Monday, September 02, 2013

Thoughts on the Syria dilemma

Byron of bigWOWO stopped in to ask, "I was just dropping in to check if you had an opinion on Syria." My response outgrew the comment section and I may tack on more thoughts as they surface, so I made it a post:

Hi Byron,

I have a few scattered thoughts, not yet a yay/nay opinion on President Obama's proposal.

It's odd that the Assad regime would deviate from pattern at this point of the conflict and resort to a chemical attack. But let's assume for the sake of discussion they crossed the red line and the chemical attack is not a frame-up by "rebels" that include Islamic terrorists who have a known penchant for propaganda-purposed mass murder.

As far as the Islamic terrorists in Syria, I haven't looked into it, but I assume the bombings that have resumed in Iraq are a spillover effect of the Syria conflict.

I understand and don't disagree with Obama's basic position that, simply, a zero-tolerance community rule has been broken, and the rule must be enforced irrespective of context and other considerations or else the rule will lose its legitimacy throughout the community.

But the context and other considerations matter to everyone else. People and media will probably want to compare President Bush's Iraq intervention and the Syria problem, but other than condemning chemical attacks on civilians in the Middle East, they're much more different than similar from a policy standpoint.

The closer comparison is Obama's Libya intervention, where he bypassed Congress, and the Syria problem. On their face, the Libya and Syria situations seem similar. The Syria problem has the added dimensions of a chemical attack and a much higher human cost, which imply Obama ought to be able to rally an international response along similar lines as the Libya intervention. But the players align differently for the Syria problem, and in the interim, Obama's fundamentally flawed Libya and Middle East policies and over-all personal weakness in the competitive global arena have been exposed, thus diminishing his (and American) influence. In particular, Obama's use of the already legally questionable and novel Responsibility to Protect doctrine as cover to effect regime change in Libya likely undermined his ability to rally support for military action against Syria. Add: I was told the European support for the Libya operation followed European oil interests in Libya, but that strikes me as an incomplete explanation given that opponents of the US-led regime change in Iraq sided with their oil interests.

If the enforcement action is calibrated to low enough risk to assuage domestic concern and low enough impact to avoid a retaliatory response, then does it really qualify as enforcement, let alone punishment? It seems Obama just wants something on the record saying Syria was punished rather than something effective that would require greater risk.

Obama seems intent on using President Clinton's record as his model. His Syria intervention proposal is reminiscent of Clinton's punitive missile strikes. However, those actions accomplished little and caused more harm in the long term. Clinton's disastrous practice of talking loudly and carrying a small stick undermined US authority, encouraged the escalation of al Qaeda's anti-US campaign, and informed Saddam's rational calculation in his game of brinkmanship chicken against the US-led enforcement of the Gulf War ceasefire and UNSC resolutions.

9/11 rendered the Clinton doctrine obsolete.

After 9/11, Bush rationally matched means to the ends of American liberal foreign policy and built on what Clinton did right, eg, the Bush Iraq and counter-terror policies were logical extensions of the Clinton Iraq and counter-terror policies. Obama ostensibly retained Clinton and Bush's liberal foreign policy goals, but his deviations from Bush's rational course have resulted in irrational failures.

Clinton at least was savvy enough to fake a paper-tiger liberal foreign policy that delayed the price of his decisions for the next President to pay. After 9/11 exposed the price of the Clinton doctrine, Bush moved to rectify Clinton's mistakes, but Obama has since squandered the international political leverage that was hard and expensively earned back by the Bush administration.

Obama should have, instead, adapted Bush's course and built on Bush's gains like President Eisenhower adapted and built on the course he inherited from the Truman administration. Better decisions by Obama upstream could have prevented or at least mitigated the downstream compounding effects we see today and maintained American leverage in the situation.

At this point, America's foreign policy in the Middle East appears unfocused and feckless. The most useful thing Congress can make of the Syria dilemma is to open a referendum on Obama’s foreign policy and make him explain why and to what purpose. Use the opportunity to begin a reset of our foreign policy by nailing down Obama's long-term, big-picture plan for Syria, the region, and how his proposed Syria intervention fits into it all.

It won't happen, but I would like to see the opportunity used to correct the Democrats' false narrative of the Iraq intervention and discredit the false narrative's progenitors. Doing so would go a long way towards restoring rational decision-making in our foreign policy. The false narrative on the Iraq intervention has metastasized from a propaganda device to manipulate voters in order to gain domestic political power into a fundamental guiding principle of American foreign policy that has led to real harm.

This also won't happen, but in order for me to take Obama seriously again on foreign policy, this is what I need to hear from him or something to the same effect:
President Bush was right and I was wrong. I'm sorry. And I'm here today - humbly - to ask for the support of my fellow Americans to help me fix the damage I've caused.
It won't ever happen, but that's what it would take.

White House: 30AUG13 Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on Syria. What stands out in the White House briefing on Syria is the strong statement of the US national interest in the Syria situation that's alarmingly juxtaposed with the weak intervention actions so far by the US. The result is the US has been undeniably involved in the Syria situation, but not in ways that positively or constructively affect it. Obama has put in place a formula for US involvement in the Syria situation that is worse than plausibly deniable involvement or omitted American leadership. It's a formula for visibly failing and ineffectual American intervention in a situation that Obama has determined holds high stakes for the US.

An important consideration of the proposed punitive action in Syria is the follow-up if the proposed punitive action in Syria is effective – despite President Obama’s apparent desire that it be ineffective – in giving a decisive advantage to the Syrian “rebels” in the conflict. If that happens, we need to be prepared to manage the post-Assad post-war in Syria. Left to their own devices, the victorious Syrian “rebels” can create a humanitarian crisis in post-Assad Syria similar to the humanitarian crisis caused by Islamic terrorists in post-Saddam Iraq. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear President Obama is willing to manage the post-war in Syria, even should his proposed punitive strike play an instrumental role in Syrian regime change. The US has not helped Iraq stem the resurgence of terrorist bombings in Iraq that are likely a spillover from the Syrian conflict and unlikely to abate should the Syrian “rebels” win. The US has not substantially helped with the post-war transition in Libya despite playing an instrumental role in the Libyan regime change - and Libya is struggling. An action of the type proposed by President Obama, even if meant only as a limited political statement, has consequences. If the statement must be made, then the consequences must be dealt with. President Bush was prepared to deal with those consequences. Based on his record as President and his current proposal, it does not appear President Obama shares his predecessor’s sense of ethical leadership responsibility.

Jean Kaufman reveals that Obama's red line and proposed punitive action on Syrian NBC use rests on surprisingly shaky statutory and policy grounds. That's not to say Obama is wrong on the general principle of prohibiting NBC use, but the modern Western norm still demands a legal-rational foundation. In contrast, the US intervention in Iraq was based on a redundantly overflowing US statutory, UNSC resolution, and policy foundation that was specifically tailored to the Iraq problem. President Clinton, despite his shortcomings on effective action, methodically dotted the i's and crossed the t's in shaping the law, policy, and procedural components of the case against Saddam that President Bush used after 9/11. That there isn’t a stronger legal-rational foundation for Obama’s proposed action on Syria, despite Obama having had ample opportunity to build the case, is an indicator of another aspect of Obama's poor leadership as President. Using social theorist Max Weber’s typology, the modern Western norm is legal-rational authority with a few notable charismatic exceptions like Adolf Hitler. However, Obama has often preferred charismatic authority over legal-rational authority. Ms. Kaufman's analysis of the surprisingly poor legal-rational basis for Obama's proposed punitive action on Syria recalls that Obama also radically stretched the mandate of the already questionable and novel Responsibility to Protect foundation for the Libya intervention.

Any functional social unit – the ‘free world’ version of the international community qualifies – requires order with enforced norms and values. Order can be in different forms; even dogmatic libertarians accept that a version of social order is necessary. When any social unit lacks leadership that can enforce order and organize collective action, then it becomes anomic. An anomic social unit becomes chaotic and dysfunctional. It internally estranges, balkanizes, and atomizes. It breaks down and collapses. As much as anything else, that’s the phenomenon we are seeing with Obama's missteps with the Syria dilemma. A hegemonic order of independent nations that has always relied on American leadership for solidarity has been infected by poor American leadership. Setting aside the merits of Obama’s proposal, the struggle of the US to enforce norms and values and organize collective action in the international community is very worrying.

Today's Syria news is that terrorists seized the historic Syrian Christian village of Maaloula. Obama's hands-on while hands-off position on Syria is greatly eroding America's moral authority that had been earned back by American steadfastness in post-war Iraq. The Syrian conflict between a tyrannical autocratic regime and Islamic terrorists is an enormous grinding humanitarian crisis that is crying out for a humanitarian, peace-operations intervention of the kind that UN Ambassador Samantha Power once advocated strongly for in Rwanda and characterized America's UN-certified post-war mission in Iraq, especially the Counterinsurgency "surge" in which Americans and Iraqis together defeated the terrorist invasion of post-Saddam Iraq. According to the White House briefing, Obama has actively involved the US in the Syrian conflict from the start, yet has refrained from doing so in ways that confront the deadly forces acting upon the Syrian people. Now, Obama intends to order a US military action on Syria that will have a direct destructive impact on the Syrian conflict that will advantage the terrorists, yet he has explicitly stated that his intent is not to intervene in a way that solves the Syrian conflict. It recalls that the US was instrumental in the regime change in Libya yet has declined to substantially aid Libya's struggling post-war transition. As a liberal, the illiberal hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of the Obama administration after the genuine ethical liberal leadership of President Bush is stunning. Even if she can only do it as an impractical moral posture, why hasn't Samantha Power used her UN position to forcefully advocate for an effective humanitarian, peace-operations intervention in the Syria crisis of the kind she called for in Rwanda and we successfully achieved in Iraq? It turns out Samantha Power is not a genuine liberal like President Bush. She's just an amoral partisan like the rest of the Obama officials. Lee Smith offers a similar critique.

Thomas Friedman: Same War, Different Country. "In Iraq, we toppled the dictator and then, after making every mistake in the book, we got the parties to write a new social contract. To make that possible, we policed the lines between sects and eliminated a lot of the worst jihadists in the Shiite and Sunni ranks. We acted on the ground as the “army of the center.” But then we left before anything could take root."

Ambassador Ryan Crocker's situation report on Syria. He recommends we should work harder around Syria to contain the damage to Syria, but we should not intervene inside Syria. Ambassador Crocker was second only to General Petraeus among the American officials who led the Counterinsurgency "surge" in Iraq. If any other academic made the same recommendation, I would weigh it with some skepticism, but I trust Crocker's judgement has steel. His money quote regarding Iraq: "Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria have merged, and car bombs in Iraq are virtually a daily occurrence as these groups seek to reignite a sectarian civil war. The United States has a Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq. We must use it to engage more deeply with the Iraqi government, helping it take the steps to ensure internal cohesion. This was a major challenge during my tenure as ambassador, 2007-2009, and the need now is critical." More about our SFA with Iraq.

Be cautious and suspicious of Russia's proposal. President Jimmy Carter, 1980 State of the Union Address:
Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
President Carter was, of course, addressing inimical Soviet machinations in the Middle East. It can be assumed that the Russians under Putin's leadership are as interested as the Russian Soviets in wresting and replacing American influence in the region with a Russian-dominated order. The regional security guarantee of the Carter Doctrine with the later addition of the Reagan Corollary to the Carter Doctrine has been the cornerstone of US foreign policy in the Middle East for decades. It appears that President Obama is on the cusp of reversing the long-standing Middle East policy he inherited and handing over to the Russians what has been denied them by the previous 3 Republican and 2 Democratic Presidential administrations, just to clean up escape the mess Obama made over Syria.

Mad Minerva expresses the US's Syria problem in gifs.

All the warnings from Obama officials about Syria and defense of their argument for bombing Syria (eg, intel does not work on a court-of-law proof standard, Syrian cooperation only compelled by credible military threat, secondary risks if failure to enforce, can't trust the brutal dictator, etc) applied to the Iraq problem, yet the Democrats scorned Bush officials when the same things were said about Iraq.

Some old-fashioned back-of-the-envelope intel analysis.

The plan for Syria's chemical weapons can be a success - if 'success' is defined correctly. With Iraq, President Bush faithfully and successfully followed the procedure to resolve the Iraq problem that he inherited from President Clinton. What did that include? Regime change mandate. A credible military threat that was the next step up from Op Desert Fox’s penultimate bombing – ie, ground invasion. A very high and strict standard of proof for Saddam to meet regarding Iraq's "unaccounted for" proscribed weapons that had been elevated during the Cllinton administration in response to Saddam’s belligerence, resistance, and exposed evasions. A broad spectrum of requirements for Iraq under the UNSC resolutions, covering issues such as Iraq's humanitarian and terrorism problems, that extended beyond proscribed weapons. So how can President Obama succeed with Syria where Presidents Bush Senior, Clinton, and Bush ‘failed’ with Iraq? (… said for sake of argument. We actually succeeded resolving the Iraq problem under Bush by achieving every requirement set forth by Clinton - ie, Iraq in compliance, Iraq no longer a threat, and regime change.) Simple – by making Syria’s test easier and more limited than Iraq’s test. Lower the proof standard. Narrow the requirements for Syria, eg, studiously ignore the humanitarian and terrorism problems with Syria that were bases for strict requirements for Iraq. Avoid placing too heavy a proof burden and presumption of guilt on Syria. Essentially, Obama can succeed with Syria's chemical weapons by adopting the position of Saddam’s defenders in 2002-2003, which I guess Obama has done by ceding the lead on Syria to Russia.




Blogger bigWOWO said...

Oops, not sure what happened to my comment.

Thanks for your response!

9/02/2013 12:23 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

You're welcome. It was an opportunity to gather my thoughts on the issue. What's your opinion?

9/02/2013 12:41 PM  
Blogger bigWOWO said...

It's here:

(There's a guy named "Eric" there; I know it's not you.)

In general, I think Obama has to move (or at least give Congress the power to let him move).

9/02/2013 5:48 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

Interesting comments, Byron. It would be funny if I commented. The not-me Eric is quite zealous about his version of a Marxist worldview.

The social theorist you're looking for - if you haven't found him already - is Emile Durkheim.

9/02/2013 11:45 PM  

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