Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

Obama, Hillary, and “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff”

August 19, 2014

imagesBill Clinton had “It’s the economy, stupid.” For President Obama, it’s “Don’t do stupid stuff” (sanitized version) in foreign affairs. Now comes Hillary saying that’s no foreign policy. She’s right.

“Stupid stuff” in Obamanese means Iraq. But Obama is so afraid of his shadow that “Don’t do stupid stuff” works out as don’t do much of anything – which unfortunately becomes don’t do smart stuff. Smart stuff is recognizing and seizing opportunities. While Obama assiduously instructs us that there are no good options in Syria, in fact this wasn’t always true. Earlier, we clearly had a window of opportunity to act in our interests (see my 3/2/12 and 11/29/12 blog posts). It would have been smart (and also right). Obama didn’t act.

images-1Was it riskless? Of course not. Nothing ever is. That’s life. You take a great risk every time you drive. Some risks are worth taking.

And of course failure to act doesn’t avoid risk – but can itself be very risky. In world affairs, it’s often really a choice (as David Brooks says) between doing something small now, or facing much greater costs later to clean up the mess. images-2Call it the “stitch in time” theory of foreign policy. Bosnia was a perfect example. So was Syria (and not just in hindsight; this was obvious early on; see again my 2012 blog posts). Once we might have gotten a big bang for our buck. Obama punted. So now, predictably, we face a giant mess.

Meantime, despite his saying it’s a fantasy to imagine that arming Syrian rebels will achieve anything, Obama is now arming Syrian rebels. Or says he is. (He’s said it before, without follow-through.) He’s probably right that it’s pointless now – so why do it? Similarly, he dithered about the “Islamic State” threat until it got beyond our ability to act usefully, yet now we are acting anyway, while Obama assures us that we do not intend to accomplish anything significant there. As though we’re allergic not to military action per se, but only purposeful military action.

images-3Don’t do stupid stuff? But hasn’t Obama done one colossally stupid thing? That would be drawing a “red line” on chemical weapons use in Syria; then ignoring line crossings; then threatening military punishment when they became egregious; then funking it by needlessly seeking permission from a Congress that would never have agreed; and then letting Putin make fools of us with an irrelevant chemical weapons cop-out. This was literally the stupidest presidential performance I’ve seen, and had dire effects in shredding American credibility.

images-4It’s enough to make one wish we had a man, like Hillary, in the White House.

Inquiring Minds Want To Know

August 13, 2014

Last year, when President Obama was mulling limited air strikes to punish Syria’s chemical weapons use, he stopped and decided it would need a Congressional vote. (I was critical.)

imagesNow we are doing air strikes in Iraq, which seems a bigger and open-ended effort, and even sending (dare say it) boots on the ground. Yet there is no whisper about any Congressional vote.

Can someone explain this to me?

World in Tumult: Tufts EPIIC Symposium

March 3, 2014

MENA Postcard aOn Sunday we attended this annual event at Tufts University. This year’s topic was the Middle East and North Africa. The six-day symposium hosted around fifty international visitors. (Our daughter Elizabeth made a presentation, see below).

The morning speaker was Nicholas Burns, former U.S. diplomat and high State Department official, currently at the Kennedy School.

Nicholas Burns

Nicholas Burns

He invoked America’s tradition of supporting people struggling for democracy, but also acknowledged a tension between such ideals and security interests. The Mid East is not a single entity, and policy must be individually tailored to each Arab country. Thus we did support democracy in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt; but in Bahrain, not so much. A concern there was buffering Iranian power.

Egypt is a dismaying case – right back under an authoritarian military regime (maybe even more repressive than Mubarak’s), outlawing the nation’s largest political group. Not smart, Burns said, if you’re trying to unite the country. (Egypt’s regime is actually not trying to do that.) Burns thinks America should do more to nudge Egypt’s regime toward democratization.

I consider overdone the notion of security concerns conflicting with democratic advancement. In the longer, larger view, U.S. security interests are best served by a more democratic world (a democratic Russia wouldn’t do what it’s doing today; nor, indeed, would a democratic Syria); and by our being perceived as a true supporter of people’s democratic aspirations.

Regarding Syria, Burns thinks America missed a big opportunity a couple of years ago in failing to materially support the revolution (see my 2/5/12 post); and another when President Obama failed to punish Assad for crossing his “red line” on chemical weapons (see my 9/11/13 post).  Burns was scathing about an international community that thinks it can do nothing about Syria; and about America’s too long trying to work with the Russians who’ve given us nothing. Russia and China have used their Security Council vetoes to block even humanitarian aid to Syrian victims. When, he queried, will there come Syria’s “Srebrenica moment” – recalling when atrocities in Bosnia finally shamed the international community – led by the U.S. – into forceful action, including a bombing campaign, to finally resolve the situation in 1995 (with a 1999 Kosovo repeat) – sidestepping the UN where similarly Russia’s veto protected Serbian aggression. Burns said that in Syria we should likewise go around the UN and intervene, at least to create humanitarian corridors, with a coalition that many Arab states would join.

UnknownBurns acknowledged the familiar refrain, “We can’t be the world’s policeman.” But he said Syria is everyone’s concern, and likened America’s role to that of the world’s system operator. Since WWII, and especially since 1991, America has indeed fulfilled this vital role. If we don’t, the world could go to Hell.

And so, Ukraine — whose “profound crisis” Burns felt compelled to address despite the conference focus on the Arab world. He ruled out direct military engagement against Russia, as far too dangerous, but otherwise called for the assertion of confident American leadership, using every possible means to “dishonor” Putin, including expelling Russia from the G-8.

During the question session, an attendee from Russia bridled at the negative characterization of Putin; actually denied that Russian troops had entered Ukraine’s territory; and said Burns was wrong about Russia blocking humanitarian aid in Syria. She cited a Security Council resolution ten days earlier, authorizing such aid, with both Russia and China voting in favor.

Burns responded that, yes, such a resolution had passed; but so watered down by Russia and China that it was toothless and meaningless. He called this one of the most cynical actions in UN history.

I wonder, had Obama manned up on Syria, would Putin now have been emboldened to invade Ukraine? This is why projection of weakness is so dangerous – more dangerous, in fact, than resolute action. Wimping out on Syria may well have bought us an even nastier problem. So often in such matters, avoidance of costs today only means greater costs tomorrow.

Russia claims it’s only acting to protect its people — against nonexistent threats. Then there’s all the hysterical rhetoric about “Nazis” in control in Kiev put there by a Western conspiracy. Even if these ludicrous lies were true, Russia’s military aggression would make no sense. The Russians are drunk on military testosterone.

Curt Rhodes

Curt Rhodes

In the afternoon session, Curt Rhodes, founder and leader of Questscope (an NGO helping vulnerable young people in the Mid East) gave a truly eloquent description of what it means to be a refugee. And Elizabeth Robinson discussed her summer visit to the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, holding 85,000 displaced Syrians, where she researched the camp’s economic life.

Elizabeth Robinson

Elizabeth Robinson

She had interviewed the camp’s head, Kilian Kleinschmidt, working for the UN, which has taken over responsibility from Jordanian authorities. Kleinschmidt is trying to make Za’atari a different kind of refugee camp, where the inhabitants themselves are empowered by having more say about what goes on.

It may be noted that the 85,000 in Za’atari actually comprise less than 1% of all those made refugees by Syria’s conflict – a number now approaching half the country’s population. These are real people, no different from you or me. Imagine what it means, what it feels like, to lose every aspect of normal life. And to the 9+ million refugees, of course, must be added the 140,000+ killed; at least 11,000 of them starved and tortured to death in the regime’s dungeons. Srebrenica moment? I guess the world now has a greater capacity for shame than in the ’90s.

Assad continues to insist he’s fighting terrorists. Syria must be populated almost entirely by terrorists to necessitate air-dropping barrel-bombs in crowded urban centers. Reportedly, Assad was recently asked, by his children, why all the violence? He replied, “Because there are bad people in the world.”

Inger Andersen

Inger Andersen

Happily, the afternoon ended on a hopeful note, with a talk by Inger Andersen, a World Bank Vice President. Talking about the Arab Spring, she stressed that revolutions take time, and we should not lose heart over setbacks. Andersen saw real progress happening in some of the countries, notably Tunisia, Morocco, and Yemen. But, while there’s been a political awakening, economic awakening is a tougher thing. In any major transition, growth can be expected to slump, and the Arabs face a double crisis: the original economic dysfunction, compounded by the uncertainty and other fallout of abrupt change. However, Anderson saw opportunities for big benefits just from opening up and simplifying the business climate, though entrenched “rentier interests” will resist. And ultimately, political reform that cements citizen rights and pluralism will promote economic growth. Andersen said that a spirit of freedom has been released in many Arab hearts and minds, and she sees a region transformed, with a newfound optimism for the possible.

Assad and Obama Wriggle Off the Hook

September 11, 2013

UnknownPutin and Assad are lying snakes, so any deal with them must engender supreme skepticism. Obama and Kerry almost say so (diplomatically), but in fact Obama will swallow whatever dish of worms Putin and Assad feed him, to wriggle off the hook on which he so needlessly impaled himself.

That hook was his foolish call for a Congressional vote – which he didn’t need and was bound to lose – a presidency-wrecker. To avoid that, Putin and Assad well know, Obama will lie down for anything.

While postponing a strike pending negotiations might be logical, postponing the vote actually is not. Congressional backing would have strengthened Obama’s negotiating position. A “no” vote, on the other hand, would have relieved Assad of the need to negotiate at all. Thus postponing the vote (forever, presumably) is Obama’s declaration of weakness; it belies his speaking last night of “the credible threat of U.S. military action.” Putting it up to Congress gutted that credibility.

images-1Many, including Obama and Kerry, have stressed how hard it will be to get a deal that will truly take care of Syria’s entire huge stock of chemical weapons. They’re right. So we’ll get a fig leaf deal. At least, you might think, it would preclude Assad from using chemical weapons again. But remember, no one thought he’d do so after Obama’s “red line” statement. And after this new agreement-to-be, if Assad re-offends, what will Obama do? Will he be up for going through this whole ghastly wringer again? I doubt it, and Assad will too. Using chemical weapons again afterward would show up Obama as a chump.

And anyway, the deal would still leave Assad’s conventional military capabilities wholly intact, capabilities he’s already used to kill 100,000, and which might have been degraded by U.S. missile strikes. Avoiding that blow, and in effect getting a free hand to continue his killing spree, in exchange for what is likely to be a meaningless restriction on chemical weapons, seems like a pretty sweet deal for Assad.

Yet I’m for it, if the alternative is Congress voting no. A fig leaf is better than naked impotence.

So, the winners: Putin and Assad, of course, and bad guys everywhere, now knowing they have little to fear from America. And Obama, who avoids doing what he never wanted to do, and the humiliation of Congress telling him he can’t.

The losers: The Syrian people, of course, and the world as a whole, which has just been made better for thugs and worse for human values, than it might have been, but for Obama’s feckless miscalculations. (Should his Nobel Peace Prize be revoked?) Unknown-1America’s credibility, and its role as the world’s policeman, take a big hit.

Yes, I said policeman, as in, “We shouldn’t be the world’s policeman.” Do you want to live in a society with no cop on the beat, and psychopaths can rampage with impunity? The fundamental social contract entails government – and policemen – protecting us from harm by others. There is no world government, but America’s role is the next best thing. Somebody has to take responsibility, step up to the plate, and act as the world’s policeman, or else we’ll live in a much more disorderly and violent world. America is the only country capable of doing it.images-4

Or would you prefer China?

The Avoider-in-Chief

September 1, 2013

“I wasn’t elected to avoid hard decisions,” President Obama declared in his Saturday speech. “Avoider-in-Chief,” NPR’s reporter immediately labeled him.

imagesAfter a really tough address by Secretary Kerry, laying out the Syrian regime’s monstrous crimes against humanity, the compelling evidence for its guilt, and the moral necessity for a response on behalf of the international community* – and then table-pounding language in Obama’s own speech – he winds up not announcing action but passing the buck to Congress!

The President has (as he said) undoubted authority for the kind of limited strike contemplated, without Congressional approval. Even the 1973 War Powers Resolution only requires notifying Congress after acting, and Congressional authorization only for military action lasting over 60 days.

images-2Indeed, so limited is the action contemplated that it probably wouldn’t achieve even its very limited objective. Unless the punishment is severe enough to curb Assad’s war-making ability, his regime may well calculate that the price is worth paying for a free hand for whatever atrocities it takes to crush opposition. And of course there are risks to us. However, after drawing a “red line” and making such a big stink about this, inaction is not an option.

Obama’s seeking a vote by the people’s representatives might sound like democratic scrupulousness. But, to begin with, it flagrantly contradicts his own words that he wasn’t elected to avoid hard decisions. It shows unwillingness to take responsibility for action he says is both necessary and within his power. It sends the world a message clear as mud.

Unknown-1Secondly, it sets a highly undesirable precedent, undermining presidential authority as commander-in-chief. While in the past, major military undertakings, like both Iraq wars, have been preceded by congressional votes, that’s never been true of limited actions like this. (Such as Obama’s own Libya intervention, much more extensive.) The idea that these actions too should now have congressional authorization – even though not legally required – will unduly tie the hands of future presidents. An America tied up in knots over every little military action is not good for world security.

And thirdly, of course, Congress may well balk. Most voters are dubious of any involvement in Syria. Many Democrats hate all military actions and tend to oppose them. Many Republicans hate endorsing anything Obama wants, and welcome any opportunity to stymie him. Others, like McCain (and me) deem Obama’s plan inadequate. The British parliament humiliated Prime Minister Cameron by rejecting his similar request. We’re told this influenced Obama’s change of heart. So now he wants to subject himself to the same humiliation?

We know how dysfunctional our Congress is nowadays. It won’t even return till September 9. Ample time for critics to gin up vocal opposition. images-1Given the acrid political environ-ment, this thing is bound to descend into a swamp of contentiousness, political point-scoring and backbiting. For the President to argue strongly for action – and then to needlessly cast its fate into that swamp – what was he thinking?

And if Congress refuses – then what? For Obama to go ahead anyway would beg the question of why he asked for a Congressional vote in the first place. But if he was too wimpy to act without such a vote, surely he won’t have the balls to act afterward in defiance of Congress.

The implications of inaction, for the global order, and America’s role in upholding it, would be just too awful to contemplate. UnknownTo end up doing nothing in this situation would be catastrophic for American credibility, and world morality. Yet Obama is risking this outcome, so unnecessarily, because without the security blanket of Congressional backing he’s too squeamish to exercise his authority to do what he says is right and necessary. It’s a ghastly, appalling misjudgment.

*And I repeat, as I have for two years now: where is the International Criminal Court?

Syria

November 29, 2012

Aleppo

Let’s not forget how this started. The opposition was scrupulously nonviolent until the regime responded with extreme violence. That (to borrow a phrase) opened the gates of Hell.

The rebels have committed some atrocities. Shooting captured soldiers is wrong. However, some perspective is required. Soldiers in war are subject to getting shot; and at least the opposition atrocities seem limited to combatants, whereas regime forces indiscriminately target the civilian population. Indeed, the intent is specifically to terrorize civilians.

Shabiha

That’s especially true of the “Shabiha,” non-military gangs of sociopaths deployed to rape and murder. Some of them, when captured, have also been shot. That, frankly, I’m fine with.

In any case, all this blood is on Assad’s hands, because when you start a war you are responsible for the inevitable consequences. Assad could still choose to stop it at any time.

Shabiha victims

But this horror could go on for a very long time, until one side or the other is beaten. The rebels won’t give up; they’re never going to return to acquiescence in rule by Assad’s criminal enterprise, and the international community could not bring that about, even if it wished to, which (apart from Russia and Iran), it does not. So the only hope is to end the regime.

I am appalled that the U.S. is not doing more to achieve this outcome. The Brits and even the French have recognized the opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Oh, for the days when America exercised real leadership! Ours was the first nation to recognize Israel’s independence in 1948. But Barack Obama’s America is shamefully more wishy-washy.

And it’s not as though we don’t have vital national interests at stake in Syria. The longer the conflict goes on, the more it threatens the rest of the region. And Assad’s fall would be a huge strategic blow to his ally, Iran, arguably our biggest geopolitical adversary.

Some fret that we don’t really know who all these rebels are, and maybe some are bad guys. Well, it would be peachy if Syria could be handed off to a George Washington type, but one never gets such ideal choices in this imperfect world. And whatever government replaces Assad, it could hardly be worse; certainly not worse for us, if it’s not aligned with Iran.

And if we’re worried about the outcome, the best way to influence it is to be involved in the process. If we want a future Syrian government friendly to our interests, or at least less hostile, then it behooves us to befriend now the people who will shape that government, by supporting and helping them as strongly as possible. True, one can’t count on gratitude*, but what should we expect if we don’t even try?

Thus our failing to help the rebels more today could well prove vastly more costly tomorrow. And there’s a lot we can do on the cheap. Yes, we’re suffering war fatigue; is there no end to the Muslims we must bomb? But still, what do we spend a gazillion dollars on our military for, if not to use it? We can afford to lob a few at Assad’s goons – just so they know they’re not merely fighting women and children and ragtag under-armed nobodies. We can disrupt and demoralize the criminal forces without boots on the ground.

Assassinating foreign leaders is a no-no, of course. But in a war situation, military assets are legitimate targets, and that includes military commanders. Bashar Assad commands his military. Killing him with an American bomb, or drone strike, would be a very good thing. While that would not immediately end the war, and the regime would try to soldier on, I suspect it would fall apart, with in-fighting over the diminishing spoils of its criminality.

Would any of this be “legal”? The concept of international legality does have great value, but we should not permit that important value to be held hostage by the obstructionism of one or two shameful countries (Russia and China). The old expression, “The law is an ass,” applies in such a situation; it can be more important to do what is right than what is legal. And in this case, our position would not be a lonely one. This is no longer your father’s Middle East. Even almost the whole Arab world would welcome our acting more forcefully to end this mess. The squeals of Russia and China can be ignored.

*Old tale: Frog and scorpion want to cross the Jordan. Scorpion says, “Give me a ride on your back.” Frog says, “I’m afraid you’ll sting me.” Scorpion replies, “Why would I do that? We’d both drown.” Frog says OK, and they set off. In mid-stream, scorpion stings frog, and as they both go down, Frog says, “Why did you do that?” Scorpion replies, “This is the Middle East.” (Alternatively, “It’s in my nature.”)


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