Monday, August 26, 2013

The Guns of August: Ninety-Nine Years On

It’s been a very busy year so I have not had the chance to write as I would like this year, but the presumably impending US military action against Syria merits more consideration and thought than is being evinced, so let me add my two cents while I still can. 

Last week, somewhere between 300 and 1000 innocent civilians were massacred by President Bashar Assad’s regime by the use of chemical weapons (by all reliable accounts).  This is an appalling and heinous atrocity.  That has triggered the Obama administration’s current march to attacking Syria. Is that wise? At the current moment, I must say no. 

The administration’s rationale goes something like this – use of chemical weapons is taboo, unforgivable, and must be punished, lest unanswered use enable future acts of genocide.  None of this is a strategic objective.  Rather, it is a declaration of war on chemical weapons.  If America is to go to war, it should not, and cannot wage war on a tactic.  The administration makes no claim of desire to oust the Assad regime, or even tilt the ongoing civil war to the rebels’ favor.  It plans to slap Assad’s military as punishment for use of chemical weapons, presumably to send a message about rules of war and to uphold President Obama’s use of the phrase “red line”.

This is a bizarre and indeed perverse illogic. If 1,000 innocent Syrians killed by chemical weapons merit American involvement, why not 99,000 Syrians massacred over the last 2.5 years?  Whether you are killed by nerve gas or a bullet or a bomb, you are equally dead.  Does the means of murder of a little boy or girl really matter to their family?   Motives, outcomes, the ends of violence may count for something, but surely not the means.  If Assad kills another 99,000 Syrians without using chemical weapons, will that be ok by us?  

Perhaps it would, at least to the administration. After all, on what basis has the foreign policy of the last 4.5 years been grounded – we have thrown cooperative leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya under the bus, while giving tacit approval to far worse atrocities by enemy governments in Syria and Iran (tragic mistakes which must be acknowledged if we have any hope of correcting things).  Our turning a blind eye to the brutal repression of the Green Revolution protesters in Iran in 2009 and to the Syrian protesters in 2011 have led in a direct line to current circumstance.  If George W. Bush had presided over that record, I wonder what epithets on his and his party’s intelligence would have been crafted by my Democrat friends, but I digress.

There are two logical strategies here – stay out of it, or fight to win (also known as the Powell doctrine).  
1. The isolationist argument for stay out of it goes like this: The Syrian civil war has evolved into a fight between Assad+Hezbollah+Iran’s Revolutionary Guards vs. Al Qaeda. Our enemies are fighting each other, and we really can’t afford another war.  Why should American soldiers die for someone else’s revolution anyway? Further, let the Middle East be someone else’s problem, e.g., China, which is more dependent on Persian Gulf oil than we are now. 
2. The interventionist position goes something like this: Assad, Hezbollah, the Revolutionary Guards and al Qaeda are all conveniently in one place.  They are all enemies of the US and her allies. Neutering them all and installing a decent government will weaken Iran & Russia, kill a lot of baddies, and stabilize the neighborhood (e.g., remove threats to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel).  Sitting out the Spanish Civil War in the ‘30s ultimately did the West no good.  Further, re-establishing US credibility and primacy in the Middle East will keep it from becoming a sphere of influence for Russia, Iran, and China, for an anti-American convergence of Russia, China, and Middle Eastern nations would threaten our allies in Asia and Europe, and ultimately us.

Both of these positions have the virtues of truth, consistency, and strategy; both give some respect to realpolitik, history, traditions, and ideals.  The first is a risk-averse acceptance of a stalemate and reduced US influence and involvement, the latter is a risky (and costly in blood and treasure) attempt to build a better future for Syria, the region, and us. The administration’s approach (advertised as a cruise missile and drone strike on Assad’s air force) has been billed as calibrated as a middle of the road approach, enough to “send a message” without actually risking troops or political capital. In Eliot Cohen’s words, it is seductive as it appears to offer gratification without commitment. While the Russians play chess and we used to play poker, the administration seems to be playing checkers,   will very likely backfire and drag us into a vortex of inescapable escalation. 

What consideration, if any, is being given enemy retaliation?  What if Hezbollah launches anti-ship missiles at the US Navy?  What if suicide bombers attack US ships in port in the Mediterranean or Persian Gulf?  What if Hezbollah launces rockets at Israel? What if Hezbollah or Iran launch a wave of terrorism against US targets around the world?  What if Syria launches SCUD missiles at Israel, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia?  What if Iran makes a break-out attempt at a nuclear weapon in an effort to give Syria a nuclear umbrella under which to attack its neighbors? What if Russian naval personnel or assets in Tartus, Syria get accidentally bombed?

The reader may wonder, well, all of these could happen with the interventionist strategy too (or for that matter, even with the isolationist approach).  True enough, but the difference is that either the isolationist or interventionist approach has a point backed up by US determination to achieve a concrete goal, as well as an argument that could justifiably earn the support of the American people, and their representatives, the US Congress.

Which brings me to the other disturbing dimension of current events.  The President is making no moves for a declaration of war or even authorization to use force from Congress.  The retort is that Mr. Obama already bombed Libya without Congressional approval; yes, but that was improper (and violated the War Powers Act). The Constitution gives the President the position of Commander-in-Chief, and the Congress the authority to declare war. Both political branches should be involved in a decision to attack another country, as there are many ramifications that should be carefully considered and thoroughly debated. In the case of Libya, at least there was the excuse that there was an imminent threat to the citizenry of Benghazi. In this case, the chemical weapons have already been used (and in fact, have been used before several months ago on multiple occasions).  If the President attacks Syria without Congressional debate or approval, it will be but the latest in a series of frankly lawless actions – the Obamacare employer mandate waiver, NSA interception of content of domestic emails and communications, the DREAM Act by fiat, politically selective IRS targeting, gun-running to Mexican drug cartels.  All of these paint a picture of an administrative mindset without coherence or strategic vision, a ship of state rudderless and adrift, steered only by intellectual sloth that pays attention only to the most recent event on the news.  England is said to have acquired the British Empire in a fit of absent-mindedness, enabling a Pax Britannica that was beneficent to the global commons for decades until multiple miscalculations and blunders destroyed it in World Wars that originated in an August 99 years ago.  The US diligently and consciously built the institutions of Pax Americana, also of great benefit on the whole; sadly, it is now being eroded and frittered away on the narcissistic altar of naivete and myopia, and I fear what is to come.


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