Ideology prevails, rather than the national interests of the United States.
Ideology has prevailed in Syria and likely will in Iran and elsewhere.
The following article from Stratfor provides a good summary of what President Obama’s America did and did not do about Syria. As it contends, the concept of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) has deteriorated over the years.
The threshold of mass destruction ceased to be the significant measure, and instead the cause of death in a given attack took center stage.
The use of WMDs became a matter of ideological interpretation. Hence, the alleged killing by the Assad regime of perhaps fourteen hundred people on August twenty-first assumed far more importance than the killing of more than one hundred thousand by the Assad regime and by various “freedom fighters,” most of them apparently Islamists, over a couple of years. I have seen no breakout of — or even a distinction drawn based on — who did what to whom or why.
The Stratfor article seems to contend that the Obama Administration is neutral as between Assad and the “freedom fighters,” but promises of military and “humanitarian” support to the “freedom fighters” suggests the contrary. So do statements by Secretary of State Kerry. According to an article at The Long War Journal,
The Jane’s study estimates that about 10,000 jihadists, including non-Syrians, are fighting for al Qaeda affiliates including the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; and that about 30,000 to 35,000 more are hardline jihadists focused primarily on the war in Syria, with “at least a further 30,000 moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character.” This means, the Telegraph observed, that “only a small minority [about 25,000, or 25 percent] of the rebels are linked to secular or purely nationalist groups.”
The recent Jane’s estimate contrasts sharply with the picture drawn by Secretary of State Kerry on Sept. 3 when he told the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that reports the Syrian opposition has become increasingly infiltrated by al Qaeda were “basically incorrect.”
He went on to say: “The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria.” In the same week, Kerry cited an article published in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 30 that said moderate groups, not Islamists, are leading the fight against the Assad regime. The article’s author, Elizabeth O’Bagy, who was also working as a consultant for the rebel Syrian Emergency Task Force, has since been fired by the Institute for the Study of War for falsifying her academic credentials. Elsewhere, Kerry has said that about 15-25% of the Syrian rebels are “bad guys.” [Emphasis added.]
The Obama Administration has waived the statutory ban on arming terrorist groups so that it can arm the terrorist groups opposed to the Assad regime (and, in many cases, opposed to each other as well.) Maggie’s Notebook makes the point that many of them are not pleasant people. (N.B. I could not embed the video from that article here, so this is a different one.)
According to the article at Maggie’s Notebook, a
photographer/videographer says he photographed four beheadings in one day by the Free Syria Army (FSA). Brigadier General Salim Idris heads the FSA. John McCain traveled to Syria and met with Idris, saying he is a “fine leader” (no mention that Idris has a white-hot hate for Israel and for Assad because Assad has protected Israel). Senator Bob Corker also traveled to the Syrian border and had his chat with with the “moderate” Idris whose group is rebels is capable of beheading several in one day, and oh yes, hates Israel. Corker is “humiliated” that our “gun pipe-line isn’t operating fast enough” (that quote from September 11, 2013 – we remain stupid).
President Obama improvidently drew a porous
pink blob “red line.”
As I noted here,
Great care needs to be taken to avoid drawing ill defined “red lines” which, if crossed, may result in solutions worse than the problem or in no significant action at all. The Obama Administration appears to have drawn its red line as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria with inadequate thought to the nature of any “something to be done if crossed” that would be viable militarily, economically, politically and with due regard to the probable consequences.
Sitting on the sidelines is not pleasant, particularly for a once mighty but now declining military power. Even when at our strongest, I doubt that we could have taken usefully successful action in the current circumstances.
However, getting involved in a serious conflict with achievement of ill-defined or impossible goals in mind can be much worse than sitting on the sidelines. Happy dreams of planting western style “democratic” government in Islamic lands where “freedom for all” is anathema are unrealizable; illusions of reality, based on the way we would like the world to be rather than on how it is, lead to disappointment and worse. We should have seen by now that the probability of useful success in Syria closely approaches zero.
The consequences of President Obama’s “red line” are worse than I had thought they might be and far transcend any harm to the national interest that could have resulted from a failure to have drawn the “red line.” They also transcend any damage that could have been done to the national interest had President Obama conceded, early on, that his “red line” had been improvidently, and stupidly, drawn. That in any event became apparent when He tried to devise a response that would make no difference, beyond showing that He meant business and that He must not be mocked. The consequences involve the resurrection of Russia under President Putin as a world leader and the eclipse of Obama’s America. For how long after President Obama has been replaced will that eclipse continue?
Now that the Syria “red line” is disappearing, Israel is greatly concerned that the same will happen to the “red line” concerning Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. She should be.
The reality after the Syria back-down is one in which the prestige and influence of the United States has declined. The president’s inability to make up his mind has not only gotten Bashar Assad off the hook and convinced Vladimir Putin that there is hope for his long-cherished dream of rebuilding the old Soviet empire. It has also made it difficult to envision the U.S. taking on the even more daunting task of a military confrontation with Iran. Since there is no reason to believe further diplomatic outreach to Tehran will be any more fruitful than past efforts, that leaves Israelis with the unpleasant thought that if Iran is to be prevented from going nuclear by force, then they will have to do it themselves. Under those circumstances, what choice is Netanyahu left with other than to try to send a signal of his own to the ayatollahs?
“Strategy, Ideology and the Close of the Syrian Crisis is republished with permission of Stratfor.” All bold face emphasis is mine.
Strategy, Ideology and the Close of the Syrian Crisis
By George Friedman
It is said that when famed Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich heard of the death of the Turkish ambassador, he said, “I wonder what he meant by that?” True or not, serious or a joke, it points out a problem of diplomacy. In searching for the meaning behind every gesture, diplomats start to regard every action merely as a gesture. In the past month, the president of the United States treated the act of bombing Syria as a gesture intended to convey meaning rather than as a military action intended to achieve some specific end. This is the key to understanding the tale that unfolded over the past month.
When President Barack Obama threatened military action in retaliation for what he claimed was the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, he intended a limited strike that would not destroy the weapons. Destroying them all from the air would require widespread air attacks over an extensive period of time, and would risk releasing the chemicals into the atmosphere. The action also was not intended to destroy Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime. That, too, would be difficult to do from the air, and would risk creating a power vacuum that the United States was unwilling to manage. Instead, the intention was to signal to the Syrian government that the United States was displeased.
The threat of war is useful only when the threat is real and significant. This threat, however, was intended to be insignificant. Something would be destroyed, but it would not be the chemical weapons or the regime. As a gesture, therefore, what it signaled was not that it was dangerous to incur American displeasure, but rather that American displeasure did not carry significant consequences. The United States is enormously powerful militarily and its threats to make war ought to be daunting, but instead, the president chose to frame the threat such that it would be safe to disregard it. [Emphasis added.]
Avoiding Military Action
In fairness, it was clear at the beginning that Obama did not wish to take military action against Syria. Two weeks ago I wrote that this was “a comedy in three parts: the reluctant warrior turning into the raging general and finding his followers drifting away, becoming the reluctant warrior again.” Last week in Geneva, the reluctant warrior re-appeared, put aside his weapons and promised not to attack Syria.
When he took office, Obama did not want to engage in any war. His goal was to raise the threshold for military action much higher than it had been since the end of the Cold War, when Desert Storm, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq and other lesser interventions formed an ongoing pattern in U.S. foreign policy. Whatever the justifications for any of these, Obama saw the United States as being overextended by the tempo of war. He intended to disengage from war and to play a lesser role in general in managing the international system. At most, he intended to be part of the coalition of nations, not the leader and certainly not the lone actor.
He clearly regarded Syria as not meeting the newly raised standard. It was embroiled in a civil war, and the United States had not been successful in imposing its will in such internal conflicts. Moreover, the United States did not have a favorite in the war. Washington has a long history of hostility toward the al Assad regime. But it is also hostile to the rebels, who — while they might have some constitutional democrats among their ranks — have been increasingly falling under the influence of radical jihadists. The creation of a nation-state governed by such factions would re-create the threat posed by Afghanistan and leading to Sept. 11, and do so in a country that borders Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. Unless the United States was prepared to try its hand again once again at occupation and nation-building, the choice for Washington had to be “none of the above.”
Strategy and the specifics of Syria both argued for American distance, and Obama followed this logic. Once chemical weapons were used, however, the reasoning shifted. Two reasons explain this shift.
WMD and Humanitarian Intervention
One was U.S. concerns over weapons of mass destruction. From the beginning of the Cold War until the present, the fear of nuclear weapons has haunted the American psyche. Some would say that this is odd given that the United States is the only nation that has used atomic bombs. I would argue that it is precisely because of this. Between Hiroshima and mutual assured destruction there was a reasonable dread of the consequences of nuclear war. Pearl Harbor had created the fear that war might come unexpectedly at any moment, and intimate awareness of Hiroshima and Nagasaki generated fear of sudden annihilation in the United States.
Other weapons capable of massive annihilation of populations joined nuclear weapons, primarily biological and chemical weapons. Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the scientific work of the Manhattan Project, employed the term “weapon of mass destruction” to denote a class of weapons able to cause destruction on the scale of Hiroshima and beyond, a category that could include biological and chemical weapons.
The concept of weapons of mass destruction eventually shifted from “mass destruction” to the weapon itself. The use and even possession of such weapons by actors who previously had not possessed them came to be seen as a threat to the United States. The threshold of mass destruction ceased to be the significant measure, and instead the cause of death in a given attack took center stage. Tens of thousands have died in the Syrian civil war. The only difference in the deaths that prompted Obama’s threats was that chemical weapons had caused them. That distinction alone caused the U.S. foreign policy apparatus to change its strategy.
The second cause of the U.S. shift is more important. All American administrations have a tendency to think ideologically, and there is an ideological bent heavily represented in the Obama administration that feels that U.S. military power ought to be used to prevent genocide. This feeling dates back to World War II and the Holocaust, and became particularly intense over Rwanda and Bosnia, where many believe the United States could have averted mass murder. Many advocates of American intervention in humanitarian operations would oppose the use of military force in other circumstances, but regard its use as a moral imperative to stop mass murder.
The combined fear of weapons of mass destruction and the ideology of humanitarian intervention became an irresistible force for Obama. The key to this process was that the definition of genocide and the definition of mass destruction had both shifted such that the deaths of less than 1,000 people in a war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives resulted in demands for intervention on both grounds.
The pressure on Obama grew inside his administration from those who were concerned with the use of weapons of mass destruction and those who saw another Rwanda brewing. The threshold for morally obligatory intervention was low, and it eventually canceled out the much higher strategic threshold Obama had set. It was this tension that set off the strange oscillations in Obama’s handling of the affair. Strategically, he wanted nothing to do with Syria. But the ideology of weapons of mass destruction and the ideology of humanitarian intervention forced him to shift course.
An Impossible Balance
Obama tried to find a balance where there was none between his strategy that dictated non-intervention and his ideology that demanded something be done. His solution was to loudly threaten military action that he and his secretary of state both indicated would be minimal. The threatened action aroused little concern from the Syrian regime, which has fought a bloody two-year war. Meanwhile, the Russians, who were seeking to gain standing by resisting the United States, could paint Washington as reckless and unilateral. [Emphasis added.]
Obama wanted all of this to simply go away, but he needed some guarantee that chemical weapons in Syria would be brought under control. For that, he needed al Assad’s allies the Russians to promise to do something. Without that, he would have been forced to take ineffective military action despite not wanting to. Therefore, the final phase of the comedy played out in Geneva, the site of grave Cold War meetings (it is odd that Obama accepted this site given its symbolism), where the Russians agreed in some unspecified way on an uncertain time frame to do something about Syria’s chemical weapons. Obama promised not to take action that would have been ineffective anyway, and that was the end of it.
In the end, this agreement will be meaningful only if it is implemented. Taking control of 50 chemical weapons sites in the middle of a civil war obviously raises some technical questions on implementation. The core of the deal is, of course, completely vague. At the heart of it, the United States agreed not to ask the U.N. Security Council for permission to attack in the event the Syrians renege. It also does not clarify the means for evaluating and securing the Syrian weapons. The details of the plan will likely end up ripping it apart in the end. But the point of the agreement was not dealing with chemical weapons, it was to buy time and release the United States from its commitment to bomb something in Syria. [Emphasis added.]
There were undoubtedly other matters discussed, including the future of Syria. The United States and Russia both want the al Assad regime in place to block the Sunnis. They both want the civil war to end, the Americans to reduce the pressure on themselves to aid the Sunnis, the Russians to reduce the chances of the al Assad regime collapsing. Allowing Syria to become another Lebanon (historically, they are one country) with multiple warlords — or more precisely, acknowledging that this has already happened — is the logical outcome of all of this.
The most important outcome globally is that the Russians sat with the Americans as equals for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, the Russians sat as mentors, positioning themselves as appearing to instruct the immature Americans in crisis management. To that end, Putin’s op-ed inThe New York Times was brilliant. [Emphasis added.]
This should not be seen merely as imagery: The image of the Russians forcing the Americans to back down resonates all along the Russian periphery. In the former Soviet satellites, the complete disarray in Europe on this and most other issues, the vacillation of the United States, and the symbolism of Kerry and Lavrov negotiating as equals will shape behavior for quite awhile. [Emphasis added.]
This will also be the case in countries like Azerbaijan, a key alternative to Russian energy that borders Russia and Iran. Azerbaijan faces a second consequence of the administration’s ideology, one we have seen during the Arab Spring. The Obama administration has demonstrated a tendency to judge regimes that are potential allies on the basis of human rights without careful consideration of whether the alternative might be far worse. Coupled with an image of weakness, this could cause countries like Azerbaijan to reconsider their positions vis-a-vis the Russians. [Emphasis added.]
The alignment of moral principles with national strategy is not easy under the best of circumstances. Ideologies tend to be more seductive in generalized terms, but not so coherent in specific cases. This is true throughout the political spectrum. But it is particularly intense in the Obama administration, where the ideas of humanitarian intervention, absolutism in human rights, and opposition to weapons of mass destruction collide with a strategy of limiting U.S. involvement — particularly military involvement — in the world. The ideologies wind up demanding judgments and actions that the strategy rejects. [Emphasis added.]
The result is what we have seen over the past month with regard to Syria: A constant tension between ideology and strategy that caused the Obama administration to search for ways to do contradictory things. This is not a new phenomenon in the United States, and this case will not reduces its objective power. But it does create a sense of uncertainty about what precisely the United States intends. When that happens in a minor country, this is not problematic. In the leading power, it can be dangerous. [Emphasis added.]
Read more: Strategy, Ideology and the Close of the Syrian Crisis | Stratfor
Follow us: @stratfor on Twitter | Stratfor on Facebook
Where do we go from here? Where does Israel go? Where does Egypt go? Where might other future attempts at “democracy” with freedom go? Into the same hellish nightmare that President Obama’s misguided and now demonstrably futile efforts to bring “democracy” without freedom to the Arab lands have gone?