On the Outside Looking In

Our politics are endlessly fascinating. One side or the other is always looking for an edge, that one thing that will change the dynamics and destroy the other party, shattering their reputation for whatever it is they claim to be about. That hidden-camera videotape of Romney’s forty-seven percent comments did that. The Republicans never recovered, even if they responded with all their talk about the Benghazi incident being worse than 9/11 or even Pearl Harbor or whatever – the scandal that would bring down Obama. It didn’t. It was just a bad business handled as well as it could be handled, given the circumstances. The Republicans are still working on this scandal of all scandals – but no one’s buying what they’re selling.

The Benghazi ploy really was rather pathetic, but now the Republicans have Syria, and Obama helping them along, declaring that the Syrian government using chemical weapons against its own people – as a whole lot of those people want their government gone now – would be crossing a red line. If Syrian president Bashar al-Assad does that we’ll have to do something, although that something is unclear. But now they have used those chemical weapons, maybe. If Obama doesn’t act the Republicans will be in seventh heaven. He’ll be that wimp they can mock and they can return to power – but they also know the options are few here. Putting American troops on the ground in Syria would be an incredibly bad decision. Not only would it inject us into the middle of a civil war where it’s unclear who the good guys actually are at this point, but it would also mean that we would be responsible for the post-Assad future of Syria just as we became responsible for the post-Saddam future of Iraq. If doing anything less is cowardly, as the Republicans imply, we have a problem. Do something now? What? Even the Republicans aren’t quite sure what to do – something bold, but not sending in troops, like arming the rebels, but not the ones who are jihadists, as if we can tell who is who. It’s a puzzle and that was the state of play a week ago – but now it gets complicated.

It seems we made the essential error of thinking it was all about us:

A series of massive explosions illuminated the dark sky over Damascus early Sunday, igniting renewed claims that Israel has launched attacks into the war-torn country.

Syria’s government said the explosions were the second Israeli airstrike in three days. The latest target, officials said, was a military research facility outside the Syrian capital. A top Syrian official told CNN in an exclusive interview that the attack was a “declaration of war” by Israel.

Syrian authorities vowed to retaliate against Israel but did not specify what action they would take.

The Israeli military would not confirm or deny the Syrian claim that Israel fired rockets that hit the Jamraya research center in the Damascus suburbs.

That’s it – Syria saying this is war, with Israel, and Israel saying nothing. None of this has anything to do with whether the Republicans can win back the Senate in 2014 and then win the White House in 2016, as the whole nation turns on Obama and no one ever votes for a Democrat ever again. This isn’t about us, as the New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner explain here:

The twin airstrikes in Damascus on Friday and Sunday attributed to Israel appear to be more about Jerusalem’s broad, mostly covert battle with Iran and Hezbollah than about the bloody civil war raging in Syria.

Despite intensifying concern over the future of Syria, Israeli political and military leaders steadfastly maintain that they have no interest in entangling themselves in their neighbor’s conflict. But the airstrikes on military warehouses and other military installations underscore their determination to prevent advanced weapons from falling into the hands of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia allied with Iran.

This was sheer opportunism:

The increased frequency and intensity of the attacks also demonstrates Israel’s desire to take advantage of the chaotic situation, security experts say, as well as its calculation that Syria, Hezbollah and Iran are too preoccupied and weakened by the raging conflict in Syria to retaliate strongly against even a brazen escalation.

There is a risk of Israeli overreach – the Syrians did say this was war – but the Syrian military has enough on its hands already, as does Iran and Hezbollah, so this was a calculated risk:

“The real question is how much humble pie can Assad eat and still keep his svelte figure,” said Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, speaking of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. “The risks of action in Israel’s perception are lower today than they have been in the past. Everybody’s now testing each other and gauging what each one can get away with.”

In any event, it was more of the same:

Analysts said they did not see the airstrikes as the opening of a new war front, or as an attempt to prop up the Syrian rebels against the Syrian government of Mr. Assad. Rather, they tended to see it more as an extension of the long-running “shadow war” against Iran and Hezbollah, a tit-for-tat of terror attacks and assassinations that has stretched over decades and around the world.

“This shouldn’t be seen as Israel intervening on behalf of the rebels or against Bashar,” said Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya. “This is an escalation in a conflict we know about, and that is the conflict between Israel and Iran.”

It’s hard to see how the Republicans can use this against Obama, and it may be a one-off thing anyway:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Sunday night for a six-day mission to China, which many interpreted as a sign that Israel did not plan to step up its campaign in coming days – or expect a serious attack.

This was targeting weapons warehouses and shipments bound for Lebanon. Israel did exactly what it has said it would do since the war began. So they did it. American politicians can talk about red lines until they’re blue in the face, if it makes the happy. Who cares? This is something else:

Israel may be banking on the idea that Hezbollah is saving its Iranian-provided firepower to attack Israel in retaliation for any Israeli or United States attack on the Iranian nuclear program.

Remove that firepower for retaliation and they can attack Iran and end its nuclear program. The Syrian civil war is simply convenient, making it easy to defang Hezbollah:

Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that the timing of the attacks suggested that the Israelis had seen a confluence of “operational necessity and strategic convenience.”

“The strike sends a clear message to Hezbollah and Iran that we know you have these capabilities and we’ll go after you if you try to change the military balance,” Mr. Hokayem said. “It adds clarity, where the American dithering over chemical weapons added confusion.”

In short, our domestic politics, where each party tries to outdo the other on the issue of who is bolder and more willing to go out there, wherever it is, and save the world, isn’t an issue, out there. It’s merely a distraction, and irrelevant:

Moshe Maoz, a Hebrew University professor of Middle Eastern Studies, said Iran was now the crucial actor regarding what might happen next. “Israel may be testing Iran,” Professor Maoz said. “Iran is the key. If Hezbollah gets a green light from Iran to retaliate, or if Syria does, Israel won’t be idle. It could lead to a regional war.”

At least that would be a regional war we didn’t start, for a change – but it also means we have become somewhat irrelevant on the world stage. Everyone says that was inevitable in spite of what that Project for the New American Century crowd said. They were wrong – this would be the Chinese Century or something. It just wasn’t supposed to happen this soon. No one seems to care about our red lines.

Daniel Byman, a professor in the security studies program at Georgetown and the research director at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Mideast Policy, has a few things to say about those red lines:

In the Syrian case, the red line on chemical weapons appears to have been issued without a decision as to how we might respond to a Syrian breach or even whether to escalate the situation. Politically this makes sense: it’s easier to agree that Syria should not use chemical weapons and issue a red line to advance deterrence than it is to decide what to do when Syria ignores the threat. But when deterrence fails, the United States looks weak and indecisive.

Moreover, not acting after issuing ultimatums harms America’s reputation. Inaction makes it more likely that American red-lines elsewhere in the region will be questioned, especially in Iran, which is facing pressure on its nuclear weapons program and watching Syria closely.

Acting purely in the name of credibility, however, can be a mistake, moving the United States to unwisely increase its involvement in one crisis simply to avoid risking another. The United States extended its involvement in the Vietnam War because it feared that losing that war would damage its military credibility and thus embolden the Soviet Union and its allies.

Yep, red lines are a rather bad idea:

In practice, red lines often create perverse incentives and encourage the enemy to continue aggression even as it avoids a red line. Declaring that the United States would act only if chemical weapons were used in Syria implied that we would tolerate other forms of violence. Indeed, Mr. Assad’s regime has killed over 80,000 of its own people, primarily using artillery and bullets, knowing that these forms of death are not covered by the specific public warning regarding chemical weapons.

Similarly, Israeli threats in the mid-1970s helped persuade Syria to stop its terrorist allies from launching attacks on Israel directly from Syrian soil. But that didn’t end Syria’s support for terrorism: it continued to host groups that launched attacks from outside Syria and encouraged several to use Lebanon as a base.

Finally, it is hard to anticipate every possible response to a public declaration. Secretary of State Dean Acheson declared in 1950 that South Korea was not included in the Asian Defense Perimeter that covered American allies like Japan and the Philippines. This worked: Moscow and its allies refrained from attacking these countries. But the red line’s wording helped convince North Korea and the Soviet Union that the United States would not intervene in South Korea if the North invaded. America intervened anyway.

Obama should have said nothing:

The muddle over the red line on Syria’s chemical weapons should make the Obama administration and its successors think twice before issuing similar public threats without considering what happens if the red line is breached or if an adversary continues committing atrocities that fall short of the line.

If they can’t learn this lesson, public embarrassment, reduced credibility and more dead civilians are the likely results.

And, as another New York Times item explains, the whole thing was a mistake:

The origins of this dilemma can be traced in large part to a weekend last August, when alarming intelligence reports suggested the besieged Syrian government might be preparing to use chemical weapons. After months of keeping a distance from the conflict, Mr. Obama felt he had to become more directly engaged.

In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.

Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.

“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.”

The president defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back. It’s now too late for that:

As a result, the president seems to be moving closer to providing lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels, even though he rejected such a policy just months ago. American officials have even discussed with European allies the prospect of airstrikes to take out Syrian air defenses, airplanes and missile delivery systems, if government use of chemical weapons is confirmed.

Just think, we could have remained irrelevant, which isn’t so bad, unless you’re a neoconservative imperialist in love with war, fought by other Americans, not you. Still, we may get into this, or maybe not:

Britain and France appear likely to begin supplying weapons to the rebels after the expiration of a European Union arms embargo on Syria at the end of May. White House officials say they are also more confident of Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, who has rejected ties to groups linked to Al Qaeda. “This is really a bet on Idris,” a senior administration official said.

But other administration officials voiced skepticism that funneling weapons to the rebels made any more sense now than it did six months ago. They noted that the rebels are already getting arms from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other gulf nations, yet forces loyal to Mr. Assad have still made inroads in Homs. While General Idris has made gestures to placate Washington, there is plenty of evidence that the opposition is becoming more, not less, radical over time.

Think of Salim Idris as being sort of like Ahmed Chalabi – the guy we bet would be fine running Iraq after Saddam Hussein. We made a bet on him. It was a bad bet, but somehow what Israel just did gave some folks ideas:

On Sunday, Senator John McCain, who has long advocated a much deeper American role in the Syrian civil war, argued that the Israeli attacks, at least one of which appears to have been launched from outside Syrian airspace, weakens the argument that Syria’s air defense system would be a major challenge.

“The Israelis seem to be able to penetrate it fairly easily,” Mr. McCain said on “Fox News Sunday.” He went on to say that the United States would be capable of disabling the Syrian air defenses on the ground “with cruise missiles, cratering their runways, where all of these supplies, by the way, from Iran and Russia are coming in by air.” Patriot missile batteries already installed in Turkey, he argued, could defend a safe zone to protect rebels and refugees.

Now we know. We can bomb the crap out of them, so let’s do it. McCain doesn’t say what comes next, although there’s this:

“We have to work even harder with our allies and the opposition to accelerate Assad’s exit while there is still a Syria to save,” William J. Burns, the deputy secretary of state, said at a symposium at Princeton University on Saturday, as accounts of the Israeli strikes were beginning to emerge.

Yes, save Syria while there’s a Syria to save:

The modern Syrian state was established after the First World War as a French mandate, and represented the largest Arab state to emerge from the formerly Ottoman-ruled Arab Levant. It gained independence in April 1946, as a parliamentary republic.

Yep, it’s a made-up country, but Burns says save it:

“There is a mounting urgency to this effort as both the human and strategic costs grow,” he said. Mr. Obama, in Costa Rica on Friday, all but ruled out placing American forces into Syria, which seemed to eliminate the option of parachuting in Special Forces to secure the 15 to 20 major chemical weapons sites. That has led to a more intense examination of offshore strikes, similar to those conducted by Israel, but aimed at the delivery vehicles for chemical weapons: missiles and aircraft.

We would be tinkering around the edges, as our hands are tied:

These issues are certain to come up on Secretary of State John Kerry’s two-day visit to Moscow this week, one that Mr. Burns said would be used to argue that Russia’s long allegiance to Mr. Assad is now turning against its government’s interests, with a prolonged conflict only worsening the chances that the Syrian conflict will widen and promote extremism, including in the Caucasus region.

But Russia would almost certainly veto any effort to obtain United Nations Security Council authorization to take military action.

It just gets more complicated, but we may jump in anyway:

On Sunday, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said he believed the administration was getting closer to a decision. “The idea of getting weapons in – if we know the right people to get them, my guess is we will give them to them,” Mr. Leahy said on “Meet the Press.” Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that arming the rebels was under consideration.

In fact that debate has begun to shift in favor of more action, administration officials say. Mr. Obama’s legalistic parsing of whether his “red line” for intervention was crossed when evidence arose of a limited use of sarin gas has prompted many of his allies – led by Israeli officials – to question the credibility of his warnings.

One administration official acknowledged late last week that the critique had “begun to sting,” but said that Mr. Obama was determined to go slowly, awaiting a definitive intelligence report on who was responsible for the presence of sarin before deciding on a next step.

Yes, the critique began to sting. America shouldn’t be a paper tiger, all bluster that is nothing more than bluster – but our options are limited, as are our resources, and the American public doesn’t seem to want us plunging into another major war in the Middle East, where we somehow end up fighting for the ascendency of the unsavory, again.

The critique also had begun to sting in a subtle way. Everything here seems ambiguous of course, but also seems to have little to do with us. Syria and Israel and Hezbollah and Iran have a lot to work out. Whether we jump in, or not, seems to be irrelevant to the parties concerned. At best it’s of secondary interest. It stings that we really don’t matter now, red lines or no red lines. There really are wheels within wheels within wheels here, and we’re on the outside looking in. This will take some getting used to. The New American Century ended before it began. Someone tell the Republicans they can stand down now.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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