Run-up to Syria

What’s about to happen?

Opinions and analyses are all over the place. Atrocities have been committed in Syria  against innocent human beings for what seems an interminably long time and have so outraged humanitarians around the world, we’ve been calling for someone to do something to stop it. But governments weren’t acting and the United Nations wasn’t acting and it was up to ‘alternative media’ to keep the generating news of it and encouragement for, well, ‘the world community’ to do something to end atrocities and save innocent lives and give people relief from terror.

The trouble is, there are so many places where people live with atrocities and terror and need humanitarian aid and relief, world leaders have to weigh it all and calculate their nation’s international commitments, while relief organizations are overloaded with work trying to respond to the need.

So leaving aside for the moment those other regions that desperately need our attention, Syria is not only in the spotlight, it just got put in the bullseye by President Obama and his chief military advisers. Because as most of the world knows, he painted himself in a corner

An assemblage of some thought provoking coverage…

As I type these words, the United States is not at war with Syria. Yet. (Firing cruise missiles at another sovereign nation, no matter how just the cause, is an act of war.) But many of the same people, plus some additions, that were, in the words of Greg Mitchell of the Nation, “So Wrong for So Long,” when it came to Iraq are now urging an obviously reluctant President Obama to “do something,” especially after reports of possible chemical weapon use by the Assad regime.

This leaves me in an increasingly familiar and uncomfortable position: total ambivalence. I understand why the use of chemical weapons changes the moral and strategic equation. There are some lines regimes should not be allowed to cross with impunity. To put it bluntly, it may be their civil war but it is our shared humanity. Not only are there limits to what governments can and should be allowed to do their citizens — two obvious examples being the use of weapons of mass destruction and genocide, which, as U.N. Ambassador Samantha Powers has documented, usually go hand-in-hand — but we really don’t want to live in a world where the use of such weapons are viewed as no big deal.

Thus, my ambivalence doesn’t stem from a lack of repugnance or outrage — it stems from the fact that I’ve seen this movie before and I know that it’s not going to end well…

We invaded Iraq without understanding the difference between a Shia, a Sunni, and a Kurd, much less that Kurds could be either Shia or Sunni, and, oh yeah, Iraq was home to one of the oldest Christian communities on Earth.

Let’s consider this piece alone for the moment, though there are so many others. So…

Thus, before we fire the first cruise missile, we need to ask ourselves “what is the goal?” It can’t be regime change if no other reason than, even if you can justify it morally, the United States really, really, really stinks at regime change.

Nor can it be to “alter the equation” on the battlefield. I’m sorry but, at most, our role is analogous to that of a referee. Our “job” is to make sure that both sides play by some semblance of rules, if not for their sake, then for ours. The outcome of the contest is not our concern. Not because we see the sides as moral equivalents but because in civil wars you need to ask, “What comes next?”

And in Syria, there is every reason to believe that the answer is, to paraphrase Madame de Pompadour, “après Bashar al-Assad, le deluge.” That’s almost certainly the case for Syria’s Christian minority, who, it should be noted, are descended from the first people to be called “Christians.” The Alawites can’t be too sanguine about their prospects in a post-Assad Syria, either. And they control the military and all those weapons we are worried about.

So, if regime change and “altering the equation” are out — and I pray they are — that leaves us looking for a response that will “send a message” without entangling us in a conflict that the American people want no part of, and where we can’t even begin to imagine what “success,” as in “a reasonable chance of success,” looks like.

Yeah, I’m talking about “Just War.” I hate to bring up Iraq again (not really), but one lesson we should have learned from that debacle is that finding a “just cause” is the easy part. Nation-states can always identify some “vital interest,” which, it should be noted, is not the same thing as a “just cause,” not that anyone notices the difference. The toughest part is figuring out how to protect that interest without making matters worse.

And making matters worse is an almost inevitable result of modern warfare, especially in a region as, pardon the cliché, “volatile” as the Middle East. Unexpected consequences should be expected, which makes defining success even more difficult than usual. Al-Assad can be driven from power and replaced with a well-intentioned Sunni leader who, in turn can be replaced by (a) a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, (b) a Salafist, or (c) another authoritarian strongman. The first two would be a catastrophe for Syria’s Christians and Alawites and bad enough for non-Islamist Sunnis, and the last one would mean that hundreds of thousands of Syrians died to replace one dictator with another. Meet the new boss, basically the same as the old boss.

Everyone’s trying to figure this out.

Here’s Stanley Kurtz:

Our coming intervention in Syria already looks like a no-win proposition. If we go heavy, we’re liable to empower al-Qaeda and assorted jihadists, or tie ourselves down excessively. If we go light, we’ll seem like paper tigers. Obama’s foolish decision to turn chemical weapons use into a red line is what got us into this mess. We wouldn’t be acting now had he not trapped himself with a bluff he thought Assad would never call.

When Samantha Power’s humanitarian interventionism first emerged as an explanation for the war in Libya, many found it hard to take the administration’s stated justification for action at face value. It’s true that pleasing Egypt’s “liberal” revolutionaries by going after Gaddafi was a partial motive for the war in Libya (another mistake). Yet Obama truly shares Power’s vision of utopian interventionism, even if he’s somewhat less inclined to take political risks on its behalf than she is. We wouldn’t have gone into Libya had Gaddafi not threatened Benghazi.

This time, it’s clear that we wouldn’t be acting in Syria had Assad not used chemical weapons. As Max Boot put it, prior to the gas attack there was “approximately zero chance” that America would intervene in Syria. Obama painted himself into a corner by explicitly calling chemical weapons use a red line last year. At the time it seemed like a cost-free way of endorsing Power’s vision. It no longer does.

Supporters and opponents of the Syrian intervention agree that simply lobbing a few cruise missiles at chemical weapons storage-areas will be useless or worse. Any attack that Assad easily survives will make us look weak, turning our “red lines” into jokes.

There’s a lesson here. Humanitarian interventions seem to be limited and discrete. Threaten to massacre a city, and we block you. Use chemical weapons and we take them out. In practice, however, it doesn’t work that way. Once we enter a conflict on humanitarian grounds, anything short of well-executed regime-change tends to make us look weak.

By defining chemical weapons use as a “red line,” instead of one factor among many to be judged in context at the moment of use, we allow humanitarian concerns to compel huge, risky, and difficult-to-control adventures that go way beyond their initial stated purpose. The alternative is to come off looking ineffective by ignoring our declared limits of tolerance. In other words, all we achieve by drawing humanitarian lines before-the-fact is to surrender control of our own foreign policy.

In even other words, Obama’s Middle East policy is incoherent.

As a result, Obama has come to be more disliked in the Middle East than his predecessor:

The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project finds that support for the United States is lower now in Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan than it was in 2008. Approval for Obama’s policies was only 15 percent in Muslim countries last spring; what that rate would be now in Egypt and Syria is anyone’s guess, but a safe guess would be “lower.”

Truly amazing. It is hard to imagine the level of incompetence that is required for our foreign policy to be in such disarray. But there it is.

And here we are. On August 31st, President Obama announced his decision. Sort of.

Like John Kerry, I can’t get the images of children and women and men, families dead and dying from chemical-weapons attacks out of my head. But I also don’t see an administration with any plan — only what has been described as selective outrage. (And, yes, Mr. President, the chemical weapons attack was an affront to human dignity. We have some here, too, by the way.)  And now it looks like the president wanted to strike but couldn’t take the pressure and so is going to get Congress to let him off the hook? I think it is just as well that we won’t arbitrarily intervene, months late. But it’s not confidence-inspiring. It’s not leadership.

Many have noticed.

The president just appeared in the Rose Garden to declare that he has the authority to strike Syria in a limited way to punish the regime for its barbaric use of chemical weapons. And he will strike Syria—but has decided to seek Congressional authorization before he strikes Syria.

On the face of it, this is literally nonsensical. If Obama has the authority, he does not need Congressional authorization, and since he is characterizing his need to act in moral terms, a useful punitive strike in the midst of a civil war in which thousands can be killed in a day must as a moral matter be undertaken as soon as possible in order to punish the regime and degrade its ability to kill its own people at will. Instead, he has declared his intention to wait until Congress comes back in session—in eight days—and then debate the matter for a couple of days and then vote. At which time he will act. Unless of course it votes against him. In which case…what? He has said he has the authority to strike; what does he do then?

Princeton Professor Robert P. George, an expert on constitutional law and foreign affairs and the Chair of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, has some sound advice.

Before finally making the call about what to do in Syria, I pray that President Obama will call President George W. Bush and request his advice on the bomb or missile attacks he is contemplating. I know President Bush. He is a good and gracious man. He would take President Obama’s call and give him the best advice he has, based on his own experience, including what he learned from his own mistakes. He would not hold it against President Obama that Obama has, for his own political reasons, demonized him and blamed him for . . . well, for just about everything his own administration has been criticized for.

I have never met President Obama, but I suspect that he and those close to him believe–quite wrongly–that President Bush is a dummy and that President Obama is vastly more intelligent. He and they may therefore believe that President Obama has nothing to learn from President Bush. That attitude in itself, if I am right about it, is reflective of the arrogance that got President Obama into this pickle in the first place. “Pride” really does “goeth before a fall.” But I hope that President Obama will, on this occasion, with so much at stake for the people of the Middle East and for the world, swallow his pride and call President Bush. The unintended side-effects of an effort to punish Assad–an evil man, to be sure–while leaving him in power (so that radical Islamists among the rebel forces will not suddenly find themselves ruling a key country and controlling its state apparatus), could be catastrophic. According to the Washington Post, this is what President Obama’s own military advisors are telling him. I suspect that President Bush would reinforce that advice, and perhaps offer some points of his own that President Obama should consider.

…I have no idea whether Obama would take Bush’s advice, whatever it is. But this is a time for the current President to seek guidance wherever he can best get it, and I have no doubt that there is guidance to be had from the man who sat for eight years in the seat in which he is now sitting, and who made some decisions that turned out well and others that turned out badly.

It may be that President Obama will have to endure some embarrassment in order to do the right thing in the case of Syria. His rhetoric has placed him out on a limb. Climbing safely back may take personal humility of a sort that the current President has not previously displayed. Here, too, talking to President Bush might help. George Bush, knowing the burdens of the presidency, and being a man of deep faith, might just be able to assist Barack Obama, man to man, in developing the perspective he needs to do the right thing, even at the cost of some personal embarrassment.

That came after days of television and radio news programs airing clips of former Senator Obama declaring his profound disapproval of the president’s handling of decisions to engage militarily in foreign conflicts and perceived threats. Then, one time this week, in all the rhetoric of the media and political pundits, I heard someone say this occasion proves the cliche that it doesn’t matter where you stand as much as where you sit in the final analysis. Obama now sits in the hot seat, and he needs help.