Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Partial Defense of Obama's Mideast Policy

So having criticized Donald Trump's Mideast policy as making no sense whatever, and adding that it makes even less sense that the Obama and/or Blob policy, let me defend Obama at least somewhat against the Blob.

The Blob's basic criticism of Obama was that his policy was too timid and not interventionist enough. It is certainly not true that Obama was so hands-off as they claim.  He dropped plenty of bombs.  The Blob's particular criticism of Obama is for not intervening in Syria's civil war but he intervened plenty -- against ISIS.  What the Blob really wanted was for him to intervene to remove President Assad.  If only he had intervened earlier, more forcefully, left a residual force in Iraq, etc. he could have removed Assad and the ghastly civil war could have been avoided.

Look pardon my cynicism, but it's amazing.  Even though every intervention the U.S. has made in the Middle East has gone badly, every one we didn't make would have gone just great if only we had made it.  The overall assumption is that a little military intervention never hurt anyone and couldn't possibly go wrong.  And if it does go wrong -- well, we can always escalate.

Consider the if only's.

If only we had left a small residual force in Iraq, it would have prevented Iraq from again degenerating into civil war.  Yet our earlier force of 100,000 failed to prevent Iraq from degenerating into civil war.  And since the Iraqi government made clear that it did not want our forces to be present, they would have been staying against the wishes of the Iraqi government and once again become the target of insurgents.  Again, it is cynical to say, but only the experience of ISIS could actually make Iraqis welcome us as liberators.

If only we had moved faster and more forcefully to train the rebel forces, they would have overthrown Assad early before they became radicalized and all would have gone well.  This underestimates just how difficult it is to build an effective fighting force (as evidenced by our notably unsuccessful attempts to do just that in Syria and in many other countries).

The same applies to any other assumption that if only we had moved more forcefully to get rid of Assad all would have been well.  We might, indeed have gotten rid of Assad if we had intervened more forcefully.*   But to believe that removing Assad would have meant that all was well is  uncommonly naive about what actually happens in civil wars.  If we had successfully removed Assad, chances are the rival factions would promptly have gone to war with each other, with the most ruthless ultimately winning out. (That is, after all, exactly what happened when we got rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq).

But above all else, but Blob focuses on Obama's failure to uphold the Red Line, i.e., to retaliate when Bashir Assad used chemical weapons against US warnings.  If only the US has retaliated then -- well, as a matter of fact, the Blob is somewhat vague about what it would have achieved.  Does anyone seriously think that dropping a few bombs on the Assad regime would have seriously changed the outcome of the war?  The usual response by the Blob is that it would have demonstrated "toughness" and "resolve."  So maybe it wouldn't have affected events on the ground much in Syria, but it would have deterred Russia from invading the Ukraine.  Does this make any sense at all?  If dropping a few bombs on Syria probably would not make all that much difference in the Syrian civil war, why on earth should it deter Russia from invading Ukraine -- an area Russians have long considered part of their bailiwick, and one where direct intervention is clearly out of the question and just might lead to WWIII?

I strongly recommend accounts of that event by Derek Chollet, a military planner in the Pentagon at the time of the strikes.  He gets into the weeds about the military efficacy of such strikes, a detail that does not seem to interest the Blob much.  At the time, they planned to hit multiple sites (Trump's bombing hit only one) in order to take out as much of Assad's chemical arsenal as possible.  But they were also aware that they did not know where all the arsenal was, or what would become of it.  And what if Assad fell?  Parts of his arsenal would still be there and might have ended up in the hands of who-knows-who.  Under these circumstances, a diplomatic resolution getting rid of the chemical arsenal -- some 1300 tons -- is hard to see as anything other than a stroke of genius.  It achieved the Administrations real military objective -- getting chemical weapons out of Syria -- without a shot being fired.  Certainly the Israelis were relieved at not having a large chemical stockpile next door that might fall into the hands any sort of madman.  As for the damage to American credibility -- does anyone believe the Russians and Syrians would have removed the chemical weapons if they hadn't  found US threats credible?  And Iran agreed to major constraints on its nuclear program, a thing it presumably would not have agreed to if it had not found the US "credible."**

And, it should be added, the agreement was highly successful at its limited objective.  Assad's arsenal of sarin gas was effectively removed.  The use of chemical weapons did not cease.  Assad continued to use primitive barrel bombs of chlorine gas, but these were vastly less effective.  Prior to the 2013 agreement to remove chemical weapons, there were over 1,300 killed and 10,000 injured in chemical attacks.  Afterward the number injured (by chemical weapons, mostly chlorine) fell to 1,300 or less and the number killed became very low indeed.

To which one might say, so what.  Even at its worst, the total casualties from chemical weapons were a tiny fraction of the total.  And no one even pretends that Obama did a thing to prevent that.  It is a fair point. Of course, bombing all Assad's known chemical depots would not have prevented that either, let alone Trump's action in destroying a single air base.  Obama's actions in diplomatically removing Assad's chemical weapons, though they had little effect on the overall course of the war, at least took those weapons out of the picture and kept them from falling into the hands of -- well, maybe it's best not even to think about it.  Trump's bombing achieved nothing whatever except to blow off some steam.  Or, as this article puts it:
I suspect it [the Blob] endorses Thursday’s strikes because it is simply fatigued by watching the suffering of civilians in Syria and war crimes committed by all sides to the conflict (although only government war crimes are ever discussed). The community feels a need to make a statement of opposition that is demonstrable and visual, to “do something.” . . . The dilemma with using bombs to satisfy this humanitarian impulse is that it will not be the last kinetic “something” that Trump authorizes. . . . Unfortunately, while the cruise missile strikes may make American officials and policymakers feel better about having “sent a message” that Assad will “pay a price,” the effects will be temporary. The internationalized civil war will continue. All of the external powers with keep training and arming their allies within Syria, while conducting their own airstrikes on behalf of them. . . . Assad will defend his regime with more war crimes — with the full backing of Russia and Iran — and Trump will face the choice of perceived acquiescence or further escalation of more intensive military strikes against more and more regime assets. 
Indeed.  Is it too much to suspect that the real reason the Blob was so angry at Obama for not bombing Syria in 2013 was that he denied them their hook for further escalation, and ultimate regime change?  Well, Trump seems well on the way toward just that -- escalation of the conflict with Assad, with Iran, and possibly even with Russia.

One last thought.  It is not quite true that we have never had a successful military intervention in the Middle East.  We did have one -- the first one.  The senior Bush was highly successful in freeing Kuwait from Iraqi forces.***  One major reason for his success was that he was not intervening in a civil war, but merely repelling an invasion, a much easier matter.  Another reason for his success was that he stuck to a limited objective -- repelling the Iraqis from Kuwait, not invading and conquering Iraq.  But this does not mean that the intervention was perfect.  Although Bush trusted that losing the war would cause Saddam to be overthrown, he held onto power.  Bush responded with the absurd claim that Saddam was equally dangerous whether he had an army or not and maintained a policy of regime change long after Saddam was effectively defanged.  This led to a prolonged, pointless standoff and to claims that not invading and finishing him off was a mistake.  The assumption that we should have finished Saddam off and that not doing so was our critical mistake became conventional wisdom among the Blob.  Only when Bush Junior tried to make up for Bush Senior's alleged mistake did we learn that Senior had been right all along.

Sometimes there is no ideal option.  To assume that the road not taken would always have led somewhere better is a dangerous delusion.  Bush Junior showed us how wise his father was for not invading Iraq to finish off Saddam -- and how wrong the Blob was in its conventional wisdom.  Beyond any doubt, the current situation in Syria is horrible.  Conventional wisdom of the Blob is that all would have been well if only Obama had intervened.  Trump may just prove them wrong.

*Russia intervened to prop up Assad when it looked like he was in real danger of being defeated.  But it is certainly possible that a stronger US presence would have kept the Russians out of Syria, just as they stayed out of Libya and Iraq.
**And, the same author points out, this is hardly the only time a US President has made a threat and not kept it.
***And also successful at stopping Saddam's slaughter of the Kurds.  I am inclined to believe that was because Saddam's forces had become, for all intents and purposes, a foreign army of occupation in Kurdish areas and therefore easy to dislodge.  It should also be noted that the intervention was a mixed bag.  The first thing the liberated Kurds did was have a civil war between rival factions.  One faction even asked Saddam for help!  But the factions ended up dividing Kurdistan and after that things went reasonably well.  No doubt one reason things quieted down in Kurdistan was that it did not become a theater of great power rivalry ever escalating the situation.

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