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
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
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.