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.
ROGER L. SIMON
Okay, I’m a warmonger.
Worse than that — I’m a chickenhawk. The closest I have ever come to war is a bar fight with a contributor to the Daily Kos. (Kidding… almost)
Nevertheless, I don’t see what choice the U. S. has about striking Syria — and not because our president drew some sort of “red line,” but because of gas itself. You don’t have to be Jewish to believe that, since Auschwitz, gassing your fellow human beings is pretty close to the most obscene act we can perform on each other. It’s forbidden by the Geneva Conventions for a reason.
The people who perpetrate this obscenity — Saddam Hussein, Bashar Assad — deserve to die for their actions. And I’m not even much of a believer in capital punishment.
That’s one reason to move against the Syrian regime, although I fear our administration will not do enough and make the whole thing moot.
The second reason is to scare the bejeesus out of what Brother Ledeen calls the “terror masters” in Iran and perhaps deter them from obtaining nuclear weapons. We will certainly have to do more in that regard, but any weakening of the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria nexus is to the good.
Some worry we will be aiding al-Qaeda. Perhaps so. But they’re next. (Or possibly simultaneous if this report from Le Figaro is to be believed.)
In any case, in the War on Terror, we are going to have to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time.
We’re even going to have to learn to function without a good commander-in-chief… at least for a while.
If you want more extensive elucidation of my views, I wrote a good deal more on the subject, yesterday.
— Roger L. Simon is the co-founder and CEO emeritus of PJ Media.
DAVID P. GOLDMAN
Go after the dog’s master, not the dog.
Kudos to Michael Ledeen for explaining that the road to Damascus starts in Tehran. As Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu explained on Aug. 25, “Assad’s regime isn’t acting alone. Iran, and Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, are there on the ground playing an active role assisting Syria. In fact, Assad’s regime has become a full Iranian client and Syria has become Iran’s testing ground. … Iran is watching and it wants to see what will be the reaction to the use of chemical weapons.”
We are at war with Iran, and I have little to add to Michael’s excellent summary. As he reiterates, we have been at war with Iran for decades. The only distinction is that Iran knows this and the Obama administration pretends it’s not happening. Because the American public is disgusted with the miserable return on our investment of 5,000 lives, 50,000 casualties, and $1 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan, Republicans are too timid to push for decisive military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program — although air strikes rather than ground troops would be required.
I made a similar case on March 29:
It’s pointless to take potshots at Obama for failing to act on Syria. What we should say is this: “Iran is the main source of instability in the Middle East. Iran’s intervention in Syria has turned the country into a slaughterhouse. By showing weakness to Iran, the Obama administration encourages its murderous activities elsewhere in the region.”
I also recommend Ed “Give War a Chance” Luttwak’s Aug. 25 op-ed in the New York Times, “In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins.” Victory for Assad would be victory for Iran. “And if the rebels win, “ Luttwak wrote, “moderate Sunnis would be politically marginalized under fundamentalist rulers.” The whole region is paralyzed and ripe for destabilization. Saudi subsidies are keeping Egypt from starving, literally. “Turkey has large and restless minority populations that don’t trust their own government, which itself does not trust its own army. The result has been paralysis instead of power, leaving Mr. Erdogan an impotent spectator of the civil war on his doorstep.” I would add that Turkey also is at economic free-fall with its stock market down by 40% in dollar terms since April.
Luttwak argues that the U.S. should favor “an indefinite draw.” Here I disagree: the chemical attack shows how easily Iran can manipulate events in Syria to suit its strategic objectives. The best solution is Yugoslav-style partition: an Alawite redoubt in the Northwest including Latakia (where Russia has its naval station), and a Sunni protectorate in the rest of the country, except for an autonomous zone for Syria’s Kurds. Everyone wins except the Turks, who understandably abhor the idea of an independent Kurdish entity. Someone has to lose, though. What has Turkey done for us lately?
Obama probably will choose the worst of all possible alternatives. Daniel Pipes warns that this course of action “will also entail real dangers. Bashar al-Assad’s notorious incompetence means his response cannot be anticipated. Western strikes could, among other possibilities, inadvertently lead to increased regime attacks on civilians, violence against Israel, an activation of sleeper cells in Western countries, or heightened dependence on Tehran. Surviving the strikes also permits Assad to boast that he defeated the United States. In other words, the imminent attack entails few potential benefits but many potential drawbacks. As such, it neatly encapsulates the Obama administration’s failed foreign policy.”
If the problems of the Middle East look intractable now, consider what they will look like if Iran can promote mass murder from under a nuclear umbrella. The hour is late. If we Republicans can’t summon the courage to advance fundamental American national security issues in the midst of crisis, we will deserve the voters’ contempt.
— David P. Goldman joined PJM after nearly 10 years of anonymous essaying at Asia Times Online and two years of editing and writing at First Things.
The most discouraging thing about the Syrian situation is the seeming pointlessness of Washington’s actions. There appears to be no directing intelligence, no strategic calculation behind the administration’s actions.The reasons for the proposed strike are largely cast in emotional terms: outrage at Assad having killed a thousand with nerve gas. But given that the last 100,000 of his victims did not elicit the same outrage, the recent indignation seems a judgment upon the manner (and not the fact) of the execution of innocents — a tragedy, as it were, of manners.
Yet none of the truly important questions have been aired in the proper forums. What is America’s interest in Syria? To checkmate Russia and Iran? To prevent Islamic terrorism from seizing yet another failed state? To forestall a wave of unrest and instability across the region? To prevent Israel from being drawn into war? And how will a limited strike designed not to inconvenience Assad too much achieve of any of these?
These questions were meant to be asked. They were required to be asked by the Founders, who personally knew more about war in more intimacy and length than the president ever will. This administration has abolished war by the adolescent method of giving it a variety of aliases like “leading from behind,” “kinetic military options,” and “sending a message.” In so doing, Obama has not only trivialized war but obviated the need to think on it.
Under its former and ugly name, the act of one country striking another country with military force was an awful thing, a fearful landscape to be entered only by long debate in the widest possible forum. The gateway to the battlefield was hung about with dread signs and the memories of sacrifices past. Today it’s a punch line.
The president might remember that in war the other side gets to vote and no plan, no set of talking points ever survives contact with the enemy; that once he starts something there is is an element of risk about where it goes. Did I say “the other side?” Well is there “another side” and does it have a name? It is the measure of the absurdity of the situation that this fundamental quantity, the sine qua non of conflict, the question of who is the enemy, remains, like the word “war” itself, concealed under an alias.
President Obama may not be interested in consequences, but consequences may be interested in him.
— Richard Fernandez has been a software developer for nearly 15 years.
The good thing is that this is a military action with a clearly defined purpose: to distract us from the ineptitude and corruption of the Obama administration. In order to achieve this goal, a contained and restricted action should suffice, requiring little more than the meaningless scattershot dropping of bombs, followed by a presidential speech about poison gas featuring a Very Serious Expression. The word “barbaric” and the phrase “will not be tolerated” should only be deployed if absolutely necessary, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. The sides are clearly drawn: on one we have the murderous tyrant Bashar al-Assad, and on the other, we have al-Qaeda, and really, you just couldn’t ask for a nicer bunch of people. So, looking on the bright side, at least we’re unlikely to miss hitting our enemies. I remember when the media and the left excoriated George W. Bush for “going it alone” and “rushing to war” in Iraq even though he waited for more than a year and solicited the support of our allies and the UN. I’m glad to say Obama will not be distracted by that sort of background noise. It’s much easier to make these decisions by yourself in a big hurry when it’s nice and quiet.
— Andrew Klavan is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and media commentator.
I have previously argued that what to do about Syria and the regime led by Bashar Assad leaves us few good options. I have also been critical, in another column, of the arguments made by the interventionists. Since then, with the recent proof of the massive chemical attacks unleashed by Iran’s proxy (Syria), the situation has changed.
The administration has made it clear with their leaks of apparent plans that they are contemplating what we might call an ineffectual and purely symbolic raid on Syria, one that will leave Assad in power, spare even his presidential palace, and allow him to brag how he managed to withstand the attack from imperialist America. As a Wall Street Journal editorial explains, “the attack in Syria isn’t really about damaging the Bashar Assad regime’s capacity to murder its own people, much less about ending the Assad regime for good.” It is “primarily about making a political statement, and vindicating President Obama’s ill-considered promise of ‘consequences,’ rather than materially degrading Assad’s ability to continue to wage war against his own people.”
If this is the reason for the administration’s contemplated strike, the outcome will only be to strengthen the regime, embolden the Iranians to move forward more quickly to obtaining a nuclear weapon, and build up the authority of the Putin government in Russia, while emasculating further the authority and position of the United States in the world. It will likely mark the fruition of Obama’s ill-considered strategy of “leading from behind” and will also show the folly of both his outreach to the Muslim world and the once-heralded decision to work through and with the Muslim Brotherhood.
A few days ago, the Foreign Policy Initiative released a letter to the president signed by a distinguished bipartisan group of liberal and conservative writers, foreign policy experts, journalists, academics, and political leaders. The group stated:
We urge you to respond decisively by imposing meaningful consequences on the Assad regime. At a minimum, the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship’s military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons. It should also provide vetted moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition with the military support required to identify and strike regime units armed with chemical weapons.
The group goes on to urge that the president consider “direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime.” Not only the use of chemical weapons, but all weapons that Assad can use against his own people must be taken out of operational use. The writers call for training and arming moderate and trusted elements that would oppose both the Assad regime and the growing Islamist radicals working with the opposition.
They are correct to argue that if nothing or only a symbolic action is undertaken, after the president has said time and time again that certain red lines cannot be crossed, the world will see our talk as nothing but empty threats, and the Iranian regime will be emboldened.
There may be many reasons to be wary about the effects of intervention in Syria, but doing nothing is an option our nation can no longer afford.
— Ron Radosh is a professional historian, author or co-author of more than 15 books, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Yes, the U.S. should act. Short of all-out World War III, or IV, or maybe V (take your pick), for U.S. policy to have any deterrent effect on the world’s worst regimes developing and using the world’s deadliest weapons, America’s threats must be credible. The stakes here go way beyond Syria, or even the use of chemical weapons.
As President Obama said in 2009, alluding to a North Korean ballistic missile test, “Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” Or, as Obama has said in multiple permutations for at least five years now about Iran, “When the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapons, we mean what we say.” Or, as Obama said a year ago about the conflict in Syria, “If we start to see a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” that would cross “a red line.”
Since these various pronouncements, North Korea has conducted additional long-range missile tests plus two nuclear tests. Iran despite growing layers of sanctions has carried on with pursuit of the nuclear bomb. And Syria’s Assad regime, according to Obama himself, has used chemical weapons (evidently a whole bunch of them, on multiple occasions, this latest attack being the worst).
All these developments are connected, and not solely because they involve weapons of mass murder. There is an axis of rogue regime activity here, whether we call it an axis of evil, a gathering storm, or a concatenation of unacceptable red line crossers. As Michael Ledeen has rightly been explaining for years, the core problem is Iran: chief ally of Syria, business partner of North Korea, and world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, including its role as patron of Hezbollah and collaborator when convenient with al Qaeda. All these folks in various ways do business with each other, and from each other’s pioneering moves in the field of proliferation, they not only swap weapons materials and technology; they also learn how much it is possible to get away with. If anyone would like to start keeping a dossier labeled “Moral Obscenities” (to round out Secretary of State John Kerry’s description of chemical weapons use in Syria), all of the above would belong in that file.
A move to seriously disable any part of this hydra would send a much overdue message to the rest. It would also signal to Russia and China, the chief protectors and suppliers of this axis of terror, that the U.S. is not actually willing to cede the 21st century world order to the thug states of the globe.
I’d cast my vote for the prescription of Bret Stephens and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, for a strike that targets Bashar Assad and the vital figures of his regime. That leaves the question of what might follow in Syria — and the deeper question there is less who might prevail in Damascus, than whether the U.S. has prepared an end game for the fall of the regime in Iran. What’s desperately needed here is not just a tactical response, but a strategy in service of U.S. interests that aims to win.
— Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.
Forgot about the hysteria of an impending U.S. attack on Syria. Forget about the likely self-congratulatory backslapping by policy makers and the chanting of “USA!” by citizens. A U.S. air assault on Syria will not change anything.
Clearly, it will not change the regional problems, including the U.S. support for an Islamist government in Egypt, the unstable Islamist government in Tunisia, the grim expectations for a “peace process,” the constant betrayal of the United States by the Turkish government, and the Iranian nuclear race. But beyond that, it won’t change the Syrian crisis.
Would the attack determine the outcome of a Syrian civil war, either in favor of the Iranian-backed government or the Islamists favored by the United States? No. Would it by itself increase the prestige and credibility of the United States in the Middle East? No.
Let’s consider the three motives for the potential Syrian attack. One, the humanitarian motive. After perhaps 100,000 people in Syria have been killed, this addresses one percent of the casualties (namely those by chemical weapons). That might be worthwhile but leaves unaddressed the 99 percent of other casualties. Is it really true that the Syrian government somewhat, without motive, used chemical weapons? And finally, is it really humanitarian since the rebel side is likely to be equally ferocious against minorities and people it doesn’t like? The humanitarian motive, while sincere, really doesn’t amount to very much but merely tells the Syrian government the proper way in which people can be killed. Second, what message does America’s potential attack in Syria really send? That American power, which will be limited, is not going to be sufficient to change the course of the war. So the United States will not determine who wins and that, after all, is the only thing that everyone is really interested in. The third motive is to send a message to Iran that it won’t be able to succeed in aggression. But in fact this too can be said to send the opposite message: that, in the words of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, “the United States cannot do a damn thing.”
What are the possible outcomes of this mission? The Syrian government will not be overthrown or saved. That is going to be totally outside this operation. Perhaps it will make the outcome more likely to be a diplomatic one. But again, the likelihood that Russia and Iran will agree to have their client deposed is simply low. One could argue that the attack will lead to a lower estimation of American credibility since not much will have changed afterward, although this is not what the media will say. It is interesting to note that in confronting Saddam Hussein the Clinton administration attacked Iraq at least four times in 1998 alone. But of course Hussein was only overthrown six years later by a controversial decision by another administration.
What would the best beneficial outcomes for the Obama administration be? First, that Obama will congratulate himself on his daring use of force and on not backing down to anyone. But so what? Aside from the newspaper headlines and the bounces in public opinion polls, the effect will be merely psychological and domestic. In friendly capitals, it will only show that he is willing to support the Sunni Islamists and oppose the Shia ones. In enemy capitals, there will be continued derision of the limited means at Obama’s disposal for affecting events.
What would be the best outcome for America? That the war will go on long enough until one side (not the regime) wins. But basically the civil war is going to be fought out. It might well be said that strategically it would be better that Iran didn’t win the victory, but frankly a victory by radical Islamist rebels and al-Qaeda is hardly a bargain. Don’t forget that in practice an American intervention would not be on the side of easing the lot of Syrian civilians but on the side of an extremely oppressive and unstable future government winning. In other words, it is not that there are no easy answers, but that there are no good answers.
— Barry Rubin has been a PJ Columnist since April 2011 and is also PJ Media’s Middle East Editor. He’s also the editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal (MERIA), and editor, Turkish studies, at Taylor & Francis Online.
Regarding Syria and possible American intervention in that benighted and savage land, there’s really only question worth asking — and it’s not whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea, or whether it helps or harms Israel, or whether it encourages or discourages Iran from its Twelver obsession with Armageddon. And that question is: why?
As Napoleon said, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake” – and for the “Arab world” (perhaps better characterized as the ummah), this is the biggest and best mistake they’ve made since the Iran-Iraq War. For it is of absolutely no moment to the United States who wins the struggle between the Assad government and the al-Qaeda rebels trying to take it down; the “Arab spring” delusion surely has taught us that by now — and if it hasn’t, please see Benghazi. It is of no moment whether Assad has used poison gas on his own people; please see “Hussein, Saddam,” as Western high dudgeon is entirely opportunistic. Indeed, the entire Middle East is no longer worth the life of one more American soldier, for it is an area in which we have not a single vital national interest.
Once the Obama administration has been retired into the infamy of the history books, fracking and other forms of new energy will more than compensate for any loss of Arab oil (as the old saying goes, “what are they going to do – eat it?”). Israel’s security — like that of western Europe during the Soviet threat — is guaranteed by the American nuclear umbrella, not to mention its own. Is there a scenario under which Israel suffers, depending on who wins the struggle for power in Damascus? Of course there is — but that is true about every development in the Middle East, and does not affect our strategic relationship with the Jewish state in the slightest. Further, dragging Israel into the equation, however benignly, only fuels the anti-Semites on both the Left and the Right who see the Zionist Hand behind every American foreign-policy decision.
The hand-wringing and bed-wetting over Syria represents the triumph of Foggy Bottom fecklessness over military realpolitik. Our lawyer-ridden and process-obsessed society has all but subordinated strategic thinking to the striped-pants set, whose only frame of reference is: yap, yap, yap; they’re like the capon judge, Don Curzio, trying to figure out what the hell is going in in the great sextet from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, while it’s perfectly clear to everyone in the audience.
Now another Hussein, Barack Obama, is typically dithering about what sort of “measured” and “proportionate” response the U.S. — without congressional approval, of course — should offer to… what provocation, again, exactly? The Left used to stand for not imposing “our morality” on the Third World, so what’s different this time, besides the occupant of the Oval Office? Neither Obama nor Vice President Valerie Jarrett has the slightest understanding of the uses of power other than for self-aggrandizement, but then that’s what happens when you elect the unholy love child of Al Capone and Saul Alinsky to the nation’s highest office.
So let ‘em kill each other, and for as long as possible — and if the conflagration spills over the borders, quarantine it as one would a viral outbreak. Intervention, especially when we have already advertised that our goal is not regime change, will net us a grand total of zero good will from the Believers, whose zest for slaughtering each other almost matches their zest for murdering us.
To quote Napoleon again, if you start to take Vienna, take Vienna. If the goal is to stop Iran, then stop Iran, destroy its nuclear capability, disestablish Islam as the state religion, and restore the glory of Persian culture and the Peacock Throne (again). That would have the added advantage of thwarting the Russian Bear, which has lusted after Iran for more than a century, and lost its best chance when its agent-in place, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, served a stint as the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister during the Jimmy Carter Hostage Crisis. (Ghotbzadeh was eventually stood up against a wall and shot as a traitor to the Revolution.)
Islamism is a fever; best let it rage until it burns itself out. And if it kills the host, that’s too damn bad.
— Michael Walsh is a weekly op-ed columnist for the New York Post and a regular contributor to National Review Online.
J. CHRISTIAN ADAMS
The Obama administration is on the verge of reducing their whole reason for existence — this time in Syria. In 2008, Obama ran for president promising an America where race was in the rear-view mirror. These days, racial issues are crashing through the windshield, in no small measure because of Obama’s rhetoric. In 2008, Obama capped years of harping about the UN, congressional authorizations of force, and American military hubris with an election win. Swarms of his supporters, particularly the young, bought into the rhetoric of the gentle and restrained America. The absurd “Coexist” bumper sticker had become policy.
In Libya, Obama first revealed himself as an international hypocrite. Congressional authorization for force wasn’t so important now that he was ordering it. In Syria, he is about to double down. The oddest thing about this president is that he always seems to take the side of the radicals on the Islamic spectrum — both at home and abroad. At home, he shoves a radicalized version of civil rights down Americans’ throats, forcing schools to give teachers weeks off for the Haj. Abroad, Obama has sided with regimes and factions that are slaughtering Christians and threatening the security of Israel. Some Americans, particularly journalists, avert their eyes to the ominous parallels. Rather than oppose evil, this president seems to lurk in its fringe. Rather than vocally condemning the murder of Catholic priests and the destruction of churches in Syria, this president is about to take the side of the murderers. Never before has America had a leader like this. He is not the man to be leading the nation in this present darkness.
— J. Christian Adams is an election lawyer who served in the Voting Rights Section at the U.S. Department of Justice.