There are two ways of thinking of rolling disasters. Back in the late seventies it was that used Chevy Vega – a snazzy GT model no less. The Vega is now considered one of the ten worst cars of all time – but it was kind of cute. It was, however, a rolling disaster. What didn’t break rusted and fell off, and it did use just about as much oil as gas, and the front and rear ends always had slightly different ideas of the nature of a straight line. Luckily, some fool who was doped up after some serious dental work rear-ended the Vega with his massive pick-up truck, totaling the thing and sending it to where it should have been all along, some junkyard in Buffalo. That’s what rolling disasters need – intervention.
The other kind of rolling disaster is more generalized – a bad situation that only gets worse, no matter what you do. In fact, the more you do, with the best intentions, and with precise logic, seems to make things worse. Do nothing and things will get worse and worse. Do something and things will get much worse even faster. There’s no good choice. People will call you a fool and a coward for doing nothing. Do something, and when things get much worse, they’ll call you a fool who should have done something else, even if it’s too late now, or a fool who never should have doing anything in the first place. Lyndon Johnson finally understood this, with the Vietnam War. He just walked away from a second term as president, moved back to Texas, and grew his hair long like a hippie – and generally went to seed, smoking and drinking heavily. Screw it all.
Vietnam was a rolling disaster – it had been since Kennedy sent a few advisors, after the French just gave up. It continued to be one for Richard Nixon – most everything he did actually did make things worse. Gerald Ford finally pulled the plug. There was no intervention, no lucky accident that rendered everything moot. It was a rolling disaster that destroyed two presidencies, and tore America apart, because doing something and doing nothing were equally boneheaded options.
That’s the sort of thing all presidents face. For the younger Bush it was his Iraq War that was going to be so easy, and short, and prove something or other to the world, or to his father. That quickly became a rolling disaster that still rolls on – the Surge only bought us time to get the hell out of there. Barack Obama famously said he wasn’t opposed to all wars, just dumb wars, and that might be one reason he won the presidency in the first place. The man seemed to know a thing or two about rolling disasters. Step away. Rolling disasters have their own ever-increasing momentum. A wise man just steps out of the way, even if others call him a coward and a fool.
That’s fine, but that’s not the nature of the job. Obama now faces the rolling disaster of Syria, and he seems to be torn between doing nothing about that murderous civil war, and doing something to stop it. He knows the rules. The job of the president is to do the right thing, even where there’s no right thing to do – and we all feel America should do the right thing in the world, even if most of us haven’t the foggiest notion of what the right thing is. Ah, but that’s not our job – our president is supposed to figure out the right thing to do, and simply do it. Then we judge him on that, and decide he’s a fool. It’s in the job description, or might as well be.
The pressure to do something in Syria is increasing daily. Iran has just decided to send in four thousand troops to help Assad crush the rebels – or patrol the Golan Heights and make the Israelis very jumpy. Russia is sending Assad more and more high-tech weapons, Hezbollah is fighting for Assad now, and now Egypt has broken all ties with Syria and is suddenly calling Hezbollah a bunch of murderous thugs, so this was inevitable:
Syria on Sunday harshly criticized Cairo’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with Damascus, accusing Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of joining a US and Israel-led conspiracy against Syria.
Morsi said he had cut all diplomatic ties with Damascus on Saturday and called for a no-fly zone over Syria, pitching the most populous Arab state firmly against President Bashar Assad.
Now there’s an Israel-led conspiracy against Syria. Rolling disasters have their own ever-increasing momentum, and this is snowballing out of control. We should do something, as this is now a regional war, of sorts, and a proxy war with us against the Russians too, which makes it a world war of sorts. No one knows what we should do, but we should do something, even something minor to stake out our position in all this, which Obama tried, which was immediately dismissed as useless:
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) hailed efforts to arm opposition forces seeking to topple Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, but said President Obama’s decision to aid the rebels may have come too late.
“Timing matters and these were options that were there for us a year-and-a-half ago,” said Rubio on ABC’s “This Week.”
Rubio said Obama had “failed” to identify pro-Western elements in the Syrian opposition sooner, leading to a situation where Islamic militants had gained the upper hand in the civil war.
“Now your options are quite limited, now the strongest groups fighting against Assad are al Qaeda linked elements,” he said.
In short, it’s too late now. Obama blew it. The only way to fix this now is to go back in time and identify those heroic pro-Western elements in the Syrian opposition, eighteen months ago when they still existed, like any sensible person would do. No, that can’t be right. Rubio doesn’t advocate time-travel here. He wants to be the next president. If he had been president, and this were eighteen months ago, HE would have done the right thing – it’s so damned obvious. Hypothetically, Rubio was a great president, eighteen months ago, in that particular alternative universe. Everyone knows that. Vote for him next time around.
Then there’s Maureen Dowd in the New York Times with Bill Schools Barry on Syria:
Not only is President Obama leading from behind, now he’s leading from behind Bill Clinton.
After dithering for two years over what to do about the slaughter in Syria, the president was finally shoved into action by the past and perhaps future occupant of his bedroom.
Clinton told John McCain during a private Q. and A. on Tuesday in New York that Obama should be more forceful on Syria and should not rationalize with opinion polls that reflect Americans’ reluctance to tangle in foreign crises. McCain has been banging the gong on a no-fly zone in Syria for some time.
The oddity of Obama’s being taken to the leadership woodshed by the Democrat who preceded him and the Republican who failed to pre-empt him was not lost on anyone. When Obama appointed Clinton “the Secretary of ‘Splaining Stuff,” he didn’t think Bill would be ‘splaining how lame Barry was.
Dowd likes manly men:
Citing his own experiences in Kosovo and Bosnia, Clinton said that if you blamed a poll for a lack of action, “you’d look like a total wuss.” He added that “when people are telling you ‘no’ in these situations, very often what they’re doing is flashing a giant yellow light” of caution. …
Clinton, who apologized for failing to intervene in the Rwandan genocide, continued: “If you refuse to act and you cause a calamity, the one thing you cannot say when all the eggs have been broken is that ‘Oh my God, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it.’ Right? You’d look like a total fool. So you really have to in the end trust the American people, tell them what you’re doing, and hope to God you can sell it.”
She likes the Big Dog, not the guy she often refers to as Bambi:
While the president was avoiding talking about what he hadn’t wanted to do in the first place, the former president was ubiquitous and uxorious, chatting about Syria and myriad other issues on MSNBC and Bloomberg TV; smiling on the cover of Bloomberg BusinessWeek and offering his solutions for corporate America’s problems; presiding at his global initiative in Chicago; and promoting the woman he hopes will be the next president. …
The less Obama leads, the more likely it is that history will see him as a pallid interregnum between two chaotic Clinton eras. Nature abhors a vacuum. And so does Bill Clinton.
Dowd is at it again. Leadership is personality, not policy. It’s attitude, which sets off Andrew Sullivan, who says she summed up the wisdom of everyone who championed the Iraq war and endorsed those arguments all over again as if it never happened:
She even cites its two most persuasive proponents, McCain and Clinton. The argument is that something bad is happening in the world and because you are the American president, you need to stop it. If you don’t, you are “a wuss.” Worse, other actors, like Putin and Khamenei are intervening in Syria, so we must too – or appear “weak.” The entire scope of this argument, as with Iraq, is limited to the moral posture of the United States, the existence of an evil, the imperative of acting, and then trying to sell the American public on the action. The argument is actually weaker than for Iraq, because at least Clinton and McCain insisted at the time that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that he wanted to use against America; at the current moment, no one is saying that about Syria’s chemical arsenal. In fact, the only scenario in which the US might be the target of such weapons is if we do exactly what these “statesmen” are demanding: side with one faction or another. Then at least one side has a reason to hate us.
There may be no good choices here, but there is one really bad choice that Dowd offers:
Does Dowd have any argument as to where such “leadership” would take us? Does she argue that arming Sunni Jihadists against Alawites and Shiites is a good thing because those Jihadists would never use such weapons or be an enemy of the US? No. Who does she want to win the Syrian civil war and why? She doesn’t say. Does she support the theological claims of Sunni Islam against Shiite Islam? I don’t know. In fact, she doesn’t explain at all what the point of her new war is, or what her preferred outcome would be. These are simply to be figured out, or in Clinton’s words, “sold” later. This foreign policy “doctrine,” if it even deserves such a designation, is essentially an endorsement of George W Bush’s presidency. Yes, Dowd hates Obama that much that in this column she has actually gone full circle and endorsed the arguments that gave us the catastrophe in a very similar country, Iraq.
Some might argue that America must, as a moral imperative, support the theological claims of Sunni Islam against Shiite Islam, but those are few and far between, and Clinton is worse than Dowd:
Clinton also accuses the president of taking his previous, coherent and strong position on Syria not because staying out of this conflict is obviously the sanest thing to do; but because Obama is apparently just listening to the polls. The gall of Clinton of all people to accuse anyone of that level of cynicism! And the American people, he assumes, are obviously wrong. The job of a president is not to listen to them on matters of war and peace, especially if they have a collective memory longer than that of a gnat, but to ignore them, forget the lessons of the very recent past, wing it, and hope to “sell” the war later.
Still, Sullivan is not happy with Obama:
I write all of this in acute frustration, of course. Because I thought I understood Barack Obama’s strategy and obviously I don’t, and because I want this president to succeed and I cannot possibly see how this can lead to anything but failure. And I’m frustrated because Dowd is right about the substance and the timing of Thursday’s stomach-churning presser. How dare a sitting president delegate the explanation of such a dangerous, portentous step to anyone but himself? The sheer arrogance of that delegation of a core duty is shocking. Here’s what the president had to do that day that was more important, in his mind, than explaining why he had just committed the US to the folly of another war in another Middle Eastern country…
I presumed at first this was another version of the Libya fiasco: self-righteous hand-wringing followed by removal of a tyrant, leading to more regional destabilization and the murder of an ambassador and other Americans. Only this time, the president didn’t even muster his lame defense of the Libya mess. Or perhaps it was, as Marc Lynch calls it, a version of the Afghan surge – an act that sacrificed American lives for no conceivable end but face-saving for an exit and protecting his right flank at home. The Afghan surge remains, to my mind, morally cold. Sending mother’s sons to their death when you know it won’t work is not something even Niebuhr would endorse. But as Marc notes, at least that surge had an end-date. Not this time. So perhaps this was just a minor concession to the Sunni allies who want to win the war for their version of Islam or the European allies who keep stupidly wanting to pull off another Suez. If so, it’s an insult to them as well as to us. It won’t do anything to change anything, but will mean the US will find it progressively harder and harder to avoid more and more commitment.
Yes, but our side, whoever the hell they are, might win. Sullivan is not impressed:
What good could possibly now come of a Sunni Jihadist victory? We’d see a mass slaughter of Alawites at best, and a metastasizing sectarian war across the Middle East in which the US would be entangled. By staying out, on the other hand, we make Putin and Iran the targets for Sunni hatred, we do not add fuel to the sectarian fire, and we do not hurt any of our strategic interests. I thought I had supported Obama over McCain and Clinton in 2008. Why are we now getting boomer-era interventionism? … Watch this space if and when the president deigns even to explain why he has just done what he promised never to do again.
He did something. He shouldn’t have done anything. He promised. No, Rubio and Dowd say he should have done much, much more, no matter what it led to. And Jonathan Bernstein says no, he’s right to keep this a small matter:
On Obama and Syria: the one area of national security and foreign policy in which Barack Obama really has earned the benefit of the doubt is about slippery slopes, quagmires, and otherwise getting trapped into military adventurism that expands despite everyone’s best intentions.
His record on this is really quite impressive. He got out of Iraq (yes, he was only following George W. Bush’s policy and a signed agreement with the Iraqis, but it wouldn’t have been the first time a president managed to keep troops where they weren’t really wanted). His intervention in Libya was limited and stayed limited. In Mali, Yemen, and other conflicts, he committed to a minimal level of action and stuck with it. And in Afghanistan, he “surged” – but then de-escalated and appears to be on a path to continue getting out. At no point that I remember did the Obama Administration give in to the kinds of “in for a dime, in for a dollar” arguments that wind up leading to real messes. The administration has consistently been willing to absorb predictable attacks for bugging out too early or for doing too little.
Perhaps Syria will turn out different – and those who oppose intervention there (or I suppose those who support the current level of intervention but oppose any further action) should obviously be advocating for what they want rather than just trusting Obama. But overall… he hasn’t earned anyone’s trust on civil liberties or open government, and he’s made his share of foreign policy and national security blunders, but he might be the best since Ike at knowing how to keep engagements limited.
That’s from Jonathan Bernstein, a British political scientist, but it’s not just him. There’s Ramzy Mardini, an adjunct fellow at the Beirut-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies, who offers this:
Lacking a grand strategy, Mr. Obama has become a victim of rhetorical entrapment over the course of the Arab Spring – from calling on foreign leaders to leave (with no plan to forcibly remove them) to publicly drawing red lines on the use of chemical weapons, and then being obliged to fulfill the threat.
For nearly two years, the Obama administration has described the Syrian regime as having “lost all legitimacy” and “clinging to power.” And yet, it has surprisingly endured. That’s because neither assertion is really accurate. Mr. Assad still has strong support from many Syrians, including members of the Sunni urban class. While the assistance Syria receives from its external allies, like Iran and Russia, is important, it would be inconsequential if the Assad regime were not backed by a significant portion of the population.
Things aren’t that simple. Everyone doesn’t hate Assad, and there’s this:
The Syrian revolution isn’t democratic or secular; the more than 90,000 fatalities are the result of a civil war, not genocide – and human rights violations have been committed on both sides.
Moreover, the rebels don’t have the support or trust of a clear majority of the population, and the political opposition is neither credible nor representative. Ethnic cleansing against minorities is more likely to occur under a rebel-led government than under Mr. Assad; likewise, the possibility of chemical weapons’ falling into the hands of terrorist groups only grows as the regime weakens.
And finally, a rebel victory is more likely to destabilize Iraq and Lebanon, and the inevitable disorder of a post-Assad Syria constitutes a greater threat to Israel than the status quo.
Not since the 2003 invasion of Iraq has American foreign policy experienced a strategic void so pervasive.
Obama made a mistake here:
The responsible role of a lone superpower is not to pick sides in a civil war; it’s to help enable conflict resolution while maintaining a policy of neutrality. Instead, the United States came down on one side of a regional sectarian conflict, inadvertently fomenting Sunni hubris and Shiite fear – the same effects (but in reverse) caused by America’s involvement in the Iraq war.
Mardini does, however, see the other problems here:
There is no doubt that weakening Mr. Assad’s allies, like Iran and Hezbollah, is in the United States’ interest. But intervening in Syria could also harm much more important American goals like securing Russia’s cooperation in addressing Iran’s nuclear program and maintaining stability in Iraq. There is also the risk that intervention will become counterproductive. Empowering American-favored rebel forces to confront the influence of the hardline Islamist groups that are also fighting against Mr. Assad may backfire and intensify rivalries, causing the fault lines of the civil war to break down even further and turn the increasingly dominant hardline Islamists against Western-backed rebels. Mr. Assad will then be fighting an insurgency that is fighting itself.
Strangely, despite having committed to arming the rebels, Mr. Obama has yet to exhaust diplomatic efforts, which were inadequate and poorly constructed from the start. …
Mr. Obama would have been wise to make a forceful diplomatic push first before succumbing to the naïveté of his pro-intervention critics. Intervention in Syria won’t end as Kosovo did for Mr. Clinton.
Syria is like Iraq, except worse.
It’s a far wider and far deeper and far more deadly rolling disaster. Do nothing and things will get worse and worse. Do something and things will get much worse even faster. There are no good choices, and there’s no walking away, and Lyndon Johnson wasn’t happy after he walked away anyway. All the once-forbidden cigarettes and all the fine bourbon killed him soon enough. The presidency is a hard job. Sometimes there’s no right thing to do, only equally boneheaded options. So you choose one.