Belmont Club

The Yellow Brick Road

Lt. Col. Steven Beasley (USAF), a visiting military fellow at The Washington Institute, examines the possible consequences of various modes of foreign intervention into Syria.  He concludes that “intervention in Syria would be a demanding mission carrying significant risks … Damascus might try to thwart intervention and escalate any ensuing confrontation. And failed humanitarian efforts would produce pressures to “double down” and expand the mission’s military dimension. Intervening forces could even be caught up in a burgeoning civil war.” In particular the trouble might spread to Iraq and Lebanon.

the no-fly/no-drive and direct-attack options raise the risk of a regional conflict, although the potential players in such a scenario do not seem willing to take that route at the moment. Syria would likely view such operations as a prelude to regime change and might respond with rocket/missile strikes and attempted terrorist attacks against Israel and countries participating in the campaign. But it seems unlikely that Syria’s allies would risk being drawn into a conflict to save a failing ally. Hizballah has to worry about how a war would affect its domestic support base. Hamas is already relocating its operations from Syria, clearly signaling that it is not going down with the Assad ship. And Iran would likely eschew direct intervention, husbanding its forces for a possible confrontation with the United States over its nuclear program.

A No-Fly-Zone would also require “the use of operating bases in neighboring states such as Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey”, subjecting any intervention to potential political interference. “Ankara, for one, would oppose military intervention except to prevent an imminent massacre, and would prefer that any intervention be carried out by the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, or the United States — but not NATO.” Unfortunately, any intervention by anyone except the United States could be easily resisted by Syria. Beasley writes, “if Damascus were to challenge the zone, large numbers of aircraft configured for air-to-air combat and air-defense suppression would be required”.

With their backers in Damascus on the ropes, Hezbollah is acting more paranoid than ever. For as long as anyone can remember its declared enemy has been Israel. Now Hezbollah has a new enemy: Sunnis of all stripes. Hanin Ghaddar writes, “a new enemy is born: the Muslim Brothers, the Salafis and the Sunni extremists.”

Of course, recent examples of Islamists taking power in Egypt and, to a certain extent, in other Arab countries, boosted the theory that the Islamists are planning to take over the region and in the process, humiliate whoever is not Sunni … Now the Shia are seriously afraid. On the one hand, they are worried about their involvement as a community with Hezbollah, which is looking less sacred every day. And at the same time, they know they will take the blame as a community when Hezbollah is gone …

In any case, that’s how the sectarian system works in Lebanon: your community leader takes care of you, not the state, and you have to be loyal to him and him alone. In this case, Hezbollah was their leader, and all the other communities’ leaders agreed. They were loyal, but certainly not lucky, as everyone detests them now. If Salafist groups were pushed into Lebanon to boost the Sunni street, the Shia would be the first victims.

The trouble with sectarian politics is that once a faction falls off the catbird seat the inevitable payback ensues. And payback in the Middle East is always a b***h. That fact means the United States will have a hard time staying the honest broker. The New York Times reports that the administration is now seeking to forge closer ties with the Muslim Brotherhood — a largely Sunni outfit — in Egypt.

The administration’s overtures — including high-level meetings in recent weeks — constitute a historic shift in a foreign policy held by successive American administrations that steadfastly supported the autocratic government of President Hosni Mubarak in part out of concern for the Brotherhood’s Islamist ideology and historic ties to militants. The shift is, on one level, an acknowledgment of the new political reality here, and indeed around the region, as Islamist groups come to power.

If nothing else the policy change is an admission that the “Arab Spring” — at least in Egypt — has turned into the end of the Muslim Brotherhood’s winter. “The reversal also reflects the administration’s growing acceptance of the Brotherhood’s repeated assurances that its lawmakers want to build a modern democracy that will respect individual freedoms, free markets and international commitments, including Egypt’s treaty with Israel.”

John Kerry described Obama’s turnabout as Reaganesque.

John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and recently joined with the ambassador to Egypt, Anne W. Patterson, for a meeting with top leaders of the Brotherhood’s political party.

He compared the Obama administration’s outreach to President Ronald Reagan’s arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. “The United States needs to deal with the new reality,” Mr. Kerry said. “And it needs to step up its game.”

But that may be the triumph of hope over experience. Perhaps the word Senator Kerry is really searching for also ends in “esque” but starts with “g”.  He may have overlooked the fact that Reagan was often initiating events rather than reacting to them. On the other hand, as Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, points out, nothing about the administration’s rapprochement is voluntarily.  “Now the Brotherhood knows it is in a stronger position and it is almost as if the U.S. is chasing them and they are sitting pretty”.

The way you know who’s in charge is who calls the tune. Of course the President never wanted to call the tune in the first place. After you Gaston, or rather Achmed. This is what it practically means to “lead from behind”.

But becoming best buddies with the Muslim Brotherhood also complicates the US position vis a vis the Shia. In that region often the friend of my enemy is my enemy. That implictly puts America on the other side of a regional divide, perhaps without the US really meaning to.

Everyone seems hell bent on steering Washington’s foreign policy, even the French. Radio Free Europe reports that France is calling for tougher sanctions on Iran. “French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has said in a television interview that he is convinced Iran is developing nuclear weapons and called for the European Union to impose tougher sanctions on Tehran.”

But who will enforce the sanctions?  The EU is good at “international law”,  but when the time comes to serve the arrrest warrant on the perps — they usually turn out to be extremely short of ammunition. That’s usually where America steps in. Of course America has Barack Obama looking out for its best interests, and hopefully he is.

Although the President claims to have sucessfully “led from behind” perhaps it is other countries —  other groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or regional powers — that have successfully manipulated events to their advantage.  By hijacking the wreck of the President’s engagement policy,  a rudderless administration has been shown through a series of doors, like a dog being made to jump through hoops, each door the only apparent exit from the last.

Maybe this is “smart ad hocracy“. Or maybe it is better described by its old name: drift.

Nearly a hundred years ago Europe drifted into the Great War because no power had the foresight or to do anything except go through the next door and the next.  The process was repeated until they found themselves in disaster. The sense of helplessness which the major statesmen felt is captured by German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg’s despairing cry, even as Germany mobilized that fatal year “if the Iron Dice must roll, may God help us”. He was not alone in this feeling. Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary mused, “we cannot go back now”. But as John Stoessinger wrote in his book Why Nations Go To War, people always decide, even when they decide not to decide.

Mortals made these decisions. They made them in fear and trembling but they made them nonetheless. In most cases, the decision makers were not evil people bent on destruction but were frightened and entrapped by self-delusion.

That may be to overstate the case. But it is important to wonder how much of the current crisis is born less in malevolence than indolence; less in calculation than ignorance; less from perplexity than from unthinking intellectual arrogance. What could be worse than the One? The None.


The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

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No Way In at Amazon Kindle $3.99, print $9.99

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