For the past week I have been trying to write this blog but the idiocy coming out of Washington has been too much to bear.
Foreign policy, especially when dealing with a multi-confessional state at war with itself, like Syria, is so complex it almost defies comprehension. In the present case the problem is further complicated by the competing interests of several international players including, among others, Russia, Iran, Israel, al-Qaida, Hezballah and Turkey.
Full awareness of the stakes for America, deep knowledge of the history and interactions of the players in the Syrian imbroglio and a deft and subtle hand are basic to any US approach to this crisis.
President Obama has none of these. His fundamental ignorance and incompetence led him to create a “red line” for our country where no such line need exist. Use of chemical and biological weapons is certainly horrible. And it is banned by international norm and treaty. But none of these require any state to intervene militarily or in any other way should this ban be violated.
By publicly threatening an attack over this “red line” when the rest of the international community did not, Obama committed a core policy error – he limited American options and gave to others the power to force an American response or cause us to back down. Flexibility is key in complex foreign policy situations and the President took that away from us at the outset.
When, deliberately or not, al-Assad called Obama’s bluff, the President petulantly decided to save his face via limited military assault rather than choosing any number of non-military options available and which might have garnered some degree of international support.
In so doing, he ignored the fact that the sole US national interest in Syria – assuring that Syrian WMD not be distributed to terrorists or used against us, the West or Israel – would not be supported by such an assault and could well be harmed.
His pinprick attack would not alter the direction of the civil war. Al -Assad would still be in power and, having survived the attack, would claim victory. Each and every one of the rebel groups would claim that the attack proves that their cause is just since the international community has condemned al-Assad.
But, most importantly, an American attack would shift international attention away from al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons and onto the ever more sensationalized charge that the United States has attacked yet another Islamic country. The Jihadists would make America the issue and even Islamic states which favor a US attack would hesitate to support us publicly.
Also, Obama was unable to shift from a military attack to arms aid to the rebels because every one of the rebel groups is hostile to the US and the West to one degree or another. We might be able to work with some of them, just as we worked with some of the mujahedin groups in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. But just as in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and, as will be seen there after our own withdrawal, there is no guarantee that the groups we favor will hold power.
Nor can we be sure what would happen to the weapons we might give them. When I was at CENTCOM we took several of our Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, which had been supplied to the Afghans, off an Iranian small attack boat which we destroyed during Operation Earnest Will in the late ‘80’s.
Secure in his own arrogance, Obama had insisted that he would order his attack without reference to Congress, an authority which he has in certain circumstances (which do not apply in the Syrian case) under the War Powers Act. But about a week ago he suddenly realized what should have been clear all along. Obama had painted himself and the United States into a corner and he bore ALL of the responsibility for the mess he had gotten us into.
If he could not get out of the box he had put himself in, Obama could at least try to avoid all of the responsibility for his series of errors and so he asked the Congress to approve his plans for the use of force in Syria. The resolution he originally submitted for Congressional consideration would have give him pretty much open-ended authority to do whatever he felt to be appropriate in Syria. The draft resolution was later altered in the Senate to preclude US boots on the ground and to require that attack to change the momentum of the civil war – whatever that means.
But none of that matters because there will be no resolution.
With all polls showing the American people massively opposed to any military action in Syria and the Congress certain to deny him the authority to act, the unpainted portion of Obama’s corner got smaller and smaller.
He was down to two options: Awaiting the vote in Congress and being humiliated as the first American president to be denied Congressional permission to use force; or striking anyway in the aftermath of Congressional denial and being accused of direct violation (again) of the US Constitution.
But then the Russian Chessmaster entered the fray.
Vladimir Putin is ruthless, effective and wholly dedicated to the restoration of Russian/Soviet greatness. Our TV pundits denigrate him as a “KGB man” without realizing that the Soviets sent their very best, brightest and most committed into the KGB. And Putin was considered one of the best of the best.
Putin outmaneuvered George Bush with his successful invasion of the Republic of Georgia in 2008, whereby he showed that America is essentially powerless in the South Caucasus, an area of great strategic importance to Russia.
Now he has done the same to Obama in a region of far greater significance to the United States.
I am convinced that Putin had for several days been awaiting just the right opening to intervene. Seizing on a dismissive remark to the press by Secretary of State Kerry in which he dismissed the possibility of Russia brokering control of the Syrian WMD by the international community, Putin announced that Moscow would indeed make that effort. And Damascus promptly followed up by accepting the idea, at least in principle.
Suddenly Putin ex machina and Obama was saved from his own stupidities!
Now there need be no military attack. Obama had already put it off (although his Administration originally described it as immediately necessary) until the Congress was through debating and had rendered its decision.
Now Congress need not vote him into humiliation and Congress itself is saved from having to take at least some of the responsibility for making a decision in a foreign policy quagmire where the President had left them no good options.
Now the Syrian Crisis will follow the standard pattern of Obama Administration crises in which delay follows delay and nothing is done until some new crisis eventuates and the whole thing is forgotten by the public.
But that doesn’t mean that there will be no consequences.
Tonight Obama will speak to the American people and will undoubtedly claim victory, implying that he and Putin had worked this whole scheme out at the G-20 meeting in Moscow ten days ago.
Of course that is absurd.
Al-Assad will come to the negotiating table and his WMD may very well be brought under international control – though that will take a very long time and will be difficult to achieve under conditions of civil war. But none of that is Obama’s doing.
And all of it will come at a cost to American interests, none of which America need have paid had Obama simply kept his mouth shut in the first place.
Putin is not intervening for nothing.
It is a near certainty that Vladimir Putin will be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize even if his efforts do not finally take Syrian WMD out of the equation. Obama won his for nothing at all.
I expect that the Russian naval refueling station at the Syrian port of Tarsus will soon be expanded into a full-fledged Russian naval base, with repair facilities, weapons storage, airports and all of the panoply of force projection.
Russia has now been accepted as a legitimate player in any resolution of the Syrian conflict, a position which it will try to expand to include other MidEast issues.
Russia and Iran will step up their weapons supply to al-Assad who will probably retain power and is, in any case, safe from American attack.
And what about Obama’s insistence that American failure to attack Syria will show us to Iran as a paper tiger and lead them to press their nuclear weapons development program? Of course that is all a lie anyway. The Iranians will continue their nuclear weapons program regardless of what we do or do not do in Syria.
For almost fifty years it has been a major goal of US foreign policy in the Middle East to keep the Soviets/Russians from regaining the foothold that they lost in the region with Egypt’s defeat in the Yom Kippur War and the subsequent Camp David Accords. A good deal of the effort that I personally put in during my 33 year Foreign Service career was devoted to this very thing.
For a half century we succeeded and now Obama has thrown that whole effort over just to save face.
My God! We have a fool for a president.
September 10, 2013