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Published on: May 29, 2013
Why the United States Intervenes Abroad, and Why It Doesn’t

As I write a battle is raging in Qusayr, Syria. It has been going on now for several days at various levels of intensity, having started in earnest on May 19. As of yesterday midday one way to measure that intensity is by the number of rocket attacks on rebel areas: approximately 55 per minute, […]

As I write a battle is raging in Qusayr, Syria. It has been going on now for several days at various levels of intensity, having started in earnest on May 19. As of yesterday midday one way to measure that intensity is by the number of rocket attacks on rebel areas: approximately 55 per minute, every minute. Government reports say the battle is over and that the next step in the war is to cleanse the much larger city of Homs, 22 kilometers away, of “terrorists.” That claim is not entirely believable, yet.

These rockets are of two sorts: air-to-ground missiles fired by Syrian air force platforms (planes and helicopters) and surface-to-surface missiles fired by Hizballah fighters in alliance with the Syrian (and Iranian) regime. According to one rebel dispatch I saw, the death toll from the previous 24 hours was 184 (mostly unarmed civilians) killed, and about 2,000 wounded. These numbers are of course “soft”, but they are not entirely mythical. According to rebel communiqués, too, there is little to no fuel or food left in the town of 25,000, and the Syrian government has deliberately attacked and destroyed the town’s only hospital. The city is besieged, too; those attempting to leave, mainly through the eastern quadrants of the area, have been fired upon by Hizballah troops. Many have been killed. All of this is eminently believable.

Most of the 25,000 people in Qusayr (down from a 2004 census population figure of just over 29,000) are Sunni Muslims, although there is a significant Christian minority. At least 8,000 Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox but also some Greek Catholics and some Armenians, have fled the town since April, when Sunni rebels attacked Christian churches and property and killed a number of Christians. Most of them, it seems, have fled across the border into Lebanon.

According to some battlefield reports, hard to confirm, Syrian and Hizballah forces ran a few days ago into stiff opposition in the form of small units of Chechen snipers and shock troops fighting with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This is almost poetic, in a way, since the Syrian strategy with regard to Qusayr is vividly reminiscent of the Russian strategy in Grozny some years ago. Basically, the idea is to surround the town/city, cut off all means of civilian ingress and egress, kill large numbers of civilians by remote means, and wait to storm the city after weakness and panic have made resistance futile. Are Russian advisers helping the Syrian government to implement such a strategy in Qusayr, which is using Russian weapons almost exclusively (and which Russian technicians are helping to maintain, since the Syrians cannot)? The possibility cannot be ruled out.

If Qusayr wants to surrender, will it be allowed to surrender?  If the Alawi government has in mind creating a rump state that runs from the southern outskirts of Damascus up to Homs—which Qusayr guards—and from there over to Tartus, Baniyas and up into Latakia Province, can it allow more than 20,000 Sunni Muslims to remain living in such a strategic location as Qusayr? If not, will it kill as many as possible, or only kill as many as necessary to force this population to flee eastward? Will the regime use chemical weapons to do this? So far the regime has used those weapons in but modest ways, clearly in part in order to test the Western and especially the American reaction. Seeing that reaction, which was about as embarrassing and supine as possible, will the Syrian regime now feel free to unleash Sarin, V-X and the rest of its arsenal with impunity? We’ll see. It is, unfortunately, not a far-fetched possibility.

And the so-called international community, carrying its vaunted Responsibility to Protect on its sleeve, does nothing. Actually, as I have argued before, it has done worse than nothing: It has privileged diplomacy in a situation where it had no chance of success—first the Annan mission and now a prospective Russo-American Syria conference—essentially allowing the regime time to murder its way back from a military abyss. If there is a conference, after the fall of Qusayr and Homs, the regime will arrive to the table with a vastly stronger hand thanks to “diplomacy.”

Well, alas and alack, what can we do? As is well understood, having waiting far too long to do anything serious, our options in Syria and surrounds have gone way down even as the stakes have gone way up. If there were such a thing as a Neville Chamberlain Award, lauding the nitwits who still believe that the literal use or threat to use force should always be a last resort, I can think of several officials in Washington and certain European capitals who would deserve to win it.

But it’s true in late May 2013: Intervening in Syria now would be fraught with dangers, and doing it successfully (defined as preserving or recreating a functioning unitary Syrian state that is no longer waging a civil war within) would mean, among other things, launching a “Phase IV” post-combat stabilization and reconstruction effort that would cost billions and need to last for many years. No one is volunteering just now to do the job, and everyone knows that without American leadership no one will.

Short of doing the job successfully, as defined above, there are of course other options. If we wanted to deny the regime the chance to capitalize politically on its momentum with the capture of Qusayr and the likely subjugation of Homs, we could rebalance the battlefield situation from the air by having a C-130 drop one or two MOABs (GBU-43/B) on the government/palace compound area in Damascus. I am referring to a large thermobaric non-nuclear bomb, the one that replaced the fabled Daisy Cutter. One of these can pretty much level a 9-square block area. Two dropped in sequence on the same 9-square block area could pretty much decapitate the Alawi regime—and bounce a lot of freshly made rubble in the process. Doing something like that would not end the civil war; it might protract it, and it might deepen the likelihood of a partitioned state. But it would at least prevent the bad guys from winning in the near future.

Let’s face it, however: The Obama Administration is not going to do this. It’s not going to do anything, beyond its cherished diplomacy, that is. It’s not even likely to make a serious effort to cordon off the toxic effects of the Syrian civil war by helping Jordan and Turkey deal with their refugee challenges. (It has no ability to ameliorate the spillover effects in Lebanon or Iraq, especially so in the latter case because the Administration screwed up the SOFA—Status of Forces Agreement—negotiations on our way out of that benighted country.)

Why? Why does the United States intervene abroad sometimes, and sometimes not?  What really decides these things?

The standard answer is that it all has to do with assessing the threat to American interests, and, in some cases, depending on the personality and beliefs of the President and his senior advisers, American principles. But interests and cold-blooded assessments of costs and prospect of success are usually asserted to take pride of place. In Syria we have an interest: harming the geopolitical power of Iran. And we have a principle: preventing the mass murder of innocents. That means we will eventually intervene, right?

No, not right, because this definition of the calculus of intervention is flawed. Sure, an unemotional assessment of interests and prospects does sometimes take place, somewhere in the government. But if we look back at American military interventions abroad, we see that the likelihood of intervention is actually a function of a much different tripartite assessment, and it is an assessment that cannot fairly be called a calculation. I mean by assessment here a kind of combinate intuition made up of three rather slippery, elastic parts: affinity, aesthetics and cycle-sensitivity.

Americans, and that includes American leaders, feel more affinity with some foreign peoples than with others.  We tend to feel an affinity with those most like us, or believed to be most like us.  That means, to oversimplify only a bit, light-skinned, culturally Western Christians. Affinity is only one factor of three, however, and by itself is not determinative. Rwanda? Not much affinity, and we did not intervene. Somalia? Not much affinity there either, but we did intervene—at least a little. Syria? Arabs? Not a lot of affinity: not Western and, mostly, not Christian. Indeed, most Syrians are Muslims and, despite vast exaggerations of Islamophobia, it’s still true that most Americans don’t feel a whole lot of affinity these days with religious Muslims—especially religious Muslims who eat the hearts of their enemies for the cameras.

By aesthetics I mean how the blood and gore of civil wars and other violent insurrections abroad make us feel.  Many would choose the category “moral” to say what I mean by aesthetic, but I think that’s inaccurate. Most Americans more readily make aesthetic judgments than moral ones about complex foreign dramas in which it’s often hard to tell good guys from bad guys—or if there are any good guys at all. They are far more likely to feel icky than take umbrage, as in, essentially: “God that’s disgusting, what I see on my TV screen; I don’t want to see that—so either change the channel to ‘Dancing with the Stars’ or, you guys in Washington, do something to make it stop, ‘cause it’s harshing my buzz, man.”

Obviously, if there are few or no pictures of blood and gore, the aesthetic goad to intervention is weak to non-existent.  We saw video and still photography of the Sarajevo market bombing within hours; there are very few journalists and photographers in Qusayr. The Syrian regime made a point of killing journalists deemed to be sympathetic to the rebels, or merely objective. Syria is a very dangerous place for foreign cameramen, far more dangerous today than the Balkans ever were. So since we see very few pictures, and no near real time photos or video, there is no story on our electronic media. That’s the production rule—no real- or near-time visuals, no story. So we’re real low on the aesthetics scale for an intervention into Syria.

By cycle-sensitivity I mean where we are in the four-part cycle of shock-reaction-overreaction-retrenchment that has defined U.S. foreign policy for at least a century or so. If we still remember the last time we intervened and lived to regret it, the less likely we’ll go off tilting at new windmills. As to Syria, we have a trifecta of anti-interventionary inoculations against an active policy. First there is Libya. As Walter Russell Mead noted the other day, the President probably regrets the Libya intervention his R2P-type advisers talked him into, what with all the unanticipated demons it has let loose. He’s therefore even more gun-shy than he would otherwise be about Syria. Second, there is Iraq and Afghanistan, two recent wars that did not go so well. And third, there is, still, Vietnam—which registers loudly in this Administration through both the present Secretaries of State and Defense, not to speak of the President’s own national security education sitting at the feet of veteran Vietnam antiwar “heroes.”

So why is the United States not intervening in Syria? Because our level of affinity with the victims is low, our aesthetic sense is not much ruffled, and our cycle-sensitivity is very high. We actually do have interests and principles both at stake in Syria, but they’re no match for the real reasons why America does or does not intervene abroad.

Could this calculus change? Well, if the Syrian regime and its Hizballah henchmen try to and halfway succeed in murdering more than 20,000 people in Qusayr in a concentrated period of time, and if the cameras catch them doing it and the footage ends up on the nightly news, yes, two of the three factors will shift. What would the President do then? I don’t know because I suspect strongly that he doesn’t know. Fuel up a C-130, and roll out a MOAB or two?  It’s anyone’s guess.

show comments
  • John Burke

    I must admit I’m having a tough time resisting the the impulse to say, let’s just let these mopes keep killing each other. But I do recognize that we have an interest both in undermining Iranian influence and in averting (even more) region-wide conflict and chaos.

    Here’s the thing, though. We seem to be stuck reacting to crises around the world without anything resembling a “grand strategy” that might guide us to set priorities, allocate resources, and decide when to fight, threaten, negotiate, or stand aside. OK, maybe I’m spoiled by the experience for most of my adult life of having a clear strategy of containing the Soviet Union. Not that mistakes were not still possible, but clarity made it possible to embrace such policies as the “opening” to China or support for the Afghan anti-Soviet rebellion, not to mention backing a wide variety of allies, not all equally virtuous.

    Some on the right seem to be working off an unspoken “grand strategy” that posits a war if civilization being waged against an aggressive Islam. Some on the left seem committed to a strategy of moving deliberately toward a post-sovereign world, relying on further development of international arrangements, even if that means presumably transitional acceptance of risks.

    Neither makes much sense, but those of us in the middle, which is most people, cannot articulate a coherent alternative. We are left responding ad hoc to a wide range of developments. I sympathize with Obama because I think he’s as confused as I am. Perhaps a Salafist Syria will be worse than a hegemonic Iran. Perhaps the borders drawn by the WWI Allies to carve up the Ottoman provinces need to be changed (not just Israel’s). Perhaps we should be sucking up to Russia because a US-EU-Russia combination would be tough for lesser powers to resist. Perhaps China is such a serious potential threat that we should prioritize undermining the Chinese at every turn. Perhaps we should should move heaven and earth to capitalize fully on our growing energy resources, finally achieve North American energy independence, reassert our power in the Western Hemisphere and adopt a modified isolationism in which we cease to prioritize Europe and the Middle East.

    After the fall of the USSR, we had a brief “sole superpower” period during which we basically concluded that we didn’t need to worry about this stuff anymore. Well, now we do.

    • WigWag

      John, I like your comment very much but I disagree with your premise that Obama doesn’t have a grand strategy. I think that he does, and I think that he is pursuing it very patiently.

      To discern that outlines of his grand strategy all you need to do is look at his first term. He started out his campaign for the presidency by relying for foreign policy advice from the likes of Zbignew Brzezinski, Robert Malley and Joe Cirincione. Once elected, he appointed James Jones as his National Security Advisor, Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence and he attempted to appoint Chas Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council. What every one of these foreign policy “experts” have in common is an unrelenting hostility to the idea that a strong Israel represents a strategic advantage for the United States in the Middle East. Without knowing these advisors personally, it is hard to judge whether their animosity is directed at Jews or merely at Israelis, but what is clear, is that each one of them wanted to change the paradigm for American-Israeli relations. They all advocated for a new doctrine; an Israel that was cut down to size would be more malleable and subject to American pressure which would facilitate Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world in general and the Arab world in particular.

      It’s true that Obama also selected Dennis Ross to serve in his Administration. What this proves is little more than that Obama was a sophisticated grifter using misdirection to divert the attention of his marks from reality. Can you imagine a more clueless shill than Ross?

      Obama not only announced from day one that the warm relations between Israel and the United States were a thing of the past (see his Cairo speech) but the strategic priorities that he made a centerpiece of his foreign policy were highly threatening to the idea of a strong Israel; especially nuclear disarmament. Do you remember how members of the Administration practically gushed with the signing of the new “START” treaty with Russia? Susan Rice called it a “major milestone” and a “concrete step towards a nuclear free world.”

      Speaking alongside her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, the clueless Ms. Rice told the General Assembly, that “our joint appearance here today is a sign of the much strengthened relationship between our two nations, a relationship built on candor, cooperation and mutual respect.”

      Is there any doubt that what Obama wants in his heart of hearts is a nuclear free Middle East as a down payment on his quest for nuclear free world? Isn’t that at the heart of his grand strategy, though he has determined that it is in his political interest to be parsimonious about how much he reveals about it? Wouldn’t a nuclear free Middle East accomplish two of Obama’s cherished foreign policy goals; making Israel weaker and more dependent on the United States (and its nuclear umbrella) and leading the world to fewer nuclear weapons?

      Of course after his election, as all Presidents do, Obama was confronted with nasty political realities. Support for Israel and for maintaining its qualitative edge was far stronger amongst the American public and in Congress than Obama anticipated. In one of the best blog posts that I have ever read, Via Meadia on May 25, 2011 published a post entitled, “The Dreamer Goes Down for the Count.” Walter Russell Mead said,

      “Netanyahu beat Obama like a red-headed stepchild; he played him like a fiddle; he pounded him like a big brass drum. The Prime Minister of Israel danced rings around his arrogant, professorial opponent. It was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters go up against the junior squad from Miss Porter’s School; like watching Harvard play Texas A&M, like watching Bambi meet Godzilla — or Bill Clinton run against Bob Dole.

      The Prime Minister mopped the floor with our guy. Obama made his ’67 speech; Bibi ripped him to shreds. Obama goes to AIPAC, nervous, off-balance, backing and filling. Then Bibi drops the C-Bomb, demonstrating to the whole world that the Prime Minister of Israel has substantially more support in both the House and the Senate than the President of the United States.”

      Are we supposed to think that Obama has forgotten this humiliation? Is it credible to believe that after he travelled to Israel this past winter as the first foreign trip of his new term that all was forgiven? If you believe it, I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to buy.

      Now Obama’s twin desires of cutting Israel down to size and eliminating nuclear weapons from the Middle East on the way to a nuclear free world is buttressed by something else that is equally powerful; Obama’s desire for revenge.

      All of this brings me back to the grand strategy that Obama is pursuing; his most important ally in making that strategy a reality is Iran.

      I believe that Obama has not acted more forcefully against Iran and that he fought congressionally imposed sanctions for as long as he could, because Iran’s steady progress towards nuclear weapons suits Obama just fine. I expect that at some point in the next 18 months Obama will announce his historic idea; Iran should renounce its desire to obtain nuclear weapons with the appropriate verification mechanisms while at the same time, all states in the Middle East, including Israel should renounce the possession of nuclear weapons. It’s a deal I bet Iran would take and it’s a deal that the Europeans are sure to love.

      That it would leave 5 million Israeli Jews at the mercy of 450 million Arabs who would love to see them exterminated would suit Obama just fine. Israel’s ability to act independently in the face of a potential military calamity will be severely compromised and just as Obama and his advisors wanted all along, Israel will be more dependent than ever on the United States. Obama and the Administrations that follow will be far freer to placate the Islamic world than they are now, whether Israel or its supporters like it or not.

      This is Obama’s grand strategy; whether he has the time or political credibility to make it a reality remains to be seen. Whatever political relevance Obama has now will dissipate with each passing month; that’s the way it always works with Presidents in their second terms. Already those with a good sense olfaction can detect the faint smell of duck droppings. A lame duck President won’t be able to pull all of this off.

      What this means is simple; if Obama has the chutzpah to attempt to implement the strategy he has been pursuing all along, there is little time left to act.

      • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

        Sorry, but this is paranoid excess. Just because you’re obsessed with Israel and the Jews–Jewcentric to a tee–doesn’t mean everyone else is. How on earth can a U.S. grand strategy focus in on one small country in a region worthy objectively of being defined as marginal to great power concerns? Not even strategically clueless Obama Administration types are THAT clueless.

        Excerpt for Jim Jones, I have met and know to one extent or another every person you mentioned in your second paragraph. I do not share their views on a range of subjects, some of them having to do with the Jewcentric fantasy of exaggerated linkage in the Middle East. But to suggest, even obliquely, as you do–“Without knowing these advisors personally, it is hard to judge whether their animosity is directed at Jews or merely at Israelis…”–that any of these people are anti-Semites is shameful. You seem not to understand what a real anti-Semite i; either that, or you have dumbed down the definition so that it is in your mind so expansive as to be pointless–except in the sense that half a brick can be hurled about twice as far as a whole brick, but a half brick isn’t very useful for anything else. A real anti-Semite, like Sheikh Nasrallah and much of the Iranian clerical leadership, wants to engage in mass murder against Jews, just because they are Jews. They often deny the Shoah and often express admiration for Hitler. They tend to speak of Jews in dehumanizing language (“sons of monkeys and pigs”, spiders, vermin, etc.) which is always prelude to genocidal intent. Do you really think that any of the people you mentioned belong in that category? I would be astonished if you do.

        • WigWag

          With all due respect, Adam, your allegation that my comments represent “paranoid excess” is strange. Am I obsessed with Israel, or is it the policy makers in the Obama Administration who are obsessed with Israel? Who was it who decided that the first grand foreign policy speech of his Administration would take place in Cairo and that recalibrating the American relationship with the Jewish State would be a hallmark of his new approach to the Muslim world?

          If elevating a disagreement about settlement policy to a fevered pitch isn’t evidence of an obsession, what is? What about reneging on an agreement that the previous Administration had made with Israel (see Elliot Abrams)as loudly and clumsily as possible; has it occurred to you that this might be evidence of an obsession by the Obama Administration?

          As I suspect you’ve noticed, to this very day, Obama’s Secretary of State is gallivanting around the Middle East promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians with the white hot passion of a thousand suns. As the Middle East burns, there’s inaction on Syria and inaction on Iran; but the Secretary of State is trying to rally the world to create a Palestinian Marshall plan. It seems to me, that this is a little like trying to implement the Marshall plan in Europe circa 1941. Do my remarks provide evidence of an obsession with Israel or is it the policies of the Obama Administration that do that?

          Do you really think that my suggestion that the Obama Administration desired a more pliant Israel is paranoid? Are you suggesting that Obama hadn’t settled on a strategy that relied on spanking Israel to entice greater cooperation from the Muslim world? I mentioned several of Obama’s foreign policy and national security advisors; you’ve told us that you are acquainted with several of them. Do you mean to suggest that to a man, they don’t believe that Israel is too willing to ignore the desires of the United States? Do you expect your readers to doubt that many if not most of them think that the American Jewish community is too powerful and negatively influences American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction; a direction that they bitterly resent?

          In my comment, I also mentioned that in addition to containing Israel and its power to act independently, a second preoccupation of the Obama Administration was nuclear disarmament. Do you deny that the goal of moving towards nuclear disarmament was a passion of Obama’s first term that was mentioned loudly and often? Do you really expect your loyal readers to doubt the premise that in his heart of hearts, Obama wouldn’t love a nuclear-free Middle East as a down payment on the road to a nuclear free world? Is it paranoia to provide evidence that nuclear disarmament was a fixture of Administration policy and that, despite the fact that this policy leaves Israel exposed and vulnerable, that Obama is anxious to pursue it? Do you really expect your readers to believe that Obama isn’t calculating enough to understand that Iran’s march towards a nuclear weapon might, if played correctly, facilitate his goal of a nuclear free Middle East? The Iranians like to point out that their strategic sophistication emanates in part from the fact that they play chess. Should we doubt that Obama plays chess too? What do you take your readers for, Adam, a bunch of checkers players?

          Despite the fact that I pointedly said that I don’t know if any particular decision-maker that Obama relied on was motivated by animus towards Jews or animus towards Israel, you accuse me of adopting a morally shameful position. You also mentioned that with the exception of Jim Jones, in one way or another, you know them all. What are we supposed to make of the fact that you are acquainted with these people? Are you suggesting that knowing Adam Garfinkle is an imprimatur of pure motives even if it isn’t evidence of logical thinking? Are you implying that anti-Semitism can’t possibly be at the heart of any of their motives simply because with the exception of General Jones you are willing to vouch for all of them?

          You mention Sheikh Nasrallah as an example of a real anti-Semite. Of course, you’re right. We certainly know that the Sheikh himself doesn’t like Israelis much; he’s aimed his missiles at them. But perhaps you’ve forgotten that the Sheikh isn’t the only one to suggest that Israel should be targeted. When presented with the possibility that Israel might attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations by traversing Iraqi airspace, Zbignew Brzezinski suggested (in a Daily Beast interview) that American fighters should shoot them down. Gratuitously he recommended the possibility of a “liberty in reverse.” Brzezinski was born in Poland in the late 1920s; you know perfectly well that at the time, the Polish population was profoundly anti-Semitic and that Brzezinski’s father served in the Polish Government. In light of his anti-Israel animus and his background, your suggestion that it is preposterous to even wonder about Brzezinski’s motivations is, well, preposterous.

          And then there’s the illustrious Chas Freeman, who apparently you are also acquainted with. Do you really want to suggest to your loyal readers that Freeman’s ranting about the power of the “Lobby” couldn’t possibly be evidence of an animus towards Jews? If so, you are in a small minority of Jews who haven’t wondered about that. Of course, it is possible that the entire organized Jewish world is guilty of Jewcentricity that only a tiny minority of enlightened Jews has managed to escape.

          Let me repeat that I have no idea whether Brzezinski, Freeman or any of the other anti-Israel Obama advisors have animus towards Jews. Still, sometimes when it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it turns out that what you actually have, is a duck.

          This discussion is particularly timely in light of the speech that Prime Minister Netanyahu made this past Tuesday to the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem. Netanyahu pointed out that we should not be fooled by anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Israel propaganda. Do you think that the Israeli Prime Minister is guilty of Jewcentricity too? Is he paranoid also? I have a sneaking suspicion that you would answer both questions in the affirmative. Perhaps you will deign to tell us.

          I’m curious, Adam, do you think that my comment provides greater evidence of paranoia or Chas Freeman’s written record?

          • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

            It’s not strange. You are obsessed. The Obama Administration started out rather Jewcentric, a lot like the Clinton Administration too. Now it is less so, and what Kerry is doing is as much deliberate distraction as it is a manifestation of his linkage delusion.

            Answer to your second question: It was not on abscission for focus on settlement policy, it was just a stupid mistake. And POTUS (and others) figured that out before long.

            As to your third paragraph, Israel (and other allies) sometimes does things that we’d rather they didn’t do. That’s normal, since any two countries have different problems, perspectives, capacities. What you’re suggestion is that Israel and the US must always have harmonious interests, and if that’s not the case it’s evidence of anti-Israeli obsessions on the US side. That’s just not a serious analysis.

            There are lots of people who think that the organized manifestations of the American Jewish community punch above their weight class. This is an old thing; it goes back to J.F. Dulles and even before. Whether it does or doesn’t is to some extent an empirical question. There’s nothing necessarily obsessive about it.

            Next paragraph: No one in the administration thinks that a nuclear free-zone in the ME, let alone a nuclear free world, is a near- or middle-term practical possibility. The idea that the Administration likes the idea of a nuclear Iran, the better to use it to force Israeli nuclear disarmament, is simply mad. It has nothing to do with chess or checkers. It is a supposition that contradicts everything the administration has said and that various Executive Departments have prepared to do.

            No, just because I know people doesn’t mean they are necessarily pure of heart. But I don’t see how not knowing them helps assess their views.

            About Zbig, you don’t know him and I do, for many years. If you think he is an anti-Semite than you’re never met a real one. And your intimation that all Poles in the 1930s were anti-Semites is outrageous. How do you then account for all the Polish righteous gentiles inscribed at Yad Vashem?

            Obviously not all anti-Israel venom is separate from anti-Semitism, but some is. Netanyahu isn’t wrong about that, and he’s not paranoid either as best I can tell. But the reverse–that ALL anti-Israel venom is ipso facto anti-Semitic–which seems to be your implicit view–is simply not true. Haaretz often has harsh things to say about the behavior of the Israeli government–in Hebrew. Do you read the Hebrew press? So does that make Haaretz an anti-Semitic publication? Answer “yes” and that’ll be the end of any comments I will ever direct back to you.

            As for Chas Freeman, he’s a curious guy, and he certainly disgraced himself back when he was a candidate to head the NIC. I think he’s wrong about the so-called Lobby, and if you read my boo on Jewcentricity you already know that. I don’t need to choose between his paranoia and yours. You’re both paranoid, just with somewhat different inflections.

        • LeBrown

          Without taking a stand on the merits of WigWag’s case, I find your rejoinder somewhat weak. To focus on two points:

          1. “Just because you’re obsessed with Israel and the Jews–Jewcentric to a tee–doesn’t mean everyone else is.”

          So now pointing out that others are Jewcentric is itself evidence of Jewcentrism? I guess that puts WigWag in good company, as I have it on good authority that “The Obama Administration started out rather Jewcentric.”

          2. “You seem not to understand what a real anti-Semite i[s].”

          Seriously? Unless I’m goosestepping and heil-ing I’m not an anti-Semite? Talk about defining deviancy down! I guess that given only a tiny minority of Americans was ever in the KKK, racism was pretty much insignificant in the US.

          • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

            Let’s remember how all this began, shall we? I wrote a post on intervention, with Syria as a case in point. At first opportunity, WigWag turned the discussion, based on someone else’s comment about strategy, into the only thing he seems to care and thinks he knows about. That is obsessive, as well as very much off the point of my post.

            Just for your information, anti-Semitism has a clinical definition that all scholars use when they discuss it. It is not a garden-variety form of bigotry. Of course it’s possible for someone to dislike Jews without yearning for mass murder; good grief! It is tiresome trying to have a discussion with people who do not know the meaning of the terms they use.

    • adam Garfinkle

      I agree with you that the present administration lacks the capacity for or interest in thinking strategically. As a result, we are by default, for fiscal reasons, abandoning the grand strategy that we have had in current form since at least 1945 (1890 by another tact): namely, we are moving, without ever having explicitly discussed it, from a forward-deployment grand strategy designed to suppress security competitions that could lead to a hegemon in peninsular Europe or East Asia to an offshore balancing strategy we cannot, or do not plan, to afford. Yes, dear reader, we actually DO have a grand strategy–it’s just that our political class doesn’t know what it is anymore.

      If you understand this strategy and how it has worked in the past, you have a good handle on how to think about U.S. foreign policy. So you need not be as much “at sea” as you seem to be. That is the good news, I think.

      • John Burke

        I guess I should be reassured that a strategy exists but it’s not doing us much good if the political class doesn’t know what it is and isn’t thinking about it or applying it.

        Assuming that we should be working off the forward deployment strategy designed to suppress security combinations that could lead to a peninsular European or East Asian hegemon, what should that mean for the Middle East currently? For 45 years or so, checking Soviet influence in that region drove our support to the Shah, alliances with Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan and after the 1973 war, Egypt. And our adversarial posture toward Iraq, Syria, Libya, the former South Yemen state and some others.

        What about now? Is checking Russian influence still of overriding importance? Is the prospect of Iranian regional hegemony the key factor? Has terrorism from al Qaeda style groups upset those calculations? What should the nature of our alliance with Israel be going forward?

        Granted, not every issue has to fit neatly into preconceived boxes, and we can walk and chew gum at the same time. But getting back to Syria, which occupies a pivotal place in the region, whether we should intervene and to what extent are issues that we should not decide without answering the larger questions.

        • adam Garfinkle

          That’s exactly right: We can’t sensibly answer questions about Syria without reference to a wider strategic understanding. As to your specific questions, I tried to answer them, some years ago, in a few places: “Redefining U.S. Interests in the Middle East,” Middle East Papers No. 4, Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH), October 9, 2008; and, specifically with regard to the alliance with Israel, “U.S.-Israeli Relations after the Cold War,” Orbis, Fall 1996. That second essay is already quite old, but the basics remain: Israel played one kind of role during the Cold War, and that role can’t endure as such after the Cold War.

  • Pave Low John

    Well, if the U.S. is going to be dropping any MOABs, it better do it before the Syrian Army deploys those S-300 SAM systems they are now receiving from the Russians. Once those things are in place, you’ll need either B-2s, F-22s or “wild weasel” F-16CJs to go anywhere near Syrian airspace. I would love to be a fly on the wall in King Abdullah II’s office in Amman right about now.

    Speaking of Jordan, I saw a few months ago that 200 planners and loggies (logisticians) had been sent from the 1st Armored Division to Jordan, just in case a JTF headquarters needs to be stood up. A lot of people still don’t know how much Jordan helped us during OIF (and are still helping us today), they will be a key part of what, if anything, we do in Syria.

    Besides the Russians sending advanced SAMs to Syria this week, we also have pictures and video of Sen. John McCain grimacing next to some shady rebel leaders in Syria. Not exactly a deja vu repeat of Senator Mike Mansfield visiting South Vietnam in 1962 and declaring American aid to Ngo Dinh Diem a waste of time and money, but who knows, we still haven’t heard what McCain has to say about his visit with the ‘liberty-loving freedom-fighters’ of the Sunni resistance.

    And finally, we have writers like Michael Totten describing how the Syrian civil war is now splashing over into Lebanon (the article is over at World Affairs Journal, if anyone wants to read it). Throw in some more violence in Iraq and western Iran and we could see a decent sized regional conflict metastasize before Christmas.

    I think, at this point, that it is safe to say that things are going to get completely FUBAR in that part of the world before it’s all said and done…

    • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

      I’d say you’re just about right on all counts. Of course you mean by the start of that acronym you used “Fouled up…..”, right? We gotta keep the page clean, you know.

      • Pave Low John

        Of course I meant “Fouled up,” what did you think I meant? Far be it from me to ruin the reputation of this fine blog! However, I did know a pilot from Utah who claimed that Mormons would sometimes make up replacement swear words, such as “Farkle”, so maybe it could have been one of those?

        Back to Syria, though. I wonder if what is going on in Syria will spread to Turkey as well. I have read some reports that Turkey might not remain as secular as it has traditionally been (at least since WWI, that is). The same concern could be directed at the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. A lot of majority-Islamic countries might have this sort of civil conflict in their futures as a result of the GWOT campaigns and the lack of a two-superpower power structure to keep everyone in line. Sometimes historical shifts take time to manifest and the fallout from the end of the Cold War is now causing a visible restructuring of the globe. If Syria gets ‘Balkanized,’ what about all the other nation-states with borders that don’t reflect reality on the ground?

        What will the map of the Middle East look like in twenty years and will Syria be the first state to get redrawn?

        • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

          Well, I don’t know: Farkle you? Just doesn’t sound right somehow.

          As for your other comment, yes, the entire Sykes-Picot system is deteriorating. Syria is first; Iraq will be second; Afghanistan–not an Arab country but still–is well on the way too back to its historically normal radically decentralized tribal system. You’re behind on observing Turkey: See the essay by Salmaan Khan in the current issue on Turkish secularism. It is fast depleting, and has been for a decade.

          No one knows what the map will look like 20 years out, except don’t assume that states will exist to lord over all the territory. We’ve had lots of tumult in the region since the independence era, but we could take for granted that state structures existed to cover more or less the entire region. Now we’re looking to a semi- or para-medieval world in which overlapping and discontinuous centers of social authority will exist in fluid and shifting patterns, some regional, some clerical, some straight warlordism, and so on. This has not been the case in this region since before Suleiman the Magnificent conquered it for the Ottomans in 1517. To say that our folks in government and politics are not ready for such a reality is a significant understatement.

          • dan berg

            Just finished Vali Nasr’s The Dispensable Nation; his argument is that as the U.S. “pivots” from the Middle East to Asia, China will fill the void and the U.S. will then confront China in the Middle East. Your thoughts?

          • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

            I have not read the book. That sounds plausible but plausible does not mean probable. Depends on a whole host of decisions on many sides that have not yet been made.

  • Anthony

    Thanks for linking Grand Strategy operative framework and its devolution into something resembling Off Shore Balancing – though without requisite resource implementation. Further, how as foreign policy adjunct does policy of affinity, aesthetics, and cycle sensitivity affect strategic choices beyond constrained geographical apheres? That is, are categories context specific or generally applied?

  • Matthew Brotchie

    Adam,
    I was hoping you could clear something up for me. Once we were actually in Iraq, why didn’t we do anything to protect the Iraqi Christians?
    From Walter Russel Mead.
    “Since the invasion the U.S. has viewed the plight of these communities as an inconvenience. Officials seemed to feel that making an issue of widespread persecution of religious minorities would be either a propaganda victory for opponents of the Iraq War or, by making the US appear to be an advocate for Iraqi Christians, confirm Muslim suspicions about an alleged anti-Islamic or “crusader” US agenda. These considerations were less pressing once George W. Bush left the White House, but under President Obama as well the US made no concerted attempt to protect Christians and other minorities; now that we are rapidly drawing down troop levels there we will have even less ability to safeguard these most vulnerable communities.
    In a truly grotesque dereliction of duty, neither administration made allowances for minority refugees to resettle in America, something we have done in past conflicts and that has benefited asylum-seekers from South Vietnam to Somalia. Historically tight-knit, these communities are now dispersed across Jordan, Syria, Iran, and elsewhere and will probably disappear in time.

    This tragedy should have not been a surprise to US policymakers. For the last 150 years, the rich ethnic and religious diversity of the territories once under Ottoman rule (from the Danube south and west through the Balkans, and in Asia and Africa from Algeria through Saudi Arabia to the modern border between Iraq and Iran) has been in a process of steady (and often bloody) decline.”

    From the recent Andrew Doran piece.

    “During this campaign of systematic violence, the U.S. military provided no protection to the already vulnerable Christian community. In some instances, the clergy went to local American military units to beg to for protection. None was given. As Shea noted two weeks later, the administration and the State Department—whose record on Christian minorities and religious freedom leaves much to be desired—still refused to “acknowledge that the Christians and other defenseless minorities are persecuted for reasons of religion.”

    A month after the murder of Archbishop Rahho, President Bush addressed the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Joseph Kassab had been invited to pray the Hail Mary and Our Father in Aramaic following Bush’s remarks, an act of solidarity with the Christians of the Arab world. “I had two or three minutes with the president behind the curtains,” Kassab said in a recent interview. “He said he thought you had to fix the whole picture before coming to the other elements. It was disappointing. He knew it was a failure and his administration refused to acknowledge that.”

    Rosie Malek-Yonan, an Assyrian Christian who testified before Congress, would call the Bush administration a “silent accomplice” to “incipient genocide.” Anglican Canon Andrew White of Baghdad’s Ecumenical Congregation captured the reality with blunt precision: “All of my leadership were taken and killed—all dead.”

    Those Iraqi Christians who fled to America would fare little better in seeking asylum. Many Chaldeans and Assyrians were detained, until their cases were heard, in what an attorney familiar with Chaldean-asylum cases describes as “prisons,” adding that she “never worked on a case where a Chaldean was granted asylum, but I heard that it happened.” Throughout these deportation proceedings, the administration and the State Department steadfastly refused to recognize the conditions—which the U.S. had helped to bring about—as “persecution.” In consequence, most were deported.”

    Now, as someone who has known honorable young men who were moved to serve in Iraq solely by their humanitarian, Hamiltonian idealism (think of the “Crush Islamo-Facsim” rhetoric by the late Christopher Hitchens) what is described above is already enough to give me an aneurysm. But no, it apparently gets worse.
    This is from Pamella Greer so I will have to depend on you to let me know if its just baseless Fox News rhetoric.

    “US policy regarding the refugee resettlement program would shock most Americans if they only knew. The UN picks who becomes US refugees. Christians are being refused refugee status and face persecution and many times certain death for their religious beliefs under the sharia, while whole Muslim communities are entering the US by the tens of thousands per month despite the fact that they face no religious persecution.

    It is horrifying that Afghan Christians are being refused refugee status by the UN and many Western nations, including Britain. The UN claims that Afghan Christians do not meet the criteria for refugees under Statute 6B of the UN High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR), which requires refugees to have “a well founded fear of persecution by reason of his race, religion, nationality or political opinion.”

    Since 1976, millions of new citizens have entered America as legal humanitarian refugees, according to reports of the US State Department. The Somalis are certified as “humanitarian refugees” under our State Department rules. Whole Muslim communities are imported into the United States, and they are supported by social services provided by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The cities who receive these huge numbers are determined by Refugee Councils. And yet back in October 2008, Muslim UN employees were “discouraging” applications for resettlement from the desperate Christian Iraqis. The Christian Iraqi population has since been decimated. By buying into the argument that Islam is a religion of peace and ignoring the penalties for apostasy, we are sentencing thousands of Christians to martyrdom and forcing others to live in the shadows in dire poverty. We need to demand that our government provide protection and asylum for Christian apostates.”
    Full article: http://atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com/atlas_shrugs/2011/11/-afghan-christians-in-danger-at-home-and-abroad-are-refused-refugee-status-while-muslim-refugee-emig.html

    If this is true, this is beyond the usual rottenness of plutocracy and incompetence. This behavior seems sociopathic. WHAT IS GOING ON? Who are the individuals directly responsible? Whats the point of our interventions when all it leads to is the decimation of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world?

    For anyone interested, here is a beautiful essay on the history of the Assyrian Orthodox by David Bentley Hart.
    http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2011/01/the-church-of-the-east/david-b-hart

    • adam Garfinkle

      I asked myself the same basic question, some time ago. Don’t really know the answer. I do know that most of the Iraqi Christian population (Chaldean, Nestorian) from the time of the British mandate left the country before 2003. I also know that some of this community liked the Ba’ath Party, because it was a secular party and hence they thought it would cap Muslim antipathy. Indeed, one of the founders of the Party, Michel Aflak (Salah Bitar was the other) was a Christian. As to how and why the US bureaucracy did what it did, I haven’t a clue. I can only tell you that when I was in government I do not remember anyone, at any meeting I attended, raising special concern about the Iraqi Christian population. Nor does, as best I know, anyone raise the matter of the Copts in Egypt–more than 6 million of them. Obviously, the affinities that move the American opinion meter aren’t necessarily reflected in the government.

      • Matthew Brotchie

        Thanks for the reply Adam. A full essay/podcast with WRM on this topic would be amazing. If you need an Assyrian Christian to talk to I would suggest thing young women, very articulate and brave.
        https://www.facebook.com/savi.assyrian?fref=ts

        The fact that we let unscrupulous elements within the U.N. dictate who comes into the country through the refugee program is beyond insane. (Do you think that Pamela Greer post is accurate?)

    • John Burke

      Looks as if surrendering the process of designating various definitions of refugee status to international entities is the source of this problem. That said, the US could still admit Iraqi or Afghan Christians on whatever basis Congress might choose. I suspect that no one in the past two (or more?) Administrations has proposed this because of the “Crusader war against Islam” charge.

      Personally, I think that by and large Middle Eastern and South Asian Christians would comprise a highly desirable group of immigrants. And according to the CIA Factbook, there are about 8.5 million in Egypt alone.

  • Anthony

    In one of your replies, you mentioned America’s ongoing “Grand Strategy” and its tenative replacement with off shore balancing (though without requisite resource implementation). Would that formulation also apply (as far as one puts a strategic dscription on current policy) to Syria, Sahel, Middle East proper, and North Africa as evidenced by your essay’s title? And as adjuncts, where does affinity, aesthetics, and cycle sensitivity intersect with an amorphous off shore balancing?

    • adam Garfinkle

      Look, I appreciate the question, but remember please what the post is about. I only raised the question of strategy because someone else asked a good question about the broader context of decision making. This is not the place for a discussion of this. You’re asking for a full essay to answer questions like the ones you pose.

      • Anthony

        Thanks, got it; looking forward to future essay.

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  • Nick M.

    I think you are right about it being too late to seriously get involved. In hindsight (which may not even be correct), our initial hesitancy should have been put aside to at least try and determine which of the early rebel groups were moderate to target them for aid (giving them influence as they would have the guns and money off the more radical rebel groups). Now, it seems like a slugfest by a whole bunch of groups we don’t like, strengthening and seemingly justifying our initial hesitancy. A positive feedback-loop.

    If I was a Machiavellian President, I can see this as an opportunity to sacrifice the noncombatants in Syria here to perpetuate a bloody protracted campaign where both sides kill each other off (Iran’s “advisors” and funding, Hezzbollah, radical Sunnis/Al Qaeda groups and Assad loyalists) as a red on red quagmire. And buck-pass this to Israel to ensure the Assad regime does not win (or at least, win too soon) while they get the hostility of getting directly involved.

    With all sides weakened and exhausted, both physically and financially, there could negotiated what would be the start of a break up of colonial border ME states, moving to smaller ethnic and sectarian boundaries which I suspect would have occurred had UK and France not taken over post Ottoman empire.

    But I admit, this would be such a cold hearted and civilian casualty ridden strategy that I doubt it would even be deemed as acceptable.

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