Syria in the Age of Myth
Myth I. Conservatives opposed to bombing Syria are isolationists.
Hardly. It would be better to call conservative skepticism a new Jacksonianism that is not wedded to any Pavlovian support for intervention or particular political party.
Instead, Jacksonians wish to husband U.S. power and prestige. Only that way can we ensure that we have both when existential crises loom—and many are now on the horizon.
The more prudent course is to weigh each intervention in terms of whether it serves long-term U.S. strategic interests. And ask if it can it do more good than harm to those beneath the bombs and at a cost commensurate with the results. Does it enjoy at least 50% support from the Congress and people? Have the president and his team worked hard to explain the rationale, methodology, and desired objectives to both allies abroad and Americans at home?
All that might sound like a lot of ifs—suggesting thereby an impossible bar for success abroad. But those prerequisites are neither too cumbersome nor guarantees of anything certain. After all, sloppy thinking occasionally can still result in won wars, while professional preparation can sometimes fail—given that nothing is certain in war.
Instead, such considerations offer a better chance of success when the bombs start falling. And they reflect an administration that takes military force seriously.
The present one does not. It still cannot explain why a “shot across the bow” and an “unbelievably small” bombing campaign are not “pinpricks.” (Who wants to be the first or last pilot to die to prove that his mission was not just a pinprick, but instead achieved only unbelievably small damage?)
Why is Congress initially to be bypassed, then consulted, then to be bypassed if not on board, then to be postponed if believed not on board, and now to be forgotten? Is it really isolationist to doubt the wisdom and efficacy of bombing Assad when we were told it was to: a) help the rebels, b) destroy WMD, c) punish Assad for using WMD, d) warn others not to use WMD, e) remove him, f) weaken him, g) restore U.S. credibility, h) restore mostly Barack Obama’s lost credibility, i) thwart Russia, j) show Iran, k) welcome in Russia, l) ignore Iran, m) create stability after Assad’s departure, n) not get involved after Assad’s departure, o) sort out good rebels from bad ones, etc.?
Weakening America and making Syria worse is not a proof of bipartisan interventionist support for the necessary postwar global system.
Myth II. John Kerry is far worse than Hillary Clinton at secretary of State.
True, poor Kerry is played hourly by the Russians and Syrians. He seeks to lecture and pontificate, not persuade and inspire. He ends up doing neither well. The secretary freelances into embarrassment. At times Kerry warns of imminent bombing; at times he champions sober negotiation; at times both and again neither. He talks ponderously and long. Even the Russians cannot stand the pomposity and cry no mas.
Kerry tries to resonate Obama’s orders. But he cannot—both because presidential directives, to the extent that there are any, are incoherent and unserious, and because, like Obama, Kerry made his career damning just the sort of unilateral preemptory military action—without allies, the UN, public support, or an authorization from Congress—that he is now demagoguing for. Was Kerry for Assad before being against him? Is Assad about like Genghis Khan—or is he now Hitler?—or worse, or maybe far worse? Are Assad’s soldiers lopping limbs and burning villages as Americans supposedly did in Vietnam? Or are some of the rebels the real cannibals and executioners of prisoners?
Yet all that said, Kerry inherited and made worse this mess, but did not create it. It was Hillary Clinton, not Kerry or even Obama, who first issued empty red lines that she either had no intention of enforcing or should have known that Obama had no desire to honor.
It was Clinton who grandly announced to the world that Kerry and other senators were right in declaring Assad a "reformer" and a "moderate." It was Hillary who oversaw, along with Samantha Power and Susan Rice, the debacle in Libya. It was Hillary who explained why Gaddafi —the clever monster in rehabilitation doing all that he could do to massage Western oil-hungry and petro-dollar-grabbing elites—had to go, but why the suddenly now satanic Assad should be left alone to reform.
It was Hillary who was the architect of "lead from behind," which proved nothing. Hillary thundered callously “what difference does it make?" over the four dead in Benghazi. Her State Department both stonewalled the Benghazi inquiry and, before the attack, refused to consider requests for more security.
It was Hillary who chortled in crude fashion “we came, we saw, Gaddafi died,” and in cruder fashion lied to the families of the dead that a right-wing video, not Islamist militias attacking a poorly defended consulate engaged in secretive arms smuggling, had led to the deaths of their sons. And, yes, it was Hillary who jumped ship to avoid the consequences of her own disastrous tenure, while she hit the lecture circuit to cash in and prep for her 2016 presidential run.
Kerry is incompetently cleaning up the wreckage of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous tenure.
Myth III. America is now in decline after being humiliated in Syria.
Syria was a diplomatic disaster and emblematic of the larger Obama foreign policy catastrophe.
But America will survive it, and it will become a textbook example of what not to do, analogous to Kennedy’s disastrous Vienna summit with Khrushchev, or the sad decision to forfeit a won Vietnam to the communists in 1974-5, or Jimmy Carter’s annus terribilis of 1980. Yet Syria is not an historic date marking America’s descent into permanent decline.
America’s longer-term, post-Obama indicators are in our favor. We lead the world in innovation. Immigrants still seek the U.S. We will be more energy secure than at any time since the 1930s. Our deficits are sinking after sequestration, with fossil fuel expansion and cheaper energy.
Our top universities have never more dominated world-wide rankings. Obama’s neo-socialism is waning; even he postpones elements of an unpopular Obamacare.
Even a slashed military is still far stronger than the next dozen militaries combined. One American worker, amid economic doldrums, still produces almost three times the goods and services of three Chinese workers. And so on.
Russia has brilliantly outclassed Obama. Yet Obama is not America and Putin is not Russia. The latter’s country is shrinking, increasingly unhealthy, a kleptocracy dependent solely on gas and oil revenues in the midst of an oil and gas boom elsewhere. A weak Obama and strong Putin do not translate into a strong Russia and a weak America. Obamitis will pass; the Russian malady will not be alleviated by Putin’s KGB cunning.
We will survive Obama, if barely, but then also flourish—if only by the wisdom of reacting to and doing the opposite of what the Obama era has wrought.
Myth IV. Syria is another Iraq
Obama cannot finish a speech without blaming George Bush and damning Iraq—a campaign about which he admitted in 2004 that "there's not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage.”
Before invading Iraq, Bush spent a year winning public opinion (70% at the time of invasion), sought UN approval, won joint congressional authorization, and forged an alliance of 40 countries.
His rationale, wisely or foolishly, was clear: to remove Saddam, to stay on, to foster a constitutional order, to show the Middle East that there might be an alternative between theocracy and dictatorship. The 2004-7 implementation of that policy was as disastrous as operations in 2003, and again in 2008-9, were inspired.
In a post-9/11 landscape, Bush wished to avoid both the pinpricks of Clinton’s cruise-missile strategy (compare the smashed al-Shifa aspirin factory in the Sudan or the futile missiles sent after bin Laden) and the incomplete results from the successful 1991 war that had nonetheless left Saddam in power, left Kurdistan imperiled, left 12 years of no-fly zones, left a corrupt oil-for-food UN debacle, and caused the Clinton administration and the Congress to call for regime change.
Bush may have fixated on WMD, in the manner of the Obama administration now in Syria, but he was also supported by both CIA and congressional agreements about WMD capability inside Iraq (whose ultimate fate we may only know from a post-Assad Syria).
Bush was supported by 23 congressional authorizations to go to war, from genocide, to the harboring of anti-American terrorist killers, to attempts to kill a U.S. president, to attacks on U.S. planes and allies. Harry Reid, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton gave stirring speech to preempt.
You can argue in retrospect that such an ambitious venture was not worth a near $1 trillion and over 4,000 lives and thousands of wounded, but you must concede it was spelled out, authorized, and discussed for over a year. And Iraq did have positive geostrategic effects, at least for a while. Gaddafi surrendered WMD. The Pakistanis put under house arrest the proliferator Dr. Khan. Assad removed Syrian troops from Lebanon. Iran was worried. There was even a stirring of popular Middle East resistance in unlikely places like Tehran by spring 2009.
By January 2009, virtually no Americans were dying in Iraq. A semi-autonomous newly empowered Kurdistan was a model of economic development and relative stability and security in a horrendous part of the world.
We had a forward base to monitor Iran and to protect Iraqi airspace. At the price of some adroit diplomacy with the Iraqis and just a few thousand troops, the U.S. might have pressured the Maliki government to have honored its constitutional promises.
All that we gave up for the 2012 Obama campaign slogan of “I ended the war in Iraq.” If translated honestly, that canard meant, “I inherited no war in Iraq, but have ended a vital U.S. position abroad that ensured the fruits of past humanitarian achievement and advanced our national interests.”
Myth 5. Obama is permanently weakened by Syria and now an impotent president.
Don’t believe that Obama is “ruined” and his administration is “shattered.” Three and a half years is a long stretch for a president, especially given the capabilities of the Obama team and an obsequious media. Every time Obama experiences another self-inflicted mess—from the Obamacare shake-down congressional spectacle to the 2010 midterm rebuke to the serial scandals— he manages to rebound. Already he is claiming his ineptitude was by design and that only his craft brought Putin to the table and averted a crisis; millions still believe such preposterous fantasies.
He is also a genius at diverting attention through another domestic war or foreign crisis (would that our enemies abroad hear the same slurs from Obama that he reserves for his conservative opponents at home: imagine Putin as a "fat cat," or a warning to Assad that we “punish our enemies.”)
Benghazi, the AP, the NSA and the IRS debacles are put on the back burner by Obama’s Syria follies. They in turn will be forgotten once we brace for a new war to follow the ones waged against the evil redneck assault gun owners; the minority bashers who committed Trayvon Martin-like travesties daily; the sinister homophobes who denied marriage equity; the nativists who hated people of color and so insisted on onerous legal technicalities against undocumented workers; the voter suppressionists who demand ID at the polls; the misogynists who denied powerful professional women a little help to ensure their reproductive rights; the polluters who fouled our air and water and fried our planet; the cruel older generation that ignored embattled students struggling with oppressive loans; and union busters who hated collective bargaining.
All those wars will revive and be bolstered by even more in the next 40 months to come. “You did not build that” and “no time for profit” have demagogic children not yet born. We will hear thousands more of the tired emphatics like “make no mistake about it” and “let me be perfectly clear.” There will be hundreds more straw men: “Some do these bad things; others do those bad things, but I alone do the good things.” We have in store lots more of the teleprompted first-person I, me, my, and mine narcissism. “Bush did it” has three more years of ad nauseam utility. “Iraq” will still begin and almost end every sentence until 2017. “Working for the middle class” will follow each dismal jobs report.
Do not underestimate the rhetorical skills and political demagoguery of Barack Obama. He is as incompetent and delusional as Jimmy Carter, but he has far better sophistic skills, far better advisers, and is far more ruthless. Almost half of America does not pay federal income taxes; almost half receive some sort of government assistance. They are as loyal as the captive media to what Obama represents and delivers.
Putin will not let the Syria debacle fade entirely—aided by John Kerry’s sanctimonious efforts to be remembered as Nelson Mandela with Tomahawks, and to freelance while Barack Obama is incommunicado on the golf links.
Yet even this ongoing Syrian tragedy will not yet end Obama’s influence and power, which has been damaged but has not been lost. Brace for more.