Waltz With Bashar?

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 8 2014 @ 1:21pm

Josh Rogin reports on the internal debate within the Obama administration over whether we ought to reconsider our support for removing Assad:

In effect, the American government has been in a limited partnership with the Assad regime for almost a year. The U.S., Russian, and Syrian governments made a deal last September to destroy Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons—and relied on Damascus to account for and transport those weapons, in effect legitimizing his claim to continued power. As far back as last December, top White House officials, including Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, have suggested that the rising threat of extremism was creating a “convergence of interests” between the U.S., Russia, and its allies in the Iranian and the Syrian governments to come to a political deal before the Islamists became too powerful. …

But the view that Assad can somehow be a partner of any kind is vigorously disputed by other senior U.S. officials, especially those who work or have worked on Syria policy. They say the problem of extremism in the region can only be solved by removing Assad from power. Not only is the Assad regime a magnet for terrorism, they argue, but Assad and the extremists inside Syria are working together.

Morrissey is aghast at the prospect that we might end up on the same side as a tyrant responsible for atrocities the State Department has compared to Nazi crimes:

This is what comes from having no foreign policy strategy, other than to get out of Iraq.

Obama does not want to return there even to fight ISIS, which is an offshoot of al-Qaeda, even where we have a straight-up fight militarily — and there are good reasons for that, because we probably can’t arrive in time with enough forces to do the job, thanks to the total withdrawal of 2011. He won’t commit air power to it without forcing the Iraqis to dump Maliki either, which again is not altogether unjustified. However, it leaves us with no strategic or tactical way to stop ISIS, no strategic partner in Baghdad, and no other strategic partners from NATO willing to step in and help. Assad is nothing more than a life preserver tossed into an ocean of bad circumstances, and the rationalizations already arising make it look like an even more ridiculous choice. If we want to fight ISIS, we’d be better off fighting ISIS ourselves. Propping up Assad through Iran is a complete reversal of American foreign policy of the last 35 years, in service to nothing except desperation.

If Morrissey believes that we should have stayed on in serious numbers in Iraq in order to fight yet another Sunni insurgency, he truly has learned nothing from the last decade. As for maintaining the foreign policy of the last 35 years – surely the situation in the Middle East after the Arab Spring requires some major adjustment. If our goal is to stymie ISIS, then I see no problems with tacitly relying on regional powers to do that work if necessary, and the Assad regime is one of those regional powers.

Zooming out, Jack Goldsmith asserts that the situation in Iraq and Syria upends the logic behind Obama’s foreign policy doctrine:

The “training” blueprint is not the only blueprint left in tatters by the insurgency in Iraq and Syria.  So too is the broader blueprint of declaring the “war” against jihadists over.  For a while now the administration has sent signals that core al Qaeda is near defeat and that the AUMF-“war” is nearly over. …

The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the failure of U.S. trained forces in Iraq to maintain ISIS, the continuing and growing threats to the homeland from AQAP in Yemen (see this scary Ken Dilanian story), not to mention rising jihadist forces in many other places, call this hopeful picture into serious question.  Set aside the legal question whether Article II suffices as a basis for needed U.S. counterterrorism operations to meet these threats after the AUMF is declared otiose (an issue I have discussed many times, most recently here.)  The politics of declaring the war to be over seem fraught as well.  Even if core al Qaeda is entirely defeated, AQ-associated forces like AQAP remain robust, and ISIS is now a huge problem, not just in Iraq, but also potentially in the homeland because (see here and here) thousands of westerners have joined the jihadist fight in Syria and Iraq and can return to the West, including the United States, with relative ease.  Declaring the war to be “over,” even declaring the AUMF-war to be over (which I think is hard to do), will now only highlight how little has been accomplished overall in defeating the jihadist threat.

It seems to me that the issue of returning Jihadists is the most potent one. And there must be ways in which those combatants can be monitored closely in the US or barred re-entry. But the belief that all these Jihadists are focused on attacking the United States and that the fight against Islamist extremism is now back at Square One seems a huge reach. ISIS’ main agenda, as the former MI6 chief has pointed out, is the war within Islam – not the war against the West. And, in fact, the most potent way to make this fight about us is precisely to adopt the rubric of post-9/11 policies, with all the collateral damage they did to us and to the struggle against Islamist violence. I favor roughly what Obama appears to be doing – a few gestures here but essentially nada directly. Nudge the regional powers to tackle ISIS, persuade the Saudis to cut off any funding still going there, insist on a broadly-based government in Baghdad as the sine qua non of any military aid, and steer clear of the entire clusterfuck. We have no bone in the Sunni-Shi’a fight. And the last thing we should do is inject ourselves into it.

Previous Dish on Obama’s Syria plan here and here, and on Assad’s machinations in Iraq here.