Thursday, October 24, 2013


The New York Times has devoted a few thousand words of description and analysis of what they call President Obama’s “indecision” about what the US should do in Syria.

Their “close examination… starts with a deeply ambivalent President,” and ends with a once-secret State Department judgment: “We are headed toward our worst case scenario: rebel gains evaporating, the moderate opposition imploding, Assad holding on indefinitely, neighbors endangered, and Iran, Hizbollah, and Iraqi militias taking root.”

Actually, what the Times’ sources, “dozens of current and former members of the administration, foreign diplomats and Congressional officials” describe is a President not so much indecisive as resolute in resisting calls to put what his most warrior-ish advisor, Hillary Clinton called, “American skin in the game.”

It must be noted that the closest the former Secretary of State has ever gotten to the front lines of “the game” of war was her imaginary episode of being “under fire” at an airport in Bosnia.  It must also be said, the biggest swatch of “skin” Mrs. Clinton, and it would seem the Times’ other uniformly anonymous, almost uniformly scornful sources wanted to risk was “arming and training” “the rebels” against the Syrian government of Dictator-President Bashar al-Assad.

Indeed, the conflicting positions among Mr. Obama’s advisors who contributed to this conspiracy of caution range no further than

1)     Who – the Pentagon or the CIA? – should run the arm/train program

2)     Whether the US should train a few dozen, or arm a few thousand Syrians

3)     With or without portable anti-aircraft weapons

4)     Which rebel groups to help, and

5)     When we woulda, coulda, shoulda  done any of the above.

There are 2 things almost everyone seems to agree on.  One is that none of the above options are much good, and the other is the journalists’ iconic irony: “You should have been here yesterday.”

To have had the best chance for any form of American intervention to have produced a good effect, everyone, including me, says, it should have come 2 years ago, in the summer of 2011.  That would have been before the aura of the “Arab Spring” had been mugged by mideastern reality, before the rebellion against the brutal Assad family dynasty had fractured into a dozen mutually-antagonistic paramilitary factions, and before the worst of those militias, the ones devoted to Al Qaeda, or its Islamist fundamentalist goals dominated the more moderate, secular, or western-oriented ones.

But the backers of the “lost chance” theory cannot confidently claim that even early intervention would have created a “nouveau regime” more successful than those produced in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or Libya.  More American “skin” in those places would not have solved their embedded issues of poverty and illiteracy, national disharmony, religious or sectarian sub-division, tribalism or short-sighted self-interest that currently make all 4 of those Arab states political, economic and cultural sinkholes.  It likely would only have meant more American losses of prestige, blood and treasure.    

That the 2 years since (my and) the anonymians’ “moment of maximum opportunity” have seen a steady worsening of the Syrian situation may increase the nostalgic appeal of interventions aborted, but may also indicate the futility of the proposed “do something” solutions, and the comparative wisdom of Obama’s inaction.  The shift in the balance of power in Syria, back to the entrenched regime and its Shi’ite allies, Hizbullah and Iran, the continued slaughter and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians, and the escalations by Assad into worse and worse uses of chemical weapons, have been terrible to witness.  But they would have been terribly hard, possibly impossible, to reverse.

The bumbling White House process, and the humbling reliance on Vladimir Putin’s Russia that brought things to their present situation, Assad shedding his chemical weapons, probably at the price of being allowed to live and rule for many more days and years, does not mean they represent no improvement over the status quo ante. 

It is hard for anyone, and apparently impossible for the Times, not to smirk at the Administration’s claim that today’s Syria represents,a successful case of coercive diplomacy. Only under the threat of force,” the Administration argument goes, “has Mr. Assad pledged to give up his chemical weapons program. They argue that this might be the best outcome from a stew of bad alternatives.”

The argument the Times prefers, that “decisive action by Washington, [critics] argue, could have bolstered moderate forces battling Mr. Assad’s troops for more than two years, and helped stem the rising toll of civilian dead, blunt the influence of radical Islamist groups among the rebels and perhaps even deter the Syria government from using chemical weapons,” is but an assertion, a theory.

More based on fact, it seems to me, is one of the few attributed assessments in the whole, long Times story: “We need to be realistic about our ability to dictate events in Syria,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “In the absence of any good options, people have lifted up military support for the opposition as a silver bullet, but it has to be seen as a tactic — not a strategy.” 

What may be the scariest aspect to all this is that nowhere in the article, nor in the reported disagreements among such Obama advisors as former and present Secretaries of State Clinton and John  Kerry; former and present CIA directors, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, Michael Morell and John Brennan, former and present National Security Advisors Tom Donilon and Susan Rice, or UN Ambassador Samantha Power does anyone propose a strategy for Syria or the middle east.

And, other than Ben Rhodes’ quote, the Times makes no mention of this.

But, attached to the article, the Times does have something which speaks volumes.  It is a picture and a caption.  

                Daniel Etter for The New York Times
THE REBEL COMMANDER Gen. Salim Idris, head of the Supreme Military Council of the Syrian opposition.

The head shot of Gen. Salim Idris calls him “The Rebel Commander.”  But the only one who ever made him a General was his former boss, Bashar al-Assad.  And the only ones who made him a “commander” were not fighting in Syria.  Many of them were not even people from the region, but Westerners.  In short, he’s “our commander” more than he’s the rebels’, and the Supreme Military Council he allegedly commands is also hardly inside Syria, but for the most part safely in exile.  Few consider the SMC a particularly important force in the effort to oust the Assad regime.

To suggest that he is a realistic beneficiary of “American skin” is far-fetched.  To state that he is “The” choice is nuts.  Worse, it is false.

To call out Barack Obama for failing to grasp that thin reed, even two years ago is easy to do, but is it worth doing?

And the same could be said for assembling anonymous dissenting voices whose real “game” ain’t in Syria, but in Washington, burning or burnishing present or future Presidencies -- easy to do, but well short of what responsible newspapers do to inform their readers.

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