Operation Syrian Disaster

Former Dick Cheney aide John Hannah writes in Foreign Policy on “Obama’s Syria Disaster,” and, referring to diplomatic efforts focused on Kofi Annan’s missions and Vladimir Putin’s stubbornness, sums up what Dan Trombly (@stcolumbia) suspects may become “the core of the revisionist narrative”:

Not diplomacy as solution, but diplomacy as excuse, a rationale for avoiding the kind of muscular action that the administration was loathe to take — especially in an election year, especially in a benighted Middle East that in the eyes of most Americans long ago exceeded its allotment of U.S. attention, treasure and sacrifice.

All of which has left us here, confronting an oncoming train wreck of well-armed Islamists, battle-hardened and thirsty for power and revenge on the one hand, and a crumbling, desperate dictatorship on the other, its hands drenched in the blood of its own people and sitting on top of the Middle East’s largest arsenal of chemical weapons.

Hannah proceeds to speculation on the unfolding situation rather than to a detailed consideration of the intervention that wasn’t, but his views are all based on the same set of mostly unspoken assumptions about what U.S. interests really were and are in relation to Syria.

To place other priorities ahead of such  narrowly framed humanitarian concerns and blown-up Islamophobic nightmares may come across as amoral or worse, making the discussion ill-suited for public diplomacy and patriotic myth-making. It may not be the wrong thing, however, either for the U.S. or, on balance, for anyone else.

Before explaining why Operation Syrian Disaster may have served American and even the world’s larger purposes, it is worth taking a closer look at Hannah’s argument. On Twitter this morning, Dan Trombly did the crucial work for us, critiquing Hannah’s notion of some “lost opportunity” – “some moment the US could have come in and somehow ‘marginalized’ the extremists while toppling Assad quickly.” The rest of Trombly’s tweets condense as follows:

There was never a time when we could have quickly toppled the [Syrian] regime. Pulling a Libya in Syria was never going to happen quickly because of, if nothing else, geography. Early in the war, no safe areas, no Syrian militias capable of standing up to the government, nowhere that we could adequately defend from air. You would still need, as in Libya, several months of fighting for rebel forces to coalesce. It would have been much harder than in [Lybia]. The inability of the US [to] prevent alternative suppliers, and indeed its reliance on Gulf states in some areas, would still foster jihadis. US attempts to “marginalize” jihadist groups still would have angered people and divided rebel groups. There was no scenario in which you had an uprising by the majority of the Syrian population and jihadism didn’t get stronger, dammit. And “marginal” jihadis still cause a heck of a lot of problems. Never mind that the mechanism of marginalization is totally vague.

During further discussion on Twitter, Trombly contemplated writing a new post on the subject, but also mentioned that he had already written “10-15k words” on the lack of any “Libya-style moment” for U.S. intervention in Syria (h/t to @NeoconMaudit). He has also already written on the arguably vastly overblown chemical weapons issue.

To whatever extent we assess Hannah’s case as less than airtight, we need to consider alternatives, including the ruthless and wicked, or anyway less showily moralistic argument on U.S. Syria policy. I will offer a simple sketch of it whose outlines should be familiar to anyone writing on these subjects, but which for various reasons seem rarely to be taken into account even peripherally, even by self-styled “foreign policy realists,” at least in public. Maybe no one discusses the argument because it is a poor argument, or maybe because it is based on assumptions that are all but taboo. Either way, I doubt that what I have to suggest can be any worse than Hannah’s “muscular” urgings, or any more frustrating than Trombly’s pessimism.

Since, for purposes of this discussion, we are primarily concerned with U.S. interests, we need to be as precise about them as we can. In this regard, words like “humanitarian” – as well as “stability,” “democracy promotion,” “development,” or even “peace” – count as empty abstractions. As for transnational jihadists, for reasons both good and bad they still command great interest, but, without attempting a critical assessment of the real threat they pose, we can observe with Trombly that greater direct U.S. involvement in Syria might have had no substantial positive effect on jihadism as a military or strategic concern.

As everyone knows, and then sets aside, in the Middle East in the current epoch, the main danger to U.S. and for that matter to global political-economic interests hinges above all and most immediately on the oil market. It would be too much to say that the U.S. interest in the region would completely disappear with American energy independence, or even with total energy independence of the U.S. and all of its major trading partners, but in any event no such de-coupling of the world economy and oil is on the horizon. Oil is in turn the common material form that the similarly basic – Grand Strategic or neo-imperial – U.S. interest happens to take in the Middle East: That no new challenger arises in any region vital to the smooth or smooth-enough functioning of an American-friendly international political-economic system.

From this perspective, and without attempting to outline the entirety of a regional balance of power strategy – in which every power or potential combination of powers checks or is checked by the others, with the U.S. or allies ready to tip the balance at the least cost – we can ask, if at risk to our eternal souls, whether bloody and miserable chaos in Syria at this moment is not a net positive to the American and global interest, in the long run even to the Syrian interest – as many Syrians obviously believe quite strongly. Of course, the Syrians did not seem to need much U.S. assistance on this score – all the better, since it would be a negative for our freedom of action, at a minimum a PR diversion, to have American fingerprints all over yet another humanitarian catastrophe.

The main purpose that Syria-in-pieces might serve has most to do with Iran, of course, since Iran has had at least the theoretical potential to disrupt the oil market gravely, and, through its own and allied operatives, eventually backed by a nuclear arms capacity, if not to dominate the region, then at least to hold it hostage. If the drawn-out fall of the Assad regime does not quite put an end to such ambitions, it seems likely to impair them. That this game may be up may even nudge the Islamic Republic toward a long-awaited re-opening to the U.S. – now a public topic of debate in Iran itself – and a more “natural” strategic re-positioning with the U.S. and the international system, and against any overly ambitious regional rivals or foreign interlopers. More open and direct U.S. involvement would make this turn more difficult for Iran.

The Syrian disaster also may serve the Sunni Arab powers that were more intimately involved in supplying rebels, part of their regional competition with Arab and Iranian Shiites. As for the other usual focus of U.S. political interest in the region, Israel, the implosion of the Islamic Republic’s Alawite ally probably reduces the threat from the north – both from Syria and from Lebanon – as well as from Gaza, while helping to re-orient Gaza within the Egyptian sphere, where Israeli geo-strategists also prefer it. Even the U.S. longer-term goal of gradual strategic separation from Israel is indirectly advanced at minimized domestic cost, while the eventual emergence of a re-balanced regional order, one less likely to draw the American military in, becomes easier to make out amidst the smoke and rubble.

Of course, Armageddon could always be just around the corner anyway if enough things go wrong, but the main alternative would be the U.S. embroiled in the Syrian bloodbath, re-committed to making things right through force of arms and at escalating cost, on yet another patch of hostile foreign ground, and in a position to be blamed by everyone, especially by John Hannah and friends, for every setback to follow.

The fact that, from our proposed ruthless calculation of interests, the desirable level of intervention squares with the semi-covert and otherwise diplomatic policy that the U.S. has actually put into effect suggests that the Obama Administration, intentionally or not, has been following just such an approach – one possibly worth supporting, generally with all the best, in no way contradictory, anti-war, anti-imperialist, world-bettering, lessons-learned, freedom-loving noises.


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  1. Hannah is of course correct and if, two years ago, instead of doing little, the United States had assumed a bold leadership role and organized a free election in Syria and had a John Sununu type installed, everything would have changed for the better

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