The Syria Dilemma

There’s news this morning that the United States, Great Britain, and France have launched air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria.  The strikes are in response to what the three Western allies call a chemical weapons atrocity committed by the Assad regime on its own people, and are targeting laboratories, production facilities, storage facilities, and other elements of the regime’s chemical weapons capabilities.

5ad199560f2544131873fb90Nobody wants to see civilians assaulted by chemical weapons, of course, and I agree with President Trump that anyone who uses chemical weapons is a “monster.”  The problem is that the Assad regime denies any use of chemical weapons, and its allies — namely, Russia and Iran — are backing the regime.  Indeed, at one point Russia claimed that Great Britain had, for some elusive reason, staged the chemical attack.  The outlandishness of that claim gives us a pretty good idea of how to assess the relative credibility of the charges and countercharges concerning who did what.

But in the curious arena of international affairs, questions of credibility and truth, and right and wrong, often don’t mean much.  Attacking Syria will have consequences for our relations with Russia and Iran, such as they are, and might put other American allies, like Israel, at increased risk.  Of course, it could also risk drawing the United States deeper into the quagmire of internal disputes in a foreign nation, a la Afghanistan and Iraq.  On the other hand, do countries like the United States, France, and Great Britain, which have the ability to take concrete steps to try to stop the use of chemical weapons, have a moral obligation to do something like launching these attacks when international organizations like the United Nations prove to be incapable of protecting innocents from monstrous and barbaric attacks?

It’s a dilemma that is above my pay grade, and one which I hope our leaders have thought through thoroughly and carefully.  I’m all for stopping the use of chemical weapons, but it is the unpredictable long-term consequences that give me concern.

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A Spokesperson For The Ages

Normally, you would think that a public official would pick a spokesperson based on that person’s ability to shape and convey positive and persuasive messages that advanced the public official’s agenda.  And when the “public official” in question is the President of the United States, whose every move is put under a microscope, you would think the careful messaging requirement would be even more essential.

So how in the world did Sean Spicer end up as the White House press secretary?

trumpSpicer’s comment yesterday that suggested that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was in some ways worse than Adolf Hitler, because “You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” is unforgivably ignorant — because, of course, Hitler did use poison gas to kill millions of Jews during the Holocaust.  Children are taught that fact during their world history classes, and the national Holocaust Museum is only a mile or so away from the White House.  How can you be the press secretary for the President of the United States and not be aware of the fact of Hitler’s poison gas executions and avoid making a comment that suggests that you are a know-nothing fool?

Spicer later apologized, but the entire incident raises questions about Spicer and his staff.  Spicer’s abrasive style clearly rubs the press the wrong way, and it has been hilariously lampooned by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live.  There’s nothing wrong with having a combative press secretary if that is the President’s way of sending a message to the media, although Spicer often seems over the top for my tastes.  But you can’t have a press secretary whose behavior and comments make him the story that distracts from, and undercuts, the President’s goals.  Don’t Spicer and his staff prepare for his press conferences, and carefully consider the arguments he is going to present before he goes before the country and makes them?  If so, how could his staff not recognize the fundamental, underlying idiocy of his comparison of Assad and Hitler?  And if they don’t vet his arguments, and Spicer just “wings it,” then he’s an incompetent whose instincts are obviously ill-suited for the job, and it’s just a matter of time before he makes another thoughtless and stupid comment that sets off another firestorm or provokes an unintended international incident.

Either way, Spicer should be replaced as press secretary.  President Trump might like his two-fisted way of dealing with the press that Trump seems to hold in contempt, but he’s got to realize that Spicer is a huge liability who is just going to step into it again, and again, and again, and make the Trump Administration as a whole look like amateur hour.   That’s not the kind of messaging you want from your press secretary.

Moving Back From The Red Line, And Back In Time, Too

This morning Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. and Russia have reached agreement on resolution of the Syrian chemical weapons problem.  Under the agreement, Syria must turn over an accounting of its chemical weapons within a week, inspectors will arrive in Syria in November and begin to seize and destroy the weapons, and the destruction is to be completed by mid-2014.  The agreement will be “backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow for sanctions or other consequences if Syria fails to comply.”

With the agreement, the United States has backed away from President Obama’s “red line” that use of chemical weapons would produce immediate military consequences.  It’s been an awkward retreat, as I’ve pointed out in prior postings, but it recognizes reality — there simply is no international appetite for joint military action, and there is enormous opposition, both domestically and internationally, to the United States taking unilateral action.  I was opposed to the United States taking unilateral action, so I am glad that the Obama Administration ultimately came to its senses.  The use of chemical weapons in Syria is an international problem, not an American one, and the international community, collectively, should deal with it.

There are a lot of questions about this agreement, of course.  Our past experience with international weapons inspectors — in North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere — isn’t exactly cause for supreme confidence in their ability to handle the destructive ambitions of rogue states.  How in the world do international inspectors find and safely destroy chemical weapons stores in the midst of a raging civil war?  How does anyone trust the Assad regime, which denied having chemical weapons until a week ago, to honestly identify and produce all of its chemical weapons caches?   And we can’t lose sight of the fact that this agreement does nothing to end the suffering of the Syrian people who are trapped in the middle of a bloody fight among a regime that wants to hold onto power at all costs and a gaggle of “rebels” that undoubtedly include al Qaeda terrorists.

There’s another very interesting aspect to the agreement announced today.  It was negotiated by only two parties — the United States and Russia.  Syria was not part of the talks, nor were China, or France, or Great Britain, or other members of the UN Security Council, or the Arab League.  Apparently Russia is expected to deliver the agreement and cooperation of the Syrians, as if Syria is a kind of vassal state, and the U.S. is expected to bring the rest of the Security Council into line.  It reminded me of the bipartite, Cold War world I grew up in, where the U.S. and the Soviet Union led the two competing factions in the world and met occasionally at summit meetings to resolve international problems.  It’s odd to see this apparent return to those days.  I wonder how China and the other states in our increasingly diverse world feel about that?

Offhand Ultimatums

The issue of the United States’ response to the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government has been on the front burner for weeks now.  After fruitless efforts to build an international coalition, followed by vows to go it alone, then by a decision to seek congressional approval, it seems late in the game for a new proposal.  But that’s what happened yesterday.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in response to a question at a news conference, said Syria could avert a U.S. attack by placing its chemical weapons under international control — whatever that means.  The Obama Administration said Kerry’s response was a “rhetorical argument” that wasn’t meant to make a diplomatic overture, but that was how it was treated.  Russia, Syria, and others in the international community immediately expressed support for the idea, as did congressional Democrats who don’t want to vote on whether to authorize the President to use military force.  By the end of the day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the Senate vote on the issue would, in fact, be delayed.  And when President Obama last night sat for interviews in a TV blitz designed to build support for a limited strike, he was responding to the news, rather than making it.  In view of the reaction to Kerry’s comment,  the President said he would put plans for a military strike on hold if Syria put its weapons stockpile under international control — although he expressed skepticism it would happen.  Of course, the obvious question is:  if the President is skeptical, why would the Secretary of State make the proposal in the first place?

Tonight the President is supposed to make a speech to the American people about the Syrian issue.  Perhaps he will take the opportunity to explain his Administration’s confusing approach to the issue, with the American position seemingly swaying in the wind created every time John Kerry speaks.

The President and his supporters profess to be mystified by why Americans aren’t supporting their policy on Syria, whatever it is.  It’s not that Americans aren’t sickened by the use of chemical weapons.  Instead, it’s that this Administration has little credibility when it says that America needs to act, alone if necessary, to address the situation.  We don’t understand why this should be our job, and we simply don’t credit the Administration’s increasingly outlandish promises — like Secretary Kerry’s statement yesterday that the military effort needed to “degrade” the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capabilities would be “unbelievably small.”   We also see what has happened in Libya and Egypt and don’t believe that some kind of thread-the-needle air strike can “degrade” chemical weapons capabilities without creating more chaos in an already chaotic region.  The credibility gap isn’t helped by the Administration’s shifting positions and heedless issuance of offhand ultimatums that apparently weren’t intended to be ultimatums in the first place.

The Domino Theory And The Marshall Plan

One other point to consider, as the Obama Administration apparently entertains the possibility of military action against Syria:  how much of our analysis of this situation, and our options, is colored by our adherence to concepts and a worldview that are outdated?

In the ’50s and ’60s, our intervention in Vietnam and elsewhere was justified by “the domino theory,” which held that countries would topple like dominos into the Communist column if we didn’t intervene through military force or some kind of CIA scheme.  Our approach to foreign governments relied heavily on the money-oriented, Marshall Plan model that was so successful in western Europe after World War II.

Fifty years later, the Soviet Union is gone, the geopolitical map has changed, and our focus is on countries far away from western Europe and southeast Asia — yet the old themes play out, again and again.  The colossal sums we have spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Colin Powell’s “if you break it, you bought it” argument, have their roots in the Marshall Plan notion that if we spend enough money we can rebuild countries into grateful and dependable allies.  Advocates of our military intervention in places across the globe argue that we need to do so to prevent other countries from following the same course — like dominos.

We have wasted billions in Iraq and Aghanistan, with money going to corrupt politicians, village chiefs, and “warlords,” without much to show for it in terms of our geopolitical security.  And the domino theory doesn’t seem to apply to the Middle East, the focus of our most recent interventionist exercises, where neolithic tribal animosities and sectarian disputes that we can barely begin to comprehend have far more force than the events in the country next door.

The Assad regime in Syria is brutal and murderous.  Why do we think that a military strike to allegedly cripple its chemical weapons capabilities will change that?  And, if the Assad government falls as a result, why do we think its ultimate replacement will be more peace-loving or accepting of western notions of diversity and democracy?  If we don’t have assurances on those points — and we don’t — why should America become involved at all?

Some might call this mindset isolationism.  I think of it as an effort to focus on our country’s vital interests and to husband our blood and treasure until those vital interests truly are at stake.  I just don’t see what is happening in Syria, tragic as it is, as involving our vital interests.

Why Always Us?

Or, perhaps, the question should be:  why always U.S.?

President Obama apparently is weighing some kind of military strike against Syria in response to its government apparent use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.  As described in the New York Times, the use of military force would be limited, designed to cripple the Assad dictatorship’s ability to use chemical weapons but not effecting “regime change.”

It seems like an effort to thread the eye of a needle with an awfully blunt instrument — but the issue I’m raising is more fundamental.  I’m as appalled as any civilized person about the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, but . . . can’t someone else do something about it?  Syria isn’t our neighbor.  We don’t share any kind of common cultural or linguistic heritage with Syria.  Syria doesn’t have any great economic or geopolitical significance so far as I can determine.  As a result, when it comes to Syria, our interests appear to be no greater than those of those of any other country, and much less than some.

So, when the Syrian government commits an atrocity, why do heads swivel in our direction — as they always seem to do?  And, why are American Presidents eager to spend our treasure and risk the lives of our soldiers when that happens?  Is it because they like being viewed as world leaders?  Forgive me, but I would rather have a President whose focus is exclusively on our interests, assessed with a cold and calculating eye.  In this case, what exactly would a Syrian adventure of the kind described by the New York Times accomplish for the United States?  Even if successful, it would still leave the Assad government capable of slaughtering its people — only with conventional weapons, rather than chemical ones.  And, of course, any involvement risks the possibility that some wild-eyed fanatics in the Arab world will swear out a jihad against the Great Satan because it, again, has intervened in the world’s most volatile region.

There is no reason why the United States should be involved in punishing Syria for its gross moral transgressions.  The Arab League, or Turkey, or the United Nations, or some other country that shares a border or a language or some other cultural element with Syria should assume the lead.  Our resources are not infinite, and it’s time we stopped acting like they were.

Forgotten Syria, Powerless UN

People have forgotten about Syria, but not because things have gotten better there.  Instead, Syria has simply been knocked off the front page by the French action in Mali, Lance Armstrong’s confession, and countless other, fresher stories.

Yesterday, evidence emerged of another horrific mass killing in Syria.  More than 70 bodies were found by a river near the town of Aleppo; some had hands tied behind their backs and gun shot wounds to the head.  The UN estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed in a conflict between the Assad government and opposition groups that has lasted for a year.  The opposition blames the government, and the government blames the opposition forces, and in the meantime Syrians keep getting slaughtered.

Predictably, the news of the latest massacre brought another call for international intervention and action by the UN Security Council.  There will be no UN action, of course, because the Security Council is deadlocked, with China and Russia resisting any action that might be taken against the Assad government.  Even the U.S., Great Britain, and France are just pushing for resolutions that threaten sanctions.  UN resolutions aren’t likely to do much good when armed men are kicking in your door and taking members of your family out for execution.

We’re paying no attention to it, but Syria should be teaching us two valuable lessons and reminding us of a third, sad reality of the modern world.  The first lesson is that the UN is a weak institution that will rarely take decisive action; contrast the French action in Mali to the UN’s dithering about Syria, and you get a good idea of the difference between a nation and an “international institution.”  The second lesson is that the cries of the “Arab street” about mistreatment of Arabs are hollow and hypocritical.  Where are the mass protests in front of Syrian embassies throughout the Arab world when each new outrage is unveiled?  We should all remember the lack of any meaningful Arab response to the murder of thousands of Syrians the next time we hear angry Arab denunciations of claimed Israeli misconduct toward the Palestinians or American unfairness.

And the cold, cruel reality is that the world has only so much appetite for horror and outrage before it turns off the TV.  The BBC story linked above refers to the “Syria crisis,” but that’s not quite right.  A true “crisis” involves a crucial point of decision.  That doesn’t exist here, because the world seems to have accepted that the Assad regime will remain in power and continue to kill its opponents.  If there were a policeman in front of the yellow tape surrounding the Syrian crime scene, he would be saying:  “There’s nothing to see here.  Move along.”