Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Easiest (But Least Useful) Thing to Do About Syria is to Complain About Obama

These days, it's difficult to escape hearing lectures directed at the Obama Administration about what it should do in Syria. Many of the critiques, even by well-meaning and reasonably well-informed individuals, amount to little more than wishful thinking. And of course, there are the fire-breathing partisans who simply want to attack the Obama Administration. On Real Time last week, Niall Ferguson issued a frothy attack on the Obama Administration's record on conflicts in the Middle East while fastidiously ignoring the repeated question of what the Obama Administration should have done. I heard one critic claiming that a year or so ago it would have been possible to support a democratic revolution in Syria, but now the groups fighting Assad are all Islamist - which raises two obvious responses, the first being that if a democratic movement is that easy to squelch it didn't have much of a chance to begin with, and if we're talking about the same groups simply modifying their stated agenda in order to get support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia it's questionable whether they actually supported what we think of as democracy in the first place.

My eye was drawn for some reason to the latest anti-Obama harangue from Richard Cohen, a man who personifies the low-hanging fruit. It's almost embarrassing to pick apart his nonsense, like debating foreign policy with a kindergarten class, but... how to resist. Cohen sneers,
The president is the master of the muddle. He concocted a doozy in Afghanistan when he announced a surge and a date of withdrawal — a marriage and a divorce at the same time.
The think that Cohen should try to remember is that there's a difference between a policy that is "muddled" and one that he is not capable of understanding. Cohen is among those who don't understand that a "surge" is supposed to be a short-term escalation followed by withdrawal, not a long-term escalation with no end date. If you have no plan to end your "surge" then it's simply an escalation. Beyond that, why shouldn't the Obama Administration project an end-date for the longest war in American history, particularly when it seems clear that Afghan factions won't negotiate in good faith while the occupation continues. It may well be that things fall apart after we depart, but unless there's a reason to believe that prolonging the occupation will have a beneficial effect all we're doing is delaying the inevitable - at considerable cost. I understand that Cohen is not a man who cares about the cost of military action that he supports, whether in dollars or human cost, and that he may not even think about the cost, but those responsible for safeguarding the nation and ensuring that we have an effective military don't share his luxury of treating global conflict like an epic session of World of Warcraft, in which losses are measured in bits and pixels.

There's also something else Cohen doesn't seem to grasp about foreign occupation: people don't like it. Even if you can make the convincing case that your military intervention was a good thing, and liberated the people - and even if the people agree with that initial assessment - they want you gone. If it needs to be said, prolonged occupation is not good for relationships with the locals.

Cohen lectures,
For opponents of U.S. intervention in Syria, the instructive precedent is the Iraq fiasco. But that has so little in common with the Syrian situation they may as well cite the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua of early last century and the ultimate victory of the guerrilla leader Augusto Sandino. The more apt comparison is the 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that ended the bloodshed in Bosnia — and cost not a single American life. (Another apt comparison is Libya where, once again, no American boots were put on the ground and U.S. combat deaths were zero.)
And do you know why, to Cohen, the latter examples are instructive when the former are not? Because (a) he doesn't know spit about the conflicts he's describing (for starters, he's confusing the Kosovo and Bosnia interventions, and seems unaware of the military activity that occurred on the ground) and (b) he's cherry-picking examples that suggest that the U.S. can enter a civil war and achieve its objectives at a minimal cost - like we're playing a live action video game. Cohen doesn't explain why he believes that Bosnia is a better example, nor why the outcome in that region (century-old ethnic rivalries ignited, and a small nation shattered into several tiny nations) would be desirable in Syria. Or perhaps he imagines that a bombing campaign would somehow cause Syria's ethnic and tribal factions to unify? Cohen won't even hear about ethnic or tribal issues, sneering, "The weary recitation of all these ethnicities suggests a colonial-era mentality: those bloody people and their bloody behavior." As if dropping the word "colonial" somehow erases ethnic and tribal tensions from reality - and never mind that he, himself, made one of those "weary recitations" only a few days ago, "I have always recognized the difficulties of any intervention in Syria and the hideous ethnic complexities of the place".

Cohen huffs,
The operative philosophy is that you do what you can when you can. The United States has the muscle. There are few grander causes than the saving of human life.
Apparently our bombs don't kill people. Cohen has lectured his readers that it's "cold-hearted" not to... I guess it's "do something" in Syria, because there's a humanitarian need. And that would be great, if we knew up front that the cure wouldn't be worse than the disease. We helped the Afghan people liberate themselves from Mohammad Najibullah. They ended up with the Taliban. Cohen seems to think that all bloodshed will end the moment the civil war ends. Not to get all "colonial" about it, but there's good cause to believe that absent a significant outside military presence the civil war will be followed at best by ethnic cleansing and at worst by ugly reprisals of the sort he might recall from Lebanon... if he knew any history. Don't just take my word for it,
Mamoun al-Homsy, a former Syrian MP and one of the country’s opposition leaders, has reportedly recently distributed a recorded message to the Alawite community in Syria, in which he warns its members against supporting Assad.

In the message, al-Homsy called on the Alawites to immediately renounce Assad, warning them that if they do not do so, “Syria will become the graveyard of the Alawites.”

He also stressed that Syria’s Sunni Muslims “will not remain silent” over Assad’s crimes, adding that they intend to abide by the rule of “an eye for an eye” and will “teach you (Alawites) a lesson that you will not forget.”
Moving back to Cohen's opening paragraph,
I have written so many columns about the Syrian civil war they are like rings on a tree stump — a way of gauging Barack Obama’s steadfast inaction and what the cost has been. In one of my first columns about that war, I called on the administration to arm the rebels and impose a no-fly zone, grounding Bashar al-Assad’s attack helicopters and his airplanes. At that point — March 27, 2012 — the war had taken the lives of 10,000 Syrians.
For Cohen to relate the discussion back to his first demonstration of ignorance reveals little more than how wise the Obama Administration is to ignore him, even if it causes him to write an occasional angry missive about how they're not showing him the respect he deserves. Does Cohen understand that Syria built its air defenses using Russian technology to defend against an Israeli military? It's not that the U.S. cannot defeat Syrian air defenses - it's that doing so will involve considerable risk, and will necessarily involve bombing targets throughout the country, including in densely populated areas. Even Cohen must know better than to lecture, "Somebody like Assad would never endanger civilians by building air defenses that cannot be taken out without bombing civilian neighborhoods." But then, he seems to believe that bombs don't kill people, so... who knows what he thinks.

More than that, Cohen is ignorant of the fact that Syria is not dependent on aircraft and, just as in Libya, there's no reason to believe that a cumbersome, expensive no-fly zone would create a significant shift in favor of anti-Assad forces. Were Cohen aware of the history of U.S. actions in Libya, he would be aware that the Obama Administration rejected the simple imposition of a no-fly zone because they did not believe that it would result in Qadaffi's defeat. Cohen has incredible faith in no-fly zones because... he imagines them to have a much more impressive history of affecting the outcome of regional conflicts than history in fact indicates. The no-fly zone in Iraq was in effect for a decade and, while preserving the status quo, did not remove Hussein from power nor weaken his ability to maintain control without a full-scale U.S. invasion.

And this magic wish, "Let's arm the rebels" - if it were easy to find rebels worthy of being armed, it would be a no-brainer. As it's not, the only no-brainer in the discussion is again Richard Cohen. There's a reason Israel is fastidiously refusing to publicly take sides in the conflict, and it's not because they want Assad to win or because they don't care about the outcome. In the early column he references, Cohen purports that a rebel victory "would be a boon to Israel". If he's capable, perhaps Cohen should ponder for a while why Israel doesn't seem to share his opinion. Perhaps as part of that consideration, he can ponder the Pentagon estimate that it would take 75,000 ground troops to ensure that Syria's chemical weapons arsenal - which is highly portable and highly distributed - does not fall into the wrong hands.

Here's a thought that should be obvious, even to Cohen: If there were good, easy choices to be made to end this conflict, we wouldn't be wrestling with how to avoid turning an already big mess into a bigger mess. If the sort of magic solution that ends the conflict, replaces Assad's regime with a more forward-thinking, inclusive government, and prevents humanitarian catastrophe were easy, the world would have already implemented that solution. Instead, the only part of the conflict that's easy is to sit at the sidelines with little knowledge of the region, its history or the facts on the ground and complain, "The Administration's not doing things the way I would."

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