Belmont Club

The Light of Day

The drawdown of U.S. diplomats from Lebanon and Turkey is a reminder that the Syrian crisis is in the end not about Syria, but Iran. Obama’s threat to “punish” Syria is stirring up waves in Tehran, because the loss of Syria would isolate Hezbollah and leave it vulnerable to destruction by Sunni forces.

Syria was, in strategic terms, Obama’s answer to Iraq. At the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I wrote that Bush went into Iraq seeking to “kill the chicken to scare the Sunni monkey” — warn off al-Qaeda’s terror sponsors — but also in search of the key to Iran. Obama, by contrast, has another formulation. He is seeking to use the Sunnis in order to turn the key to Iran. In this way he hopes to solve the nuclear problem, and perhaps to neuter Hezbollah as well.

As always, the enemy gets to apply his counter-strategy. In the case of Iraq, both Sunni and Shi’a militants were sent by the thousands into Iraq in order to drive America out. It didn’t work, but the political consequences may have convinced Obama never to try “boots on the ground.” He rose to power on the politics of pledging not to do it. Once in the White House, he chose to employ only proxy Sunni forces in the campaign against Iran.

But again the enemy is countering, this time not by sending its militias to drive out American troops that aren’t in deployment but by widening the war. The Bush approach made Iraq the designated battleground. That was bad news for Iraq, but good news for everyone else. The Obama approach seemed fine at first, but it inevitably meant the problem would spread to Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Turkey.

Two million Syrians are now refugees in bordering countries. They are the most visible proof of the adage that nothing comes for free. If the Obama approach leveraged the sectarian and ethnic schisms to raise proxy levies, the hidden price was to raise the probability of civil wars. The unacknowledged cost of “leading from behind” was losing control and widening the war. A battle of the proxies would become exactly that: a battle of the proxies.

One concrete indication of this strikeback reported in the Wall Street Journal was messages from Tehran ordering an attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Iraq in the event of a punitive bombing of Syria:

The U.S. has intercepted an order from Iran to militants in Iraq to attack the U.S. Embassy and other American interests in Baghdad in the event of a strike on Syria, officials said, amid an expanding array of reprisal threats across the region.

Military officials have been trying to predict the range of possible responses from Syria, Iran, and their allies. U.S. officials said they are on alert for Iran’s fleet of small, fast boats in the Persian Gulf, where American warships are positioned. U.S. officials also fear Hezbollah could attack the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

Unfortunately, the biggest enemy of the apparent Obama strategy — if it can be so termed — was Obama himself.

Obama effectively decapitated the U.S. response by destroying his own ability to wage it. This took the form not only of his military cutbacks, which made him more dependent on proxies to the point where Secretary of State Kerry was actually boasting that the oil-rich Arab states would pay for any military expenses, but was also the result of his fundamentally manipulative leadership methods. Unable to speak of “war” or “strategy” — lest it offend his left-wing base — the administration relied on such fairy tales as “responsibility to protect” and “the Arab Spring,” and most recently on a moral statement about chemical weapons, to conceal the fact it was fighting a war with Middle Easterners using Middle Easterners. This dishonesty reached its apotheosis in John Kerry’s recent statement before Congress:

When people are asked, do you want to go to war in Syria? Of course not. Everybody, 100 percent of Americans would say no. We say no. We don’t want to go to war in Syria either. That’s not what we’re here to ask. The president is not asking you to go to war, he’s not asking you to declare war, he’s not asking you to send one American troop to war. He is simply saying we need to take an action that can degrade the capacity of a man who’s been willing to kill his own people by breaking a nearly 100-year-old prohibition, and will we stand up and be counted to say we won’t do that. That’s not — you know, I just don’t consider that going to war in the classic sense of coming to Congress and asking for a declaration of war and training troops and sending people abroad and putting young Americans in harm’s way. That’s not what the president is asking for here.

But this is a lie. Calling something by another name doesn’t make it so. As the Atlantic put it in an outraged article by Conor Friedersdorf:

Make no mistake: What’s being decided is whether America will be at war in Syria. Whatever you think ought to be done, that is the question now before Congress. And the fact that the Obama Administration won’t acknowledge the truth is telling.

It’s a sad state of affairs when the policy is made abroad, and is perhaps even being led from abroad, decided as it were in advance of telling anybody. The process has spun out of control, and Obama is in the predicament of having to explain its effects without admitting to its causes. This has compelled him to make things up as he goes along. Fox News reports: “Obama presses world leaders for Syria action as strike plan rapidly adjusted”:

President Obama is using the final day of the G-20 summit to build support for a U.S. military strike in Syria, even as the details of that plan continue to change by the day — with one source telling Fox News that military officials have been asked to revise their plans 50 times since the Pentagon first began considering a “limited” action.

Obama, who arrived in Russia on Thursday to find the already failing relations with his host Vladimir Putin in even worse condition, ran into opposition from China and the European Union over a potential U.S. strike on Syria — one of Russia’s closest Mideast allies.

The plan has changed fifty times. Why not ask Luxembourg what it thinks and make it 51?

The problem with the Narrative is that it perpetually has to conjure false explanations for whatever reality brings up. Things are not moving so much from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C, but from Lie 1 to Lie 2 and Lie 3. Having lost support from literally every ally except Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and France, the president is casting around for a package that will lure the deserters to return to the fold. Yet no military plan can do that.

Only a rebuild of political consensus for the campaign against Iran has any chance of creating the political legitimacy for ends and deals that have been kept out of sight until now. Until the electorates of the allied nations begin to share Obama’s war aims — because they are war aims, whether he uses the word or not — there is really no basis for legitimate military operations except deception.

The “responsibility to protect” Narrative is now threadbare. So too, apparently, are “red lines” talking points. Why doesn’t Obama try the truth?

The answer is probably because he is jealous of his power. For to seek a public mandate is to share power, not only with Congress but with the American people and the allied popular opinion. It requires him to converse and not to preach. And he doesn’t know how to do that. He couldn’t even talk to Joe the Plumber without staring down his nose, nor shake hands with Putin the Bellhop without radiating his “dominance.” Not he; he wants a free hand. But in a twist of poetic justice, Obama now finds himself manacled to himself, a prisoner of his own webs.

But that still leaves Iran and its ongoing fightback. Just because Obama has tied himself in knots doesn’t mean Iran is similarly stymied. In fact, now’s the time for them to strike, and although it may be physically weaker than America, Iran at least has the benefit of strategic clarity. Whether Obama likes it or not, Tehran too is widening the war, at least for as long as he shambles forward, blind, insistent, and essentially pell-mell. Barack Hussein Obama has blundered into a powder magazine with a lighted match. What he must glimpse in that fitful glare should give him pause. It’s a “come to Allah” moment, since in Obama’s case, Come to Jesus hardly seems appropriate.

In the meantime, its open season on Christians in the Middle East. For that matter, it’s open season on everybody. In the next few weeks the unacknowledged consequences of nearly five years of self-deception and half-truths may be felt. The only question is whether Obama can bring himself to conduct business in the light of day or persist in working from his place behind the curtain.

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