Friday, June 13, 2014

Michael Gerson Plays His Part

I'll grant, when Gerson plays the part of a Republican shill he does so with far more dignity than Marc Thiessen, the rabid self-caricature who later filled Gerson's former role as G.W. Bush's chief speechwriter. Alas, I damn him with faint praise. What you rarely see from Gerson is any reflection on the Bush Administration's endless series of colossal blunders, and how they contributed to the continuing mess in the Middle East. Instead, per the latest memo, the index finger is extended to be wagged at President Obama.

In Gerson's latest column he scolds the President, in essence, for not finding a way to fix the mess in the Middle East. And why not? After all the President has has six years to fix a mess that was more than a century in the making, six years to put G.W. Bush's Humpty Dumpty mess back together again. Facts? Gerson doesn't need to concern himself too much with the facts and their well-known liberal bias.

Gerson gets started by stating the obvious,
For an American president, the world is a banquet of frustrations. But the collapse of much of the Middle East into civil war, sectarian conflict, war crimes and terrorist-exploited chaos should rank higher on the list.
Gerson proceeds to criticize the President for concluding that it would not be a wise move to intercede in Syria's civil war, characterizing the President's position as one of risk aversion. It has apparently never occurred to Gerson that staying out of a military conflict carries its own set of risks. Gerson lectures,
Because the United States refused to coordinate an effort to arm the responsible opposition in Syria, there has been no pressure for the regime to engage in serious peace negotiations. Bashar al-Assad has found barrel bombs more effective. In Geneva talks last November, American officials were left with no plan except to (pathetically) hope for Russian and Iranian diplomatic favors, which never came. Countries such as Turkey and the Gulf states, left leaderless in the region, have often funneled support to radicals. The United States has supplied weapons to the Iraqi government to fight militants in western Iraq while (incoherently) refusing to arm people fighting the same enemy 100 miles to the west in Syria. Now a few thousand militants, with roots in the Syrian conflict, threaten to destroy the Iraqi government, along with the remnants of U.S. credibility in the region.
Oh yes, the "responsible opposition parties".... that would apparently be the ones who are not winning. It remains unclear how people like Gerson expected that the U.S. (or any other nation) could identify and support enough factions that we would want to win the Syrian civil war such that they could take and hold the country. Frankly, the idea sounds like an opium dream. Perhaps Gerson should read his own newspaper, such that he might have at least some understanding of the complexity of trying to arm opposition groups while keeping western arms out of the hands of factions hostile to the west. One would think that Gerson would be able to look at the performance of the U.S.-trained, U.S.-armed Iraqi army, which turned tail and fled at the first sight of ISIS, and recognize that things aren't as simple as air dropping weapons into the hands of factions that we hope are neither hostile to the west nor likely to engage in brutal reprisals if they gain control over territory held by the the Assad regime or other armed factions.

Also, did it occur to Gerson that if "a few thousand militants, with roots in the Syrian conflict" threaten the post-war government of Iraq, the problems with that government quite obviously run deep? A few thousand militants who collectively are unable to topple the Assad regime are able to battle so effectively in Iraq that its army drops its weapons and runs away?
Iraqi officials told the Guardian that two divisions of Iraqi soldiers – roughly 30,000 men – simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters. Isis extremists roamed freely on Wednesday through the streets of Mosul, openly surprised at the ease with which they took Iraq's second largest city after three days of sporadic fighting.
If Iraqis won't fight for the unity of their own country, who does Gerson believe should fight the battles? Also, isn't this an important reminder of the complexity of the situation in Syria? What amount of U.S.-provided munitions just fell into the hands of those few hundred ISIS fighters?

Gerson carries on,
The mere containment of Syrian chaos would have required a more activist U.S. policy — coordinating Middle Eastern and European powers to create a balance of forces on the ground that might have encouraged a power-sharing agreement among less horrible regime elements and less horrible opposition groups. Some variant is still Syria’s best (but fading) hope.
The less horrible groups, presumably, being the ones who aren't explicitly promising bloody vengeance the moment they take power? And power-sharing... how well has that worked out in Iraq and Afghanistan following the two longest wars in U.S. history, both wrought by Gerson's former lord and master? In what fantasy world does Gerson live, where upon defeating Assad and the, well, more horrible groups, rival factions will join hands and unite Syria as opposed to battling amongst themselves for control of the nation? Is he truly comfortable with allowing the Assad regime's chemical weapons arsenal to fall into the hands of those "less horrible" factions?

As for doing something more than arming "less horrible" factions, there was the possibility of launching air strikes against Syria. But Gerson has apparently forgotten that his own political party opposed any such military action. Had the President ignored the Republican nay vote and proceeded to bomb Syria, would Gerson dispute that his party would have been screeching for Obama's impeachment? Did Gerson somehow overlook the words of Ted Cruz, published in Gerson's own paper?

Gerson continues,
Outside the administration, the unsentimental have sometimes argued that it is not a bad outcome for Assad’s forces and the Sunni Islamists to kill each other in a stalemate. Apart from being immoral — content with the slaughter of civilians — this also turns out to be stupid. It is only a stalemate until new battle-hardened extremists are produced who unravel neighboring countries or board planes to destinations unknown.
Perhaps, along with a host of other Republicans, Ted Cruz is among the "unsentimental"? Actually, that's probably a reasonable characterization of Cruz. But Gerson is largely hollow manning. Some have taken the position that a long-term stalemate may be the outcome most consistent with U.S. interests, a conclusion consistent with Cruz's arguments, but they typically have acknowledged the human cost:
Given this depressing state of affairs, a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States. An Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the entire Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda terrorism.

There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.

That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.

Non-Sunni Syrians can expect only social exclusion or even outright massacre if the rebels win, while the nonfundamentalist Sunni majority would face renewed political oppression if Mr. Assad wins. And if the rebels win, moderate Sunnis would be politically marginalized under fundamentalist rulers, who would also impose draconian prohibitions.
Were Gerson to read that type of analysis, rather than huffing about its lack of sentimentality, he might recognize that there's no solution to the crisis in Syria that isn't going to result in large-scale oppression and suffering.

Gerson, quick to accuse his imagined opponents of being "stupid", has also apparently not noticed that the deaths and displacement of civilians that trouble him are occurring within the context of a Syrian civil war. Does he believe that western munitions have magical features that prevent them from killing civilians? Does he believe that when western powers back a civil war, civilian deaths cease, only armed combatants are killed, and no one becomes a refugee? Civilian suffering was significant under Assad, it is significant under civil war, it would remain significant under Gerson's escalated civil war, and it will continue even if the "less horrible" factions prevail. Why does Gerson pretend -- and he has to know that his position is a pretense -- that there's a good alternative? Probably for the same reason he pretends that those "less horrible" Syrian factions won't harm a hair on a civilian head if given western arms or control of the nation. It's an argument of convenience, offered for political purposes.

Gerson suggests,
After years of defining staying out of the Middle East as success, this may now involve saving the Iraqi government, actively coordinating support to the Syrian opposition and bolstering state institutions in Lebanon and other highly stressed countries.
Concluding, "President Obama has shown no appetite or aptitude for this role — but refusing it now would be a massive failure." Let's step back in history to 2001, when Gerson's former employer became President. Iraq was subject to a no fly zone, but was contained under Saddam Hussein and entirely hostile to al-Qaeda. Syria had recently come under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, who had not yet established himself as a tyrant in the model of his father. Egypt remained reasonably stable under Mubarek. Lebanon was a mess, but the mess was largely contained by Syrian occupation and the threat of another Israeli incursion or invasion. Under G.W.'s watch, Syria's penchant for oppression and torture was viewed as a virtue, and Syria was enlisted as a partner for the rendition and torture of terrorism suspects. Bush opposed the Syria Accountability Act. His invasion of Iraq, championed by Gerson, bogged the nation down in a long, extraordinarily expensive war. It was as a result of that war, and under G.W.'s watch, that Maliki government was formed, a government that eight years later cannot inspire the nation's armed forces to defend its cities. It's a shame nobody in the Bush Administration had the necessary stroke of genius, back in early 2001, to consider trying to press Assad into being a more progressive leader or, in the alternative, "actively coordinating support to the Syrian opposition", while "bolstering state institutions in Lebanon and other highly stressed countries". Sure, the Middle East of 2001 was a carton of fragile eggs, any one of which could be easily broken with consequences potentially spilling over into its neighbors. But after Bush made a hobby of tossing those eggs into the air and hitting them with a tennis racket, I again assert that the word for Gerson's finger-wagging at Obama is "chutzpah". Gerson's term, "massive failure", seems like a fair assessment of Bush's policy.

I don't particularly care for the argument that the hawkish elements of our society, people like Gerson who can't seem to even recall recent history, should send their kids off to fight the wars for which they openly yearn -- their kids should not suffer for their parents' hawkishness. But it's never a surprise to see that somebody like Gerson was never interested in pursuing a military career himself, and that it's other people's children whom he would eagerly dispatch to fight yet another war in the Middle East.

But the worst part of this sort of column is that it's generic. There's a single basic column with a number of blanks to be filled in with whatever President Obama does or does not do, a tepid suggestion that things might be better had something different been done -- but always short on specifics about what should have been done and why it would have resulted in a better outcome -- and a standard set of attacks that Obama's choices did not miraculously fix all that's wrong with the region or world. It's an astonishingly lazy form of analysis, and it speaks poorly of Fred Hiatt and his editorial pages that he is so happy to run this type of column. When you're dealing with a region where your typical choice is trying to figure out which of a number of bad solutions will be the least damaging, it's irresponsible to suggest that there are easy answers.

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