Sunday, September 1. 2013
The best piece I've seen recently on Washington's incessant drumbeat for intervening militarily in Syria is Stephen M Walt: We're Going to War Because We Just Can't Stop Ourselves:
Since Walt wrote those words, the UK Parliament voted against joining in the American folly. First time that's happened, so I'm reminded of the 1960s sign, "suppose they gave a war and nobody came?" And today, Obama announced that he'll seek Congressional authority before he'll launch that war, and John Boehner slated the House vote on Sept. 9. So while the chatterers on last night's Washington Week were excitedly expecting a volley of cruise missiles before Obama's trip to Russia next week, retribution is at least ten days away.
Lots of things can happen in those ten days. The UN will get a chance to finish its evaluation of the alleged chemical weapons attack, and debate its own legal recourse. (Any American attack without UN sanction would be illegal under international law, not that the threat of war crimes trials has ever stopped the US in the past.) Obama will have some face time to negotiate with Putin in Russia. Someone might realize that there is a new president in Iran who might be more amenable to diplomatic measures than the previous one. (Not that there is any justification for the popular notion that the Syrian Civil War is a "proxy fight" between Iran and "pro-Western forces" -- you know, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.) And Congress might decide to buck its 20% approval rating and do something that actually aligns popularly with the wishes of the American people. Also expect some large anti-war rallies along the way.
In Congress, opposition to a resolution giving Obama the option to "use force" will be bipartisan. How that breaks depends a lot on how much pressure Obama puts on Democrats to give their president the benefit of their doubts: the more so the more Democrats he gets, and the fewer Republicans. From the Wichita Eagle today, I know that Tim Huelskamp will oppose in any case, but I also see Mike Pompeo very critical of "a warning shot across the bow" -- he wants what he calls a "robust response," but since Obama is unlikely to satisfy his bloodlust, he too may oppose. (In this he's not as bloodthirsty as John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who'll take what they can get and pray the war gets worse and we get sucked in ever deeper -- although I've seen reports of even them holding out for a more resolution that commits the US to toppling Assad.) Also, his patron David Koch has come out against intervention.
And while the Senate seems more likely to consent than advise, can't we at least expect a fillibuster?
Some things I've been reading as I try to catch up (much more pro-hawk than I'd like; cartoons from Truthdig):
The Syrian Civil War is a great human tragedy, and a decent United States government should do everything reasonable to help bring it to a just and peaceful solution. However, a decent US government would not have conspired to overthrow the democratic government of Iran in 1953, nor subsidized and rationalized Israel's aggressive war in 1967 and occupation of Syrian and Palestinian land ever since then, nor subsidized a civil war in Afghanistan since 1979, nor countenanced let alone abetted Israel's interference in Lebanon from 1982-2000 (again in 2006), nor supported Iraq in their 1980s war against Iran, nor repeatedly and almost promiscuously bombed Libya and Sudan and Iraq and Afghanistan (and with drones much more, from Somalia to Pakistan), nor helped Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States suppress democratic movements for decades, nor invaded and fomented a civil war in Iraq from 2003-09, and that list goes on and on -- did I mention Yemen yet? Nor is there much evidence that anything that the US consciously tried to do in the Middle East has actually turned out the way expected. The bottom line here is that the US has no credibility trying to insert itself, militarily or clandestinely, anywhere in the entire region. And the degree of US failure in the region isn't exactly a secret. The regimes we put in place in Iran and Egypt proved to be so corrupt and hated that they led to revolutions. And US acts have generated blowback like kidnappings and bombings including the 1983 Beirut event and the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. We should know better by now. After all, we have laws like "3 strikes and you're out" which seek to prevent serial offenders from ever getting another chance to do ill -- yet the CIA and the DOD goes on and on, from one blunder to another.
So the first reason why the US shouldn't intervene in Syria is that we've proven that we're absolutely incapable of doing so in a way that doesn't make things worse. The second reason is that in order to quit intervening (and making matters worse), we need to break down the institutional support for doing so. They only way to stop making these mistakes in the future is to deny ourselves the ability to make them. (Then you won't have some Madeleine Albright character coming around and taunting you with "what's the point of having this magnificent military if you never use it?")
Beyond this obvious point there is a more profound one, which is that war or the threat of war almost never resolves a conflict without making it much worse, at least in the short run. Lots of people don't recognize this, and that's a big problem, but we can run through hundreds of cases, and it's really hard to find cases where wars couldn't have been profitably avoided had people made the effort to negotiate just solutions ahead of time. A corollary here is that the defense dogma -- the idea that we can avoid war by preparing a strong military defense -- is utter bullshit, as anyone can see by looking at the how often the dominant military power wound up using that power (e.g., the UK in the 18th-19th centuries, and the US since 1945; in between the dominant power was mostly Germany, which doesn't counter my point).
So again, on these grounds, what the US should be doing is cutting back its military power (including the CIA and NSA), not blundering its way into more wars.
So far these are just general statements that would apply anywhere to any such conflict, such as the decisions to invade Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. While those instances were disastrous enough they shouldn't generate much controversy, the models that you hear socalled experts jaw about as pertaining to Syria are Kosovo in 1998 and Libya in 2008 -- air-only campaigns that are commonly remembered as successful, mostly because our memory is rather selective, and is focused rigidly on minimal costs to us as opposed to the suffering of actual people in the countries the US claimed to be helping. Two points here: one is that neither of those cases weaken by one iota the general principles above; the other is that many of the specific circumstances that made Kosovo and Libya relatively manageable are not applicable to Syria. (Also note that Libya turned out not to be as painless as originally thought, as several Americans were killed in blowback against a CIA base in Benghazi.)
Given the above, we shouldn't have to argue specifics about Syria, but some are worth noting. The first is that Syria is approximately the same size and population as Iraq and Afghanistan: two countries that the US was able to quickly invade but never quite pacify. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, it has a stronger, more modernized military that is actively supplied by Russia and Iran. It has a functioning air force and anti-aircraft defenses, intermediate range missiles, and evidently some chemical weapons -- none of which Iraq had in working order in 2003, or Afghanistan had ever. So the bottom line there is that Syria would be more difficult, at least more painful, for the US to invade than Iraq was. That Obama isn't contemplating "boots on the ground" pretty much acknowledges this difficulty.
That in turn brings back the question of the effectiveness of airpower only. That was widely debated a decade ago, when Bush decided to invade Iraq, arguing that the "no flight" zones that the US had enforced over Iraq for more than a decade had no real effect on Saddam Hussein's control within Iraq. For many reasons Syria is more similar to Iraq than it is to Kosovo or Libya, so what article of faith makes people think that "no flight" zones and periodic bombing that didn't work in Iraq would work now? (On the contrary, Syria's superior air defenses make at least some observers think the opposite.) The only thing that makes Syria seem more vulnerable is the ongoing civil war, which has broken Assad's power in several scattered areas of the country. That opens up the possibility that the US could arm and direct rebel armies as proxy "boots on the ground" -- that the US could fashion a combination of sophisticated weaponry and tight air support that would eventually defeat Syria's professional army, air force, and security services.
That was, after all, what basically happened in Libya, but: Syria is a more populous country with a larger, better equipped, and much better trained army; taking out Syria's air defenses would be a major undertaking, whereas Libya's were wiped out in two days; Assad has a much larger internal security organization than Gaddafi had (in large part because he had been challenged much more before the civil war broke out); Assad (or his regime) is also, by any conceivable measure, much more popular within Syria than Gaddafi was in Libya -- moreover, the split in Syria is largely sectarian, which quickly hardened the lines in the civil war, and raised fears of mass killings (especially if Assad loses); meanwhile, the anti-Assad forces are split and scattered, and it seems very likely that even if they defeated Assad they would wind up fighting among themselves (as did the Afghans).
Most of those problems can be overcome if the US is desperate and committed enough to make the investments and bear the pain -- pilots shot down, CIA operatives lost, etc. But neither Obama nor the DOD (see Dempsey's testimony above) really seem up for that level of involvement, so they are vulnerable to the charge that whatever they do will won't be enough to get the job done. But the latter is the real vexing problem. It turns out that the most militant of the anti-Assad forces are affiliated with Al-Qaida, making our worst enemies in the region our best friends in this particular battle (and not for the first time -- recall Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Osama Bin Laden got his first taste for blood working for the US war effort). A good indication of how big a problem this is can be gleaned by the fact that some months ago Obama decided to start arming the Syrian rebels, but now we know that the US hasn't delivered any of those arms, mostly because we haven't found any rebels we trust with those arms.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you can't find any Syrian rebel groups to arm, the strategy that is based on arming the rebels isn't really an option. So that leaves you with the plan that says you're just going to bomb shit until Assad cries uncle. OK, that one worked in Kosovo, but there the Serbs had the option of just retreating into Serbia, where they were unthreatened (an option that Assad, and more importantly his sectarian supporters, lack). But what Obama's proposing isn't even that: it's that, like, the US is going to bomb Syria until we feel like we've punished Assad enough, then leave him be until he pisses us off again, at which point we'll bomb him some more, and maybe, eventually, he'll get tired of it, or we'll get tired of it, or something.
The more you dig into these specifics, the less reason you can come up with why anything the US is likely to do is likely to come anywhere close to working. It's certainly true that a dictator who responds to peaceful demonstrations by shooting people or firing artillery into whole cities has no right to continue ruling. He should be arrested and hauled before the ICC, or dealt with appropriately by a local court. On the other hand, demonstrators who respond to such provocations by starting an insurrection, leading to a civil war resulting in over 100,000 deaths, don't deserve to rule either. Nor do you ever want to set up a situation where people simply because they are affiliated with a sectarian group -- sunnis, alawites, kurds, christians; you can slice and dice Syria dozens of ways -- are put at risk simply because people associate those groups with various power factions. All that has happened in Syria, and, sure, someone needs to sort it out, but it can't be the US, it can't be Israel, it can't be Turkey, it can't be the Arab League, it can't be Russia, it can't be Iran, it can't be Hezbollah; it has to be done in Syria, and sooner or later the factions (if not the individual leaders) need to learn to live together and accommodate one another. Maybe a non-violent group like the UN could facilitate in a useful way, and it would probably help if everyone else get behind them in some way. But what doesn't help at all is for outsiders to try to align with inside groups.
If you'll indulge a fantasy solution, it's that while Obama and Putin are drinking in Moscow next week they'll agree to freeze arms shipments to Syria, press whatever other countries they have any influence with (Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia for the US; Iran for Russia) to do the same; insist on a cease-fire with no jockeying for control; get Syria to bring the UN in to oversee dismantling their chemical arms (which, as with Iraq in the 1990s, are more a liability than an asset); negotiate a broad framework for opening up the existing Syrian government to democratic reforms while at the same time ensuring minority rights (e.g., from the sort of overreach the Muslim Brotherhood tried in Egypt). Even if the latter parts of this fantasy are a tough sell in Damascus, any sort of international arms embargo would start to starve out the war, whereas Obama's current plans can only escalate it.
And by the way, the demonization of Assad (which I admittedly did a bit of above) isn't helpful. While it might be ideal to see everyone on every side responsible for any death brought to justice, these conflicts usually end in broad amnesties and it is better to have lifted the burden of revenge. (Even the US let Robert E. Lee retire from the battlefield.) Again, Iraq offers a good example of what not to do: the demonization of Saddam Hussein gave the regime no reason to compromise or liberalize, and the complete sacking of the Baath state and army led directly to chaos and civil war which still smolders today. One thing that makes today's hawks so dangerous is that they haven't begun to come to grips with their tragic mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two more points need to be made, if only briefly:
The first is that Israel has had an enormous impact on the thinking of America's hawks, and that this has completely distorted their sense of America's interests in the region. Israel's deepest desire is to preserve its unity and ethos as a warrior-settler state, which means it has no desire for conflict resolution. In 1951 Syria was the first Arab state to seek a peace agreement with Israel, and they were rebuffed. Israel initiated many border skirmishes with Syria over the next 16 years, after which they occupied and annexed a substantial strip of Syrian territory, now called the Golan Heights. Since then, Israel has kept Syria as a close enemy, and that status has informed America's own troubled relationship with Syria -- despite occasional attempts by Syria to cozy up to the US, especially when they supported the Gulf War against Iraq. But Syria could never make peace with Israel as long as Israel held onto Syrian territory, and Syria had no choice but to depend on Russia for weapons in a region with many enemies. The only real US interest in the region is for peace, free trade, and free capital flows, and that's the opposite of Israel's warrior-settler interest. Yet because US policy has been so reflexively stupid for so long, Israel can easily manipulate the US into opposing its enemies -- Iran has been the big project since Iraq was defanged in 1991 -- and as such we keep feeding the conflicts that Israel depends on.
If Obama were to make peace with Syria and Iran, he would move a long way toward freeing American foreign policy from the perverse stranglehold of Israel.
The second, and last, point I want to make here is that growing Republican opposition to Middle Eastern entanglements is the logical outcome of their racism and Islamophobia. I wouldn't want to support their thinking in those terms, but at least it gets you to the right policy answer, which is disengagement. The right were the first to see that the Syrian rebels were mostly sunni fundamentalists, and that arming them is equivalent to arming Al-Qaida. (The liberal hawks, on the other hand, reflexively see only fellow liberal hawks in the region.) If Obama's war powers resolution fails in Congress, it will largely be a victim of Republican nativism. That's not the best reason to vote against Obama, but it's the right vote.