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.

Looking “Presidential”?

Last week President Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian base that was implicated in a toxic chemical attack by the Syrian government against Syrian citizens.  This week we’ve got an array of U.S. Navy ships heading into the western Pacific regions, apparently as a show of force against North Korea, which has been engaged in repeated missile tests and is continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program.

2017-04-08t082322z_1_lynxmped3705y_rtroptp_2_usa-china-cfCouple the military maneuvers with a few presidential summits with foreign leaders like the Chinese head of state and the president of Egypt, and you’ve also got a lot of people talking about Donald Trump looking “presidential.”  Of course, Presidents always are said to look “presidential” when they are dealing with foreign policy or ordering military action; that’s because those are areas where the President can act unilaterally, without having to try to convince balky Congresses to take one action or another.  It’s been a time-honored technique of the residents of the Oval Office for decades — if you’ve had a rough time on your domestic agenda, have a foreign leader over for a visit or try to shift the focus to the actions of a “rogue state” or “terrorist threat.”  So, whether through careful planning or happenstance, Donald Trump is following a well-thumbed presidential playbook.

It’s interesting that we frequently associate ordering military action and foreign policy positioning with looking “presidential,” because in doing so we’re really encouraging Presidents to spend their time on those areas rather than focusing on the domestic issues  that never seem to get addressed and actually trying to convince Congress to do something about those nagging problems.  How many Presidents, deep in their heart of hearts, have been tempted to engage in a little sabre-rattling or to lob a few missiles at a terrorist encampment or an air base to shift the focus of national attention and raise their approval ratings a few points?

Donald Trump isn’t the first President to receive the “looking presidential” kudos, and he probably won’t be the last, either.  But the association of military action and photo ops with foreign leaders with “looking presidential” troubles me.  Wouldn’t we rather incentivize our Presidents to focus on fixing what’s gone wrong in this country, and reserve the highest, gushing “looking presidential” praise for when the President does what the Constitution contemplates, and signs domestic legislation that has passed both Houses of Congress into law?

The Power Of A Photograph

We live in a digital age, where streaming video rules the day — but old-fashioned still photography nevertheless has its place.  The picture of poor Omran Daqneesh proves it.

Omran is the five-year-old Syrian boy who was buried in rubble when an airstrike by Russians or the Assad government (no one is quite sure which) caused his house to collapse.  After the being pulled from the wreckage, Omran was taken to an ambulance, where he sat quietly, waiting to be treated, when the now-famous photograph was taken. His older brother, also pulled from the ruins, later died of his injuries.  Omran survived.

omran-large_transzgekzx3m936n5bqk4va8rwtt0gk_6efzt336f62ei5uIt’s a powerful photograph, indeed.  A five-year-old boy sits, dazed and lost, in an orange chair.  He is a small boy, and his feet barely extend out past the seat, much less reach the floor.  His arms and legs are covered in dust, and his face in particular is caked with dark soot.  One side of his head is covered in blood and the eye on that side is swollen partially shut.  His eyes are open, but he appears to be staring into nothingness.  His blackened face and vacant eyes paint a brutal picture of silent desolation.  It’s one of the most compelling pictures of the impact of war on children that’s been taken in years.

Photographs can change the storyline and turn public opinion.  The famous photograph of a young Vietnamese girl, naked, screaming, and running from a napalm attack, helped to turn American public opinion decisively against the Vietnam War.  Perhaps the picture of Omran Daqneesh, which has garnered worldwide attention on social media, will help to focus the world’s attention on the unfolding tragedy in Syria, where for years civilians have been desperately trapped in a civil war that has produced death and destruction and seems no closer to ending now than when it began.

During Omran’s five years of life, he has known nothing but war.  Now his house is destroyed, his brother is dead, and his family has been torn apart by a conflict he can’t begin to understand.  It’s not what childhood should be.

Redefining “Success”

John Kirby, a spokesman for the United States Department of State, has published a “year in review” piece on the Department’s official blog.  He notes that while “the year was not without challenges,” the “United States has helped to change the world for the better” and adds:  “Our diplomats have been busy, and they have met with significant success across a range of issues.”  He then gives his “take” on them using “a great hashtag — #2015in5Words — which was recently trending on Twitter.”

One of the #2015in5Words items Kirby lists is “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria.”

syrian-refugees-opener-6151Huh?  Syria?  The Syria where a bloody civil war between the terrorist forces of ISIS and the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has provoked a huge refugee crisis?  The Syria where significant parts of the control are under the control of a deadly terrorist group and where fighting is going on, even now?  The Syria where every big power is flexing its muscle and where, thanks to the support of Russia and Iran, it looks like the murderous Assad might conceivably stay in power?

How does Kirby explain that the U.S. was involved in “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria”?  He doesn’t, really.  He says only that the U.S. has “stepped up to aid the Syrian people during their time of need” and that “the UN Security Council passed a U.S.-sponsored resolution that puts forward a roadmap that will facilitate a transition within Syria to a credible, inclusive, nonsectarian government that is responsive to the needs of the Syrian people.”  Americans should be proud of their traditional generosity to others, of course, but neither increased aid or the passage of a preliminary United Nations Security Council resolution can reasonably be characterized as “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria” in the face of intense ongoing fighting.

Oh, and another “success” included by Kirby is “Winning Fight Against Violent Extremists.”  It touts the “Summit on Countering Violent Terrorism” hosted by the White House in February 2015 and says “this monumental summit launched an ongoing global CVE effort now underway that reaches throughout the world and across countless nations” that ultimately will lead to the defeat of ISIS.  Seriously?  We’re supposed to count a summit meeting that barely hit the news as a success?  Only a flack could say, in the wake of the events in Paris, San Bernardino, and other locations of horrific terrorist actions in 2015, that we are “winning fight against violent extremists.”

Diplomats are supposed to have credibility, but when you’re searching for “success” and trying to present your case in 5-word hashtags that were recently trending on social media, this is what you get.  Maybe there’s a reason the Department of State’s official blog is called “Dipnote.”

About Accepting Those 65,000 Syrian Refugees . . . .

Details are still sketchy in the aftermath of the horrific Paris terrorist attacks, but it appears that at least one of the killers was part of the wave of Syrian refugees that has come to Europe in recent months.  The French Prime Minister says he believes the attacks were planned from Syria, and intelligence agencies are fearful that ISIS, the organization that is claiming credit for the Paris atrocities, has implanted terrorists among the flood of refugees.

At Saturday night’s Democratic candidate debate, Hillary Clinton restated her view that the United States should accept 65,000 refugees, far more than the 10,000 President Obama originally proposed.  Obama Administration officials have discussed accelerating the process of vetting refugees for admission to the U.S. and defended the idea of accepting Syrian refugees, arguing that the refugees have suffered through the horrors of war and that “we can’t just shut our doors to those people.”  Republicans, on the other hand, contend that the security risks of accepting the refugees is simply too great.

This is one of those issues where the heart and the head tug in different directions.  The heart takes seriously the Statue of Liberty’s pledge to welcome the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and wants to help the downtrodden whose lives have been destroyed by terrorism and war.  The head, on the other hand, recognizes that allowing thousands of refugees to come to America inevitably increases the risk that terrorists might be among their midst, ready to pursue Paris-like atrocities on American soil.

The key point, for me at least, is whether the United States really can perform effective screening of refugees.  In Europe, where hundreds of thousands of refugees have been accepted, the vetting procedures have been slapdash at best.  The Obama Administration and Mrs. Clinton say the United States can perform a more thorough and careful investigation before allowing refugees into the country — but I’m skeptical of that claim.

Background screening presupposes the possession of accurate background information.  When employers check the job history or criminal record of applicants, they use public records and established data sources.  Do we actually have access to similarly reliable information about purported refugees from a war-torn land that has never been a friend to the United States?  Are we going to accept a Syrian passport at face value?  Even if we could determine whether an individual is in fact a Syrian national, how do we confirm that they haven’t been radicalized by ISIS?  All of these seem to be insurmountable problems with any meaningful screening process — and if you are accepting tens of thousands of refugees, only a small fraction of screening failures could produce catastrophic results.

The deadly Paris attacks raise legitimate questions about the security risks presented by accepting Syrian refugees, and if we don’t at least consider those questions in establishing our own policy and procedures we have only ourselves to blame.  It is not xenophobia to require some assurance that we can make meaningful screening decisions about whether a particular person who claims refugee status is, or is not, an ISIS terrorist-in-waiting.  Until such assurance can be provided, the better policy may be to honor our humanitarian impulses by working to establish safe havens for refugees within Syria itself.

Banking On The Doomsday Seed Vault

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a pretty apocalyptic concept in a pretty apocalyptic place:  a lonely repository of almost a million stored seeds of different plant life from around the world, preserved in a building embedded into the Arctic frost on a remote island at the northern tip of the globe.

The Vault itself looks apocalyptic.  It’s a sharp-edged, vertical rectangle jammed 500 feet into the mountainside on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, like the end of a knife handle plunged into a frozen side of beef.  It looks exactly like a set from a big-budget Hollywood end-of-the-world disaster movie, in which a rugged and diverse band of far-sighted, parka-wearing scientists must go to the ends of the Earth in a race against time to save the world while evildoers or religious fanatics try to thwart them.

Located just 800 miles from the North Pole, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is designed to preserve global botanical diversity against the threat of absolute catastrophe — be it nuclear holocaust, meteor strikes, crippling volcanic eruptions, or mass disease that wipes out the world’s plant life.  The Vault commenced operations in 2008, and it contains more than 850,000 seed samples, from nations all over the world, that could be used to restart plant life after the post-disaster dust has settled.

And now the first withdrawal from the Seed Vault is going to be made — thanks to the Syrian civil war.  The Seed Vault contains samples of hardy strains of wheat, barley and grasses that can grow in desert areas, and those seeds have been requested to replace seeds in another seed bank, in Syria, that has been damaged by the fighting.  There are a number of seed banks located around the world, but the Svalbard facility — thanks to its remote location and frozen climate — is considered the ultimate backstop.

It’s sad to think that, only a few years after the doomsday vault was opened to store seeds for eternity, a mini-apocalypse has required it to be used.  And you also wonder: at what point do the Seed Vault’s operators stop allowing seeds to be removed?  Crippling and destructive civil wars in places like Syria are terrible and devastating, but they are also — unfortunately — commonplace in our war-torn world.  If your purpose is to safeguard the global ecology and preserve a glimmer of hope for the world in the event of the unthinkable, a miserly withdrawal policy would seem to be in order.

The President’s Speech About ISIS

Tonight President Obama will give a nationally televised address about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the group of murderous terrorists who have seized territory in those countries and intend to establish their own nation.  It’s an important speech for the President, and for our country.

It’s important for the President because he desperately needs to reestablish his credibility in the area of foreign affairs.  He has been dogged by ill-advised comments, like the one describing ISIS as a kind of “junior varsity” squad, that paint him as possessing a curious mixture of overconfidence, naivete, and ignorance about history and human motivation.

The President seems to believe that an inevitable historical arc will move us toward a world of eternal peace, diversity, and right-thinking people who inevitably will adopt every democratic liberal precept — without realizing that there are fanatics, like those who make up ISIS and Boko Haram, that are dead set on establishing an historical arc that bends in precisely the opposite direction.  In the past, President Obama has been unwilling to admit that he’s made mistakes, but if the brutality of ISIS at least causes him to shed his rose-colored glasses about the dangerous world outside our borders that’s a step in the right direction.

As for the country, it’s important that we recognize that ISIS is a different, and immensely significant, threat.  Unlike itinerant terrorist groups like al Qaeda that move from place to place depending on local conditions and shifting political winds, ISIS intends to establish a nation.  It has captured funds and an arsenal of weapons from Iraq and seeks to control oil wells and oil refineries that would provide long-term, ongoing funding for its terrorist aims.

There is an additional dangerous element to ISIS.  Any group that would videotape and publicize its beheading of innocent journalists obviously doesn’t subscribe to accepted social norms, and ISIS’ treatment of civilians and captured soldiers in Syria and Iraq further speak to its utter brutality and depravity.  ISIS actively seeks to recruit like-minded jihadists from countries across the globe, including the United States and Great Britain, and it’s not shy about describing its intention to take the jihadist fight to our homeland.  We should take them at their word.  No one should doubt that ISIS poses a grave threat to America, and if we don’t act to punish and defeat them the threat will only grow more severe.

According to the Washington Post, tonight the President will announce a plan to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, and Secretary of State John Kerry is in the Middle East building support for broader action against ISIS.  This seems like a mirror image of the situation before the first Gulf War, when the actions of a rogue state threatened to destabilize an entire region and spread chaos on a much wider scale.  It’s time for the United States to form and lead a coalition, again, to defeat the latest rabid threat to the world to spring from ever-fertile grounds of the Middle East.

If President Obama is willing to accept that responsibility, I support him.  I don’t think we have any choice.

To Those Who Behead Innocent People

U.S. officials have confirmed that U.S. journalist James Foley was beheaded by the Islamic State In Syria (“ISIS”).  ISIS posted a video of the beheading on-line, but I’m not going to link to it because it would just serve their evil, depraved purposes.

I often think that there is a complete lack of understanding between the terrorist groups in the Middle East and the citizens of the United States.  The murderous thugs who make up ISIS might well have the misapprehension that beheading people like James Foley is going to make us cower.  They’re wrong, of course, so I want to correct the record with this short message: 

“Dear ISIS:

Just so you understand, your willingness to behead innocent people doesn’t scare us, it just infuriates us.  Because killing helpless people in cold blood is so abhorrent, it also tells us that your organization is so utterly lacking in basic values and human decency that you don’t deserve to be part of the community of civilized people.  We regret your act of callous murder, we cannot understand how anyone could rationalize such brutality, and we grieve for the Foley family in this time of terrible and completely unnecessary loss — but we also understand that your act exposes the true nature of ISIS.  We now know that your group is comprised of soulless butchers, and that knowledge will help to guide our decision-making in the future.

Make no mistake:  you are evil, and you will be punished for what you have done.  We will get you.  You deserve it, and it will happen.  And when it does, and your organization is scourged from the face of the planet, you can realize that it is your own fanatical bloodthirstiness that led to your downfall.”

Iraq Goes To Hell

The news from the Middle East is pretty much all bad these days.  The latest troubling developments have happened in Iraq, where an Islamic militant group has made enormous gains in recent days and the Iraqi government seems to be teetering on the brink.

The militant group of extremist followers of the Sunni branch of the Islamic faith is called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS for short, because the Levant is another name for Syria).  They seek a fundamentalist Islamic state that spans parts of Iraq and Syria.  In Syria, they are fighting to topple the Assad government; in Iraq, they’ve captured the second-largest city, Mosul, another key city, Tikrit, and are threatening to move on Baghdad.  Accounts indicate that the Iraqi Army performed poorly in the fighting.

The Obama Administration seems to have been caught off guard by the rapid deterioration of the security situation in Iraq.  President Obama said yesterday that the United States would help the Iraqi government and had “not ruled anything out,” but also said that the situation should serve as a wake-up call for the current Iraqi government, which is accused of excluding Sunnis in favor of Shiites.  The White House later clarified that the President was speaking of air support for the Iraqi government and that the United States was not considering sending ground troops in to shore up Iraqi forces.

There’s going to be a lot of second-guessing about how the United States has dealt with Iraq in recent years.  Some Republicans have already resurrected criticism of how the Obama Administration handled negotiations for a status of forces agreement several years ago and did not keep any American troops in Iraq. It is hard not to be sick at the thought that the hard-won gains and relative peace achieved through the deaths of thousands of American soldiers who fought to topple the Sadaam Hussein government and then beat back the insurgency might be lost.  No one wants American deaths to be in vain.  Even worse, there are reports that the head of ISIS was in American custody in Iraq for a number of years but was released in 2009, even though he was believed to have been involved in torture and executions.

At this point, however, the issue is how to deal with the situation that currently exists.  President Obama has touted Iraq as a foreign policy success precisely because it has been a secular democracy.  If ISIS is successful in establishing a radical Sunni state that controls some of the most oil-rich territory in the world, and then engages in clashes with Shiite majority governments in the region, it could destabilize the entire Middle East and establish another haven for terrorists.  That prospect is alarming, and we need to figure out a way to prevent it from happening.

The Perils Of Foreign Policy Hubris

Things aren’t going real well on the foreign policy front for the U.S. of A. these days.

Among other areas of concern, mass killings are continuing in Syria. Iran is moving closer to nuclear capability. North Korea is rattling its sabers. And Russia appears poised to annex the Crimea, and has accused the United States — of all things — of conducting foreign policy under the “rule of the gun.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

No American, regardless of their political affiliation, should be happy with this state of affairs in this dangerous world. I’m not sure, either, how much influence American foreign policy has had on any of these developments. I’m not saying that the U.S. is powerless, but I also believe that we cannot fully control everything that happens in the world.

That’s why I’d encourage every American administration, regardless of party, to avoid displaying tremendous hubris about foreign policy. When President Obama took office, he famously promised to practice “smart” foreign policy and had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly present a “reset” button for U.S. relations with Russia to the Russian Minister — an odd attempt to marry foreign policy with a campaign-style photo opportunity. Odd, isn’t it, that the new American government would so publicly attempt to distance itself from the preceding administration’s policy? It shows how far we’ve come from the approach that prevailed for most of the 20th century, when Republicans and Democrats alike contended that partisanship ended at our borders and pursued uniform policies, like “containment,” that were followed for decades by administrations of both parties.

No doubt the Obama Administration, from the President on down, legitimately believed that it would be able to produce better relations with Russia — but obviously that didn’t happen. Their supreme confidence in their own ability to control world affairs was sorely misplaced. Now, with Russia moving aggressively to annex territory and intimidate its neighbors, the Obama Administration and its grand promises and “reset” button photo ops look foolish. The embarrassing contrast of the empty “reset” button with the reality of Russian military and geopolitical maneuvering makes the current situation all the more injurious to American credibility in world affairs.

Hubris is never an attractive quality. We’re now seeing that, in foreign affairs, it can have disastrous consequences. Let’s hope that the next presidential administration recognizes that fact.

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.

A Shirking President, And An Army For Rent

I mentioned in my post this morning that the Obama Administration seems to be making up its Syria policy as it goes along.  Two things happened today that reinforce that conclusion for me.

First, President Obama said that he didn’t set a “red line” — rather, “[t]he world set a red line.”  And, to further display his apparent unwillingness to shoulder responsibility, the President said:  “My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line.”  I find myself spluttering at the incoherent arrogance of such remarks, and groaning at the President’s reflexive shirking tendencies.  So it’s the country that got us into this predicament, eh?  Why can’t President Obama act like a leader at a time like this, rather than someone who is figuring out what talking points will best position him to avoid any blowback for a blunder?

And then there is Secretary of State John Kerry, whose testimony yesterday was alarming because he refused to rule out the possibility that American troops might be sent into an angry, anti-American country that is sinking into chaos.  Today his reassuring comment was that the oil-rich Arab states have offered to pay for the entire cost of toppling the evil Assad regime.  Secretary Kerry depicts this offer as showing how “dedicated” to the cause the Arab states are.

Huh?  A more apt conclusion is that the Arab states have plenty of cash, and are perfectly happy to pay the American mercenaries to come once more into the Middle East and risk their lives to take out a tyrant.  Now we know how the Hessians must have felt during the Revolutionary War.

I’m not hearing anything that is changing my mind on this:  as bad as a use of chemical weapons is, our vital interests aren’t at issue.  The Arab countries, on the other hand, do have something at stake in what is going on in their own back yards.  Instead of pulling out their wallets, why don’t they send in their own troops and risk their own soldiers’ lives to do the dirty work for once?

Amateur Hour

I can’t help but reach the conclusion that the Syrian situation has been badly handled by the White House and the State Department.

From the President’s early comments that purported to draw a “red line” if the Syrian government used chemical weapons, to the announcements that the U.S. would be involved in an imminent strike after claiming to have incontrovertible evidence of Syria’s use of gas against its own people, to Great Britain’s embarrassing refusal to become involved in any action, and finally to President Obama’s abrupt decision to seek Congressional approval for some kind of action against Syria, the Obama Administration seems to be making it up as it goes along. The President now needs to resort to what the New York Times describes as “the most extraordinary lobbying campaign of Mr. Obama’s presidency” to try to convince lawmakers to support the Administration’s plans and avoid a humiliating loss in Congress that would further undermine the President’s credibility abroad.  In the meantime, even the President’s supporters think his performance has been “embarrassing” and the Syrians feel like the President’s decision to reverse course is a victory of sorts.

This blundering means that the problem goes beyond Syria and its use of chemical weapons to raise much broader issues.  President Obama often seems to think that his rhetorical powers are so extraordinary that if he just gives a speech, everything will change — but that’s not how things work in the world.  He should never have drawn the “red line” without knowing that he would be supported, in Congress and in the world at large, in taking action if Syria crossed it.  Obviously, he didn’t do so.  Now, his credibility, and the credibility of the United States as a whole, is at stake.

Thanks to those mistakes, we’ll never have the ability as a country to have a free discussion about whether to intervene in Syria or, as Secretary of State John Kerry puts it, engage in “armchair isolationism,” because the congressional debate will be colored by comments, like those of Senator John McCain, that the failure to back the President’s hasty words with action could be “catastrophic.”  Such comments recognize that the Syrian chemical weapons issue, tragic as it is for the Syrian people, is a small blip on America’s geopolitical screen.  The much bigger and more important issues are what might happen if China or Russia — or Iran or North Korea — feel that the President’s words mean nothing.  Once he loses credibility with our adversaries it will never be fully regained.

I happen to think we shouldn’t intervene in Syria, and I don’t care whether a blowhard like John Kerry calls me an “armchair isolationist” or not.  As a country, America needs to address this issue and decide what our role in the world will be and make some hard choices about our vital interests in view of our finite economic resources.  Now we may be cornered and forced into taking ill-advised, poorly defined action in a country where our national interests really aren’t implicated because the President didn’t think before he talked.  Indeed, Kerry’s remarks yesterday suggest that the Obama Administration wants to leave open the option of sending our ground troops into Syria — which seems like an extraordinarily bad idea in just about every way.

These are an amateur’s unfortunate mistakes, but mistakes that could have real, painful consequences for our country nevertheless.

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.