Belmont Club


The word retribution is usually understood as punishment.  However, as Merriam-Webster notes, it’s merely  from the Latin retributionem meaning “recompense or repayment” and may be either punishment or reward.  The Bible (Isaiah 35:4) talks about heaven as retribution, something we don’t always associate with the word.  At any rate, it means what you get when the final account catches up with you. What exactly the Obama administration deserves is yet to be revealed.  However, Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post suspects the population of MENA has been stuck with an excessively large part of the payment for Obama’s Iranian legacy. Gerson writes:

One little boy in a red T-shirt, lying face down, drowned, on a Turkish beach, is a tragedy. More than 200,000 dead in Syria, 4 million fleeing refugees and 7.6 million displaced from their homes are statistics. But they represent a collective failure of massive proportions.

For four years, the Obama administration has engaged in what Frederic Hof, former special adviser for transition in Syria, calls a “pantomime of outrage.” Four years of strongly worded protests, and urgent meetings and calls for negotiation — the whole drama a sickening substitute for useful action. People talking and talking to drown out the voice of their own conscience. And blaming. In 2013, President Obama lectured the U.N. Security Council for having “demonstrated no inclination to act at all.” Psychological projection on a global stage. …

What explains Obama’s high tolerance for humiliation and mass atrocities in Syria? The Syrian regime is Iran’s proxy, propped up by billions of dollars each year. And Obama wanted nothing to interfere with the prospects for a nuclear deal with Iran. He was, as Hof has said, “reluctant to offend the Iranians at this critical juncture.” So the effective concession of Syria as an Iranian zone of influence is just one more cost of the president’s legacy nuclear agreement.

That’s the worst case explanation. David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy examines the alternative argument.  Suppose the current crisis is just the consequence of a well-intentioned strategy gone wrong.  He writes: “take each of the Middle East’s crises — they will all get worse before they get better.” The trouble, Rothkopf concludes, is that they are looking more and more like permanent ones instead of temporary ones. There was nothing sinister about the policy failure.  Obama simply made a huge bet which didn’t pay off.

President Barack Obama and those around him have, for reasons understandable in the context of the failures and missteps of George W. Bush’s administration, sought to disengage from the Middle East. They have argued that the United States should leave these problems for others to resolve. They have suggested that if there were no clear paths to victory against potential threats, we should not undertake containing them. They suggested the problems would burn themselves out or that unnamed others would, despite decades of history to the contrary, resolve them. In the name of prudence and caution and a desire to avoid past errors, they have embraced a less-is-more foreign policy that was predicated on the idea that the world and America would be better off if the planet’s sole superpower were more reticent, less engaged, and more hesitant not just to use force but to leave it unclear whether we would use force or not. In fact, I am not sure I blame anyone so much as I blame the ideas underlying this policy, ideas that crop up periodically in America that we can leave the business of the world to others and not pay a price.

Syria was the great test case of this approach. When it was clear that the use of chemical weapons “red line” had been crossed (repeatedly), Obama considered action and then thought better of it. While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad murdered his people and then other extremist groups compounded the problem with their own brand of mayhem, we contemplated action, but we focused more on finding excuses not to act than we did on finding effective measures we and others could take that might actually improve the situation. There were no easy paths forward, no clear good guys among the warring factions, and no ways we could be assured of satisfactory outcomes. Perhaps most important was the calculation that if we took no action or very little action, it would not be a problem that impacted us or our allies in any material way. Of course, this last calculation has proven to be profoundly wrong. That the humanitarian costs of our inaction have been so grievous only compounds how wrong this thinking was and makes it all the more poignant. Now, however, virtually any future we can reasonably imagine for Syria makes the extravagant tragedies of today and the recent past seem small by comparison to the suffering and upheaval likely to come.

Whatever the explanation, one can put it down to experience since it’s only the gomers who will have to pay the price.  Rothkopf’s remark, “I blame the idea …  that we can leave the business of the world to others and not pay a price” is really another way of expressing the belief held in Washington that they will escape retribution.  That seems to be the thinking in the Gulf as well.   Ishaan Tharoor wrote in the Washington Post that “the Arab world’s wealthiest nations are doing next to nothing for Syria’s refugees” — except manufacturing them.   He writes:

As Amnesty International recently pointed out, the “six Gulf countries — Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.”…

Moreover, these countries aren’t totally innocent bystanders. To varying degrees, elements within Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the U.A.E. and Kuwait have invested in the Syrian conflict, playing a conspicuous role in funding and arming a constellation of rebel and Islamist factions fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria has become a godforsaken revolving door with Jihadis and proxy soldiers pouring in one end and refugees tumbling out the other. “The government of Iran is reportedly exploiting Shiite refugees who have fled war-torn Afghanistan by coercing them to fight alongside forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, often leading them to their demise.”

But the revolving door is turning into a vortex. With Assad’s regime crumbling even in core areas, Moscow is being sucked in. It is apparently preparing to reinforce the Syrian government with more than 1,000 military personnel. The New York Times reports that JFK is worried.  “Secretary of State John Kerry told his Russian counterpart on Saturday that the United States was deeply concerned by reports that the Kremlin may be planning to vastly expand its military support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, warning that such a move might even lead to a ‘confrontation’ with the American-led coalition, the State Department said.”

Russia has sent a military advance team to Syria and has transported prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people to an airfield near Latakia, according to American intelligence analysts. Russia has also delivered a portable air traffic station to the airfield and has filed military overflight requests through September.

While American officials have said they are not sure of Moscow’s intentions, they say the airfield could be used to transport military supplies for the Assad government or to carry out Russian airstrikes to help Syrian government troops. The housing could accommodate as many as 1,000 Russian military advisers and other personnel, according to American officials, and one official suggested that the eventual Russian deployment might be even larger.

And that vortex is getting bigger. The refugees flooding into Europe has been described as being on a “Biblical” scale. There’s a word you don’t see often, but in modern sensibility the Urban Dictionary defines Biblical as “something which happens on the grandest scale possible on earth. This includes apocalypse, major war etc.”. News that the British are voting on whether to re-engage in an attempt to stabilize the region underscores its relentless expansion.  “Britain moved closer to military action in Syria as a senior minister on Saturday said Europe’s migration crisis had to be tackled at its source and a newspaper said a parliamentary vote on bombing Islamic State militants in Syria could take place next month.”

The crisis is growing so large it is becoming increasingly difficult for anyone — even the Obama administration, certainly not Europe — to plausibly imagine escaping scot-free.  For the first time in decades there’s nowhere to run, even for the politicians. After all, with words like “Biblical scale” making their appearance in the press it’s a sure sign that the word “retribution” may not be far behind.


Ironically the administration should hope the Russians can prop up Assad a little longer, because the real tide of human suffering will be released when one side or the other “wins” in Syria/Iraq and the ethnic cleansing begins.  One need only recall the exodus of “boat people” who fled Indochina in 1975 to imagine how big the flood in MENA might potentially be.  But in those innocent days the flotsam only washed up in neighboring Southeast Asian countries.  This time they will be showing up in Germany, France and Britain.  If one side “wins” the human catastrophe till now will be as the draining of the backyard pool in comparison to the Parting of the Red Sea.

A crisis on that scale might actually force Obama to act, something which Peter Feaver argues in Foreign Policy may result in a cure worse than the disease.  “As long as Obama is in power, no plan has a good chance of success,” he writes. In other words if an incompetent is forced to take the field then all that stuff about apocalypses and major war may be upon us, and the Urban Dictionary reminds us that’s no good.  Feaver writes:

Consider this sports analogy: President Obama as a quarterback with a weak arm and a poor record of judgment and accuracy. With such a field captain, does it make sense to draw up an offensive game plan built on long passes down the field? Even if it is late in the game and the team is deeply in the hole, if the quarterback cannot or will not throw the ball, the offensive coordinator should not call for long passes. With this quarterback, we have to come up with a strategy built on the run and the screen pass, regardless of the score or the game-clock. …

In the world of football, coaches can swap quarterbacks fairly easily. In the world of national security, we are not likely to see a change of personnel until January 2017.

In such a world, is the best we can do limited to the best he will do?

“In such a world, is the best we can do limited to the best he will do?” The probable answer is “yes”. In a manner of speaking everyone’s solution is constrained: Syria is limited by Assad; Russia by Putin; Europe by political correctness, MENA by Islamic militancy and America by Obama. Only certain degrees of freedom are open because the players are locked in, as it were, by legacy imperatives formed in relative isolation before their efforts interacted and consequences became operationally significant.

Everyone is stuck with what are political conventions.  They can’t do anything outside of that even when the situation has changed.

But now they have to. Where once Europe could adopt Schengen, Russia try to rebuild the Soviet Union, Sunni and Shi’a Islam dream of revolution and Obama pander to pacifism without apparent contradiction the world has now become too small to contain all these tendencies simultaneously without collision. The unanticipated consequences are multiplying before the astonished participants.

The advantage in this situation should belong to the side which can learn the fastest; to the leadership that can comprehend the situation and make adjustments. Will that be Obama?  Will that be Hillary?  One thing is certain: there can be no more belief in a world without retribution.  The time for kicking the can down the road seems ended. Consequences of one sort or the other are now inevitable. A kind of historical Judgment Day may be approaching at which we had better be acquitted. Otherwise the outcome may, as the Urban Dictionary puts it, be “Biblical”.

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