So the Administration announced yesterday that it was going to arm the Syrian rebels, and it’s moving some military forces around, too. Commentators are nearly unanimous in concluding that we’re edging much closer now to involvement in this civil war, one with major and fairly large regional implications. Some folks are singing the talkin’ Syria intervention blues already, and I’m playing my old Gibson F-4 mandolin right along with them.One thinks of Greek tragedy at a time like this. You can see the disaster coming; everyone can see it. But you can’t avoid it despite the seeing. One remembers, via now-available documents and memoirs, how Lyndon Johnson agonized over Vietnam, knowing as early as August 1964 close to exactly what sort of risks he and the country would be running if he deepened the American commitment to Vietnam. There wasn’t a single latter-day accusation launched against him over Vietnam policy that he had not anticipated as his own B-team interrogator as he rolled the problem over and over again in his mind. But he committed the nation anyway, because circumstances conspired to make it hard to know how not to.So one sympathizes with President Obama’s resistance to getting lured toward another steep, slimy and rocky slope, this one in Syria. One can even sympathize with his desire to reduce the U.S. profile in that regional altogether in favor of spending rationed resources in strategically more important places—like Asia. But he and his Administration have screwed up this policy big time, and he has no one to blame (well, not quite no one……) for his current dilemma but himself.* * *Even if one discounts pre-November 2012 election motives for passivity over Syria (but I didn’t then and I still don’t now), Obama Administration policy amounted to a sort of forlorn Macawberism. The principals didn’t know what to do; everything was hard, or dangerous, or lonely, or all three. So they hoped it would just go away—that Assad would fall, or leave, or disappear, or something. In lieu of any promising actions we could take pretty much on the cheap, they just hoped that “something would turn up.” It didn’t.In the meantime, the Administration supported pointless and actually counterproductive diplomatic approaches, including ones with one party—Russia—that had zero interest in an outcome that aligned with any we could favor. It’s not clear that senior Administration officials, certainly to include the President, actually understood a year or so ago that the Syrian crucible was not just about Syria, but also about Iran, and Turkey, and Jordan, Lebanon, Israel…… It’s also not clear that they, any more than their predecessors, had a clue about the history and nature of sectarian cleavages in the region between Sunni and Shi’a Islam.So the Obama Administration did not lead from behind on Syria. Instead, it sat on its behind—and there is a difference. And though many warned (me, too, for what it’s worth) that, left to its own dynamics, the situation in Syria would probably both get much worse internally and spread externally, the Administration still did nothing, even in a case where its humanitarian inclinations aligned perfectly with strategic interests with regard to Iran. It did nothing even when it had at least some chance of reaching an understanding with the Turks early on in the crisis. It did nothing repeatedly…..if such a thing is logically possible.Some believe that the Administration did nothing repeatedly in Syria in hopes of parlaying its passivity into a negotiating asset with regard to Iran and its nuclear weapons program. In other words: We let you win in Syria and you be reasonable over the nuke program—that’s quid, pro and quo, rock, paper and scissors, no one loses this game and everyone can go home happy. Time will tell, perhaps, if that is really how these folks were thinking last year and into this—before the most recent Iranian finger in the eye in Kazakhstan. If they were, it will certainly rank as one of the most outrageous examples of bad judgment in recent decades. Me, I can’t bring myself to believe it. Yet.* * *There is something to be learned here, and there is even a chance that some Administration principles may belatedly learn it: The mantra that the use of force, even the indirect use of force via arms provision to allies or would-be clients, should always be a last resort, is just that—a mantra with no relevance to real life. This is like, as I have said before, advising a cancer victim to wait until the very last moment to consider surgery. It epitomizes the Neville Chamberlain school of diplomacy.Relatedly, the genuinely crazy idea that force and diplomacy are opposites rather than complements—crazy because it spites every significant historical example we have—must by now be an embarrassment to at least some who dwell in, or pass through, the American halls of decision-making. Conducting diplomacy severed from the backdrop of relative power is like trying to conduct a serious foreign policy with a condom, so to speak. But these were the “engagement” biases of many in the Administration back in January 2009, as they remain today, somehow, the biases of a great many clueless liberals everywhere.But all that’s a lesson for next time. Maybe. Really bad ideas never die; they just come back in slightly different (or sometimes the same) form. For now, to invoke the hallowed wisdom of Buckaroo Bonzai, wherever you go, there you are. So regardless of how we got here, here we are, and so we’re entitled to ask: What now? What next?* * *As many have observed, yesterday’s announcement doesn’t mean the imminent insertion of American airplanes delivering weapons to rebels, or the insertion of U.S. special forces folks to direct traffic on the ground into Syria from Jordan and Turkey, or air strikes and no-fly zones. It may just be a prelude to another joust at diplomacy, designed to set the President in some armor for his G-8 meeting in North Ireland with Vladimir Putin next week–and to salve his rasped image with his European fans. Could be.But anyone who thinks that yesterday’s announcement is by itself going to set Putin back on his heels should please call me about a certain bridge I have for sale. You can’t get clout from mere words. To believe otherwise, after the President’s ridiculous equivocations about his chemical weapons “red line”, is just another Macawberist delusion. You can’t change the position of a shadow by doing things to the shadow. You have to actually do something real. Which brings me to a more general point.U.S. foreign policy is much, much too garrulous. In recent times every Administration has catered excessively to the Washington press corps, essentially agreeing to help them do their jobs in presumed exchange for the press being, well, “nice” to them. The last President who really disliked the press corps and couldn’t hide his generalized disdain was Richard Nixon, and it would be an understatement, I think, to say that the press was very not nice to him in return. But it’s not the legacy of Watergate that accounts for the motor-mouth character of recent habits. It’s politics.Political campaigns are all about announcements and briefings and press releases and speeches—words strung together in every possible way, shape and size. Governing is about something else, but so set in the campaign mode are our leaders these days that once they get their hands on the great wheels that turn policy they nevertheless cling to the patterns of the permanent campaign. This needs to change.Does the Russian government make an announcement every time it decides to do something in Syria? It makes announcements when it’s trying to create an impression, like the announcement about the S-300s that it shoved up John Kerry’s backside last month; it understands the traditional need to orchestrate words and deeds together. But it doesn’t blabber about everything it has done, is doing or will do there or anywhere else, like we seem to do. Nor is any serious government engaged in national security policy smitten with logorrhea likes ours is. Sometimes it’s a lot more effective to just do something, wait for the press report it, and let other governments flex their nerve endings wondering what it means.The United States is a powerful, wealthy and capable nation. When we act, others know it—or they’ll find out about it soon enough. We don’t have to announce things like “pivots” to Asia, for example, and ordinarily we shouldn’t. That sort of thing reminds me of what 5-year olds do when they ring the little silver bell on their tricycle handlebars—as if we grownups wouldn’t otherwise see them coming down the sidewalk. Yesterday’s announcement concerning Syria may be an exception, if a near-term diplomatic objective is being sought. But then again it may not be.No matter: The Russians won’t cave into a deal to our liking on the sidelines of the G-8 meeting. Their guy is winning; why should they? If the President wants to change that, he’s going to have to stop wringing hands and start wringing necks. And so we come to the rub: Should he?* * *One regular reader of this blog, who’ll remain unnamed, wrote me recently asking, in effect, didn’t I agree that the Administration can’t allow the formation of a Shi’a crescent all the way from Iran through a Hizballacized Lebanon and into Syria, connecting down to a Shi’a regime in Baghdad? And he added that, if they—meaning the Obama Administration—don’t do something pretty soon, that’s what we’ll get.I agree that unless someone does something pretty soon, that crescent will form–or rather re-form, for it has existed more or less since the exit of U.S. forces from Iraq. But is it a vital interest of the United States to prevent it? Is it worth using military force directly to prevent that? And let’s not kid ourselves: Once we commit to preventing that from happening, we’re bound to ratchet up the means of prevention as each successive escalation fails to do the trick—exactly what happened to poor ‘ol Lyndon now so many years ago.My answer is no. We do have a pretty serious, if not quite vital, interest in making sure Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons. (I and many others have discussed the reasons for this many times before, and this is not a time for rehearsal.) But the survival or fall of the Assad regime in Damascus is not a central component of that drama. Whatever happens in Syria, the U.S. government can still address the core of the Iranian challenge. To argue otherwise is more or less tantamount to arguing that FDR should have exerted much more U.S. muscle in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 against Franco and his German supporters. Would Spain’s rescue, through U.S. help, from the fascists have averted World War II? Maybe it would have changed the German calculus, but as with all counterfactuals, we’ll never know; probably, however, we would have had to fight that “good war” anyway.So, arms to the Syrian rebels? Well, what arms, and how many, to which rebels? I don’t know the answers to those questions, and they kind of matter. But sure, go ahead: Have liberal hawks every got us in trouble before? (Ahem.) Some special forces on the ground to keep the lethal stuff inside the guardrails? Yeah, well, OK. Some on-site training? Look, someone will have to teach them how to use this stuff, right, since only some of the rebels have any military training? Fine. How about some bombing runs to stop the Syrian regime’s forces from launching planes and helicopters against the rebels in the coming battle of Aleppo? Now, that would make me nervous, especially if we were dumb enough to make some damned announcement as to what the raids were designed to achieve. Because if we don’t achieve that aim, then what do we do? Launch some Marines that have already been deployed in Jordan? To do exactly what?Slip sliding away….slip sliding into another Middle Eastern war we don’t need and can’t win by any realistic measure, save for a near-term and post-combat reconstruction investment we cannot afford right now. Mr. President, if you’d acted earlier at pretty low wager rates you wouldn’t be in this mess; but you didn’t. (Not that having to endure Bill Clinton lecture you on your supposed mistakes shouldn’t piss you off; what he said was completely inappropriate, even if in a supposedly “private” venue.) Now your options are both fewer and more dangerous in every way. You hear that sucking sound out there threatening to drag you down the slope, don’t you? That’s because, at this point, this whole thing really does suck. If you decide to throw reputational capital at Syria right now, please have in mind very strict limits on how much of it you’re prepared to fling. If you’re heading toward that slope, for God’s sake, sir, don’t wear loafers; wear cleats.
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Published on: June 14, 2013Talkin’ Syria Intervention Blues