As I write this on the morning of August 28th, 2013, the national media is expecting imminent action by the U.S. in Syria, in response to widely accepted reports of the Assad Regime's use of chemical weapons against its own people in Damascus.
A year ago, Obama set forth his "red-line" policy with respect to chemical weapons use, and now is in the position of having to make some kind of response, in order to avoid seeming hypocritical.
The Chemical Weapons Convention Arms Control agreement, which prohibits the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, was signed in January 1993, but Syria was not a signatory.
The Assad Regime was created by the current ruler's father, Hafez al-Assad, in 1970, following a military coup. Hafez remained in power until his death in 2000, at which point his second son, Bashar, assumed power. Originally trained as a physician, Bashar had not expected a political career, since he had an elder brother. The brother, however, was killed in an automobile accident in 1994, and Bashar was then groomed for the accession. The Syrian government is a dictatorship in the familiar sense, wielding unchallenged power, and suppressing dissent by violence and secret police round-ups and torture etc. Emboldened by the so-called "Arab Spring" dissident Syrian factions initiated a civil war against the regime in 2011, which has since spread throughout the country, becoming more destructive and deadly with each passing week. Determined to quell the uprising, the Assad regime has used the full weight of its military, but has so far been unable to prevail. In the process, much of the country has been devastated, and has created an acute humanitarian crisis, with refugees, wounded, displaced people, spilling over into neighboring nations.
Calls for U.S. intervention have come from the usual critics. John McCain, who believes that all wars are worth fighting, and sides must always be taken, asks for surgical strikes. Almost no one appears to be calling for "boots on the ground." Simply lobbing rockets into a country is unlikely to have a determinative effect.
As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, even total involvement in a national or regional conflict is unlikely to produce the results we might want. Given the factional disputes and confused ethnic and political situations in the Near and Middle East, it's impossible to believe in a clear-cut advantage, whenever military options are chosen. As we are now seeing--and as I predicted in this blog two years ago and more--both Iraq and Afghanistan are on the verge of descending into chaotic civil war once again, despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars in aid, weaponry, and American lives lost. It's clear that America should never have gone to war in those places. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died as a result, and despite the fact that the regimes were toppled, there is nothing that would suggest that their immediate political and social prospects will be markedly changed for the better in the future.
Iraq and Afghanistan proved once again, just as Vietnam did, that the justifications for intervention can always be cobbled together out of well-meaning intentions. An evil regime, a suppressed people, widespread conflict and suffering, regional political instability--all these conditions may occur at any time in South America, Africa, the Near and Middle East, and Asia.
At home, there will always be advocates for the use of military power, those who stand to gain from its use, and those who take heart in the use of power to effect political, policy, diplomatic or simple ethical ends. The Israel lobby continues to exert an influence far in excess of the value of our commitment to a Jewish state. Syria, it should be remembered, is an avowed enemy of Israel, and has been implicated in the support of anti-Israel groups. Syria is a Muslim country, but not a theocracy.
I question the wisdom of our becoming involved in the Syrian civil war. Whoever prevails in the ongoing conflict, the main impression to be derived from our intervention would be resentment and suspicion. Since it is impossible to predict which faction is likely to rise to prominence in a post-Assad Syria, there is no guarantee that we would end up being perceived as beneficent supporters. Like Saddam Hussein, or Ali Khamenei in Iran, Bashar Assad is a monolithic presence, ruthless in his determination to prevail. Leaving him in power is an unpleasant option, but one which needs to be considered alongside more problematic ones.
The initial pretext for our entering the conflict now is that the use of chemical weapons, if left unchallenged, will set a precedent which is unacceptable. But without a clear purpose in our policy, what is it that we can hope to accomplish? If we accept the idea that the ouster of Assad ("regime change" as the policy was defined during the Bush II administrations) is a preferred outcome, how should we go about bringing that about? Do we really want that to happen, and if we do, are we willing to commit to another open-ended shooting war? Or should we "limit" our exposure to direct material support with weapons and technical aid. If that, who exactly are we supporting, and what is the bargain we are striking with these "allies"? It would be nice if we knew the answers to these questions, but at present, no one seems willing to offer any easy definitions.
People will die in Afghanistan and Iraq and Egypt and Syria today, and they will go on dying in the days and weeks and months and years ahead. They will die for the wrong reasons, or, as in the case of many civilians, for no reason but that they happen to live in the wrong part of the world. There is nothing the U.S. can do to change the fundamental causes of conflict in these countries. Even all-out war, as we have seen, only ends up complicating the situation. Once our influence is withdrawn, the same conflicting interests resume their old feuds. And this is exactly the case in Syria. The seeds of conflict existed before the Assad family took control, and they will be there after the Assads have been deposed, whenever that occurs.
The most difficult thing is to admit that even with all the king's men and all the king's horses, our power is of little use in making the world right for democracy. Cases can be made for the prosecution of our national interests, which may amount to nothing more than protecting our access to oil, or of maintaining a traditional "balance of power" in a certain region of the world. But salving our benighted conscience(s) is an extraordinarily naive excuse for direct military intervention. We can't "save lives" with rockets, nor can we "nation-build" with tanks and bazookas. It doesn't work that way. Perhaps it would make some kind of ethical "sense" to believe that by killing a hundred thousand people, one could bring democracy to a nation of 20 or 30 million, beset by religious and ethnic strife. But to believe that is folly.
Obama has shown himself to be a President who tries hard not to make big blunders, offering caution and care against impulsiveness and raw emotion. If he capitulates now to the bellicose demands of the warmongers, he'll squander that legacy in a day.