I don’t suppose the world waits with bated breath until an obscure blogger and confirmed crank chimes in on the headlong rush to put another target pin in the already bristling map of the Middle East. Events rush forth heedless of his opinions or protests. But the old fool insists on entering the fray anway. This is what he has to say:
Stop it! Damn it, Stop it, Mr. President, before you blunder into a deadly morass in Syria because your advisors and all of the very serious talking heads on cable news convince you that because you drew an imaginary bright red line in the sand over the use of chemical weapons you are compelled to reign thousands and thousands of tons of high explosives and billions of dollars in armaments or lose your credibility, whatever the hell that is.
As Jon Stewart so eloquently pointed out in his return to The Daily Show, “the red line that they crossed is actually a dick-measuring ribbon.” And that is just not a good enough reason to join the War of the Month Club.
Since you announced to the world you intention to spank President Bashar Hafez al-Assad with high tech munitions last week, things have moved swiftly. And unfortunately for you, not all that well. Not only did many of your domestic enemies in the right wing of the Republican Party, suddenly discover a war that didn’t make their little hearts race with wild anticipation when the man on the White Horse is Black, but the allies you sought to back up your claim that you would be enforcing, somehow, international law were scarce and unreliable.
Oh sure, the French are on board—fat lot of good it will do you—and the Turks who have a few troubles of their own. The Israelis always want Americans to be their proxies in regional conflict. But in Britain, Parliament decisively slapped down the Prime Minister’s attempt to join the party. The Saudis who have a dog or two in the fight and who may have actually provided the sarin which proved deadly in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta—more on that later—have your back as well. How comforting that must be.
But the rest of the world, not so much. Not the United Nations, not NATO are prepared to give your explosive intervention the cover of international law. The U.S. refuses to recognize the World Court in The Hague and Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention and thus not subject to its strictures and restrictions. In fact, most of the world governments which have spoken are opposed to U.S. intervention. As measured by polls, popular opinion around the world is even more negative. As it is right here at home.
So much for the real politic assertion that the world yearns for “reliable” leadership from the United States and that failure to follow up on a hastily made threat will be seen as weakness and “unreliability.” Mr. President the world does not want to rely on your itchy trigger finger.
The problem is not that anyone thinks the use of chemical weapons, especially on civilian populations, is acceptable. The problem is that in about two years Syria has degenerated from and Arab spring movement when largely secularized middle class citizens took to the streets to bring down the Al-Hassad family dynasty. Both they and the West expected that the regime would crumble quickly. But Assad not only had firm support in the military and the firm backing of allies Iran and Russia, but even many majority Sunnis who had prospered in the four decade Ba’athist regime dominated by minority Alawites, a secretive Shi’a minority. Taking a cue from Bahrain, where, ironically, a Sunni King ruthlessly suppressed a largely Shi’a popular uprising, Assad dug in. He ruthlessly suppressed protests with the free use of arms, especially away from the capital and most Western press. Hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes, many into exile as refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and even in war torn Iraq.
It can, and has, been argued, that Western and U.S. support of the earliest popular movement might have effected regime change. But no matter how distasteful the Assad regime was, the possible successors seemed even more problematic. Mr. President, while calling for Assad to step down, you repeatedly declined to offer any real support to the opposition.
With moderate forces in society either in exile or frozen with fear, highly motivated religious and political extremists took control of a chaotic insurgency as the country slid into open civil war. It is not a united insurgency; there are numerous groups on the ground bound by sectarian, tribal, and ideological ties. Many benefit from arms and support from abroad, including fairly open arming of Sunni forces by the Saudis, and the emergence of an active Al-Qaeda presence in a country that had previously not only kept that tendency out, but which actively allied itself with the Bush Administration’s effort to crush it.
On the other hand the Iranians and Russians stand behind the regime and have been supplying arms and technical assistance, not unlikely including chemical weapon technology. The Syrian Civil War was becoming a regional war-by-proxy. And it has begun to spill into unstable Lebanon and over the borders of Turkey.
In essence there are no good guys this bloody fight, only the largely innocent civilian population caught in the vicious cross fire.
The problem with intervention, even if we assume the absolute responsibility of the Assad regime in the use of chemical weapons, the supposed Casus belli, is that our bombs and missiles, while killing a lot of folks, may effectively tip the balance for one of the factions we may not be too thrilled about seeing come to power. Or we may rally flagging popular and regional support for Assad and actually strengthen him. No one has up with any scenario in which U.S. military action actually improves the situation.
Despite this, you seem to be determined to plunge ahead and trotted out Secretary of State John Kerry, who rose to national prominence as a young Vietnam veteran in uniform testifying against that war in Congress, to make your case for intervention. And frankly, his presentations failed to convince many that the Syrian regime had actually employed chemical weapons. His assertions were vague, at best. And from the beginning came reports, including from United Nations Inspectors on the ground, that the deadly incident in Ghouta where as many as 1,400 died, may have actually been the result of insurgent actions either accidentally or as an attack on their own people to draw the west into the war.
The public clamor was rising against you, Mr. President. Conservatives were suddenly insisting that you needed prior approval of Congress for military action. Your old speeches on Iraq, demanding Congressional approval for that war, were dredged up. You were forced to say that you would submit your case to Congress. Of course some of the very same people who had demanded that on Thursday, denounced you on Friday for “vacillating” and showing weakness.
Kerry appeared on all of the Sunday morning news programs on broadcast and cable. He fleshed out his case, but was bare on specifics or supporting documentation. Assertions that claims of rebel responsibility were not “credible” were themselves not credible. Pardon the American people if we don’t trust the hype. Bitter experience has taught us, and you are looking more like George W. every day.
You put the full press on and did get old Senator John McCain, the classic never-met-a-war-I-didn’t-like hawk, to give you support. So did a very uncomfortable and orange House Speaker John Boehner. But the Republican rank-and-file is reluctant to follow suit and Democrats are torn.
Kerry appeared before a Senate panel following a parade of uniforms and ribbons yesterday. He offered dramatically less “proof” than Colin Powell did about alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Much of Powell’s impressive case later turned out to have been largely fabricated in Dick Cheney’s basement, so it is little wonder that Kerry’s weaker case wasn’t unanimously greeted as gospel.
Meanwhile more reports were emerging that the sarin gas had been supplied by the Saudis to a Sunni faction and that careless handling of the chemicals caused an accidental explosion and release. These reports may be propaganda as well, but vague reports of chatter by low level Army commanders—no intercepted texts provided—or of rocket launches 90 minutes before the release of gas, and heavy reliance on social media in Syria, were hardly more convincing
Mr. President, you are in a pickle. In the end today you could only get a 10 to 7 vote with one “present” in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Opposition included 5 Republicans and 2 Democrats. You may win next week in the full Senate, which is narrowly controlled by your party. But it would not take very many defections on the left to put your scheme at risk even there.
Things are even grimmer for you in the Republican/crazy-as-a-loon controlled House of Representatives where the many Tea Party types are salivating at the chance to use this vote to “bring down the President.” The Neo-cons and imperialists may reluctantly lend support, but they are a beleaguered minority in the caucus. In addition there are a solid number of anti-war Democrats who have already announced opposition. Nose counters yesterday reported that only 11 House Republicans are sure or likely supporters, 124 are likely in opposition, and 98 are undecided. On the Democratic side, there are 35 yeas, 45 nays, and 120 on the fence. There are so many ways you could lose the vote in the House, that it is difficult to envision you actually winning it.
Which is why, alarmingly, yesterday you said that you were only deigning to “consult” Congress as a courtesy but that regardless of a vote you had the executive power as Commander in Chief to order the attack anyway. Leaving aside for the lawyers whether having once asked for Congresses explicit approval, you can disregard its rejection; this course would be a disaster for the nation and for your presidency. Not only could it revive domestic dissent to levels not seen since the height of the Occupy movement, but it would surely bring paralyzing impeachment proceedings in the House and permanently sully your legacy.
Then there is the question of how much and how hard to strike, if you go heedlessly ahead. Assad has by now gotten plenty of advance warning to hide or harden any chemical weapons he does have as well a major cashes of arms and equipment. He is probably prepared to take hits on his air defenses, air fields, command and control facilities electrical grid, and transportation corridors, all the traditional targets of “surgical air strikes.” Military pros say that what might have been devastating in a surprise attack can now be absorbed. Too short an attack or too limited one will, we are told, be viewed as a mere symbolic slap on the wrist and be disdained by the international community. In order to be effective your attacks will have to more intense, deeper, and more damaging to the fabric of Syrian civil society as well as the regime. And even then without those “boots on the ground”, the rats that emerge from the rubble are apt to more dangerous and destabilizing to the region than even the chaos of today.
In short, Mr. President, you can’t win. The United States can’t win. And most assuredly the long suffering people of Syria can’t win.
Call off your damned war! Now!