Thursday, August 9, 2012

Are Obama and the US AWOL in Syria?

Gotta say I'm a huge fan of the NYT's Nicholas Kristof, mostly because his most deeply held tenet when it comes to how the US should relate to the world seems to be "Killing people is bad; helping people is good."  Would that some of the denizens of DoS and DoD (not to mention Bush's DoJ) had taken note.

But fresh from a seminar at the Aspen Institute, Kristof has decided (see today's NYT essay) that it's time for the US to get into the fight in Syria.  His reasons jive well with the tenet noted above: (1) the Syrian civil war threatens to kill more people by expanding beyond Syria, (2) Syria's WMDs are a threat; (3) people are dying, at a rate that surpasses that in Libya (which NK seems to chalk up as a US success. The jury, of course, is still out.)

But NK's argument seems lacking and/or flawed in some places.  Perhaps I ought not go here, but that might include his quoting, in support of his opinion, of fellow seminar-goers Madeleine Albright (she of "it was worth it" infamy - referring of course to her 60 Minutes interview where she opined that the sanctions-caused deaths of half a million Iraqi kids was worth it) and William Perry, the former Clinton SecDef on whose watch the US launched illegal air-strikes against Iraq (see Operation Desert Fox) and generally ramped up Iraqis misery.  

But NK also claims that the failure to secure a Security Council resolution against Assad ought not stop the US; after all, it didn't stop the US in Bosnia in 1999.  Yes, but the US military of 1999 was the so-called "hyperpower" of what Francis Fukuyama was celebrating as the era of the "end of history."  And the Russia that opposed US intervention in 1999 had barely crawled out from under the debacle of the Soviet Union's break-up and its aftermath.  The Russia that opposes the US in re Syria in 2012 is a resurgent, assertive, highly nationalistic power led by a skilled and entrenched quasi-dictator in Mr. Putin.  Moreover, the Russia of 2012 has its heavy hand on the spigot of much of the natural-gas supply upon which many of the US's allies in Europe depend.  No minor consideration, that, when one ponders the repercussions of the US challenging Russia's interests.  I'm not saying that Obama ought automatically to back away - but Kristof needs to acknowledge all of the helpings on Obama's plate.

And what about China?  China likewise is opposed to US/UN intervention in Syria.  In 1999 China was surely an up-and-comer.  In 2012, China has emerged as the US's most significant military and economic rival. China also holds trillions of dollars of US debt in the wake of Mr. Bush's no-tax military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Some would call that leverage.  The point here is that intervening in Syria without China signing on would pose complications and repercussions that it would likewise behoove Kristof to at least acknowledge.

Kristof also claims:

One step would be for the United States to move naval forces off the Syrian coast, while Turkey and Israel moved more troops close to their borders with Syria. This would pin down Syrian troops so that Assad would have fewer forces available to murder his people.

Russia, of course, already has naval forces in the area.  Inserting an increased US naval presence surely risks creating an incident that might touch off something more serious.  For Turkey to move troops closer to the Syrian border raises the prospect of conflict with the region's Kurds, who have felt put upon by Turkey for decades.  For Israel to do so might motivate many in the Arab world to rally to Assad's side against a putative Israeli threat.  In particular, such an Israeli move might force Mr. al-Maliki's hand in Iraq, in a direction that the US would likely find very troubling.

NK also claims:

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton scholar who previously served as a senior Obama administration official, has offered sensible proposals for action. She suggests that the United States and other countries provide antitank and antiaircraft weapons and perhaps air cover to commanders who protect civilians and eschew sectarian or revenge killings. Some Free Syrian Army commanders have signed such a code of conduct. With our allies, we can also advise Syrian commanders that if they abandon Assad they may have a role in Syria’s future. If they go down with Assad, they won’t.

With all due respect to Prof. Slaughter (whose work I generally admire), can the US really separate out that effectively the white-hat rebels from the black-hat rebels - especially if there are no US boots on the Syrian ground?  Given the mishmash that is the Syrian resistance forces, how can the US effectively ensure that the weapons it supplies will not fall into the hands of "al-Qaeda" jihadists or Sunni-sectarian militias who might turn them soon thereafter against Alawi villagers?  It ought to be clear by now, based on the US experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, that the US does not "do" tribal/sectarian/local nuance all that well - and that was with US forces actually on scene in those countries.  And where/how, in Kristof's world, does the US get off in believing that it can pick and choose who gets to make the new Syria, and who doesn't?  Some might term this hubris.  I wouldn't argue.

To be frank, much of NK's reasoning - and the reasoning of those whose ideas and support he cites - seems to emanate from an earlier American-exceptionalist reality that never may have been as real as we'd thought: that the US always has the requisite military and economic power, and the unquestioned moral authority, to fix things - and to fix things in a way that won't impose potentially catastrophic costs on the US itself.

1945, after all, was almost 70 years ago.


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