Cartoon Courtesy of presseurop.eu
Syria is a mess. It’s the biggest mess U.S. foreign policy has seen in a long time. And the only thing that is anywhere near as messy is the political firestorm on what to do about it.
To illustrate this shitschturm (excuse my German), you need only to look at media headlines. The boundary between Republicans and Democrats has completely dissolved. Members on both sides are now defending Obama, attacking Obama, wanting more information, demanding decisive action, criticizing strategy, offering advice, searching for partners, scorning allies, calling the president weak, lauding the president’s strength, wishing for more democratic process, promoting covert action and generally arguing over every aspect of the Syria crisis.
Does anyone have any idea what’s going on?
Almost everyone seems to have a problem with Obama’s actions towards Syria. Unfortunately, while there are many options, none are clearly better than any other. There isn’t even a consensus on what his plan’s flaws are.
Amongst this frantic political blame-a-thon, however, are many key points that don’t get enough attention. Here I present a few of them, as well as short explanations for why they are important. While there are no real facts in Syria, these are as close as we can get, and help paint a picture of just how impossible it is to solve this crisis.
1. The die has already been cast. When Obama set the ‘red line’ a year ago to try and prevent chemical weapons use, there was none of the uproar we see now. At that point, it was just as likely to work as anything else, perhaps more so. It was always gamble, as all foreign policy actions are. Crowing ‘I told you so’ after it failed to dissuade Assad is false, selfishly political and potentially damaging to the country’s credibility.
2. Something must be done. Except for maybe some die-hard isolationists, no one wants to see international norms collapse, especially those that ban chemical weapons and have so far assigned the horrors of World War I to history books. But this is exactly what could happen if Assad gets away with these gas attacks. Whether wise or not, Obama has made the U.S. the #1 defender of this norm and any action, even a ‘symbolic strike’ fig leaf, is better than nothing.
3. Syria is a no-win situation. The war in Syria is between a genocidal, chemically armed dictator and an undefined rebel group consisting largely of Islamist radicals. If we strike Assad, we may get tangled in a civil war with no guarantee of toppling him or that the replacement would be better. If we don’t, both the norm against chemical weapons and the U.S. position as an international peacekeeper become bad jokes. Either way, the civil war goes on.
4. The politics of Syria are also a no-win situation, for similar reasons. Democrats don’t want war, but don’t want to betray Obama. Republicans don’t want to support Obama, but don’t want to abandon U.S. power in the Middle East. If he seeks Congressional approval, Obama is inconsistent and weak. If he doesn’t, he’s unilateral, reckless and maybe even unconstitutional. If Congress votes yes, they might have to justify another war to their not-so-keen constituents. If they vote no, Russia, China and Iran take this victory to the bank. Anyone want to sort this one out?
5. Syria is not the same as Libya, and asking for ‘consistency’ between approaches to the two is shortsighted. Assad has the support of many Syrians who fear sectarian revenge killings should he fall; he has powerful allies in Russia and China; he also has modern weaponry good enough to shoot down U.S. planes. He will be far harder to topple than the quasi-senile Gaddafi, who had none of these things. Tagging onto French air strikes is a no-brainer compared to the labyrinth of finding a solution in Syria.
6. Real multilateralism is impossible. Despite calls for international support, only France has tentatively committed to the mission. The British Parliament, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Arab League have all insisted on U.N. action. This is merely political cover for doing nothing, since China and Russia will block any U.N. proposal against Assad.
Clearly this Gordian knot is far more twisted that any one person can sort out. You could write a book on the complexity of the Syrian crisis, except that it would be out of date by the time you finished the first chapter.
The real moral of the story is that no one is in any position to judge Obama’s actions.
This is not an endorsement of his approach, but merely an assessment that every other path is just as likely to fail. Informed citizens should be realistic about the options available before branding the president as weak or incompetent. And we need to temper our expectations. There is little hope for real success. Let’s just avoid a cataclysm.