Thursday, June 4, 2015

Leading from behind

Place Uriah in the front line of the fiercest battle and withdraw from him, so that he may be struck down and die. --2 Samuel 11:15

If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible. --Harry S Truman, 1941

Various commentators of the neo-con, interventionist sort (y'know, "serious," mainstream commentators) have faulted the Obama Administration for a while now for not warring more directly on the Assad regime in Syria. Now that the Saudis and Turks are funding and arming al-Qaeda linked militants, and those militants (along with ISIS militants) are making greater progress against the Assad regime, the new neo-con line seems to be that we're going to miss our piece of the action if Sunni radicals do all the anti-Assad fighting and dying for us.

Now as it happens, I will be somewhat sorry to see the murderous Assad regime go, because it seems to be the only protector of Christians in Syria.

But assuming for argument's sake that the fall of Assad is desirable (to check Iran or whatever), why exactly is it a problem if it's jihadis dying for that cause, rather than Americans? Is it supposed to be because the jihadis will then have more influence in a post-Assad Syria? But if that's the case, how is it any different than Libya, where we followed the interventionist script and ended up with more jihadi influence than under Qaddafi? For that matter, how is it any different than Iraq, where we have ended up with more jihadi influence than under Hussein? It seems to me that we are going to have more jihadi influence in the Arab world until Arabs themselves weary of them. So why not let jihadis and Baathists slaughter each other in the meantime, rather than having Americans be involved? As Kissinger is said to have quipped of the Iran-Iraq War--can't they both lose?

I think the obviously correct analysis of what the Administration is trying to do here here isn't some sort of liberal timidity (as if the party of drone war, the Carter Doctrine, and Vietnam were really noninterventionist anyway), but rather the one Perry Anderson offers in his (excellent) new book American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers, reflecting conditions as of its composition in 2013, but still plausible today:

The safer path was a proxy war, at two removes. The US would not intervene directly, nor even itself—for the time being—arm or train the Syrian rebels. It would rely instead on Qatar and Saudi Arabia to funnel weapons and funds to them, and Turkey and Jordan to host and organize them.

There's a great deal of loose talk among neocons (many of them working at Gulf-funded think tanks, I imagine) about some sort of dangerous split between the U.S. and the Gulf princedoms. But Anderson's picture of the U.S. and the Arab royals working hand-in-glove rings a lot truer than the spleen being vented by the Gulf royals' American mouthpieces.

Not, of course, that we mere citizens have much power over the steady course of the national security establishment's plans for continuing imperial hegemony. Just nice to call out obvious cant for what it is once in a while, if only to stay sane.


  1. First of all, I'd like to offer you a compliment for your comments on Rod Dreher's AmCon blog, which are invariably more charitable and temperate than mine.
    That being said, I'd like to protest your description of the Assad regime as 'murderous.'
    I happen to be able to read Arabic, and, at the very beginning of the Syrian revolution/civil war/melee where violence was limited to clashes between protesters and police, I could read banners that read "No Dialogue" (لا حوار) held aloft by protesters. Naturally I gathered that things might end badly.
    So in the first place I am not at all a fan of the various tribes of revolutionaries. But secondly, what has Bashar Al-Asad done that nearly every government on the planet has not done in attempting to quell armed uprisings? Bashar Al-Asad shells cities held by revolutionary forces; the U.S. did the same thing in Iraq before the hearts-and-minds phase. Or consider what was done in Fallujah. Has Bashar Al-Asad done anything even equivalent to Sherman's March to the Sea? The way Bashar Al-Asad's government is acting is simply the way governments tend to act in response to revolutions.
    Now, I don't mean to pardon actions by governments that are genuinely unjust; however, in the real world, this is just how war and self-defense tend to play out. (St. Joan of Arc is a very honorable exception.) Much of the rhetoric surrounding Bashar Al-Asad suggests that governments do not have a right to defend themselves from revolutions. I completely reject that.
    It is not clear to me why Bashar Al-Asad and his regime can be labeled 'murderous' while the government of the US gets off Scott free.

  2. Mr. Graney, thanks very much for your kind words about commenting over at Dreher's place, and thanks very much for engaging with my irregular blogging here.

    I have the utmost respect for your opinion on the Assad regime, about which you doubtless no far more than I do. Other than to say that, I have only two points, both in response to this sentence:

    It is not clear to me why Bashar Al-Asad and his regime can be labeled 'murderous' while the government of the US gets off Scott free.

    To take the latter clause first, the U.S. government very much does not get off scot-free in my own mind: I hold the U.S. government, from the days of slavery and the Indian Wars right through our own day of drone bombing and general hegemonic meddling, to also be murderous. I think it's a lesser evil than many of its quondam foes (Hitler and Stalin, e.g.), but an evil all the same, as just about every human state has been to one degree or another.

    Second, as for why I called Assad's regime murderous, I was thinking of a specific incident and had a rather limited point in mind. The incident I was thinking of was a newspaper account I read some months ago of a father who described regime soldiers forcing him to watch them murder his child. I can imagine few worse fates than what that father went through, so if the story is true (and not war propaganda or something), then the Assad regime is certainly "murderous" in a way that W.T. Sherman, e.g., was not. (Sherman was all for destroying property, but AFAIK tried very hard to limit civilian casualties. But I'm not Civil War expert at all.) The limited point I was trying to make is that, since we live in a fallen world, even if the regime is murderous, it's still a lesser evil than ISIS, so I'd be sad to see it go.

    As you know, the situation has changed quite a lot since I posted this. While the U.S. seems to have been more or less trying to fight everyone at once, the Russians have now arrived with the explicit goal of propping up Assad. Since Assad's regime does seem to me to be the lesser evil for the non-Sunni minorities (Christians, Alawites, etc.) living in the western part of Syria, I think preserving a rump state under Assad in the western part of Syria is probably the least bad realistic outcome over there. (I think the rest of the country, which AFAICT is mostly desert, ought to be left to the Sunni jihadis to sort out amongst themselves. Just as the USSR proved communism to be a "god that failed," I think living under ISIS or al-Qaeda or whomever for a few years might teach the locals that Qutbism is ghastly and inhuman in a way that no amount of American propaganda ever could.