Syria, the next Afghanistan?

The Flock isn’t moving that way now, but I still defend the Obama Administration’s military and diplomatic approach to the Libyan civil war.  Qaddafi was mentally unstable, mentally unstable people are dangerous, and his regime was an ideal breeding ground for extremism.  If things hadn’t changed, they’d only have continued to get worse. Better for us to have supported the more moderate elements than to have allowed the extremists to make Libya their own, as would have eventually happened (and still could).

Of course, no one would defend the non-optimal way this administration has handled other aspects of its Libya policy, including embassy security, public communications, and congressional relations.  This being an election year, the most focus is on the security and communications aspects, but in the long run, it may prove to be the least consequential of those failures — that is, for everyone but the families of those who died.  The administration’s failure to sell its no-footprint intervention to Congress and the people, on the other hand, subsequently hobbled it when a far more consequential conflict arose in Syria.

Part of this must be because this administration just doesn’t seem interested in expending capital on foreign policy, period.  Another part must have been the unintelligent, short-sighted, and opportunistic criticism of some Republicans.  In retrospect, the administration’s no-footprint strategy for overthrowing Qaddafi could prove to have served, and conserved, our nation’s interests, power, and resources more effectively than our heavy-footprint occupation of Iraq did.  And just as the anti-war opportunism of Democrats who voted for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has harmed America’s ability to mobilize is population for necessary interventions — whatever you think those are — Republicans’ opportunistic isolationism also done us harm by nudging this administration toward paralysis in Syria.

In the foreign policy of post-World War II America, there have been many internal conflicts in which the United States had a stake in the outcome because one of the parties espoused a statist or nihilistic world view based on envy or resentment.  Those emotions are magnetically attracted to America, and America inevitably becomes the object of their malice.  What both parties fail to recognize, at least in our national conversation, is that Syria is moving in a direction that may eventually make a direct U.S. intervention essential to our national security.  There is still a window during which we might achieve those essential goals without intervention, but it’s closing fast.  There may still be an opportunity to identify, support, and empower potential allies among the Syrian rebels.  The political conditions were more ripe for that six months ago than they are now, and six months from now, it will probably be too late.  It may already be too late.  And because one day, we’ll have the same decision to make about North Korea, I’d like to see us get things right this time.

So while Libya may yet form a relatively representative and moderate government, the administration’s indecisive approach to Syria is failing in ways that become more frightening each month.  Unlike this administration, Qatar and Saudi Arabia aren’t restrained about arming their friends, and unsurprisingly, their friends are our enemies.  Their preferential arming and funding of the most extremist elements of the Syrian rebels are turning Syria into a replay of Afghanistan in the early 1980s.  The Syrian rebels now have man-portable surface-to-air missiles.  If present trends continue, they’ll also soon have Aleppo, Damascus, very substantial stockpiles of chemical weapons, and the means to deliver them throughout the region.  At that point, would doing nothing be even worse than direct intervention?  The Syrian conflict has already begun to spread across borders.  Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias are both fighting on Assad’s side.  Syria and its proxies are murdering Lebanese officials, and there are violent protests on the streets of Beirut in reaction to that.  We’re now facing the very real prospect of a regional Shiite-Sunni / Arab-Kurd conflict in Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.  The conflict could spread to Jordan, the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia itself.  Any of those countries, or regions within them, could come under the domination of terrorists.

It is probably too late for a grand bargain with secular elements of the opposition, in which they agree to expel or eliminate the terrorists and extremists among them.  The extremists are already too strong for that.  The best we can hope for now is to strengthen the hand of “moderate” elements — I speak in relative, not absolute terms here — just enough to maximize their influence in post-Assad Syria and prevent the complete domination of the extremists.  This may now be down to a choice between a government that looks like Hamas today or one that looks like the Taliban in the 1990s.  Finding ourselves in this unfolding nightmare might be this administration’s greatest foreign policy failure, an even greater failure than its dithering while Iran’s mullahs suppressed the Green Revolution.