Falling into Quicksand
Next week’s vote on Syria is shaping to be a pivotal
decision point for Congress, the President, and America. I applaud President Obama for submitting this
action to a Congressional vote. In the
spirit of contributing to the discussion, I would like to lay out my rationale
for why I think the Congress should vote no on what is being debated.
This may seem surprising in view of my long-standing
position as a liberal hawk and as one who supported the Iraq war. First off, let us stipulate that Assad is an
extremely awful tyrant and that his use of chemical weapons is an affront to
humanity. Leaving aside the historical fact that Saddam Hussein was an
extremely awful tyrant and that he used chemical weapons in Halabja in 1988, the real issue at hand is whether the American
military response that is on offer will make things better or not? As far as I can tell, the military action
being contemplated does not have a plan for:
- “the day after and
the day after that”
- Removing Assad and installing a decent government
- Securing or destroying chemical weapons in Syria
- Setting up safe, no-fly, no-drive zones for civilians
- Destroying Assad’s air-force, ports, and artillery
- Defanging foreign (al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Iranian) forces
in Syria and supporting the “good guys” (e.g., the Free Syrian Army)
Hence, I must come to the conclusion that what we are
planning to lo is little more than narcissistic message-sending about red lines.
Not only will this not make things better, it has a very good chance of making
things much worse with all the risks noted in the previous post.
I supported the Iraq war, not because of the inaccurate de
jure rationale of getting rid of Saddam’s WMDs, but because I thought it would
be in America’s strategic interest as well as improve the lot of Iraq’s people.
Reasonable people can disagree on
whether the Iraq war served our strategic interest and helped Iraqis in the
long run, and even if so, whether it was worth the cost. To digress for a
moment, I maintain that the post-war planning for Iraq was handled abysmally
and appallingly and that the emphasis on WMDs was disingenuous at best, yet
nonetheless America’s strategic interests and Iraqis’ long-term welfare were
served to some degree because:
- For decades after the Cold War, we had 2 major allies in the
Persian Gulf, and after 9/11, as it was becoming clear we had to vacate Saudi
Arabia, it was a real possibility that we had no allies in the Gulf. The War
allowed us to leave Saudi Arabia and still maintain primacy in the Gulf until
our North American oil revolution took off
- Direct consequences of America’s intimidation of others in
the Middle East due to the crushing and apprehension of Saddam included the
switching of Qaddafi to being cooperative with the West, which led to the
roll-up of Pakistan’s A.Q.Khan “Nukes R Us” network, as well as Syria’s
withdrawal from Lebanon.
- Grinding-down of al Qaeda forces which came to Iraq after
the war to fight America in a flat desert
- While tens of thousands of Iraqis died due to American
mistakes and incompetence post-war, Saddam was killing similar or greater
numbers of Iraqis in his rule, a reign of terror which was ended in favor of a
decent chance for Iraqis to make their government worthy to serve its people.
Certainly the Kurds and Shiites (who together are a sizable majority of Iraqis)
are a lot better off.
Was all that worth the cost in blood and treasure? Most Americans would say no, but I would say
the answer cannot be known for another decade or two.
In stark contrast, President Obama’s mooted Syria
intervention seems disconnected from improving our strategic position or
Syrians’ welfare. The goal seems to be
to punish the use of chemical weapons. But this begs the question, “and then
what”? From the standpoint of an
independent observer, we could just as well make an argument for punishing the
use of drones or cruise missiles as dishonorable weapons of war that seek to
escape risk for oneself. Secretary Kerry
claims he is not asking to take America to war; President Obama claims that he
did not set a red line. They are every
bit as disingenuous, if not even more so, than the Bush administration’s
pursuit of the Iraq war based on WMDs.
The Middle East has been a mess for decades, if not
centuries. The present conflict in Syria has its roots in the Sykes-Picot
agreement after World War 1, where Britain and Syria mindlessly drew lines on a
map, and indeed back to the assassination of Muhammad’s grandson in the 7th
century. If we are to involve ourselves,
we should have some idea of what we want an outcome to look like – partition of
Syria into smaller ethnic enclaves like what happened in Yugoslavia, occupation
by Turkey and allied Arab states, installation of a government that is somewhat
decent yet strong enough to manage a transition. No such objective has been laid out or as far
as I can tell even conceived by the administration. This failure of
post-intervention planning is even more abysmal than that of the Bush administration’s
happy-go-lucky attitude after the Iraq war in 2003. Our economy and military are in far worse
shape than 10 years ago as well. Let us
not step into quicksand for the sake of saving face.