The Frankenstein Foreign-Policy Crisis

The last week has been not so much a case of national déjà vu as a Philip K. Dickian time-slip where the past bleeds into the present and transforms it. Syria is potentially the frankenstein of foreign-policy crises, made up of the parts of dead blunders: Vietnam, where we learned that firepower won’t overcome the unquantifiables that make for a quagmire; Iraq, where we learned that intelligence may be faulty or manipulated; Libya, where we learned both the combat possibilities and limitations of no-fly zones; Afghanistan, where a quarter-century ago we armed freedom-fighters who became accomplices in the murder of 3,000 citizens on American soil; Kosovo and Rwanda, where we ignored mass slaughter at the cost of our collective conscience; and Somalia, where we answered the call of conscience to disastrous end. Syria surpasses them all. With a warring population becoming ever more kaleidoscopically sectarian, and an air-defense system as sophisticated as any in the non-Israeli Middle East, it’s an unfolding horror show that morally demands a response from the greatest nation on earth even as we face a void of viable military, political, and diplomatic options. This was true before the looming holocaust that would be wrought by chemical weapons. As the president of the United States noted yesterday in his press conference, Syria was a cataclysm of mind-boggling dimensions before the conversation ever turned to red lines.   

The disposition of ideology is to conflate matters in a way that serves ideological purposes. Both right and left have done this with the Afghan and Iraq wars; the former became for the right an excuse to invade the latter, while the latter became for the left a way to discredit the former. Actually, each war was girded or undone by its own realities, which in the case of Afghanistan justified our entry given the Taliban’s complicity in 9/11, and which disqualified our involvement in Iraq given the utter lack of connection of Saddam Hussein to 9/11 or al-Qaeda, and also the failure of inspectors just two months before our March 2003 invasion to find the weapons that allegedly were harbored by Saddam and posed such a threat. The same spokespeople on the right that championed the Iraq debacle so fervently, steamrolling as flatly unpatriotic the concerns that were raised before the war began, now conclude that the failures of Syria will encourage Iranian and North Korean follies; while decrying our supposed appeasement of Islamic extremism everywhere else—including in our own country, where such extremism is virtually nonexistent (Boston notwithstanding)—the right ignores the fact that many of the Syrian rebels it wants to arm actually are Islamic extremists. In the meantime, the left responds to the spectacularly cruel imagery emerging from Bashar al-Assad’s barbarism with more frantic calls for a wholly diplomatic solution that might somehow take into account both Assad’s war crimes and the intransigent support (so far) of his principal ally, Russia. This is the sort of soft-headedness that gave liberalism a bad name back around the rise of Ronald Reagan. 

By all reports, the current president is an analytical man. It doesn’t take much analysis to note that at last week’s opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the Iraq War—the single worst American foreign-policy mistake of any of our lifetimes (mine includes Vietnam)—went entirely unmentioned: the Decision That Dare Not Speak Its Name. Shortsighted as it may seem in retrospect, an imagination that’s both contextual and empathic might comprehend how, half a century ago, reasonable men sincerely thought the fall of Southeast Asia to communism was perilous to American security, whereas no effort at revisionism, no matter how fervently pressed by the Bush Administration’s denizens, can make right the bad faith of Iraq. If those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, those who learn its lessons too literally are doomed to misunderstand them, and particularly at the Syrian precipice we might now be well served by, if nothing else, a discussion that has some integrity and doesn’t render as pawns of our partisan discourse a couple million refugees crossing the borders into Turkey and Lebanon, not to mention many more millions slaughtered, including untold children. Barack Obama coolly grasps that it was the Iraq War as much as any single thing that made him president, but he also has not only enough imagination, both contextual and empathic, but plain moral sense to realize that doing nothing in Syria is as outlandish as committing American troops, and that humanitarian action is as imperative as avoiding a plunge into a civil war that has no strategic or ethical clarity. It’s hard to remember a problem this large for which there were so few prospects that were so barely tolerable. The past bleeds into the present and transforms it, but that doesn’t make the present the past, and Syria becomes its own lesson for future Americans to remember even as this week, in this moment, there’s no one to learn it but us.


The generals are committed to themselves first. As long as they are up against defenseless civilians they will be brave regime supporters. Trickle in some powerful weapons capable of killing tanks or bringing down planes and their calculus will change dramatically.

The reason Assad is still in power is that he his army can still fight in relative safety. At this point if we do not change the balance, both sides will continue to bleed and create a population of radicalized shiites and even more scared and dangerous Alawites.

The sooner we tip the balance in favor of the Shiite majority, the better chance we have of having a reasonable regime follow. The people have shown tremendous fortitude in standing up to Assad. it will not be a cake walk for the Muslim extremists to impose a another kind of dictatorship.

You gave many reasons why we should not go into Syria by plane or by soldiers but you left out the more difficult ones that must be mentioned. Assad had a number of small insurgency groups that hit parts of Damascus usually but other times Syria proper that he had to put down. These all took place while US was attacking Iraq. They are in the battle for their own ends, not Syria's. Then the Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia by various names has joined the fight. These all have access to sarin by the underground esp. in small countries near Russia or Russia proper. The kind of sarin found is much weaker than any of those quantities that Assad would have used--if he did--by plane and/or rocket launcher. The rebels may not have these item but one or more of the insurgencies could. The kinds of bombs having gone off at the government buildings over the past 20+ months are more like those of the insurgencies rather than the rebels--just in their high quality that comes from those that practice more. We can do much more to help by working with humanitarian relief groups in Turkey, Jordan and Iraq than by flying planes over Damascus and breaking their sovereignty but then finding that we were wrong. Finally--this is a Civil War. Civil wars can not be settled by outsiders of any persuasion. They must be fought and settled by those in the battle. They have received some assistance in small arms but anything past that gives more help to Assad via Iran and Russia or to insurgencies that could turn the whole Mideast into a war for power under the name of jihad and Islam--even though the religion has nothing to do with it.

Excellent overview of what and why, with Syria. All the more dispiriting for showcasing the bleakness of where we are. Is it perhaps time to treat Iran as the important "player" it is in the Middle East? Why not bring them in, front and center? Yes, it has its own agenda; but then, don't we all?

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