September 11, 2001, changed everything. Not really – our war in Iraq was far away, with far less than one percent of us directly involved in any of it, and it’s over. After fourteen years, well, we’re somehow still in Afghanistan, but we’re easing our way out, if we can. We also didn’t lock up every Muslim in America in concentration camps. There was no rationing for the war effort. No one was selling War Bonds. Life went on as usual, and there was never another massive terror attack after that big one. We spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a massive new government umbrella agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and beefed up the CIA and NSA and even the local police everywhere – that fixed things. We solved the problem through bureaucracy. We threw money at it, taxpayer money spent lavishly with little or no accounting, and now the government has full accesses to all of everyone’s communications of any kind and we take our shoes off at the airport – but life goes on, much as it always has.
What changed was our foreign policy, because we were angry and scared out of our wits, or told we should be scared out of our wits. This led to the Bush Doctrine – we claimed the right to go to war with any nation that we thought might, in the future, attack us, given what we thought we were seeing now. We’d eliminate the threat before the act – kind of like you’d arrest and jail, forever, the kid on the corner who looks like he might be thinking of committing a crime next Wednesday or next year. Better safe than sorry – that was the Bush Doctrine, in spite of international law. Dick Cheney also had his One Percent Doctrine – if there’s a one percent chance of the bad guys doing something we have to treat that as a one hundred percent certainty – otherwise we might all get killed – nothing can be ignored as unlikely. Cheney also spent years hammering away at the idea that it doesn’t really matter if we kill the wrong bad guy or bomb the wrong country. We have to appear awesomely strong, generally, so no one attacks us, specifically. Anyone, anywhere, who is thinking about attacking us, for any reason, is going to have to think twice. No one, then, will mess with us. They won’t even think about it. A massive military, on a hair-trigger and somewhat unpredictable, is the ultimate prophylactic. Any sign of weakness and we’re all dead – and Cheney is still saying this any chance he gets, and Donald Trump has been saying the same thing for months.
None of it worked. Our preemptive war in Iraq made things over there worse than ever, we lost a lot of our civil liberties, we lost a lot of our troops, and we spent two or three trillion dollars we didn’t have – and we elected Barack Obama to come up with something better. He did, but it doesn’t feel very good:
President Obama indicated in an interview with “60 Minutes” that he isn’t mulling over any major changes to his approach to Syria following the failure of his administration’s plan to train more than 5,000 moderate rebels and the unexpected emergence of Russia as a major military player in the conflict.
Obama has been heavily criticized in recent months as lacking a strategy to stem Syria’s chaos and defeat Islamic State militants. He made clear, though, that his plans for Syria were guided by an overriding goal: He wants to keep the United States from becoming more deeply involved militarily in a place where he believes that the American force offers no viable, long-term solutions.
“We are prepared to work both diplomatically and where we can to support moderate opposition that can help convince the Russians and Iranians to put pressure on Assad for a transition,” Obama told “60 Minutes” in the interview, which was scheduled to air Sunday night. “But … what we are not going to do is to try to reinsert ourselves in a military campaign inside of Syria.”
Barack Obama just isn’t Dick Cheney:
He dismissed suggestions by some Republicans that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entrance into the conflict was an indication of American weakness. Rather, Obama said, Putin was rushing into Syria to save an ally on the brink of defeat.
“Syria was Russia’s only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they’ve had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally,” Obama said.
That is to say, sometimes projecting strength only projects foolishness, which leads to disaster. But this was inevitable:
Amid the ornate walls of Damascus’ famed Omayyad Mosque, preacher Maamoun Rahmeh stood before worshippers last week, declaring Russian President Vladimir Putin a “giant and beloved leader” who has “destroyed the myth of the self-aggrandizing America.”
Posters of Putin are popping up on cars and billboards elsewhere in parts of Syria and Iraq, praising the Russian military intervention in Syria as one that will redress the balance of power in the region.
The Russian leader is winning accolades from many in Iraq and Syria, who see Russian airstrikes in Syria as a turning point after more than a year of largely ineffectual efforts by the U.S.-led coalition to dislodge the Islamic State militants who have occupied significant parts of the two countries.
Putin rushing into Syria did make us look weak:
“Putin does more than just speak,” said Sohban Elewi of Damascus, summing up the views of Syrians on opposing camps who regard U.S. policy in Syria and Iraq as fumbled and confused.
And then there’s Iraq:
Buried between paintings of Baghdad architecture, mosques and landscapes, some art shops in Baghdad have begun selling portraits of Putin, a tribute to his intervention in what Iraqis see as the new military front against IS.
“Russia does not play games. They are problem solvers, and they do it quietly and efficiently, not like the Americans who prefer to do everything in front of the cameras,” said Hussein Karim, a 21-year-old medical student from Baghdad.
In one cartoon widely distributed among Iraqis on Facebook and Twitter, U.S. President Barack Obama is dressed as a Sunni sheikh, while Putin as a Shiite imam, suggesting the two are taking sides.
Another cartoon shows a bare-chested Putin holding IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by the collar of his jalabaya, looking very intimidating. He says to al-Baghdadi: “Where do you think you’re going? I’ll flatten you like flour,” a popular Iraqi expression. Al-Baghdadi, holding a cellphone, shouts: “Obama, save me!”
And we may have lost our Iraq:
The fascination with Putin is driven largely by a longstanding suspicion of the West and anger about decades of U.S. intervention in the region that many say has led to more wars and sectarianism. Many hope a stronger Russia would lead to a more balanced approach.
Iraq’s prime minister said last month that his government also entered a joint intelligence sharing agreement with Russia, Iran and Syria, opening an operations center in the heart of Baghdad.
Our guys died for that? On the other hand, there’s this:
But the Russian airstrikes also have drawn the ire of rebels in Syria who have formed a joint operations room to fight the new foe.
At a recent demonstration in the northern city of Idlib, armed rebels set fire to a Russian flag. “We will trample on your heads,” read one banner, addressing the Russians.
There’s fluff, but NPR reports that the substance here may be different:
Rebel groups that oppose both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and terrorist group ISIS have formed a new coalition, called the Syrian Democratic Forces. Led by Kurds, the coalition could receive U.S. air support in Syria.
From Beirut, NPR’s Alison Meuse reports for our Newscast unit:
The Syrian Democratic Forces calls itself a unified national military, aimed at establishing a new democratic Syria. Members include Kurds, Arabs and Assyrian Christians. But those familiar with the group say it’s led by the Kurdish YPG, the only partner the U.S. trusts.
Washington last week announced the overhaul of a rebel training program, which was halted after trainees handed equipment over to al-Qaida. The new Syrian Democratic Forces will absorb some of those trainees. One of them, reached by NPR, says he’s been tasked with calling in airstrikes against ISIS and recruiting moderate rebels.
Something else is underway:
Insurgent commanders say that since Russia began air attacks in support of the Syrian government, they are receiving for the first time bountiful supplies of powerful American-made antitank missiles.
With the enhanced insurgent firepower and with Russia steadily raising the number of airstrikes against the government’s opponents, the Syrian conflict is edging closer to an all-out proxy war between the United States and Russia.
The increased levels of support have raised morale on both sides of the conflict, broadening war aims and hardening political positions, making a diplomatic settlement all the more unlikely.
Maybe we have our war, by proxy, and the other side is just being foolish:
Russian attack helicopters swoop low over fields, seemingly close enough to touch, and then veer upward to unleash barrages of rockets, flares and heavy machine-gun fire. Explosions pepper distant villages, with smoke rising over clusters of houses as narrators declare progress against “terrorists.”
They appear to be using techniques honed in Afghanistan, where the occupying Soviet Army fought insurgents who were eventually supplied with antiaircraft missiles by the United States. Some of those insurgents later began Al Qaeda.
That specter hangs over American policy, and has kept Syrian insurgents from receiving what they most want: antiaircraft missiles to stop the government airstrikes that have been one of the war’s largest killers of civilians.
Now, they want them to use on Russian warplanes as well.
Mr. Saud, of Division 13, said he and other commanders renewed their requests for antiaircraft weapons 10 days ago to the liaison officers they work with in an operations center in Turkey.
Here we go again. Neither side is weak, but one side is foolish. We’re hanging back. The Russians aren’t. Should we feel ashamed or relieved?
Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, addresses that issue by quoting this exchange on “Fareed Zakaria GPS” between Zakaria and the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens:
ZAKARIA: But when we think about Syria, which is to my mind more messy, because what you’re talking about is any U.S. involvement would have to be aimed at essentially dislodging Assad from power. Okay. We dislodged Hussein from power. We thought we had good guys who are going to take – pick up, total chaos, civil war, 10 years, 400,000 people dead. We did it in Libya, we dislodged Gaddafi, we thought it would work out well. We had democrats, total chaos. We did it in Yemen. Total chaos. It feels like we know how this movie will end. If Assad is dislodged from Damascus, what do you think is going to happen? Total chaos.
STEPHENS: Look, we don’t say, ‘Okay, we have overcommitted in the past.’ … First of all, Syria is many countries. And just because we can’t solve the riddle of Syria doesn’t mean that we can’t do a lot for places like the Kurdish areas of Syria to help sustain some kind of opposition – something in that country that is decent and a source of instability.
When hawks talk about taking action in Syria, they tend to focus on their desired outcomes: checking Russian and Iranian power, ousting Assad, defeating the Islamic State and ending the slow-motion humanitarian disaster. These are attractive goals that the current administration is not pursuing. Hawks sound very good when they talk about foreign policy outcomes in Syria.
The question is how the foreign policy output of greater military intervention in Syria will achieve those desired outcomes. That’s why Zakaria’s question is important, and that’s why Stephens’s failure to offer a credible answer matters. There is a strong and bipartisan 21st-century record of U.S. administrations applying military force in the Middle East with the most noble of intentions and then making the extant situation much, much worse. So any hawk that makes the case for more action has to marry that to a detailed argument for why this time would be different. Simply put, why would the foreign policy output of a more aggressive U.S. posture in Syria lead to a better outcome than the status quo?
Stephens’s counter is that just because the United States has messed this up in the past is not a reason for not trying again. But all else being equal, most Americans and most policymakers probably would prefer a Syrian mess without heavy American investments to one where the United States expends significant blood and treasure for an altogether different Syrian mess.
It seems one must not confuse projecting strength with projecting foolishness:
I don’t have a lot of good things to say about the Obama administration’s Syria policy, but I will say that it possesses one virtue: The president has determined that Syria is not a core American interest and therefore does not warrant greater investments of American resources. It’s a cold, calculating, semi-competent strategy. But it has the virtue of being better than the suggested hawkish alternatives.
The principal hawkish error in Syria is in assuming that the U.S. should be involved in the conflict at all. Drezner describes the outcomes that the hawks seek as “attractive goals,” but it hasn’t ever been clear why they should be attractive for the U.S. The most important question that hawks can’t answer, and which they are almost never asked: “How are American interests protected and advanced by taking sides in Syria’s civil war?” There has never been a remotely persuasive answer to that question, and I suspect that there never will be because no vital U.S. interests were ever at stake there.
And there’s this:
There has always been a glaring contradiction at the heart of the hawkish argument on Syria that they never address. They cite the destabilizing effects of the Syrian civil war as a reason to intervene, and they frequently dress up their interventionist arguments in humanitarian rhetoric, but at the same time they want the U.S. to carry out policies that will kill and displace more Syrians, create more refugees, and make the country even less stable than it currently is. They frame the problem in Syria as one of continued conflict and instability, but their so-called “remedy” promises much more of the same. It’s as if they see a country mostly on fire and ask, “What can our government do to burn the rest of it?”
Consider that the combined Bush-Cheney Doctrine, and consider what Kevin Drum has to say:
I’ll agree on a few counts of the indictment against Obama. Now that the mission to arm the rebels has failed, he says he was never really for it in the first place. That’s cringe-worthy. The buck stops with him, and once he approved the plan, hesitantly or not, it was his plan. He should take responsibility for its failure. You can also probably make a case that we should have done more to arm the Kurds, who have shown considerable competence fighting both ISIS and Assad.
But those are relative nits, and I’d be curious to hear more from Drezner about this. He basically agrees that arming rebels hasn’t worked well in the Middle East, and there’s little chance it would have worked well in Syria. … He agrees that those “hawkish alternatives” are basically nuts.
So why exactly is Obama’s record in Syria “semi-competent”? Why does Drezner not have much good to say about it? My only serious criticism is that Obama did too much: he never should have talked about red lines and he never should have agreed to arm and train the opposition at all. But given the real-world pressures on him, it’s impressive that he’s managed to restrict American intervention as much as he has. I doubt anyone else could have done better.
And that begs another question:
There is something genuinely baffling about American hawks that have presided over failure after failure but are always certain that next time will be different. But why? If anything, Syria is more tangled and chaotic than Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, or any of the other Middle Eastern countries we’ve gotten involved in since 2001. What kind of dreamy naiveté – or willful blindness – does it take to think that we could intervene successfully there?
Don’t ask. Listen to Josh Cohen:
Critics claim Obama’s lack of response to Putin’s bombing campaign makes Obama looks “weak” in comparison. Others argue that American “credibility” is at stake in Syria, and that the United States must now “reestablish deterrence” against Russia. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski even claims that because Russian forces in Syria are “geographically vulnerable” they could be “disarmed,” though without explaining how.
The fact is any escalation would be dangerous by definition, and of dubious benefit to the United States.
For starters, none of Obama’s critics explain how Putin’s actions in Syria threaten American “credibility” or its deterrence posture vis-à-vis Russia. Risking credibility, in this case, means that if the United States does not counter an adversary in one place, this adversary will be tempted to threaten more vital American interests elsewhere. This was the logic behind the Vietnam War, where the United States’ expenditure of blood and treasure was meant to reassure our NATO allies that Washington would protect them from a Soviet attack in Europe.
That projects only foolishness:
Putin is not threatening American allies such as Israel or the Gulf States, nor does he appear willing to risk a serious military confrontation with America’s NATO allies. Indeed, the United States already announced plans to station hundreds of tanks, howitzers and other armor in the Baltics, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s secretary general just stated that “we are implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War,” and that “NATO is on the ground. NATO is ready.”
While Putin may be prickly, he is not crazy, and no evidence exists that the United States’ caution in Syria will tempt the Russians to strike core American interests in other parts of the world.
The advice is this:
First, the White House must not act like the sky is falling every time Putin does something it disapproves of. Beyond propping up Russia’s longtime ally Bashar al-Assad, Putin’s Syrian campaign also allows him to stick his thumb in America’s eye. The best way to respond is not hysterically, but calmly. Russia does not possess anything near the military strength of the Soviet Union, and exaggerating Russian power serves no useful purpose. Indeed, if Russia is dragged deeper into the Syrian quagmire – particularly if its forces suffer casualties – Putin may come to rue his Syrian gamble. …
Second, Obama should ensure that the Pentagon continues its policy to “de-conflict” Russian-American air operations in Syria. An accidental clash between American and Russian forces could not only produce unpredictable military consequences, but would also allow Putin to raise the rhetorical temperature several notches – which fits precisely with his desire to ratchet up support at home by aggressively confronting the United States.
There’s much more but it’s rather obvious stuff. After 9/11 our foreign policy principles changed, followed by disaster after disaster. We decided to project generalized awesome strength, to keep us safe. That’s not a bad idea, as a general principle… No, wait, that’s a shallow and lazy idea. Nothing is that simple. Go for the cold, calculating, semi-competent strategy. Let them call you weak. What does it matter? It’s far better than being stunningly foolish.