Syrian Knowns and Unknowns

by Victor Davis Hanson // PJ Media


A sign displays a message about Syria at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington August 28, 2013, in Washington, D.C. (Rena Schild /
A sign displays a message about Syria at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington August 28, 2013, in Washington, D.C. (Rena Schild /

1) Red lines: Does anyone believe we would be on the eve of a war with Syria had not Barack Obama on two occasions — echoed on two others by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — warned Bashar Assad of red lines surrounding the use of WMD?

Take those empty threats away, and one of two things would have more likely happened. First, there might not have been use of WMD, given no need to test or humiliate a perceived weak Obama. Or we would still be arguing over who actually used them. Not long ago, Senators Obama and Kerry would have lambasted the present impending intervention as a rush to war for the restoration of a president’s ill-advised forfeiture of credibility.

Fairly or not, the war is now seen as one to save the credibility of Obama’s pontification and Kerry’s sermonizing.

2) Authorizations: To go to war, a president usually seeks at least one of four requisites: authorizations from both houses of Congress, clear public support for action, plenty of allies, and cover from the UN in the form or a resolution or at least long discussion. Obama had obtained none of the four — despite arguing in the past that all four were necessary to do precisely what he is now doing.

Why do the American people, the Congress, our allies, and the proverbial “international community” on this rare occasion unite in not seeing the logic of Obama’s war?

3) The Military: Should not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs be an architect of the intervention? Yet Chairman Dempsey has made an astounding array of disturbing statements on Syria: “I think intervening in Syria would be very difficult. …  And I think that the current path of trying to gain some kind of international consensus is the proper path, rather than take a decision to do anything unilaterally.”

His concerns about the task are thematic in everything he says: “The U.S. military has the capability to defeat that system, but it would be a greater challenge, and would take longer and require more resources. … The air defense picture in Libya is dramatically different than it is in Syria. … Syria has five times more air defense systems, some of which are high-end systems.” And he warned, “This is about a 10-year issue, and if we fail to think about it as a 10-year regional issue, we could make some mistakes.” He summed up, “We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. … We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. … Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides.”

I cannot recall, on the eve of war, the nation’s top military officer so pessimistic about the chance of achieving anything significant.

If our top commander seems dubious, who then is going to lead us unabashedly to victory?

4) The Middle East is the Middle East: Syria reminds us of the Middle East paradoxes:

A) We don’t like either pro-American (e.g., Mubarak) or anti-American (e.g., Gaddafi) dictators.

B) We don’t like populist Islamic theocrats (e.g., the Iranian theocrats, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas).

C) We don’t like chaos and rule by militias (e.g., Sudan, Somalia, Libya).

D) We accept but do not promote monarchs (e.g., Jordan and the Gulf sheikdoms).

So we keep hoping for a fifth way of pro-American “reformers” that come to power through elections (like a partisan Maliki or corrupt Karzai). But to achieve choice E, we must invade, overthrow tyrants, occupy the country, force reforms and protect the weak legitimate government — something we are doing in Afghanistan and did in Iraq, but apparently never wish to do again.

So what are we doing in Syria — given that bombing may lead to chaos or help al-Qaeda, but not empower pro-Western reformers enough to grasp power, hold elections, and institutionalize legitimate consensual elections?

Does anyone believe that the insurgents are mostly pro-Western reformers, will come to power by our bombing Assad, and will form a legitimate consensual government that appreciates American help?

5) Iraq? Syria, the administration promises us, is not Iraq. Yes, in terms of blood and treasure it probably will not be as deadly as Afghanistan or Iraq. But the latter two were more costly than Libya because the aims were so much more sweeping — the creation of constitutional systems, not just the destruction of tyranny and a laissez-faire attitude about the very bad things that follow our bombing and killing. I wish there were a third way, but so far those are the two stark bad choices.

Tomahawks and Hellfires might even remove Assad, but they most assuredly will not lead to even mediocrities like Karzai and Maliki, warts and all, but rather to something like … who knows what? (See the choices below.)

Second, Bush went into Iraq on four premises:

One, he had over 70% public support after a year of discussions and debates. Two, he had overwhelming congressional support, so much so that the 23 writs that were passed went beyond even his own casus belli. Three, he labored (in vain) at the United Nations. Four, he had 40 allies in his coalition of the willing.

All that effort was because Bush had an aim (removal of Saddam Hussein), a methodology (invade and occupy the country in a way we did not in 1991 or during the 12 years of no-fly-zones), and a desired result (some sort of consensual government, or something like the status of the Maliki government when Bush left office in January 2009). You can call it stupid, but there was an “it” to call stupid. There is no such entity in relation to Syria.

Most Americans supported the Iraq war until the insurgency in 2004 made the implementation of the strategy too costly. Then only a few of us believed that far worse than fighting an unpopular war were the consequences of losing an unpopular war we were in.

Promising not another Iraq (or for that matter Afghanistan and Libya) is no substitute for explaining the objective, the means, and the desired result.

6) Politics: There are five groups weighing in on the Syrian war.

First, there are the genuine anti-war liberal Democrats who believe that war, unless we are attacked, is never an answer. Even though Obama is one of them, they (most of the liberal Congress, The Nation, academics, etc.) will oppose all U.S. interventions — even his.

Second are the libertarians and paleocons. They too oppose most U.S. interventions, often on grounds that they rarely serve U.S. interests, enlarge the state, and created imperial responsibilities antithetical to our republican roots. They (The American ConservativeReason, Rand Paul, etc.) would oppose Syria if a Republican advocated it.

Third are the mainstream Democrats. They mostly oppose all conservative-inspired U.S. interventions, though not always, at least not always at first. They almost never oppose an intervention orchestrated by a Democratic president. They (Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, New York TimesWashington Post, etc.) see any defection from a Democrat-inspired war as injurious to a wider Democratic domestic agenda.

Fourth are Republican establishment figures and neocons, who accept the tragic role of the U.S. as an enforcer of the postwar world. They yearn for the old days of bipartisan interventions to spread democracy and American power and culture, and believe that a Syrian or Libyan bombing against tyrants is both ethical and humane — and enhances U.S. stature, They (John Boehner, Weekly StandardNational ReviewCommentaryWall Street Journal, etc.) deemed it is as important when in the minority to support the opposition-led intervention as it is when in the majority that the opposition should support them.

Fifth are independents, conservative Democrats, and unpredictable Republicans who believe that each intervention depends on the circumstances, the likely outcomes, and, especially, the people in charge. In this case, Obama’s Syria makes no sense at all to these group (a hodgepodge crew from the last three categories).

Unfortunately for the president, groups one, two, and five vastly outnumber groups three and four.

In the president’s favor, he at last achieved his previously disingenuous goal of bipartisanship: a majority of Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, really do oppose him.

7) Outcomes: There are endless outcome scenarios. Let us list just a few of  them:

a) Assad is killed or flees; chaos erupts: Somalia, Sudan.

b) Assad is killed or flees; Islamists seize power: Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran .

c) Assad is killed or flees, militias ruin the country: Libya.

d) Assad sticks it out and wins: Syria reverts to a worse form of pre-2011.

e) Assad and the insurgents keep endlessly fighting: Afghanistan.

f) Assad is killed or flees; moderates take over: a temporary version of Iraq

g) Russia intervenes with supplies and a no-fly zone: who knows?

h) Hezbollah attacks U.S. interests: Obama does what?

i)  Iran sends missiles and terrorists at U.S. assets: Obama does what?

j)  Assad and Hezbollah launch their missiles at Israel: Israel responds.

k) Assad comes to the peace table and agrees to an international brokered settlement.

l)  Assad is killed or flees, and the UN and “international community” occupy the country.

I believe that the few good scenarios are improbable and the far more bad ones far more likely.

None of us like Bashar Assad. His demise would in theory weaken our enemies like Iran and Hezbollah and be a proper punishment for decades of Assad regime murdering and slaughter. But I don’t how this administration, at this particular time, and with its changing rationales, has the knowledge to make Syria a more pro-American or better place, the savvy to win Congress, the American people, and allies to its cause, or the competency and will to carry out its own plans. Rethinking the intervention, and trying something different than bombing because of ill-advised Obama red lines is the more sober and ethical course.

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