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Obama's Middle East Recessional
Part 2: Syria Policy, Up Close and Ugly

In the run-up to Geneva II, all of the Administration’s policy failings are coalescing into a truly weird and tragic spectacle. Part of a longer essay. Read Part 1 here.

Published on: January 21, 2014
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  • qet

    Thank you for this exceptional and highly valuable (even, or should I say especially to one like me who has tried to follow the ball in all of this over the past few years) series. A few points. First, and by far the most important: can we all agree on a definitive English transliteration of the Arabic alphabet? I have seen Hezbollah, Hizbollah, Hisbollah and now Hizballah. How can the US be expected to conduct effective diplomacy in the region if we can’t even agree on the spelling of the name of a principal antagonist? Secondly, the US appears to have inverted Spengler’s principle that the sole purpose of a domestic politics is to effect a foreign politics. Garfinkle’s analysis is so convincing without being or seeming partisan that one wonders why it and more like it are not getting more attention. Instead, the chief US media organs (and why they are still chief is beyond me) continue to purvey through their undisguised partisan journalists, op-ed writers and talking heads a sort of midsummer night’s dream of the world where, as another incapable member of the Admin’s current FP team, Samantha Power, holds, effective US foreign policy in the Middle East (and elsewhere) consists merely in “naming and shaming.” No doubt she also believes that Putin, like Professor Snape, is really working for our side, and wants nothing other than to be recognized as the greatest witch of her age. Third, I am somewhat nonplussed over the role of the surrounding Arab states in all this. I fully endorse Garfinkle’s admonition in Part 1 that Middle Eastern nations and peoples are fully free agents with their own politics and histories and responsible for their own destinies. So how is it, then, that a few years ago Turkey was poised to act on the Syrian crisis but didn’t owing to US waffling? What about Saudi Arabia, now mad at us for our dithering? Egypt? Sure, Egypt has its own not-quite civil war, but so did Revolutionary France when its armies were marching all over Europe. What is preventing such nations from intervening on the side of the rebels even as the US hesitates?

    • mc

      Hizbullah is correct; each of the variants though has an interesting reason for survival.

      • Kavanna

        Yes, it’s close. It doesn’t capture the near-silent stops and gutturals of Arabic, though.

        The silent stops have disappeared in Hebrew, but gutturals remain, at least in Hebrew spoken by Jews from Arabic countries.

        • mc

          There aren’t any such sounds in Hizbullah–all sounds save the initial “h” are familiar to speakers of English. The gutturals you are referring to are laryngeal consonants; these disappeared from Indo-European languages around the time Hittite became extinct.

      • Andrew Allison

        No it isn’t. Per the FAM Style Guide (what DoD uses for training materials) it’s Hezbollah.

        • mc

          You sound awfully sure out yourself. DOD is almost willfully foolish with languages–calling Persian “Farsi” just to suck up to the Shah is one notorious example. Why they would prefer “o” (which doesn’t exist in written Arabic) to “u” (which does) is a mystery that might require excavating Arlington Hall to address. Or it could be that at one point Hizbullah wanted to make themselves sound special by persianizing the transliteration and DOD followed suit. No telling with any of them.

          • Andrew Allison
          • mc

            Andrew–these are languages I speak, write, and teach. Persian has forever been known as Persian; if you take a class in the language at a reputable university you will be studying Persian, not Farsi, for the same reason you would study Italian or German, not Italiano or Deutsch. Your DOD might decide one day to call Santa Claus Jumbo Jimbo, but to the world he’ll remain Santa. Now please stop it, you’re sounding like a teenager with a bug in his ear.

          • Andrew Allison

            And you like a arrogant pendant. The are two “Persian” languages, Farsi and Dari. From the link which I provided, and you obviously didn’t bother to look at, “Total numbers of speakers is high: over 40 million Farsi speakers (about 60% of Iran’s population); over 14 million Dari Persian speakers in Afghanistan (50% of the population according to CIA World FactBook & Britannica); and about 2 million Dari Persian
            speakers in Pakistan.” Which “Persian” do you speak
            and teach? Had you supervised the development by native speakers of curricula for the teaching of both, you would know the difference.

    • TommyTwo

      “Can we all agree on a definitive English transliteration of the Arabic alphabet? I have seen Hezbollah, Hizbollah, Hisbollah and now Hizballah.”

      That is the true reason for the Western intervention in Libya: we had enough of the aggravation of hoosing amongst Qaddhafi, Qaddafi, Gaddafi, Kaddafi, Khadafy, Qadhafi, Qadaffi, and Gadaffi, Qathafi, Qadhdhafi, etc.

      This is also why Assad is sitting pretty.

      حزب الله‎, on the other hand, should be worried.

      • Anthony

        Tommy, for my interest who or what is subject that should be worried?

        • TommyTwo

          Hizbollah. (As per my humorous comment; in the real world, it is the idea that they should be worried about an American or European attack that is laughable.)

          (By the way, qet, I had a brief look at a few official or quasi-official Hizbollah web sites. Some of them have three different spelling variants within literally 3 inches of each other.)

          • Anthony

            Thanks.

      • Andrew Allison

        Que syrah, shiraz! What the world needs now is his-and-her-bollah.

  • Anthony

    Oh, how deceptively wonderful it must be to camouflage our partisanship/ideology under the guise of exhorting Adam Garfinkle’s Levant expertise (well demonstrated in current four essays). Such a display certainly reveals internal standards of correctness every bit as character deforming as the ones we assail daily. Doctrinaire, Doctrinaire, Doctrinaire…. (accurate sense over time)

    • qet

      Can you elaborate on this?

      • Anthony

        What needs elaboration?

        • qet

          Whose partisanship is being camouflaged, and by what? What are the internal standards of correctness you detect, and from whom are they emanating? Who is the doctrinaire and what is the doctrine?

          • Anthony

            To vague my man and and obviously too personal (we are quick to discern the mistakes and defects of others but ourselves not to quickly – I also am guilty in that respect), As for the above, Res ipsa loquitur. And sorry for delay in reply, I was away.

  • Boritz

    Who do you want on the postage stamp? The young “in the manner of Ghengis Kahn ” Kerry or the current elder statesman? Great article but that’s my only question about the SOS.

  • TommyTwo

    “In all fairness, Syria was always a hard problem.”

    Indeed, and I don’t claim to know the best solution. The Administration could have chosen one of several different alternatives, including non-involvement, and I would have considered any legitimate and reasonable.

    Unfortunately, what the Administration chose to do is to unnecessarily marry minimal involvement with tough posturing (“Assad must go,” red lines, etc), thus damaging American credibility. From now on, when the President of the United States of America, leader of the free world, stands up and makes a forceful statement, it is more likely to be seen by friends and foes as nothing but pious wishes (ie claptrap). This will increase the likelihood of unfortunate developments, including military confrontations.

    That is what I consider unforgivable.

  • Brian Stahl

    Honestly, it might have been better to allow the Iranians to attend Geneva II, maybe some good faith could have been garnered as a result. It would have at least given our diplomats a real objective to be working towards in Geneva, instead of simply twiddling their thumbs.

    What makes you think that the Syrian regime’s goal in launching the chemical weapons was designed to embarrass the US? I remember a TAI essay from a while ago which said that, “In November 2012, Israel notified the United States that the Syrians were mixing sarin gas at two sites, filling dozens of bombs suitable for aircraft to carry the deadly substance to its targets. The bombs were then transported to airfields where they could be deployed in less than two hours. The mixing of the materials stopped after President Obama issued public and private warnings to Assad and his military commanders. Nevertheless, the bombs remain at the airfields, ready for use. ”

    Of course, eventually the Syrian regime began using the weapons in small doses, but I took the timidity with which the regime did that to be evidence that it was doing it for military reasons, not to deliberately embarrass us. Official reports from the U.N. weren’t even sure it was Assad at the time. Maybe that was naive and foolish as you say, but it shows some level of caution from Assad that doesn’t really fit with the embarrassment narrative. Also, has there been any evidence that the Ghouta attack was planned? That seemed to me like an accident at the time.

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