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A fine mess

September 15, 2013 - Harry Eagar
It would have been a fine thing if the rightwingers had welcomed America's cost-free victory in Syria -- the first time American diplomacy has gotten something for nothing since Jimmy Carter got us out of Panama -- but of course they did not. This was to be expected: People who still haven't recognized our huge and costly defeat in Iraq can hardly be expected to recognize a small victory in Syria (assuming the deal works out).

I do not think Obama's "red line" statement was well-thought-out (see below for some reasons), but it did put Assad in play in American politics, which he had not been before. If Assad had had much sense, he'd have cottoned on to the probability that Obama's warning meant he could not use gas weapons at no cost, and he would not have used them. Obama would have scored a cheap advantage. (The cost would have come in making it that much harder to intervene more strongly against Assad later, inasmuch as he could say he had "behaved" per international norms and American wishes.)

I do not suspect that Obama is so devious that he was trying to forestall demands for a forward policy in Syria. Those demands were already around, and he had resisted them. I suspect he just hoped that a warning could put some limits on a deteriorating situation. It used to work sometimes in the days of gunboat diplomacy when Hillaire Belloc could take comfort that "we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not," although that was in the 1890s and "they" have had Maxim guns, and worse, since roughly 1945.

I also do not think that Obama is so deft that he calculated that Russia would decide it was in its interest to corral Assad. (See "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," June 23) Until a couple of weeks ago, Russia had blocked every move against Syria at the UN, which probably means Obama knew when he made the "red line" statement that it implied military action, more or less unilateral, on his part.

We know, at least, that he was willing to take that course.

Up to that point, Obama's moves were not unlike Incurious George's in the runup to the 2003 disaster, with the significant exception that Joe Biden didn't fake the intel or freeze out the regular policy apparatus. This president's military intentions were surely less grandiose than that president's, but that might not have mattered a great deal; once the shooting starts, there is always a strong temptation to send in (more) Marines.

The idea -- so ingrained in John McCain -- that a few cruise missiles would have made a difference is certainly a rightwing delusion (but note the commenters, who sussed Eliot Cohen's disingenuous political subtext).

The dissent, from both left and right, was both a rebuke and an opportunity for Obama. (I wish I could believe the rightwing dissent had been a rare example of realism, but it was just a mixture of traditional isolationism and Obama-hatred). Unlike Iraq, where Incurious George was going to have war no matter what, and his Texas yahoos approached the issue in complete ignorance (and left the same way), Obama was flexible in thinking and methods and able to listen and learn.

I have to think that Parliament's vote was a shock that made him rethink, and it may be that Putin, too, saw the delay as an opening he could use to back away from a client whose recklessness portended even greater headaches for Russia. Whatever Putin's motives -- and they remain as mysterious to me as his earlier support; the idea that he was protecting his eastern Mediterranean base for his useless navy is the kind of rightwing delusion that lost us the Iraq war -- Obama showed the kind of suppleness combined with a focus on the original goal that is exactly what you want in a diplomat and a commander.

Watching the rightwingers and the Obama-haters immediately start worrying that Putin was gaming Obama, and some leftwingers' deluding themselvess that somehow Putin had wrested the moral high ground from Obama confirms that Obama is a strategist and they are mere tacticians (and not even good at that).

If eliminating gas weapons is so important it justifies intervening in a remarkably stupid and mixed up civil war (and I don't think it is, see below), then Obama is now on the way to complete success without a shot fired -- a rare and precious accomplishment.

The sour grapes heard from the rebels -- the ones all this effort was undertaken to protect, remember -- proves that Obama, if he had not been cautious and focused, could have been dragged into taking part in a no-win civil war; that was what the rebels (or some of them) wanted, and no number of gassed children would have been too many for them if they could have tricked America into that. They could have done it, too; they tricked Lindsey Graham easily enough.

And now, time to restate some obvious things about gas warfare.

First, it is not effective. Every big army has played with gas, but since World War I, none has bothered to use it. Hitler had sarin, too, and he didn't use it.

Poison gas has been used only a few times: by the Italians in Abyssinia, by the Japanese in China, by America in Vietnam, by Russia in Afghanistan, perhaps by Russian surrogates in Cambodia, by Iraq against Kurds and Iranians, by Assad against Syrians and (in a very minor, kitchen-sink kind of way) by the Russians against the Germans.

In no case did gas warfare accomplish anything. Its biggest succcess was against the Kurds, it helped chase them away but it did not break their resistance permanently.

Gas is hard to manage -- impossible after it is released -- and it cannot do do anything other weapons cannot.

Second, although it inspires a particular horror or revulsion, at least among peoples who were shocked by its introduction in 1915, this is a tribute to PR not to effects. Gas has never been used to kill or injure any considerable number of people; and while the prospect of choking sounds a particularly awful way to die (to me anyway), it is not demonstrably worse than being raped and bayoneted, to take one example.

Third, if the goal is to forestall atrocious cruelty and murder, there are places where you could get a much bigger return for your effort than Syrian cities -- central Africa, for example.

A fourth point about the Syrian crisis, not related to gas, but obvious to anyone who knows the history of Syria: the French pose to intervene to save Syrian civilians is as phony -- RtO is tempted to also say, as typically phony -- as French offers to help usually are. The French care so little for Syrians that they killed 300,000 of them to enforce their mandate in 1920, a mandate that, like Russian interests in Syria, had little to support it except sentimentalism, in the French case for the crusades and in opposition to the English.

A fifth point, very obvious, is that no sense or decency can be expected out of the Muslims in all this. Not only is the war about one kind of Muslim killing another kind as much as it is about anything -- the very last thing it is about is democracy -- the non-Syrian Muslims see it mostly as a hammer to crush Jews. The state of Israel, although nearly concerned about the outcome of events, has been careful not to meddle in Syrian affairs, but numbers of "Arab leaders" had promised that if America took steps, they would retaliate by killing Jews.

It is only restating the obvious to say that anybody whose default reaction to any sort of trouble is, kill the Jews, is more dangerous than all the poison gas in Syria.


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