No Easy Answers on Syria
There are a number of underlying questions regarding Syria. Most important: is it ever right to go to war if we, or our allies, are not directly attacked? Even after we were attacked at Pearl Harbor and Congress declared war on Japan, Congress did not declare war on Germany; Germany declared war on us. Had they not, would we have declared war on them?
The question may seem absurd, but no one can answer for certain. In 2011, we attacked Afghanistan and Iraq because we were attacked on our homeland by a stateless group of Islamic terrorists. The nineteen hailed from four different Arab nations but were harbored by states that supported terrorism, including both Iraq and Afghanistan.
And what really is a weapon of mass destruction? Calvary forces, in World War I, were mowed down by machine guns. Arguably, those guns were weapons of mass destruction. Mustard gas and other chemical weapons caused agonizing deaths in the trenches during that same war. But General Haig’s decision to launch the Battle of the Somme caused 60,000 casualties on the first day alone – none by chemical weapons.
Was General Haig a weapon of mass destruction? When Hitler’s storm troops machine gunned Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw ghettos, were not those SS troops using weapons of mass destruction?
In 1925, the Geneva Protocol was signed which prohibited the use of biological and chemical weapons. However, that did not stop the Italians from using such weapons against the Abyssinians in 1935, nor did it stop the Japanese in their war against the Chinese in the late 1930s. Sarin gas, which was the gas used by the Iraqis against the Kurds and allegedly used by the Syrians, was invented by the Nazis in 1938. The Geneva Protocol did not stop the Iraqis from using chemical weapons against the Iranians in the 1980s, nor did it stop the Iraqis from gassing their own people – the Kurds – in the late 1980s.
Did we interfere in any of these cases? No. Nor did we interfere in the Cambodian killing fields of 1975, or in the Rwanda genocide in 1994.
This does not mean we should not interfere in this case, but beyond the posturing and the pontificating, we must at least look back on the historical record. We must also never forget that we are the only nation that has used nuclear weapons in time of war. (For the record, I believe in that instance President Truman made the right decision.)
Bashar al-Assad has allegedly killed almost 100,000 of his people, but less than two percent with chemical weapons. Does that make the other deaths less vile? We are okay with the 98,000, but not with the 1,500? The question is rhetorical. None of this is meant to diminish the horrors of chemical weapons, or to forgive the butcher that is Assad. And, keep in mind, two years ago, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to Assad as a reformer.
Another question concerns our responsibility and role as Americans: Is it to police the world? Surely we can not become isolationists, but neither can we afford the manpower or the funds to watch over every dictator and respond to every mass killing. We are the dominant military power in the world, but more important we are the best example of democracy and the most compassionate nation the world has ever seen. By our very existence we are a manifestation of the promise of freedom and liberty. We have many detractors, especially among leaders of illiberal nations, but there is no other country to which so many struggle to come.
Most of us did little to make this country what it is. We may have helped keep it, but most of us were born here, and only a small percentage has served in combat. We have been lucky. It is only natural that Americans fortunate enough to be living in a democracy would wish such a system for others. But revolution or regime change without provision for an alternative government leads to anarchy. It is the difference between the United States in 1776 and France in 1789.
Committing Americans to war is a sobering responsibility. In a recent interview, former President George W. Bush sympathized with President Obama's dilemma: “There is no harder decision for a President to make than to send troops into harm’s way.” The conflict in Syria is simply a further example of the agonizing civil wars that have infected much of the Muslim world.
The Middle East is a lesson in the non-linear history of civilization. Two thousand years ago the advancement of civilization was remarkable throughout most of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia regions. Our concept of democracy came from the agoras in Greek city states, and our sense of liberty came from the forum in Rome. Hindu-Arabic numbers replaced Roman numerals a thousand or more years ago. About 850BC, a Persian mathematician wrote the first book on algebra. The Musaeum of Alexandria included the largest library in the world three hundred years before Christ was born. Streets in Alexandria, at the time of Cleopatra, were as wide as New York’s Park Avenue, and canted so that sewage would not gather.
Yet today, on the beaches of Alexandria, women are forced to wear burkas, whereas sixty years ago they wore traditional western bathing suits. Over the ages, civilizations have risen and fallen. What we are witnessing is much of the Muslim world falling backward in time. Mr. Obama’s election and his speech in Cairo did nothing to stop that.
The President was elected largely because of his promise to extract the country from two wars and a new relationship with the Muslim world; a world with which he was familiar, having spent part of his youth in Indonesia attending Muslim schools. He would be the “un-Bush.” In his Cairo speech in June 2009, he promised a new acceptance toward Muslims, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, not for what he had done, but for what the committee thought he would do. He was going to “reset” relations with Russia and “pivot” toward Asia.
What he has found is a world far more complex than he understood, and that his interest in “changing” America meant that he failed to concentrate on the complexities of the Middle East. In particular he appears to have underestimated the role played by extremists who for several decades have been pushing the concept of Sharia law, and he (as do too many in the West) seems unconcerned as to the debilitating effect of such laws on our liberal culture. In viewing the Arab Spring as a victory for democracy, he failed to note the role played by the Muslim Brotherhood and, worse, failed to recognize the devastation that Islamic extremists could visit on their own people – the degrading of women and the killing of all who disagree with their fundamental view toward Islam.
A year ago, he foolishly drew a red line regarding Syria and the use of chemical weapons, naively (perhaps) thinking that such a promise would be taken to heart by the butcher of Damascus. When the first indications arrived that such weapons had been used, he backed off – claiming he needed more proof, or that the number of victims was too small. But he never used those months following his threat to build a consensus, either in Congress or among our allies. The hated George Bush got Congressional approval and support from 48 allies for both the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions.
With Parliament, in the first such vote since 1782, turning down British Prime Minister David Cameron’s request, Mr. Obama has support only from the French. The U.S. Congress will now debate and vote on the issue when they return on Monday. In embarrassing his Secretary of State by asking for Congress’ support, Mr. Obama has again delayed any retribution and placed Congress on the hook should they vote in favor and should something go wrong. And if they vote against intervention, Mr. Obama has simply passed the buck. Personal accountability is not in Mr. Obama’s bag of tricks.
The President inadvertently (or stupidly) boxed himself in. The problem is of his own making. That he has become defensive could be detected in the tone of his speech on Saturday. In order to save face he will have to do something, unless Congress says no. And, even then, he might, as he claims the authority to do so. Most kids in grade school learn that to promise retaliation for an offense and then not deliver is a sign of weakness. To make such a promise without a plan shows incompetence.
Unfortunately, Mr. Obama, when distanced from his teleprompters, has a tendency to speak loosely. Had he acted quickly and decisively, giving Assad time to evacuate before immediately destroying his palace in Damascus, for example, it would have sent a message that our weapons are accurate and deadly, that we know where you are, and that we can kill you at will.
In the meantime, the world awaits as to whether Mr. Obama carries a big stick or a wiffle bat. Ambivalence, in situations like these, does not help. However, doing nothing, after promising to respond, sends a worse message to other dictators around the world who also have access to the world’s most devastating weapons. Would the world be safer without the U.S. as its policeman?
Should we, as Tony Blair asked in 2009, “…tolerate the intolerable because of fear of the unpredictable consequences that interventions can bring?” Like Ulysses, Mr. Obama must navigate between the shoals of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis that reflect this situation. In my opinion, should the President decide to militarily attack Syria, it becomes our duty as Americans to support the President as Commander in Chief and to back those men and women who may be placed in harm’s way.
In all things, there is a natural temptation to avoid making difficult decisions. That the Middle East is a maelstrom of immeasurable dimensions is a statement of the obvious. Where the fault lies as to why passions are so firmly held is too complicated to fully understand – certainly for me. Centuries ago, Muslims split between the Sunnis and the Shiites. In the aftermath of World War I, the borders between Middle East countries were arbitrarily drawn by former colonialists with help from the United States and the ill-fated League of Nations. Following the Holocaust, thousands of Jews were returned to their ancient homeland, which was then home to Palestinians.
Would the situation have been better had the Americans and Europeans left things as they were? Who knows? They didn’t. We are left to deal with the world as it is, not the way we would like it.
War has terrible consequences, no matter the weapons used. Besides the killings and destruction, it creates millions of displaced people. Like marriage, it should not be entered into lightly. There are very few moderates like King Abdullah II of Jordan in the Middle East. On one side we have (had) militaristic dictators like Mubarak, Hussein, and Assad, or authoritarians like the royal family in Saudi Arabia and the President of Yemen.
On the other side, we have the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda-like terrorists. One group wants to maintain an uneasy and brutal status quo; the other wants to see civilization rolled back – the killing of all infidels and the degrading of women. The latter group cites the Qur’an, which likens “a woman to a field, to be used by a man as he wills.” For Americans, there is no good choice.
Certainly, we have interests in the Middle East. It is home to one of our closest allies, Israel. It still controls a major part of the world’s oil. The Suez Canal is critical to shipping from Europe to Asia. Through the Straits of Hormuz flows a large percentage of the world’s oil. There is no question that the world would be a far happier place if democracy reigned in the capital cities of Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran, Riyadh, Sana’a and others.
But it doesn’t, and it likely won’t in my lifetime. In dealing with these people, whoever's side we choose, we must be resolute and keep our promises. To do otherwise condemns us to being ineffectual. Protecting our interests involves dealing with people we don’t like. It’s unfortunate, but true.