the more I absorbed the full incoherence of the argument for another utterly unpredictable war (you’ve probably read William Polk already but if not, do), and the more the arguments of John Kerry fell apart upon Senate inspection, and the more a look-back at the past two weeks revealed truly staggering policy confusion and doubt in the administration, the more it seemed that momentum was, incredibly, for another war.
And today’s media coverage felt like Iraq replayed as in a bad dream. The liberal internationalists, in an Ahmandownpour of self-righteousness, cannot wait to jump into another sectarian war we cannot control and would be unable to win. The neocons are still – staggeringly – being booked on television! Bret Stephens and Jennifer Rubin actually pulled out yet another Munich analogy this week (seriously, it’s always Hitler with them) – only to be backed up by the blithering bore who is, alas, our current secretary of state.
The liberal elites are particularly amazing to behold. I watched Anderson Cooper tonight and I may have missed it, but I couldn’t find a single guest opposed to this war, even as most Americans emphatically oppose it. Even O’Reilly was more even-handed (I kept flicking back and forth). We got to listen to Ryan Crocker tell us that we have to intervene and at the same time that the potential replacement for Assad is probably just as foul as the dictator. And we got Fouad Ajami – another pro-Iraq war “expert” who was exposed as an eloquent bullshit artist during the Iraq fiasco – telling us – yes, he said this – to trust the “Syrian people”, as if they exist, as if the sectarian divides and hatreds are not re-fueling as we speak, as if he has no shame and no record. It really as if Iraq never happened, as if the US still had the resources to fight an0ther, brutal and scarring sectarian conflict in someone else’s country on someone else’s behalf who will eventually ally with our foes. It is as if the Bush-Cheney administration never happened. It is as if the “surge” worked.
Obama has long straddled the line between protecting the interests of the American people against Jihadists and extricating the country from two disastrous, budget-breaking, morally crippling wars that all but exhausted America’s deterrent power. This is not an easy balance, and he deserves a break in a truly vexing period of eroding US prestige and power. And Obama hasn’t squandered American soft power, whatever the neocons think. They did that by executing those very failed wars in utterly failed states. Having used our military might to no avail, we now threaten it and are somehow surprised we aren’t taken seriously. This, in other words, is not Obama’s real gamble. His real gamble was in stating he would prevent chemical weapons use in Syria in the first place, when he cannot without endorsing another Iraq-style occupation.
So now we are treated to the argument from “credibility”. Enough with the arguments about credibility! The United States would benefit by nothing more than accepting the fact that we do not have the power to control that region and shouldn’t die trying. Our credibility is threatened not when we stay out of other people’s civil wars, but when we make threats we cannot enforce. I am emphatically not dismissing the Rubicon of chemical weapons, and am as appalled by their use as anyone. But if we cannot resolve the question without entering another full-scale, open-ended war on the basis of murky intelligence about WMDs, then we should resign ourselves to not resolving the question. Repeat after me: American power is much more limited than our elites still want to believe.
Our choice right now is between enabling Assad to stay in power and murder and gas more innocents or entering an unknowable conflict with no clear goals and no vital national interest at stake. If we do the latter, we will prove either that we bombed Assad and he survived or that we bombed Assad and we got al Nusra in charge of the chemical arsenal. If we are truly worried about the spread of Assad’s chemical weapons, we should ensure he keeps a tight lid on them and prevails in the civil war. That’s the goddawful truth we want to avoid and Obama thinks he can elide. He cannot. Get your Niebuhr back out, Mr President.
It is, of course, a vast tragedy that innocent Syrians – men, women and children – are being slaughtered and shelled and now gassed in a deep, sectarian conflict that feeds on cycles of revenge. I understand the moral impulse to try to stop it. I am not blind to the evil in Assad’s mafia family, just as I wasn’t blind to the foul stench of mass murder among the Saddam clan. I also understand the prudential reasons for trying to live up to the red line Obama so foolishly drew. But I learned from Iraq that establishing the evil of a foreign dictator does not mean we should go to war with him. Assad has already massacred 120,000 people in the region we call Syria, and we are not, we are told, going to act decisively enough to remove him from power. Either we lose face by choice or we lose face by walking backward into inevitable defeat. Better to lose face now by choice.
As for Obama? I wish I understood better. But the point of Obama’s entire presidency – something bigger than just him – was to resist the impulse toward what Obama once called “dumb wars.” Dumb wars are often acts of hubris; and when a country has the kind of massive military power the US now wields, every problem looks tempting. Everything the president has said and done has suggested he understands this. And yet in Libya, he gave in to the hysteria because of an alleged, planned massacre that never happened. Has it occurred to the president that someone might have noticed how you trap the US in yet another debilitating, bankrupting quagmire? As for the intelligence, show us. All of it. Prove that the rebels could never have done this. Give a reason why Assad would have suddenly raised the stakes this high in a war he was winning. I’m not interested in educated guesses. Unless this case is proved beyond the slightest reasonable doubt, the Congress has a duty to say no. After Iraq, America deserves no less.
And when you come at this fresh, one thing strikes you. The very notion that a great power like the United States should be involved in any way in resolving the differences between Shia Alawites and Sunni Muslims in the eastern Mediterranean is simply an absurdity. Maybe Obama has realized that too late and is now seeking Congressional support. But if he gets it, it won’t last. It will be followed by a thousand “Benghazis” on Fox News and elsewhere. If and when the civil war makes the dispersion of chemical weapons a threat to us, we can intervene to protect ourselves. Until then, Obama needs a steely form of resistance to the siren call of understandable moral concern. That’s what statesmanship sometimes requires in weighing the long-term interests of this country and its people against the immediate moral necessity of preventing evil. It requires seeing the evil you cannot end more clearly than the evil you can.
I learned that in the brutal decade after 2000. Did anyone else in Washington?
(Photo: U.S. President George W. Bush (R) speaks next to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (C) and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (L) during a visit at the Pentagon March 25, 2003 in Arlington, Virginia. Bush asked Congress for a wartime supplemental appropriations of $74.7 billion to fund needs directly arising from the war in Iraq and the global war against terror. By Alex Wong/Getty Images.)