I was as thrilled as anyone to see the reports of the missile strikes on ISIS and other terrorist sites in Syria and I felt that President Obama made a stirring speech at the United Nations regarding the terrorist problem. Still, I have been uneasy these last few weeks with the way these issues have been handled in Washington, and the context in which they were taking place. It is laudable that the President has been able to line up so many Arab states as allies in this fight. But where are the Europeans, the Turks, the Iranians, and the Russians in this effort? All of them have stakes in the struggle against jihadist terrorism greater than we have, being closer to the scene and in many cases, more vulnerable.
And that was not the only thing that bothered me. Where is Congress in all of this? Prominent senators and Congresspersons are demanding action from the President, and even unfairly accusing him of weakness, but seem to be incapable of putting their votes where their mouth is. For them, this seems to be a source of partisan bickering rather than rallying to the defense of the nation.
Today I received some comments by my friend Ray Close, a retired CIA officer who spent a distinguished career working in the Middle East. Let me quote what he has to say, because it encapsulates many of my feelings about our current policy but is based on much closer and more lengthy direct involvement than I ever had in the complex and dismaying interplay of forces in the Middle East.
Here is what Ray has to say:
I thought President Obama’s speech to the UNGA this morning was very good. It took what sounded to me like quite reasonable and enlightened positions on several aspects of the war on terrorism that need to have more attention from the international community. Most importantly, in my opinion, Obama struck a tone of modesty and broad international perspective that was singularly lacking in many public pronouncements made by his predecessor in the White House. Today Obama’s emphasis was commendably about the universal threat posed by terrorism in any form to the security and stability of all governments, weak as well as strong, rich as well as poor, developed as well as emerging, Muslim as well as Christian. Much more an appeal to international cooperation against a common enemy than nationalistic justification of America’s leadership.
Also: I want to mention the fact that in my opinion it is very natural for all Americans to share the satisfaction and even exhilaration of watching our military forces enacting much-deserved punishment on the odious criminals of ISIS. That’s a very understandable reaction. I feel exactly those sentiments myself..
I think we will soon deeply regret having launched an open-ended military assault on ISIS in Syria without any clear idea of what we anticipate as a satisfactory final result, and without reliable assurance from the outset that our local allies will remain steadfastly committed to a long-lasting and expensive battle against their Syrian neighbors and co-religionists.
Without attempting to enumerate all the many potentially dangerous obstacles to successful achievement of our (as yet ill-defined) objectives, (which many others better qualified than I have assessed very accurately), let me just mention a few that come to mind immediately. This list barely scratches the surface, in my opinion.
One nightmare scenario that occurs to me immediately: Within the immediate future the Assad regime might drop several big “barrel” bombs on a crowded neighborhood under cover of darkness in some Syrian town populated mostly by anti-Assad partisans, killing scores of civilians — and then claim that the U.S.-led air campaign was responsible. In a military and political landscape as complicated and tumultuous as Syria is today, we will have no effective way to refute that kind of accusation. In an environment already sensitized by our extremely unpopular and widely-condemned lethal drone operations in places like Yemen and Afghanistan, such disinformation would certainly achieve widespread credibility. I see that as a very damaging probability.
For how many weeks or months (or years?) will neighboring Arab Muslim populations continue to support us militarily against their fellow Sunnis after that kind of scenario presents itself repeatedly? And which neighbors (plural) will commit their own soldiers as “boots on the ground” to successfully make common cause with each other and with a strong, reliable and unified Syrian opposition force (presently non-existent) to attack and defeat (sequentially) the twin (but mutually hostile) forces of ISIS and Assad’s Syrian army? Can such a shaky coalition then be relied upon to follow up that (miraculous) accomplishment by installing in Syria a stable, inclusive, popular (and reliably pro-American!) “government of national unity” to manage (and defend) a “moderate” successor regime in Damascus?
Those of us who have long experience in either diplomacy or covert operations in the Middle East can immediately evaluate the situation in Syria today from the perspective of our adversaries, and recognize how readily and effectively they will exploit it as a golden opportunity to win the all-important “hearts and minds” war in which we have hastily embroiled ourselves. We are not confronting a disorganized and poorly-led gang of fractious thugs. To the contrary, we face a sophisticated, well-equipped, politically united, utterly ruthless (but shrewd and patient) adversary who knows very well that a significant percentage of the population of their entire region deeply distrusts the motives and ultimate objectives of the United States. We so often make the tragic error of assuming that our enemies are feckless, reckless and easily intimidated. Not so.
Well said, Ray, but let me add one more consideration: Given the importance to the United States of eliminating the threat to us, and to civilization, that the now metastasized cancer of jihadist terrorism poses, why in the world did we get in a propaganda war with Russia over issues that have not the slightest relevance to our own national security? How can we defend our earlier demands that Russia join us in removing Assad in Syria when we see the face of the likely winners if he should go? Noble as they may be, and as unfairly oppressed as they undoubtedly were, there was never the slightest probability that the “democratic opposition” in Syria could institute a Western-style democracy in Syria. Why can’t we give the Russians credit for understanding this rather than continuing to berate them for not going along with a policy that would probably have created a greater disaster than then one we face today?
Will we ever have a government able to set priorities, to assess realistically the likely effect of our actions, and to recognize that when we apply our superior military capability in other countries we can expect pushback in areas where we, as an open society, are vulnerable? So far, I am not sure that we have our priorities or our strategy right. The disarray and partisan bickering in Washington make it practically impossible for any president to get it right.