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Belmont Club

No More “No More Vietnams”

December 11th, 2012 - 3:31 pm

The civil war in Syria took an ominous turn when more than 120 Alawites were killed in Syria by persons unknown. There were suspicions that Syrian rebels were behind the attack but others called it a provocation by President Assad, himself an Alawite.

Reports of the latest massacre broke hours after the United States blacklisted Al-Nusra Front as a “terrorist organisation,” balancing its move with the announcement of fresh sanctions against pro-Assad militias.

The US State Department said that despite its efforts to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition, Al-Nusra was a front for the al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) organisation.

“It is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes,” it said.

It’s all in a day’s work among those to whom killing has become a way of life, if you will pardon the pun. CNN correspondents recently spent an afternoon with a Syrian bomb-maker confecting a bombe from sugar and jagged pieces of sharp metal. As he toiled away, the bombmaker  asked why America didn’t just send pre-mixed ingredients instead of forcing him to make stuff from scrach.

Aleppo, Syria (CNN) — With the precision of a master chef, Sheik Omar adjusts the intensity of the flame under his pan.

He mixes table sugar with a noxious chemical, letting it hiss and crackle.

“It’s almost ready,” he says, as the syrupy liquid darkens. …

He believes he doesn’t have a choice but to make bombs. Foreign countries aren’t helping the rebels enough to overtake the heavily armed forces that President Bashar al-Assad commands. The rebels need all the help they can get …

Sheik Omar shouts out the window to his kids playing in the yard.

Bring your father more sugar, please!

Chef — or should I say Sheik — Omar illustrates the crucial problem facing America in Syria. It’s a personnel administration issue rather than a logistical one. There are plenty of lethal people in Syria who know lots of ways to kill people. The problem for the administration choosing which set of people to back.

The Washington Post reports that the Obama administration is being forced to abandon its hands-off policy of “leading from behind”. It is “taking a calculated risk that embracing chosen leaders of Syria’s fragmented rebels will speed the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, moving this week to recognize a slate of opposition figures whose pledges of democracy Washington can do little to enforce.” But the New York Times says that while Obama is anointing some groups with oil it is cursing others with Bell, Book and Candle. “The United States has formally designated the Al Nusra Front, the militant Syrian rebel group, as a foreign terrorist organization.”

Maybe this is what’s called a ‘balanced approach’.

In practical terms, the designation makes it illegal for Americans to have financial dealings with the group. It is intended to prompt similar sanctions by other nations, and to address concerns about a group that could further destabilize Syria and harm Western interests.

The problem is that Al Nusra represents not only the cream of the rebellion, it is flush with money and weapons. “Many Syrian fighters consider the Nusra Front a key ally because of its fighters’ bravery and reliable supply of money and arms. It has never come under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, shunning the Western aid and input that other groups have sought, but it coordinates closely with many who do.”

Washington will inevitably find itself in a bidding war with al-Qaeda’s backers where the administration must provide more of everything to ensure that the Syrian rebels follow the dictates of Obama rather than someone else. In the end you will have one faction of Syrian rebels supported by the administration and another faction supported by the Other Guy. Where have we seen this before? Why during the Cold War.

If it sounds like Vietnam all over again with Obama playing the role of Lyndon Johnson sending forces ashore in strength against the Cold War Rival then it should. It is following the same pattern of escalation from advisers, to support and then to outright involvement.

The U.S. government viewed involvement in the war as a way to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam as part of their wider strategy of containment. … American military advisors arrived in what was then French Indochina beginning in 1950. U.S. involvement escalated in the early 1960s, with troop levels tripling in 1961 and tripling again in 1962. U.S. combat units were deployed beginning in 1965.

There’s even a new domino theory. George Will quotes John Yoo to argue that we are already in an “undefined war with a limitless battlefield.” Nowhere is this more evident in the drone war which respects no boundaries, makes no reference to uniform and seemingly has no end.

Waging war, says Yoo, is unlike administering criminal justice in one decisive particular. The criminal justice system is retrospective: It acts after a crime. A nation attacked, as America was on Sept. 11, goes to war to prevent future injuries, which inevitably involves probabilities and guesses.

Today’s war is additionally complicated by the fact that, as Yoo says, America’s enemy “resembles a network, not a nation.” Its commanders and fighters do not wear uniforms; they hide among civilian populations and are not parts of a transparent command-and-control apparatus. Drones enable the U.S. military — which, regarding drones, includes the CIA; an important distinction has been blurred — to wield a technology especially potent against al-Qaeda’s organization and tactics. All its leaders are, effectively, military, not civilian. Killing them serves the military purposes of demoralizing the enemy, preventing planning, sowing confusion and draining the reservoir of experience.

Most U.S. wars have been fought with military mass sustained by economic might. But as Yoo says, today’s war is against a diffuse enemy that has no territory to invade and no massed forces to crush. So the war cannot be won by producing more tanks, army divisions or naval forces. The United States can win only by destroying al-Qaeda’s “ability to function — by selectively killing or capturing its key members.”

Yoo may be right, but his analysis misses a crucial point. Will should have quoted himself and observed that Vietnam is ‘what war making by a liberal administration looks like’.  So maybe that’s what the Middle East will look like soon. Like Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam before him Obama seems to have no clear concept of what it means to win a strategic victory.  There is no indication he wants to discredit the ideology of the enemy. No sign that he wants to undermine their sources of funding or legitimacy. He just wants to coexist with them. To kick the can down the road.

Therefore in all his choices, Obama will simply choose to send a message,  get someone to mow the lawn and keep the weeds down. Not just in Syria but elsewhere. What he dreads above all is losing control. Like Johnson he has already moved to ensure that “them boys over there can’t bomb an outhouse without my permission” a policy that now goes by the name of the “kill list”. And he wants to do that while fighting the War on Poverty at home and building the Great Society.

While historical parallels can never be exact they are in this case close enough to ring alarm bells. It would be ironic if Obama found himself sucked into a widening maelstrom in the Middle East, the Caucasus and North Africa. Then he would have created his own Vietnam; reinvented the war nobody knew how to fight because nobody had ever decided to win it, nor even knew what winning meant.


The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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