All too frequently, I receive email from people who, when it comes to politics and world affairs, know one thing and one thing only: that whatever Preident Obama does is wrong. Ever since he moved into the White House, these highly-enlightened citizens have been informing me that President Obama is:
- "Not too bright,"
- "An out-and-out Socialist,"
- "A man who despises America and all she stands for,"
- "Without question the worst president America has ever had,"
- "A serial liar," and most recently,
- "A flat-out coward."
This last one -- about the president being a coward -- is in response to his not having launched a military attack against Bashar al-Assad and the bully-boys of Damascus. (Come to think of it, these same people are furious that our "Coward-in-Chief," as several have called him, has yet to "bomb Iran back to the Stone Age.") According to these folks, an out-and-out American attack against Syria would be the best -- indeed the only -- response to both the murderous, poison-gas deploying al-Assad and his Alawite henchmen, and Achmadinajad and the Ayatollahs of Qom. And when on occasion I respond to their emails with a question about the future of Syria (or Iran), they tell me that once the veil of despotism is lifted, the people will vote in a democratic government. Seems to me that the crystal balls they're looking into must be manufactured by either "Black-and-White Ltd." or "Infallible Inc."
Unlike those who love bombarding me with email, I honestly don't know what America's response to the ongoing Syrian Civil War should be. For every action, there is a reaction. And for every reaction there is a consequence. What I do know is that this Syrian conflict is one of the few lasting legacies of the so-called "Arab Spring." I know that both the Iranians and -- to a somewhat lesser extent -- the Russians have been supporting the Alawites and al-Assad. I also know that the Saudis and some of the Gulf States have been lending assistance to the Sunni insurgents and that the Americans, Europeans and Israelis have, for the most part, avoided involvement.
(Please note that I began writing this essay prior to the two Israeli airstrikes targeting a shipment of advanced surface-to-surface missiles from Iran that Israel believed were intended for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The targeted shipment consisted of Iranian-made Fateh-110s — a mobile, accurate, solid-fueled missile that has the range to strike Tel Aviv and much of Israel from southern Lebanon. These missiles represent a considerable improvement over the liquid-fueled Scud missile. Two prominent Israeli defense analysts said the shipment included Scud Ds, a missile that Syrians have developed from Russian weapons with a range of up to 422 miles — long enough to reach Eilat, in southernmost Israel, from Lebanon.)
OK, that's about all I know. Except . . .
It is relatively easy for an overwhelming military force to topple a despotic regime. Think Iraq and Saddam Hussein. By the same token, it is much harder -- if not impossible -- to use that same overwhelming military force to impose a new type of government. That new government might, in some moral sense, be better than what preceded it -- "Anything would be better than Saddam" -- but the regime that replaces it will be utterly chaotic, followed by another regime that survives to the extent that it holds the United States at arm's length. This is the story of Iraq. And unless we learn the lesson of that fiasco, we are liable to repeat it all over again with Syria.
Syria, like Iraq, is ruled by a bloody corrupt regime that thinks nothing of murdering tens of thousands of its people in order to keep itself in power. For years, the al-Assad family remained in power -- and largely immune from the world's disgust -- because it was a client state of the Soviet Union. To take on Syria -- either from within or without -- was to take on Moscow. Today that is changed. Today, Syria's major patron is, of course, Iran. From the point of view of many American neoconservatives, a confrontation with Syria is also a confrontation with Iran; the forces of light attacking the forces of darkness. And despite what we should have learned from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, there are many who continue to believe that the United States and Europe have the power not only to depose regimes but also to pacify the affected countries and create Western-style democracies.
We couldn't do it in Iraq. We couldn't do it in Afghanistan. We certainly have not been able to do it in Libya. In the latter, we helped arm many of the militias who sought to topple the reviled Muammar al-Gaddafi, only to learn -- to our chagrin -- that these rebels hated America and the West with the same passion reserved for the late Libyan strongman. One of the reasons why Libyans despised Gaddafi and Iraqis hated Hussein (and many Syrians hate al-Assad) was/is that they ran secular regimes, not guided by either liberal democracy or Islam but with withering roots in secular Arab Socialism. According to those who push for intervention, once you take out the chief despot (Hussein, Gaddafi, as-Assad) the people will gladly create a constitutional democracy. Wrong! What's beneath the surface in Syria (as in Iraq, Libya and most of the countries participating in the Arab Spring) are the underlying Muslim forces that had been suppressed but never truly eradicated. Simply stated, there is no secular alternative in Syria. Topple al-Assad and the most fervent (and best organized) Islamists will take over.
This is one of the reasons why President Obama is so hesitant about offering military aide to the rebels. It's not that, as some claim "We don't know who they are." Rather, it's the precise opposite: we DO know who they are and what they believe. And it scares the daylights out of us.
Many things are beyond the military power of the United States. Creating constitutional democracies by invasion is one of those things. There are those who say intervention is to stop the bloodshed, not to impose Western values. Others say intervention that does not impose Western values is pointless. It seems to me that both miss the point. You cannot stop a civil war by adding another faction to the war unless that faction brings overwhelming power to bear. The United States has a great deal of power, but not overwhelming power, and overwhelming power's use means overwhelming casualties. And you cannot transform the political culture of a country from the outside unless you are prepared to devastate it as was done with Germany and Japan.
The United States, with its European allies, does not have the force needed to end Syria's bloodshed. If it tried, it would merely be held responsible for the bloodshed without achieving any strategic goal. There are places to go to war, but they should be few and of supreme importance.
What should we do? I really don't know; every approach is fraught with uncertainty. We do not live in a black-and-white world where what is good is always good and what is bad is always evil. Syria -- which of course entails Iran -- represents an extraordinarily complex challenge for the United States and our Western allies; one which is well beyond the scope of simplistic bluster.
So who's got the answer?
©2013 Kurt F. Stone