Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Limits of power

Let's be honest.  Our record of intervention in the Middle East, whether through military force or conflict resolution, has been abysmal.  In fact, nowhere have the limits of being a superpower been more in evidence than in that region of the world.  Republican and Democrats alike have all tried and ultimately failed when they stuck our nose into internal or cross border disputes.  Iraq and Afghanistan have turned into modern day Viet Nam's.  The Camp David Accords notwithstanding, peace between Israel and Palestine seems frustratingly out of reach.  Despite all our superior weapon systems and unquestioned military knowhow, interventions have proven to be more the Pandora's box than the road to victory.  And being on the "right side" morally or otherwise seems to make no appreciable difference.

Now President Obama who has had to fight two wars that he didn't start — one of which he actively opposed — finds himself facing another major decision on intervention.  This one is particularly painful because, despites calls to do so, he has thus far avoided engaging in the complicated quagmire of Syria.  As with the Sequester that he never thought could happen, his unthinkable chemical warfare "red line" seems now to have been crossed.  If there are clear limits on The United States as a superpower, there are just as sure limits on presidential power.  And there are similarities in what Obama faces.  On the world stage Russia and in a different way China have become the purveyors of "no".   This mirrors the domestic front where the Tea Party dominated Republicans constantly stand in the President's way, not by offering alternatives, but by saying "no" to anything he proposes.  In each case — Russia/China and Congress — are not merely disengaging from Obama's actions but also from shouldering any responsibility.

In that sense, the decision to seek Congressional approval for intervening in Syria is a smart one, offering a kind of put up or shut up challenge.  Whether the President Constitutionally needs Congressional buy-in is above my pay grade, but with so many Americans opposed to intervention, the course makes sense.   It also poses significant risks for him if the Congress follows the lead of their colleagues in the UK.  

If we as a country are truly devoted to democracy give it more than lip-service, our record in the Middle East is not a proud one.  Since World War II, we have opportunistically supported a series of despots across the region.  And don't distance yourself from that two-faced position.  Much of it was done to preserve our access to oil, and at a cheap price.  Year after year, even when we had become more "enlightened" about the short term and environmental cost we, the citizens, put larger and larger vehicles in our garages.  My New York City co-op garage was filled with huge SUVs, hardly required for city driving.  We supported monarchs in the Arabian Peninsula and still do.  We did this same with Mubarak in Egypt and, when he was battling with our nemesis Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  Our often-uncritical support of Israel made us overlook the dictatorial rule of those countries that were willing to make peace — again Egypt and Jordan.

Thus far the so-called Arab Spring has been a great disappointment.  In part that is as much a function of our own unrealistic, dare I say fairytale, expectations than anything else.  When we prematurely urged newly empowered Palestinians to vote, big surprise, a repressed people cast their ballots for Hamas.  For sure the PLO had not delivered for them and the West Bank/Gaza occupation had radicalized there thinking and often their actions.  We supposedly learned our lesson in Egypt where we held our noses and embraced the Muslim Brotherhood when they prevailed at the polls.  The problem/reality that we ignored was that few, if any, of the countries in the region had a cohesive unified population.  That Christians, Jews and Muslims more or less work together in the USA, does not mean that Sunnis and Shias will so engage in places where tribalism, old hatreds and rivalries, are deeply embedded.

Yes Assad likely used chemical weapons against "his own people" just as Saddam had done in Iraq.  There is no way to excuse such a despicable action and every reason to condemn it.  At the same time, even if what's going on in Syria started as a peaceful anti-government demonstration, it is now (and has been for some time) a civil war.  As it happens, there are very bad players on both sides.  But the nature of the players is not really the issue.  It is that this is a civil war, one in which Obama rightly has been more than reluctant to intervene.  Does the use of chemical weapons change that and, even if so, is it likely that intervention will work?

I don't think so.  Remember, Bill Clinton bombed Iraq and even imposed a no-fly zone (the kind John McCain wants for Syria) to no avail.  That action ultimately led to the invasion of Iraq, which both Bill and Hilary Clinton supported.  What a disaster!  Now the same neocons led this time by McCain and his echo chamber Lindsey Graham, are clamoring for action in Syria.  They don't simply want us to stop the use of chemical weapons but the turn the tide of the war.  It will be interesting to see what Congress will do.  I for one think intervening in Syria is a mistake, a Pandora's box of the first order.  We may have the means to deliver very precise payloads, but that doesn't mean it is right or that there won't be predictable consequences.  Remember I said "predictable".  Characterizing them as "unintended" is a fiction, one that we should not buy.  I generally support the President, but in this instance I think he is very wrong.

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