Friday, September 06, 2013

No honorable man.

This is how Vali Nasr, an Iranian-born Shi'a and Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies makes the case for American action in Syria:
"It is in America’s strategic interest... to take decisive action to mortally wound the Assad regime. Ensuring that Syria does not become a haven for Al Qaeda—a legitimate fear—would have to immediately follow. 
"Mr. Assad may be right to think the Obama administration does not want involvement in Syria, but the horrors of this war have effectively forced America into it. The risks of intervention are great, and success is uncertain, but doing nothing would be, at this point, far worse. 
"America should act decisively and in a timely manner, and based on a strategic vision that includes a way out of this war. That would impress American allies and adversaries alike. That is what the world needs and what Mr. Obama should focus on."
Nasr's comments tell so much of the story. He argues for intervention in a war that Americans by and large want no part of. He does not advocate, as the President has argued, for a narrow action that would punish President Bashar al-Assad for the use of sarin gas in contravention of international agreements. Nor does he suggest that American action should tilt the balance of power in the Syrian civil war. Rather, he argues for decisive action to mortally wound the Assad regime. 

Nasr is not a member of the Neocon establishment in making the case for American action in pursuit of regime change.  Nor is he a Sunni Muslim arguing for American intervention on behalf of his rebel co-religionists. Rather, he is a scholar whose recent books, The Dispensable Nation and The Shia Revival, together provide the backdrop of the current dilemma, who believes that America must act, essentially, because only America can. Nasr is making a case that is anathema to the left and the right alike, and—unless the President outdoes himself this Tuesday—much of the rest of the country.

For much of the country, the notion that America has a unique role to play in the world is not itself objectionable, and there is even a recognition that military force plays a role. But it is when Nasr appends the codicil that the Obama administration take aggressive action in Syria based on a strategic vision that includes a way out of this war that he loses much of his audience. Assume for a moment an exit strategy. He just slips that in at the end, as though it is easy, that it can be trusted that there will be an easy way out. Like when Donald Rumsfeld in his own smarmy way assured the country that an invasion of Iraq would be brief, five days, five weeks but certainly no more than five months.

I want to write my own argument about the many reasons to stay out of Syria. It feels like déjà vu all over again. Nasr's words appeal to what I think are the better angels of my nature, to my deeply rooted belief that the world needs America, but the events of the past half century have taught me to be suspect both of our motives and of our capabilities. Now, as I hear in Nasr's words, the rolling of the drums and the tramping of the feet, I have to pinch myself and remember, we already know that road. We know exactly where it ends. 

Somehow, our capacity to learn from our own recent experiences has become impaired. The President wants to talk in terms of limited, narrow actions, but can he really believe it is so simple? He has found a comfort zone as the cruise missile warrior, but it is a fantasy. As soon as the photographs of the inevitable collateral damage emerge, Americans who are now being implored to enter Syria to tip the scale against the Assad regime will reap the resentments of the families and clans of those we kill. Lest we forget that in 2003 American soldiers were welcomed as liberators by the largely Shiite marsh Arabs in the early days of the Iraq war. Or that in its 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon, Israelis were greeted warmly by the Lebanese Shi'a seeking relief from their Palestinian occupiers.

In each case, the logical argument that "my enemy's enemy is my friend" proved to be short-lived, and just as Saddam became the modern Saladin in the eyes of many in the Arab world for taking the blows of the western invaders, one can easily imagine a defiant and resurgent Bashar al-Assad reaping the praise of the Arab street once the American missiles fall and images of the bodies of maimed and dead Syrian children are broadcast across the world. Taking a page out of Saddam's playbook, Assad will be able to point to the Saudis and the Gulf monarchies that are backing the American action and funding the foreign Salafist fighters who themselves are slaughtering Syrians, and remind the world that they are the ones who are bent on destroying the relatively secular and tolerant society that Syria once has been.

And should Assad achieve that high ground, what will be our response when he uses gas again, challenging a United States President who has sought to fight a war on the cheap to up the ante. Has a President who apparently gave little thought to what comes after a red line is crossed considered what the next six moves look like?

We are entering a world that we have never mastered, and whose loyalties and enmities defy our grasp. Some have made the argument that arming the rebels is necessary to assure that America has influence in the post-Assad era, but that argument as well seems to be unsubstantiated by our recent history. Ten years after Rumsfeld's five day war morphed into a decade, and we lost 4,500 young Americans and spent $2 trillion, Iraq has traded a Sunni despot for a Shiite autocrat and is on the brink of a civil war of its own. And Nouri al-Maliki, our hand picked Prime Minister is every day moves closer to an overt alliance with Iran.

And now, the same Shiite community that was liberated from Saddam and his Baath Party's predations by American soldiers has little but scorn for the notion of an American action to liberate Syrians from Assad and the Syrian Baathists. As America considers an attack on the Assad regime and offers of aid and comfort to the Sunni, al Qaeda allied rebels, one Iraqi summed their take on the situation: No honorable man will accept what the Americans want to do in Syria.”

Of course, even as the President continues to argue that he is motivated by the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, the administration's rhetoric is obliquely about Iran more than it is about Syria. It is about the nature of "red lines" and the President's withering credibility. Thus, the importance of the proposed Syrian attack as a warning to others around the world that this type of behavior is not to be tolerated.

It is about Iran, and it is about Israel. Over the course of the escalating Syrian civil war, Israel has struggled to remain neutral. And for good reason. As much as there has been a permanent state of hostilities between Israel and the Assad regime, it was a classic example of the devil you know. It is only in the past week that Israel endorsed President Obama's plans. This may well turn out to be a mistake, particularly given the incremental nature of the President's vision. If a few cruise missiles are lobbed in, with little effect on the outcome, Israel could realize the worst of all possibilities. First, Israel will have become a partisan in an active conflict with Hezbollah and Iran. Second, by whipping up AIPAC in support of the proposed war resolution, it may give ammunition to those who are only too eager to frame the debate in Congress as being about Jewish control over U.S. foreign policy. And finally, while it will have supported the President in giving "meaning" to one red line, Israel will in truth have no greater assurance that the President's red line with respect to Iran's production of nuclear weapons is meaningful.

In Sweden this week, the President sought to deflect the issue from his own words about red lines, but to no avail. Instead, he remained trapped in his own contorted insistence that the international community sign on to a military action that would be taken by the United States to punish a violation of international law, without going through the steps laid out in international law to legally authorize such action. It was not Putin who undermined the President, but the weakness of his own arguments. By the time he returned to the nation's capital, the President had managed to secure the endorsement of just a bare majority of eleven of the G-20 countries that the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons warranted a response, while of that group only Saudi Arabia and Turkey voiced support for the proposed American missile attack.

The story published this week of the assault on Maaloula—an ancient, Aramaic-speaking Christian community—by a Syrian rebel force comprising the al Qaeda controlled al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army illustrates the overwhelming complexity of the Syrian conflict, as well as why the Syrian Christian community that comprises 10% of the population has largely supported the Assad regime. This story, along with the televised execution of unarmed Alawites by Sunni fighters, will only give Congress greater pause regarding efforts to support any side of the conflict. The Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Shiite Mahdi Army in Iraq, and Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon are each adversaries that began as allies in wars past. Despite the pleas of John McCain's and others for regime change in Syria, Congress and the American people may be a hard sell.

If President Obama is to prevail and win his war resolution, it may turn out that it is neither Vali Nasr's arguments nor the President's impassioned words that will bring Congress to the his side. Instead, it may be the arguments that are emerging from the traditional partisans of our political wars. On the right, Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard, has laid down the fundamental principle that the nation will be weakened irreparably in the world by a defeat on the proposed resolution. Specifically, Kristol quotes James Ceaser of the University of Virginia:
"Republicans should support some version of the authorization of force resolution. They should do so even if they think that the President’s policy will prove ineffective, do no good, waste money, or entail unforeseen risks; they should do so even if they think he has gotten the nation into this situation by blunders, fecklessness, arrogance, or naiveté; and they should so even if, and especially, if they have no confidence in his judgment. The simple fact is that the nation and our allies will be at further risk if the world sees a presidency that is weakened and that has no credibility to act. Partisans may be tempted to see such a result as condign punishment for the President’s misjudgments; they may feel that he deserves to pay the price for his hypocrisy and cheap and demagogic attacks on his predecessor. But at the end of the day, Republicans need to rise above such temptations; the stakes are too high. The weaker the president’s credibility on the world scene, the more the need to swallow and do what will not weaken it further. President Obama is the only president we have. That remains the overriding fact."
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats who are loath to follow the President may find themselves trumped by the evolving politics of the vote before them. The President's advisors know full well that the rest of the Obama presidency lies in the balance, and that a defeat would leave him "permanently weakened." Thus, for Democrats, the vote to come may have little to do with chemical weapons and the wisdom of war and peace, and become instead an up or down vote of no confidence in the President and the leader of their party.

Thus, for all the high brow talk about the moral issues involved, the Syria war resolution may well force many in Congress to vote against both their own beliefs as well of those of many Americans, and the issues that drive that vote may turn out to be quite different from those being debated today.