The Pros and Cons of Attacking Syria
PJ Media's columnists weigh in on intervening in Syria as the Obama administration decides how to respond to the use of chemical weapons. Updated: Michael Ledeen, Victor Davis Hanson and Roger Kimball provide their analyses.
August 28, 2013 - 11:35 pm
Well today, Thursday, it looks like we’re running away from the very idea of doing anything. Today’s headlines say that the intel is suddenly dubious, that Cameron won’t do anything without the UN — which means he won’t do anything at all — and Hollande is suddenly cautious.
Surprised? You say it’s inconceivable that Obama would do nothing at all after all the yelling and jumping up and down?
It wouldn’t be the first time. Think back to the Iranian-sponsored plot to blow up the Saudi ambassador to Washington. There was a monster press conference, featuring the FBI director and General Holder himself. Intel was presented. Violent words were uttered. Anyone who watched it would have had only one question: what terrible vengeance will we wreak upon the Iranians?
And then…nothing. Aside from General Mattis, it’s hard to find an authoritative voice condemning the inaction (and Mattis only said it on the eve of retirement). The story just went away, as pundits assured their readers, viewers, and listeners that the Iranians couldn’t possibly have been so stupid as to have ordered an attack on American soil.
Kinda like the current refrain that Assad couldn’t possibly have been so stupid as to have ordered a chemical attack against his enemies…
As you know, I think the best way to go after Assad is to help the Iranian people bring down their theocratic fascist regime. There are only two chances that Obama will support such a policy (and Slim has moved to Qatar). I would not be surprised if the air goes out of Obama’s trial war balloons, and the public is told that it never happened at all, that he never seriously contemplated violent action, and that he fought from the get-go to rein in the hawks.
Orwell says in 1984 that history was always manipulated, but nobody in the past had the ability to totally erase and rewrite recent events now on display. It may be only a matter of hours before we are told that Obama’s brave decision — to do nothing — is an example of consummate presidential leadership, courage under pressure, and moral virtue.
Yes, it could happen. Most anything can happen.
— Michael Ledeen is a PJ columnist and the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is a highly regarded expert on Iran’s Green Movement and maintains close ties to opposition groups inside Iran. The author of more than 20 books, see Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West.
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
Most of the arguments pro and con for an intervention in Syria have already been made.
I think the consensus is that while stopping Assad in 2011 might have been wise (before the use of the WMD and 100,000 dead), doing so now is, well, problematic.
He has shown far more resilience than the administration thought when it ordered him to leave (dictators rarely leave when ordered to by an American president). The opposition seems far more dominated by al-Qaeda affiliates than originally thought (not all that many Westernized intellectuals, persecuted minorities, and Arab Spring bloggers are still left on the barricades).
In addition, both critics and supporters of the president point out that had Obama just kept quiet, he could have kept the option of intervening on his own timetable, rather than being forced to when his rhetorical red lines were not merely crossed but erased in humiliating fashion. Since his bluff has been called, he now has to act to save face rather than to save lives — 100,000 of them too late.
Yet the rub is not just that it is unlikely that we can find all the WMD depots and destroy them safely from the air (keeping them out of both Assad’s and our allies’ hands).
Nor is the problem just that it is unlikely that a limited punitive blow against Assad will topple him (and then what?) and restore American rhetorical credibility.
Instead, we are not sure that the opposition is likely to be any better than the monster Assad. Did we learn nothing from Libya and Egypt? The paradox in the Middle East is that Americans can control the postwar landscape and promote consensual government only by inserting large numbers of ground troops — an unacceptable political reality. A Putinesque shelling and bombing solution (more rubble, less trouble) is ethically unacceptable to most Americans.
Then there are the domestic politics. During the Iraq War, authorization from Congress was essential; now it is not? The excruciating and ultimately failed effort in 2002 at the UN took weeks; now it is not even attempted by a Peace Prize laureate? Bombing a monstrous regime guilty of past WMD use was amoral; now it is ethical?
In 2006-8, Assad was a reformer, worth visiting and cajoling, declared unjustly alienated by a jingoistic Bush administration, and worthy of restoring relations with. And now he is satanic (what did Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry think those army units they saw during their visits were for — parades and pomp? Did they recall his father at Hama?). In short, here at home, the outs are in, and the ins are out, and the arguments make the necessary adjustments.
The president cited Iraq yesterday. Let us revisit it for a second. Many of us supported the Iraq War — not in 1998 or before 9/11 when some of the most fiery adherents of regime change were lobbying both Bill Clinton and George Bush for “regime change” — but on the general premise that in a post-9/11 climate, the no-fly-zones and oil embargoes were waning and a genocidal monster would always resume being a genocidal monster at the heart of regional unrest.
But we remember how after each week of escalating violence, supporters jumped ship. The congressional bipartisan vote to approve action had outlined well the reasons why Saddam should go, some 23 writs, the vast majority of them having nothing to do with WMD. That is not to say that WMD was not hyped by the administration to galvanize support, but only to remind us that Saddam’s genocidal record transcended WMD and by 2003 he had probably killed 10 times more than has Assad so far in his war.
After stockpiles of WMD were not found, did the other 20-something writs (genocide, bounties for suicide bombers, assassination attempts against a former U.S. president, harboring murderous terrorists, etc.?) not apply?
As the occupation went badly, the public’s 75% support for the war dipped below 40%. The stalwarts of the Democratic Party flipped (e.g., John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, etc.) and saw an anti-war stance as critical to the party’s 2006 recovery. Cindy Sheehan and Michael Moore became ephemeral media darlings. Someone named Obama emerged, decrying the war, drone bombing, renditions, preventative detentions, and Guantanamo Bay.
Indeed, many conservatives who very early on had wanted the war now claimed that their brilliant three-week war was now someone else’s fouled up years-long occupation, forgetting Matthew Ridgway’s dictum that the only thing worse than fighting a bad war was losing one.
I cite all this to remind the current proponents of action that should we begin hitting the wrong targets, find that Islamists are using our air cover to commit atrocities, discover that the militias are turning postwar Syria into postwar Libya, or find that we are forced to settle up with Hezbollah, Iran, or some other third-party, those now advocating for action most likely will cite administration incompetence as sufficient reasons for why they are withdrawing their support. I doubt they will sink or swim to the last bomb with Commander-in-Chief Obama.
In short, from what we’ve seen from this administration with its withdrawal dates in Afghanistan, its boasts about getting every single soldier out of Iraq, its deadlines to Iran, its red lines to Syria, its reset with Vladimir Putin, and its euphemistic war on terror, it is simply not up to a sustained air war over Syria, or anything much other than a day or two of lobbying cruise missiles. To think that it is will sorely disappoint present supporters of bombing Assad.
Both the American people and the U.S. Congress already sense that. We should too.
Aristotle gives Obama a lesson about Syria.
What is the right thing to do about Syria? On the one hand you have the thuggish Assad regime, which has murdered thousands in the past year. I doubt whether Vogue will be running more pieces like “A Rose In the Desert” any time soon. That now-notorious interview with Mrs. Assad from February 2012 — talk about bad timing! — treated the magazine’s 11 million readers to a gushing portrait of the “wildly democratic” Assads, a power couple who combined the fashion sense of Anna Wintour herself with the do-gooder instincts of a latter day Mother Teresa. The preposterous puff piece won Wintour and her writer, Joan Juliet Buck, last year’s Walter Duranty Award for Journalistic Mendacity.
On the other hand, you have the opposition to the Assad regime. What manner of beast is that? Not all that dissimilar to the Libyan opposition. You remember those freedom fighters: two parts al-Qaeda energized by Salafist radicals and tempered by the wise beards of the “largely secular” (or so says our director of national intelligence) from the Muslim Brotherhood. Doubtless there was also a sprig or two of genuine secular protest, but that element was like the lemon peel on the Martini glass: a fleeting aroma of spring freshness backed up by an 80-proof cocktail of radicalism.
The trace fragrance of lemons in a properly made Martini has approximately as much to do with spring time as the ochlocratic uprisings that are currently tearing apart Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other places of fun and frolic in the Muslim world. It isn’t an “Arab Spring,” as sentimentalists in the press and the Obama administration insisted, but a bad case of what Andrew McCarthy calls Spring Fever.
So what’s a panicked Alinskyite narcissist to do? So far, Obama’s Middle East policy — if a pattern of blundering confusion can rightly be called a “policy” — has borne an eerie similarity to his voting record as a state and later a U.S. Senator: cagey attestations of “Present” whenever a vote is taken, combined with a canny and ruthless talent for somehow taking the credit for eventualities that might redound to one’s credit. The demise of Osama bin Laden is a case in point.
When Obama took office, Egypt was ruled by an authoritarian but basically pro-Western and pro-Israel autocrat. Now the country is teetering on the edge of anarchy, its economy in shambles, its people mere weeks away from starvation. When Obama took office, Libya was ruled by a preposterous transvestite thug who had been brought to heel by Western suasion. Now Libya is a toxic breeding ground of Islamic triumphalism, aptly epitomized by the obscene murder of Muammar Gaddafi by a mob of radical Islamists as well as the attack on our installation in Benghazi last September 11, a coordinated assault that left a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead and which Obama’s spokesmen blamed on a rancid anti-Muslim internet video but which was really the result of his administration’s dithering incompetence. “Present” didn’t save the day for Ambassador Chris Stevens and the brave men in his security detail and it hasn’t been working out too well with respect to Syria, either, where someone —was it Assad’s minions? (Was it?) — unleashed poison gas near Damascus, killing hundreds.
So, should Obama bomb Syria, even if it is illegal? Careful. There’s a reason why Russia’s deputy prime minister — speaking, of course, for Putin himself — said that the West was behaving about Syria like “a monkey with a grenade.” The vertiginous spectacle of blundering incompetence is painful to behold.
And this is where Aristotle makes an entrance. In a famous passage of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observed that one can behave in certain ways that make any course of action morally opprobrious. Most of us do not choose to act in an unjust way. But we can live our lives in such a way that no good course of action is open to us. “The unjust and profligate,” Aristotle says, “might at the outset have avoided becoming so… although when they have become unjust and profligate it is no longer open to them not to be so.” Once you cast the stone, you cannot bring it back, but you are responsible for having taken up flinging the stone in the first place.
Or voting “Present.” Some of my friends believe the grounds for military action against Syria are patent. I suspect it is too late for such clarity. There was a time, in the early days of the Obama regime, when we might have taken effective action in the Middle East, when leadership might have made a difference in Egypt, in Libya, in Iran. In those days — how distant they seem! — the United States still exerted enormous if widely resented moral influence in the region. Obama’s habit of “leading from behind” (i.e., relinquishing leadership) has not-so-gradually eroded that authority. Now what? Obama, along with his Goneril and Regan, Samantha Power and Valerie Jarrett, would be sadly comic if the game they were playing were not so serious. Obama’s blundering has already cost thousands of lives in the Muslim world, many American lives as well as the lives of indigenes. In Syria, the stakes have been raised yet again. Intervene or leave it alone? There are those who believe that the horror of the gas attacks in Syria require that action, some action, any action, as a necessary cathartic for us moral paragons in the West. But what if it unleashes something far worse? Are we confident that this president and his band of not-so-merry pranksters have the skill to deploy force at the right time, in the right place, for the right ends, and in the right proportion? Pondering that I think of Aristotle’s observation that “only a blockhead fails to recognize that our character is the result of our conduct.” I am not uplifted by the reflection.
— In addition to his work at PJ Media and The New Criterion, Roger Kimball is the publisher of Encounter Books, a purveyor of serious non-fiction titles from a broadly construed conservative perspective.