Thursday, September 05, 2013

Godot's in Syria

I've hesitated in writing a post on Syria, not because I do not have some thoughts about the issues but more because I am thoroughly disgusted with the political elites behavior - that is without regard to political party although I think the Administration's behavior has been well below par.

Let's get something straight.  International relations does not always involve people of goodwill but one principle seems to be eternal.   When you say something, especially something that is relatively clear, you better be prepared to follow through - or you will become chump of the globe pretty quickly.

One other opening comment - It looks like one side or both used chemical weapons in Syria.  And in an ideal world we would figure out how to spank those that did use the weapons - but a response would be more effective if we acted when we established the fact.  Waiting here is not really good- especially when we have made a threat.  We are not necessarily obligated to respond to every tin horn dictator's outrageous actions; but there are times when we should respond.

So here are my thoughts -

#1 - It really is 3AM -  During the 2008 campaign Hillary Clinton campaigned against the President by wondering if he was the guy to answer a crisis phone call at 3 AM.   This administration has demonstrated throughout this crisis manifest incompetence.  He seems to think he can control the story as well as he controlled the news around his campaign.  The President cannot take back his original (seemingly unscheduled) "redline" comment. He made a threat.   His record here has been one of almost constant political rather than strategic actions.   In 2006, while he was ramping up his campaign he said to the Boston Globe - "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."  Having written a Master's Thesis on the War Powers Resolution, I have some sympathy to that position.   But his "first you say you can then you say you can't" public indecision on the power of the president, hardly gives the American people a sense that he is in any way thoughtful about the situation.

Kerry has done nothing to improve the situation. When Secretary Kerry was in the Senate he did some arm chair diplomacy with Assad and told us how the younger Assad was really different from his horrible despotic dad. Kerry has been a ruthless self promoter since his days of heading the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He has been an almost consistent pacifist on international engagements - so it is odd to seem him as a Jingoist Secretary of State. From my perspective his current rhetoric is a bit odd. Kerry commented in one place about the quality of the intelligence - "With high confidence, our intelligence community tells us that after the strike the regime issued orders to stop and then fretted openly — we know — about the possibility of U.N. inspectors discovering evidence. So then they began to systematically try to destroy it." From my perspective that sounds a lot like what the Bush Administration (pick one) used to intervene in earlier conflicts - although in both of those Kerry was a bit more skeptical.

The oddest thing about the President's behavior comes down to an eventual result which I suspect will happen.   One or both houses will reject the resolution authorizing use of force.  Then what is the President to do?  He may think he can justify not doing anything (which will not be convincing to anyone but the chattering classes in DC).   Or he may strike without the authorization, which will make him look foolish domestically.   In any event his delays in doing anything means that Assad has had plenty of chances to move his stuff to places where it will be harder to strike.   These guys look like they have never had a serious discussion about strategy on this very important issue.

In this instance, while I am not sure he has made the right decision, one leader that I have appreciated is the much maligned Speaker John Boehner.   He has decided that he will support the President on his resolution I think following the notion that "politics ends at the border."  I wish some others might consider that - although there may be a very good reason to reject the President's confused strategy.

#2 - The Marv Esch Standard - One of the members of congress that I worked for used to tell prospective candidates his three rules for politics, which applies equally to international relations.   #1 - Be for everything that is good.  #2 - Be against everything that is bad.   #3 (and he would add - most important) Be able to tell the difference between the two.   In this case there are a series of bad choices - there were even before Assad or who ever did the dirty deed.   From the best news coverage of the current situation there may not be any good choices.   The "moderates" in the rebels may not be anything of the sort.  The history of the region has been complex for many decades because the generation of elites after WWI thought they could as Adam Smith suggested in the Wealth of Nations - arrange people like pieces on a chess board.   But as Smith cautioned - those chess pieces do not always react in expected ways.   The lines which created many of these countries ignored historic ethnic and religious distinctions which in turn generated new types of hatreds.

#3 - John McCain is becoming Nero - He seems to love the cameras but yesterday they betrayed him - he was caught on one of the news services playing video poker on his phone during one of the hearings; his response, when outed,  was to complain that he was losing the game.  If the Senator still had any sense he would resign in disgrace immediately.

#4 - A Basic Principle - you do not treat your enemies better than you allies - The Administration's dithering has put Israel into a very complex position.  I think it has also brought into question other areas where we have problems like Korea - I wonder how our allies there will feel when North Korea takes license from the President's idiotic responses and begins to rattle their sabers at the south.  The implications for this situation go well beyond the Middle East.

#5 - Instant Replays in the Middle East -   Much of the discussion in Washington reminds me a lot of the discussion in our previous short term engagements in the Middle East.  The players are different, but the words are the same.   Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) voted to authorize force in Iraq, but he is now leaning toward opposing action in Syria. In his statement explaining his views, he specifically cited the broken promises of Iraq.

"I trusted their assessment, our president, and the secretary of state as he made the case before the UN," he said. "I supported the president’s request and voted yes.  The search for weapons of mass destruction came up empty, and cost our nation lives and money. We are being asked again by the chief executive to authorize the use of force against Syria. ... I am not convinced that a limited strike against Syria at this time is warranted."  I think there are a lot of members on both sides who feel once burned twice learned.

We are presented with a series of bad choices and all the while many of our leaders on both sides are treating this as a time to make political points.

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