Several correspondents have asked me to comment on impending events in Syria. Should the Americans (& perhaps the French) lob in a few cruise missiles? Should they go farther & indulge in “regime change”? Can anything be done by outsiders to advance peace, order, & good government in that benighted country? My short answers are no, no, & no, respectively. You don’t charge into battle without knowing what’s going on. First you sort out what you’re hitting & why; & how you will deal with any foreseeable blowback.
My confidence that the current administration of USA (or of France) is capable of thinking through these vexed matters is nil. The fact Mr Obama was drawing, & much likes to draw “red lines” is telling. There are times for a government to draw a solemn line, but never a whimsically contingent one through complex & obscure moral issues. Obama is the master of rhetoric, only; & seldom of the content of that. He is surrounded by advisers whom I would characterize as incompetent, & has stacked his senior bureaucracy with just the sort of people I’d expect a cool, leftwing, assistant professor in an American college to appoint — which is to say, spacey ideologues. He appears not merely poorly informed, but indifferent to the consequences of his rhetorical posturing. And the strident & excitable running commentary on events by his Secretary of State, John Kerry, can only confirm this emotive fecklessness, not only to me but to all of the West’s deadly enemies. The Americans are riding for a fall, & Russia, China, Iran, Hezbollah & Hamas — to say nothing of the Syrian government itself — are all poised to exploit the situation.
Syria’s Islamist opposition will also seize on developments, without the slightest regard for U.S. or Western interests. It should be understood by now that they are not sweet, idealistic, democracy-loving cherubs. The reason Bashir Assad has enjoyed considerable popular support is because his regime has offered protection to Syria’s various minority communities, of which his own Alowite tribe is one. There are about three million Christians in Syria, already under gratuitous attack from Sunni Islamist psychos. It is likely the end for them, if Assad falls. I am appalled by the self-interested blather Mr Kerry has spoken about the nature of this opposition, & therefore the stakes in the conflict. One must be wilfully ignorant to imagine that, under current circumstances in Syria, “nice guys” can come out on top. The sort of people we might plausibly support have themselves aligned increasingly with Assad, which is a large part of the reason he has been winning the civil war. There was no American effort to cultivate reasonable opponents of Assad. The result is, no credible allies in situ.
The notion, freely available from the U.S. State Department, that Assad can be “attrited” to level the battlefield score, & thus compelled to attend peace talks in Geneva, may be indicative of drug abuse. It involves so many layers of illusion that I will not grant it time or space. It is appalling that Western diplomats even pretend to believe that “peace” can come by forcing mortal enemies to talk, after experimental bombing to shape the negotiating table; that coalitions can be formed between people trying to kill each other. Those capable of that kind of dreaming should be assiduously removed from public employment. Yet they are playing with such notions in the Middle East, at a time when the geopolitical faultlines extend far beyond Syria’s frontiers, & a conflict so far confined to a proxy battle within the one country could spread suddenly throughout the region, if not beyond.
I don’t think Obama or his aides fully grasp that violently attacking another country is an act of war; that by this very act they would internationalize the conflict. On a lesser, but still outrageous scale, I can see they don’t grasp that by telegraphing their punch, they have given the Syrian dictator the leisure to provide likely targets with “human shields” — & make other arrangements to turn his own bloody nose into a large & consequential propaganda victory. A President who has already, intentionally or unintentionally, subverted American influence in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, & throughout the Middle East — who has made America’s great military power an object of derision — is now effectively encouraging the Russians & others to fill the void he has left. The consequences of this will haunt future U.S. administrations, hugely raising the cost of recovering ground. That our world becomes a much nastier place, when the American superpower is prostrated, should go without saying.
To my mind, the election of Obama was a mistake; his re-election an unforgiveable mistake, on the part of the American people. Neither USA nor allies could afford eight years of hollow at the centre of Western power. Obama did not have to draw his “red lines.” But neither did he need Congressional support to enforce them; he had ninety days free to act, even under the limiting War Powers Resolution of 1973. To telegraph his punch, then stop to discuss it while constantly wobbling on what he intends, goes beyond incompetence to farce. Congressmen are now entrapped in a choice between endorsing a project that is murderously absurd, & setting a precedent for denying presidential leadership during international emergencies. I can well understand why many Congressmen of both parties, who think a Syrian adventure would be criminally irresponsible, & are receiving calls from their constituents ten-to-one against, may nevertheless vote to give Obama the green light. I flinch as I watch Vladimir Putin of Russia making palpable threats to defend the Syrian regime in the event of an American attack. He is setting up to humiliate the USA, should Obama back down, or be constrained. Obama has thus contrived a situation in which whatever he does, America loses.
One might alternatively consider the whole matter in purely moral terms. I won’t for long. This is not only because I think the key moral question is killing people, not the method used. There is confusion on this point far beyond the White House. It is the kind of confusion that inevitably costs lives; for it reduces us to heavily armed sleepwalkers. More fundamentally, all moral considerations are lost in the confusion created when nations — which are not moral agents — act as if they were, in feints of moral exhibitionism. History is littered with the corpses of the victims of this statist presumption.
Yet even if we assumed, along with the morally obtuse, that e.g. some weapons are intrinsically more evil than others — that the evil dwells in the weapons themselves — the proposal to retaliate for their use in this case was indefensible.
I do not have access to good intelligence reports from Syria. I strongly doubt that Obama has any reliable information, either. As a hack, with a few connexions, before the invasion of Iraq, I was privileged to learn that not only the CIA, but almost every other Western intelligence agency was convinced that Saddam Hussein had large stocks of biological & chemical weapons. He was known to have used them on a fairly large scale in the past. It was suggested by some that he was shifting his inventory secretly to Syria. Whatever the explanation, they were gone when allied troops arrived; & since, we have heard a great, asinine clamour to the effect that “Bush lied, people died.” To the best of my understanding, Bush didn’t lie. He was very badly informed, however. U.S. troops were provided with quite cumbersome gear against gas attacks in the run to Baghdad, & their officers clearly believed Saddam’s Republican Guard was armed with toxic gas shells.
The sarin apparently used in massacres around greater Damascus recently would anyway not be hard to come by. I take the use of it to have been proved, but cannot know if it was a “false flag” operation. The opponents of Bashir Assad, as Islamists by habit, think nothing of sacrificing non-combatant human lives to make a splash on YouTube. They are at least as ruthless as he, & the fact these attacks on defenceless people happened just as a UN inspection team was arriving in Damascus, & in locations that would be convenient for them to visit, is itself suggestive. Cui bono? This being the Middle East, there are many alternative speculations about who did it & to what direct or indirect end, ranging from moderately paranoid to perfectly insane.
Western intelligence agencies, & the Americans in particular, are notorious for depending exclusively on high-tech methods to spy on friends & adversaries alike. (Those amazed to learn they eavesdrop on their allies are extremely naïve; everyone who can eavesdrops on everyone they can.) They process mostly statistical information, & are institutionally prejudiced against independent thought. They rarely even try to infiltrate human agents into dangerous places (except Special Forces “feet on the ground” for targeting purposes), & when they do have a man inside the enemy castle, it is invariably someone who unexpectedly volunteered his services. Defectors also come West, & I could provide many anecdotes of how little attention is given to them.
The people “analyzing the data” are usually innocent of any understanding of what is happening at the human level, where real decisions are made. Those who could, for instance, read Arabic, Persian, Turkish, tended for obvious reasons to be disproportionately Jewish, & under the Bush administration, most were identified & demonized as “neo-conservatives” by the liberal media, & driven out of the trade. (Paradoxically, several had been warning Bush against his worst mistakes.) The result of these & similar factors is intelligence establishments of horrendous cost that are of precious little value, & whose methods leave them wide open to manipulation by foreign powers. The more crucial the issue, the more likely their information will be contaminated.
So that when the last argument comes down to “intelligence sources” I’m inclined to guffaw. The truth is that the Nobel Peace Prize winner at the centre of things has not the fondest clew what he is doing, & is flying blind into what could become a world conflagration. He has already succeeded in making a mess beyond anyone’s power to clean up. Whatever he does will make matters worse, & that now includes doing nothing.