Here we go again. Or, as folk-rocker Steve Earle sings, “And the drums are drumming again.”
All too predictably, the neoconservatives and Republican militarists – the same folks who blundered us into Iraq – have been busy this week agitating for some sort of muscular American role in the Syrian civil war. Their reasons are manifestly flawed, and manifestly tainted by their track record, but so what. They don’t have to bear the ultimate responsibility for whatever happens. That is President Obama’s job. If things go wrong, they can just duck and cover, and live to agitate another day.
Obama has unfortunately made it easier for them to agitate – by repeatedly warning that the autocratic Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” necessitating some kind of western response. Preliminary evidence suggests that chemicals may have indeed been deployed; that raises the stakes for Obama, because he framed the stakes. But, to his credit, Obama clearly doesn’t intend to play cowboy like his ignominious predecessor. He wants more proof.
“What we now have,” Obama said at a Tuesday press conference, “is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them. We don’t have chain of custody that establishes exactly what happened. And when I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts….If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in the position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.” (Which is exactly what happened with Iraq 10 years ago.)
But, of course, the war hawks have no such qualms. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence panel, says the red line “cannot be a dotted line,” and he’s hot for “some action.” That jibes with stuff he said last winter: “We will have a moral obligation (to intervene) if we can say with even a moderate degree of certainty that these (chemical) weapons have been prepared.”
Lindsey Graham, in his usual role as John McCain’s echo, says “there’s a growing consensus in the U.S. Senate that the United States should get involved.” The think-tank warriors at the American Center for Democracy, a neoconservative hotbed, is agitating for Obama to skip the United Nations and send U.S. troops into Syria to seize chemical-weapons sites.
Kristol’s cracked ball
Most predictably of all, neocon talking-head Bill Kristol is manning up on Fox News: “(Obama) is not a president who wants to start another war, that’s the way he sees it. I think it’s totally irresponsible for the American president to have that.” Sometimes, “you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
This is the same guy who declared on the eve of war 10 years ago that Iraq would be a breeze, that the Bush invasion would pacify a warring people: “There is a certain amount of pop psychology in America that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni….There’s almost no evidence of that at all.” Ten years later, in Iraq, the Shiites and the Sunnis are still blowing each other up; for most of those 10 years, American soldiers died in the crossfire. But in Washington, there’s no shame and no penalty for being dead wrong, which is why Kristol still reigns on Sunday morning TV.
And even though Kristol thinks that Obama’s aversion to war is “totally irresponsible,” perhaps it would be wise to remind the neocons that the warring parties in Syria are Shiites and Sunnis, again. (A Shiite offshoot runs the regime; the citizenry is majority Sunni.) It shouldn’t take a genius, or a PhD in the history of the ’03 Bush invasion, to recognize the pitfalls of a muscular American intervention. Another deadly crossfire awaits, with great prospects for making matters worse.
One classic case of purblindness is John McCain (no surprise there). Last weekend he sang his We Gotta Do Something tune, because, in his words, Syria is plagued by “atrocities that are on a scale that we have not seen in a long time.” Apparently he has no memory of what happened only recently in Iraq, in a war he had repeatedy agitated for. We put more than 150,000 troops into Iraq, yet the scale of death and atrocity was worse than what has transpired in Syria. As many as 300,000 Iraqi civilians died after President Bush heeded the neocon hawks.
In the words of foreign policy sage Fareed Zakaria: “All the features of Syria’s civil war that are suposedly the result of U.S. nonintervention also appeared in Iraq, despite America’s massive intervention.” He says that if America goes heavily into Syria, with no-fly zones and arms for the rebels, it would merely “intensify the civil war.” And that’s basically what Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the other day at a press breakfast: “I’ve been cautious about the application of the military instrument of power (in Syria). It’s not clear to me that it would produce that (peaceful) outcome.”
If we ultimately feel compelled to Do Something, let the strategy be prudent and well-considered. There’s no need to rush to judgment. And as for the neocons, one might think that by now they’d be conversant with the philosopher George Santayana, who famously warned: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
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