Obama’s Betrayal On Syria / The Anti-Quagmire President

The following is the bulk of Andrew’s commentary on the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war. To skip the latest post in this thread (Thu, June 12 / Moderates In Islamist Clothing?) click here.

Jun 13, 2013 @ 7:47pm

Obama’s Betrayal On Syria


This was a president elected to get us out of conflict in the Middle East, not to enmesh us even further in a cycle of sectarian conflict and metastasizing warfare. This was a president who said he didn’t oppose all wars, just dumb ones. Is there a conceivably dumber war to intervene in than Syria’s current civil one? I can’t see one.

You can forgive a president once – even though his misguided, counter-productive and destabilizing war in Libya was almost as nuts as this latest foray. But by deciding to arm the Sunni radicals fighting the Shiites in Syria and Lebanon, the president has caved to the usual establishment subjects who still want to run or control the entire world. I don’t buy the small arms qualifier. You know that’s the foot in the door to dragging the United States into the middle of a civil war we do not understand and cannot control. If it has any effect, it will be to draw out the conflict still longer and kill more people. More staggeringly, he is planning to put arms into the hands of forces that are increasingly indistinguishable from hardcore Jihadists and al Qaeda – another brutal betrayal of this country’s interests, and his core campaign promise not to start dumb wars. Yep: he is intending to provide arms to elements close to al Qaeda. This isn’t just unwise; it’s close to insane.

What to do when a president just reverses course like this? It comes after verification that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against civilians. This is, apparently, the “red line”. Indiscriminate shelling that kills tens of thousands wasn’t enough. Of course, I’m not in any way defending the horrifying use of these weapons against civilians – but I am asking what on earth is the American national interest in taking sides militarily? I see precisely none. Do we really want to hand over Syria’s chemical arsenal to al Qaeda? Do we really want to pour fuel on the brushfire in the sectarian bloodbath in the larger Middle East? And can you imagine the anger and bitterness against the US that this will entail regardless? We are not just in danger of arming al Qaeda, we are painting a bulls-eye on every city in this country, for some party in that religious struggle to target.

I understand why the Saudis and Jordanians, Sunni bigots and theocrats, want to leverage us into their own sectarian warfare against the Shiites and Alawites. But why should America take sides in such an ancient sectarian conflict? What interest do we possibly have in who wins a Sunni-Shiite war in Arabia?

I hate to say it but this president looks as if he is worse than weak here. He is being dragged around by events and pressures like a rag doll. And this news that we are entering the war with military supplies is provided by Ben Rhodes, not the president. That’s nothing against Ben, but when a president is effectively declaring war, don’t you think he has a duty to tell the American people why and what he intends to achieve?

But nada. You voted twice for Obama? You’re getting the policies of McCain and the Clintons, the candidates he defeated. I wish I could understand this – but, of course, my worry is that the pincer movement of Rice and Power is already pushing us into a war we do not need, and cannot win.

This is worse than a mistake. It’s a betrayal – delivered casually. Maybe he thinks his supporters will treat this declaration of war just as casually. In which case, he’s in for a big surprise.

(Photo: Syrian rebel fighters belonging to the “Martyrs of Maaret al-Numan” battalion leave their position after a range of shootings on June 13, 2013 in the northwestern town of Maaret al-Numan in front of the army base of Wadi Deif, down in the valley. By Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

Jun 14, 2013 @ 10:30pm

Obama Caves On Syria


Well, we don’t yet quite know what’s in the works – but once you start arming one side of a civil war, you become part of that civil war; the other side may target you; and as this sectarian conflict deepens across the region, the US will be seen as a Sunni power fighting Shiites. I cannot think of a worse policy position for this country – to take stand on the sectarian fault-line of the Muslim world and back one side over another. You think the other side won’t notice? You think Americans wouldn’t be targeted for this kind of meddling? Let Putin get bogged down in this hell, if he remains so 19th Century he feels he must. But we should have zero interest in that ancient religious dispute; zero.

And you can say you’re only arming them with anti-tank weapons and the like. Ben Rhodes was very careful not to say too much. But of course he did say far too much. Once you have committed to one side in a civil war, you have committed. The pressure from the neocons and liberal interventionists to expand this war will only increase – because either you fight to win or you shouldn’t fight at all. Yes, it’s the same coalition that gave us the Iraq catastrophe.

My strong view, vented last night as I absorbed this stunning collapse of nerve, is that we shouldn’t fight at all. We are damn lucky to have gotten every GI out of Iraq, and the notion of being sucked back into that region again – and to join sides in a sectarian conflict – is a betrayal of everything this president has said and stood for. It’s a slap in the face for everyone who backed him because he said he wouldn’t be another Bush or McCain or Clinton. If he intervenes in Syria, he will have no credibility left with those of us who have supported his largely sane and prudent foreign policy so far. Libya was bad enough – and look at the consequences. But Syria? And the entire Middle East? Is he out of his mind?

And can you think of a dumber war than this one?

The man who said he would never engage in a dumb war is apparently preparing to join the dumbest war since … well, Iraq. And by the way: who would you rather have in control of chemical weapons – Assad or the al Nusra brigades? Because it will be the al Nusra brigades who would seize the country if Assad falls. And you think those fanatics have the slightest loyalty to us?

One reason I supported Obama so passionately in 2008 and 2012 was because I thought he understood this and had the spine to stand up to drama queens like McCain and armchair generals like William Jefferson Clinton. But it is beginning to appear that this president isn’t actually that strong. We voted for him … and he’s giving us Clinton’s and McCain’s foreign policy. If Cameron and Hollande want to pull another Suez, for Pete’s sake be Eisenhower – not Kennedy.

My cri de coeur is here. Don’t do it, Mr President. And don’t you dare involve us in another war without a full Congressional vote and national debate. That wouldn’t just be a mistake; it would be a betrayal.

(Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty.)

Jun 16, 2013 @ 6:28pm

Obama’s Worst Foreign Policy Decision


MoDo today summed up the wisdom of everyone who championed the Iraq war and endorsed those arguments all over again. As if it never happened.

She even cites its two most persuasive proponents, McCain and Clinton. The argument is that something bad is happening in the world and because you are the American president, you need to stop it. If you don’t, you are “a wuss”. Worse, other actors, like Putin and Khamenei are intervening in Syria, so we must too – or appear “weak.” The entire scope of this argument, as with Iraq, is limited to the moral posture of the United States, the existence of an evil, the imperative of acting, and then trying to sell the American public on the action. The argument is actually weaker than for Iraq, because at least Clinton and McCain insisted at the time that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that he wanted to use against America; at the current moment, no one is saying that about Syria’s chemical arsenal. In fact, the only scenario in which the US might be the target of such weapons is if we do exactly what these “statesmen” are demanding: side with one faction or another. Then at least one side has a reason to hate us.

Does Dowd have any argument as to where such “leadership” would take us? Does she argue that arming Sunni Jihadists against Alawites and Shiites is a good thing because those Jihadists would never use such weapons or be an enemy of the US? No. Who does she want to win the Syrian civil war and why? She doesn’t say. Does she support the theological claims of Sunni Islam against Shiite Islam? I don’t know. In fact, she doesn’t explain at all what the point of her new war is, or what her preferred outcome would be. These are simply to be figured out, or in Clinton’s words, “sold” later. This foreign policy “doctrine”, if it even deserves such a designation, is essentially an endorsement of George W Bush’s presidency. Yes, MoDo hates Obama that much that in this column she has actually gone full circle and endorsed the arguments that gave us the catastrophe in a very similar country, Iraq.

Clinton also accuses the president of taking his previous, coherent and strong position on Syria not because staying out of this conflict is obviously the sanest thing to do; but because Obama is apparently just listening to the polls. The gall of Clinton of all people to accuse anyone of that level of cynicism! And the American people, he assumes, are obviously wrong. The job of a president is not to listen to them on matters of war and peace, especially if they have a collective memory longer than that of a gnat, but to ignore them, forget the lessons of the very recent past, wing it, and hope to “sell” the war later.

I write all of this in acute frustration, of course. Because I thought I understood Barack Obama’s strategy and obviously I don’t, and because I want this president to succeed and I cannot possibly see how this can lead to anything but failure. And I’m frustrated because MoDo is right about the substance and the timing of Thursday’s stomach-churning presser. How dare a sitting president delegate the explanation of such a dangerous, portentous step to anyone but himself? The sheer arrogance of that delegation of a core duty is shocking. Here’s what the president had to do that day that was more important, in his mind, than explaining why he had just committed the US to the folly of another war in another Middle Eastern country:

He spent time at an LGBT Pride Month celebration, a Father’s Day luncheon and a reception for the W.N.B.A. championship Indiana Fever basketball team.

I presumed at first this was another version of the Libya fiasco: self-righteous hand-wringing followed by removal of a tyrant, leading to more regional destabilization and the murder of an ambassador and other Americans. Only this time, the president didn’t even muster his lame defense of the Libya mess. Or perhaps it was, as Marc Lynch calls it, a version of the Afghan surge – an act that sacrificed American lives for no conceivable end but face-saving for an exit and protecting his right flank at home. The Afghan surge remains, to my mind, morally cold. Sending mother’s sons to their death when you know it won’t work is not something even Niebuhr would endorse. But as Marc notes, at least that surge had an end-date. Not this time. So perhaps this was just a minor concession to the Sunni allies who want to win the war for their version of Islam or the European allies who keep stupidly wanting to pull off another Suez. If so, it’s an insult to them as well as to us. It won’t do anything to change anything, but will mean the US will find it progressively harder and harder to avoid more and more commitment.

So let’s posit “our side” wins. What good could possibly now come of a Sunni Jihadist victory? We’d see a mass slaughter of Alawites at best, and a metastasizing sectarian war across the Middle East in which the US would be entangled. By staying out, on the other hand, we make Putin and Iran the targets for Sunni hatred, we do not add fuel to the sectarian fire, and we do not hurt any of our strategic interests. I thought I had supported Obama over McCain and Clinton in 2008. Why are we now getting boomer-era interventionism?

For a kinder, gentler version of this screed, read Fareed. Or watch this space if and when the president deigns even to explain why he has just done what he promised never to do again.

Jun 16, 2013 @ 6:51pm

The Anti-Quagmire President?

For balance, here’s an argument that Obama’s record of not sliding into intractable conflicts so far is a reason to trust him not to slide on Syria. I just worry that Rice and Power – combined with liberal interventionist Tony Blinken – is too strong a faction for the president to resist. He’s already foolishly committed himself rhetorically to war with Iran – rather than containment and engagement – if it gains a nuclear weapon; and his “red line” comment about Syria was red meat to the Clintonite tendency. Once a president has said such things, he can be dragged further into the mire.

To my mind, the key components of a successful Obama presidency – an actual change we can believe in – is the ability to resist war in Syria or with Iran under almost any circumstance. And I have to say I think he has put himself into a dangerous corner on both. After Libya and this execrable volte-face, I’m fast losing confidence he has the core strength to trust his own judgment against all the war mongers around him.

Jun 16, 2013 @ 9:06pm

Is The US Pro-Sunni? Or Pro-Shia?

This paragraph from the WSJ’s helpful account of all the forces combining to revive the foreign policy of George W Bush strikes me as salient:

King Abdullah, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also argued to Mr. Obama that the U.S. was allowing three of its chief historic rivals in the Middle East—Iran, Russia and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah—to dominate the battlefield in Syria and help President Assad push back recent rebel gains. Mr. Assad’s survival, they said, would tip the regional balance of power in Tehran’s favor.

So fucking what? You’ll notice the usual suspects: Sunni autocrats ganging up on the Shiite resurgence. My point is and was: the US has no reason to side with Shia or Sunnis in the Middle East. The notion that the US needs to take a position on a question of doctrinal division within Islam is, in a word, absurd. Backing the torturing dictators of Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the man who just razed Taksim Square against the Shiite dictators in Iran, Syria and Qatar furthers no interests of the United States.

Jun 17, 2013 @ 3:50pm

What’s The End Game In Syria?

Hussein Ibish is actively hoping for “mission creep” in Syria in light of America’s new commitment of small arms:

For once, “mission creep” provides the hope of a successful outcome rather than a terrifying threat to a major foreign policy initiative. Typically, American hubris has meant overreaching, and “mission creep” has historically been synonymous with disaster. In this case, a new and uncharacteristic American risk-aversion has been crippling.

Crippling for whom? Not the US. Shadi Hamid figures Obama will have to up the ante soon:

The fact of the matter, and one the administration seems intent on eliding, is that the only way to help the rebels regain the advantage and force the Assad regime to make real concessions is with a credible threat of military intervention through airstrikes against regime assets and the establishment of no-fly and no-drive zones.

We’re told this is not Iraq – because it such a tiny intervention. Okay, then it’s Vietnam, in a country that is as chaotic as Iraq. Meanwhile, a new Pew poll released today shows that 70 percent of Americans are against intervention, though 41 percent of those opposed favor some form of humanitarian action:

The 20% of the public that favors arming anti-government groups in Syria also expresses concerns about the U.S. getting involved. More than half (56%) of those who favor arming rebels agree with the statement that U.S. military forces are too overcommitted to get involved in another conflict, and 55% agree that the opposition groups in Syria may be no better than the current government.

I’ve heard the ludicrous argument that the Obama surrender to the McCain-Clinton-Saudi position will somehow engineer a negotiated settlement with Assad. If anyone believes that, they need their head examined. The more you look at this, the more you realize that the only possible explanation for this is the president’s core weakness. No strategy; no end-game; and now, not even coherence.

Jun 18, 2013 @ 11:05am

Arming The Rebels Isn’t Realist. It’s Surrealist.

Noah Millman attempts to make sense of Drezner’s view that Obama’s wading into Syria is a realist calculus:

Longstanding conflicts don’t weaken extremist groups, they add to their resources – even as they drain the overall resources of the society. A prolonged civil war will certainly weaken Syria, but I don’t see how it will materially weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon. And I’d be curious to see numbers on just how much of a drain the Syrian conflict is on Iran, even in monetary terms. Most importantly, what about the radicalizing effect of a prolonged civil war on Sunnis in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, etc? I was under the impression that preventing that radicalization was a really big foreign policy objective. And last, there’s Daniel Larison’s point that if the goal is to prolong the civil war, it’s counter-productive to put American credibility on the line by publicly choosing sides. It would be far more sensible for us to covertly support the rebels while publicly advocating a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Drezner’s argument feels like an attempt to impose coherence on a policy that is driven by other factors.

I cannot see any sane realism here – just improvised weakness. Obama’s foreign policy seems, at this point, to be going in two directions at once. It both seeks to create the change we wanted – away from neo-imperialism and entanglement in places where our core national interests are not at stake and simultaneously clings to Clinton-Bush remnants, i.e. obsessive paranoia about Iran, and impulsive humanitarian interventions like Libya. It feels like a transitional administration rather than one that has the courage of its own post-imperial convictions. Larison contends that the Ben Rhodes’ defense of the move is simply delusional:

According to the extremely broad definition, the U.S. has an interest in inflicting damage on Iran and its allies as part of a competition for influence in the region, and to that end the U.S. is supposed to aid anti-Iranian forces wherever they might be found. It treats Iran as if it were a major threat whose influence has to be rolled back. There is some internal coherence to this view, but its core assumptions are delusional. They are based on an obsession with limiting Iranian influence that doesn’t actually seem to promote U.S. or regional security, and as I believe we’re seeing in Syria this obsession is contributing to making the U.S. and the region less stable and secure. That is what many Syria hawks think the U.S. can and should be doing, and to the extent that the administration agrees with their underlying assumptions that is what explains Obama’s very bad decision.

Fred Kaplan isn’t worried about a slippery slope into war but remains skeptical of any realist interpretation of the move:

There is no notion here of a rebel victory; nor is Obama doing anything to suggest that this is his goal. A successful outcome, Rhodes said, would be a “political settlement”—preferably forged and imposed by the United States and Russia together—that pushes Assad out of power but “preserves some elements of the regime” while also bringing in “the opposition, who we believe speaks for the majority of the country.” This is, to say the least, far-fetched. Russia regards Assad as an ally, his regime as a bulwark of Russian geostrategic interests, and any opening to the opposition as a source of dangerous instability. In fact, regardless of one’s viewpoint or nationality, it is hard to imagine a “political settlement” that shares power between Assad’s henchmen and the various rebel factions as anything but a formula for continued murder and mayhem.

Jun 18, 2013 @ 11:48am

In Defense Of Obama On Syria

[Andrew referred to this as “the most effective defense of [Obama’s] Syrian straddle I’ve yet read – from a neocon Dishhead!”]

A Republican reader writes:

Once again, you have put me in the awkward position of defending the President. Though I wanted to laugh out loud when he said this wasn’t a new policy and “consistent with the policy I have had all along,” I have to say that he came off to me as US-POLITICS-OBAMA-LGBTprincipled. His principles are not my own. His stated objectives are a winged unicorn. He is for me far too cautious and far too existential about unforeseen ramifications; yes it’s complicated. We have to do it anyway, so says me. Because, in the words of Clarence Darrow “If you want to predict the future, you need to have a hand it its creation.”

But it is just as clear that for him the US to enter into a Sunni war with Shi’ism is not in the US interest. Period. He doesn’t see it as helping allies or not helping them – he is perfectly willing to shore up Jordan for instance – but he’s not going to yoke himself to Qatar-Saudi plowshares. His manner and body language on “another war in the Middle East” was quite telling – it is clearly the last thing he is going to let happen – he is going to fight escalation tooth and nail and is signaling that to his public, his liberal interventionists (Rice, Power,) and his generals exactly that. This is all frankly quite presidential. He is showing his own decided pattern of measured, thoughtful, leadership-from-behind.

Not what I want personally – I voted for Romney – but it’s a perfectly valid and reasoned response, even courageous when seen in the light of what I am sure he’s getting from all sides. His “for example” on being in the situation room is already being pilloried for its “trust me, I know more than you” thing, and it plays into perceptions of his aloof arrogance – but in reality what he actually said is a very important insight into his thinking: he plays the tape to the end.

He is looking at each option all the way through to its consequences. Which is actually why our policy is so hesitant, because there are no good options and no clear results. Syrian teleology doesn’t exist. But there are times when you have to act to achieve clarity. Sometimes you have to poke the sleeping monster with a stick and see what happens – this is often in the presidential wheelhouse.

This president does not want to go into Syria in any inextricable way. He’s going to consistently resist escalation, and I think in some potentially interesting ways this will give him clout with the generals and European allies as not rushing into something we will most assuredly not control. He will ask questions that a President Bush would not. And his measured response allows a broader view. Indeed, getting bogged down in Syria obscures the real threat to Middle East stability: Iran’s nuclear program.

Right now, with French and British support beforehand, I would crater the runways, destroy every aircraft Assad has, and remove his armor from the earth and do all of it in a single afternoon. This would terrify and likely topple Assad, hobble Russia, and shock the Iranians to the core, perhaps even changing their nuclear calculus. It would impress the Saudis and Qataris – making them more amenable to ceasing support for the al-Qaeda groups. The Syria opposition would coalesce around non-Islamists as the rest are frozen out of aid. It would almost overnight restore American initiative, and put the U.S. military back on a take-the-war-to-the-enemy footing psychologically (where it belongs). Even Morsi and Erdogan would take note and likely fall in line. Our enemies need to be afraid of what we can do – right now the only world leaders afraid of US resolve are our allies.

But I’m not the president and I could be wrong about all of it. Assad could respond with chem/bio against Aleppo, or US targets, or Israel. The Syria opposition collapses. Two million more refugees walk to the Jordanian border, only to be refused entry. Iran could launch hundreds of Fateh 110s and Shehabs and Yakhonts against carrier groups. Egypt, Iraq and Jordan crumble into Islamist-exploited civil disorder. Hezbollah could fire 60,000 rockets at Israel.  Latin America Hezbollah units could cross over into Texas and bomb the Galleria in Houston. Russia could announce Syria is under their nuclear umbrella.

President Obama has picked his path through this minefield. It’s not my path and perhaps not yours, but that’s his job. He’s President of the United States and has to decide each day what is the true scope of US interests under his executive administration. I don’t think he’s “caved” to either of us.

Jun 19, 2013 @ 12:59pm

The Anti-Quagmire President, Ctd

Obama acknowledges the danger of getting sucked deeper and deeper into a conflict:

Jeffrey Goldberg also reports that last week John Kerry pushed for US airstrikes on Syrian airfields, only to be rebuked (mercifully) by the Pentagon:

At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime — specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.

It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. According to several sources, Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.

Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome.

If this is true, it reveals again how John Kerry is still trapped in the mindset of his generation. Even Kerry – Vietnam vet – is arguing for exactly the kind of small intervention that metastasized into the Vietnam disaster. And remember he backed the Iraq War as well, however ludicrously he tried to spin it in 2004. Meanwhile, Hussein Ibish objects to the comparison of Syria to the quagmire in Iraq:

The Iraq war was about unilaterally engineered American regime change. The intervention in Syria will be about helping Syrians themselves ensure regime change on their own or come to the point where they can actually negotiate a new post-dictatorship modus vivendi.

Rather than a long-term occupation, as in Iraq, this will involve major aid to specific rebel groups, including arms and other materiel intelligence, command-and-control assistance, no-fly zones, and possibly a real confrontation with the Syrian Air Force and air defenses. But what it will not mean is American “boots on the ground.” As in Libya, the ‘Pottery Barn’ rules (“you break it, you own it”) will and should not apply in Syria. We can help Syrians get out of the mess they are in, but we cannot and should not dictate their future.

Ibish’s arguments – among them, that my opposition to intervention in Syria or Iran is based on some kind of crude non-interventionism – evaporate upon close inspection.

On Iran, I simply don’t believe their nuclear capacity is a real threat to the US. They have more than 200 Israeli nuclear warheads pointed right at them and would benefit much more from keeping their arsenal just on the brink of becoming operational (like Japan) than doing something crazy. More to the point, if our goal is eventual rapprochement with Iran’s people who support the nuclear program, then making this issue the non-negotiable element is to alienate the very future generation we will need. On Syria, whether we have boots on the ground seems largely irrelevant to me. Any attempt seriously to arm the Sunni Jihadists would require exactly what Ibish says – and what he describes is a huge military operation, as the generals told Kerry. We have no idea where that might lead, but if we succeed in changing the dynamic of the civil war, we very much will own the result. And that result could be a massacre of Alawites and Christians in Syria, unpredictable reactions from Iran and Russia, and involvement of the US in the Sunni-Shia regional war.

And please, if we have learned anything at this point it is that the word “Syrians” confuses as much as it clarifies. The reality is a country at war with itself, splintered by sectarian passions and history’s endless grudges and now recent atrocities requiring revenge. I’m with the president in the interview above – and much less worried that we might actually slip into another clusterfuck in the Middle East than I was before I heard him explain the strong limits he has placed on the operation.

Jun 20, 2013 @ 11:18am

Moderates In Islamist Clothing?


Goldberg runs through the reasons hawks in the State Department want to bomb Syria. Among them:

The State Department has been working for some time with the more moderate leaders among the fractured and disputatious rebel alliance. It believes not only that it can do business with many of these leaders, but also that by doing business with them it will strengthen them. Several months ago, when I ducked across the Jordan-Syria border and met with some of the rebels, I took note of their long beards, a sign of religious intensity. The rebels were quick to tell me that they only grew beards because the more radical Islamists among them had the best weapons, and would only supply these weapons to like-minded rebels. In other words, the beards were simply a marketing tool, not an expression of sincere radicalism. If the more moderate among the rebels suddenly began receiving heavier weapons from the Americans, they would be empowered, and the Islamists marginalized.

You need some pretty sharp beard antennae for that (check out the Sunni musclebear above. You think the State Department knows what’s in his head?). And if they were extremists, why would they tell an American that? Either they are extremists or they function at the mercy of extremists. I’d steer clear. Then there’s the argument that inaction will somehow hurt our interests more. That, apparently, is what Kerry believes. Here’s Goldberg’s version of that argument:

The U.S. must play a leadership role in the Mideast or the vacuum left by its departure will be filled by radicals, of both the Shiite and Sunni varieties.

To which I would counter: isn’t that going to happen whatever we do? And how do we intend to prevent that? I think democracy in that region will empower the extremists for a while until the logic of their backwardness compels an adjustment. This will take time. I think our interests are far better served by not trying to mold things we cannot understand and cannot control. Again: you’d think that Goldberg had never heard of the Iraq war reading his column. It goes un mentioned, even as he makes very similar arguments to those he made then. It’s Etch-A-Sketch. Larison counters forcefully as well:

Considering how eager many American politicians are to believe in the “rehabilitation” of groups as fanatical as the MEK simply because they have the “right” enemy, we should consider the possibility that the U.S. could just as easily be duped into arming groups that conveniently say all the right things.

But then you see Jeffrey’s real objective, stated up-front:

Whether we like it or not, we are in a conflict with Iran, and our credibility is on the line.

Just as it was to prove Saddam’s WMDs. And if we do not like the conflict, we shouldn’t simply acquiesce. We should challenge it – because containment is a real option, and war would be a body-blow to the Iranian people. Israel has shown it can take care of itself in this sectarian clusterfuck. We should take care of ourselves too – by not taking the Jihadist bait.

(Photo: A Syrian rebel fighter belonging to the ‘Martyrs of Maaret al-Numan’ battalion holds a position on June 13, 2013 in the northwestern town of Maaret al-Numan in front of the army base of Wadi Deif, down in the valley. By Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images.)

To read more Dish coverage of the mess in Syria and the US’ impending intervention there, including reaction from the blogosphere and from readers, go here.