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putin-russia-will-continue-to-help-syria-if-the-us-attacks(Source: Reuters)

As of now, the Moscow deal looks like win-win-win for everyone with legitimate interests in the Syria situation.

First of all and most importantly, it is a win for the vast majority of the Syrian people—those who are desperate for an end to the conflict and want nothing more than to go home and see their country’s war-ravaged fabric repaired. Under what political circumstances? Still to be determined. But at least they have a much better chance of this happening now than if U.S. cruise missiles had been used to further stir up the stew of their country’s conflict.

This originally appeared in Helena Cobban’s

It’s a win for both President Obama and the American people. The American people had shown, overwhelmingly, that they (we) neither wanted nor needed this war. But Obama was still kind of hoisted on the self-created petard of his various pronouncements about Syria’s chemical weapons—not only the various "red line" statements he made earlier, but also all the recent statements claiming a surety of knowledge about what happened August 21 that has never yet been backed up by the public provision of any evidence.

Here in the United States, as around the world, there were loud calls for him to present his evidence. He never has. As this made-in-Moscow deal goes forward (which I expect it will), Obama will likely be relieved that he never has to show what, by many accounts, seems to have been a very weak evidentiary hand.

Meantime, Obama, we, the Syrian people, their neighbors, and the world will all—if the deal goes ahead—have won the significant gain that the Syrian government will have verifiably destroyed its reportedly extensive chemical weapons arsenal.

This is, quite likely, also a "plus" for the Syrian regime itself. From the time the verified collection and depositing of the regime’s official arsenal into international hands takes place, it should be abundantly clear that any subsequent use of chemical weapons that occurs in Syria has been undertaken by other parties.

Also, keeping good control of the chemical weapons arsenal as various parts of the country have fallen out of the regime’s hands may well have been a big problem for the regime. Now, many army commanders may welcome being relieved of that task.


With this deal, the longstanding campaign that Washington has been leading, claiming that “Assad must go before there are any negotiations,” has been dealt a severe, likely fatal blow.


The other big "plus" of the plan for the regime is that its survival and integrity is, obviously, crucial to the success of the plan. The plan for chemical weapons collection—and whatever comes after it in terms of political negotiations—cannot go ahead without the full participation of the Syrian government.

The longstanding campaign that Washington has been leading, claiming that “Assad must go before there are any negotiations” has been dealt a severe, likely fatal blow. Assad will have traded, in effect, his longstanding chemical weapons arsenal (which has been Syria’s main deterrent against the threat posed by Israel’s undoubted superiority at the level of conventional, chemical, and nuclear weapons) for a recognized place at the table.

Another significant winner in this is, of course, Moscow. By pulling this deal out of their hats, Putin and Lavrov have underlined that they, too, are significant players both in the Syrian theater and also (to some extent) on the world scene.

The deal could well also prove beneficial to the prospects for a long overdue de-escalation of Iranian-American tensions. Since a lot of the mobilization here in the United States for a war on Syria was done in the name of “demonstrating credibility” in the continuing face-off against Iran, the two issues are of course linked. Since the Syrian face-off now seems potentially amenable to a negotiated resolution—well, why don’t we all try the same thing with Iran?

The Moscow deal is also a real boost for international legitimacy and the rule of law. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has for many years been a fairly docile ally of Washington. But over recent weeks, even he has become sterner and sterner in his warnings against unilateral U.S. military action.

The U.N. team that went into the areas of eastern Damascus that were struck on August 21 was able to get blood and soil samples that the U.S. has never had access to. As in Iraq in 2003, the issue is: Will Washington give the U.N. inspectors the chance to do their job? The U.N. will probably also have a big role in organizing the chemical weapons-collection program and the political talks that, I dearly dearly hope, will follow inside Syria.

At this point, only the U.N. is capable of performing these tasks. It will be a U.N. in which Russia, China, and many other powers will be pulling their weight—no longer, as so often in the past, one in which Washington calls all the shots.


Who is this deal not good for? I would say, firstly, the Qaeda-linked and other takfiris in Syria, who have been working assiduously since spring 2011 to draw the Americans in, in order to “win” their battles in Syria for them—a gameplan they had pursued with such success in Libya in March 2011. (Has anyone looked at the situation in Libya recently?)

Oh boy, am I glad that we will not be marking the 12th anniversary of 9/11 by seeing a U.S. military attack against Syria that aids the local affiliates of Al-Qaeda there.

The Moscow-Syria deal is probably also not good for the Saudis—more specifically, that dreadful old rogue Prince Bandar, who has worked hard over recent months, alongside the takfiris, to also draw the Americans in to the war in Syria.

The deal is definitely not good for Susan Rice, Samantha Power, or John Kerry. The attempts these three have made to (a) hype the threat in Syria, (b) express certainty where none was warranted, and (c) sell the war to Congress and the American people—let alone that 95 percent of humankind who are not U.S. citizens!—have been mendacious, ill-informed, and unsuccessful. They have led the president into looking pretty stupid. Should they keep their jobs? I don’t know.

Is the deal good or bad for he Israelis? I don’t know that, either.

Surely, many in Israel will be relieved if the Syrian government’s stocks of chemical weapons are destroyed. But there are also plenty of people in the Israeli MIC elite who have said they would love to see the Syrian civil war drag on for many years. The rest of the international community must not allow that to happen!


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What now?
The first task, of course, will be to organize the internationally-mandated body that will go to Syria to collect the chemical weapons. Obviously, Russia will have a big part in that body, but it should also have a strongly credible international flavor to it; and of course, it should act under a clear mandate from the U.N. Security Council.

But the Security Council needs to go a lot further. It needs urgently to resume a high-level, internationally supervised process of intra-Syrian political negotiations: the "Geneva II" that has been so long promised, but was always being postponed so long as Washington held to its insistence that “Assad must go before there are negotiations.”

That position is no longer credible. Geneva II must be a determinedly all-party deliberation—that is, all the actually Syrian parties to the conflict should be represented; and all the thousands of outsiders who have flocked to the country to fight there should, of course, not be.

Something like 6 million of Syria’s 23 million people have been displaced by this conflict—2 million outside, and another 4 million within the country. They cry out for restoration of the most basic elements of human life and human dignity. If a negotiation effort starts very soon, perhaps some of these people can find their situation stabilized before the cold of winter sets in.

Of course there will be spoilers, but determined and collaborative action by all the great powers, inside and outside the Security Council, can shift the dynamic from one of armaments, escalation, bloodshed, and suffering to one of repair and reconstruction.

It will probably require a total international embargo on the supply of arms—by anyone!—to any parties inside Syria, along with some international guarantees that outside parties (especially Israel, which continues to occupy part of Syria’s territory, as it has since 1967) will not take any (further) advantage of the situation. (Israel’s recent drilling of oil on the Golan Heights, for example, should be halted forthwith.)

The Moscow-Syria deal gives Syria’s people the best chance they’ve had for 28 months to find a negotiated resolution to their differences. Finding that resolution won’t be easy—though there is some evidence that a high degree of war weariness has already set in. Those of us who are outside Syria who detest war and foreign domination should be cheering Syria’s people on in their effort to negotiate with each other, and giving them all the humanitarian help their tattered country needs. The very last things they need now is more war.

Big thanks to everyone who has helped the world step back from that terrible brink.

Helena Cobban is the owner of Just World Books in Charlottesville, Va. She’s been blogging since 2003 at

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Boehner Obama AP(Source: AP)

Sometimes history happens at the moment when no one is looking. On weekends in late August, the president of the United States ought to be playing golf or loafing at Camp David, not making headlines. Yet Barack Obama chose Labor Day weekend to unveil arguably the most consequential foreign policy shift of his presidency.

This article originally appeared in

In an announcement that surprised virtually everyone, the president told his countrymen and the world that he was putting on hold the much anticipated U.S. attack against Syria. Obama hadn’t, he assured us, changed his mind about the need and justification for punishing the Syrian government for its probable use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. In fact, only days before administration officials had been claiming that, if necessary, the United States would “go it alone” in punishing Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its bad behavior. Now, however, Obama announced that, as the chief executive of “the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he had decided to seek Congressional authorization before proceeding.

Obama thereby brought to a screeching halt a process extending back over six decades in which successive inhabitants of the Oval Office had arrogated to themselves (or had thrust upon them) ever wider prerogatives in deciding when and against whom the United States should wage war. Here was one point on which every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush had agreed: On matters related to national security, the authority of the commander-in-chief has no fixed limits. When it comes to keeping the country safe and securing its vital interests, presidents can do pretty much whatever they see fit.

Here, by no means incidentally, lies the ultimate the source of the stature and prestige that defines the imperial presidency and thereby shapes (or distorts) the American political system. Sure, the quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are classy, but what really endowed the postwar war presidency with its singular aura were the missiles, bombers, and carrier battle groups that responded to the commands of one man alone. What’s the bully pulpit in comparison to having the 82nd Airborne and SEAL Team Six at your beck and call?

Now, in effect, Obama was saying to Congress: I’m keen to launch a war of choice. But first I want you guys to okay it. In politics, where voluntarily forfeiting power is an unnatural act, Obama’s invitation qualifies as beyond unusual. Whatever the calculations behind his move, its effect rates somewhere between unprecedented and positively bizarre—the heir to imperial prerogatives acting, well, decidedly unimperial.

What you have is a War for the Greater Middle East, pursued by the United States for over three decades now. If Congress gives President Obama the green light, Syria will become the latest front in this ongoing enterprise.

Obama is a constitutional lawyer, of course, and it’s pleasant to imagine that he acted out of due regard for what Article 1, Section 8, of that document plainly states, namely that “the Congress shall have power… to declare war.” Take his explanation at face value and the president’s decision ought to earn plaudits from strict constructionists across the land. The Federalist Society should offer Obama an honorary lifetime membership.

Of course, seasoned political observers, understandably steeped in cynicism, dismissed the president’s professed rationale out of hand and immediately began speculating about his actual motivation. The most popular explanation was this: Having painted himself into a corner, Obama was trying to lure members of the legislative branch into joining him there. Rather than a belated conversion experience, the president’s literal reading of the Constitution actually amounted to a sneaky political ruse.

After all, the president had gotten himself into a pickle by declaring back in August 2012 that any use of chemical weapons by the government of Bashar al-Assad would cross a supposedly game-changing “red line.” When the Syrians (apparently) called his bluff, Obama found himself facing uniformly unattractive military options that ranged from the patently risky—joining forces with the militants intent on toppling Assad—to the patently pointless—firing a “shot across the bow” of the Syrian ship of state.

Meanwhile, the broader American public, awakening from its summertime snooze, was demonstrating remarkably little enthusiasm for yet another armed intervention in the Middle East. Making matters worse still, U.S. military leaders and many members of Congress, Republican and Democratic alike, were expressing serious reservations or actual opposition. Press reports even cited leaks by unnamed officials who characterized the intelligence linking Assad to the chemical attacks as no “slam dunk,” a painful reminder of how bogus information had paved the way for the disastrous and unnecessary Iraq War. For the White House, even a hint that Obama in 2013 might be replaying the Bush scenario of 2003 was anathema.

The president also discovered that recruiting allies to join him in this venture was proving a hard sell. It wasn’t just the Arab League’s refusal to give an administration strike against Syria its seal of approval, although that was bad enough. Jordan’s King Abdullah, America’s “closest ally in the Arab world,” publicly announced that he favored talking to Syria rather than bombing it. As for Iraq, that previous beneficiary of American liberation, its government was refusing even to allow U.S. forces access to its airspace. Ingrates!

For Obama, the last straw may have come when America’s most reliable (not to say subservient) European partner refused to enlist in yet another crusade to advance the cause of peace, freedom, and human rights in the Middle East. With memories of Tony and George W. apparently eclipsing those of Winston and Franklin, the British Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt to position the United Kingdom alongside the United States. Parliament’s vote dashed Obama’s hopes of forging a coalition of two and so investing a war of choice against Syria with at least a modicum of legitimacy.

When it comes to actual military action, only France still entertains the possibility of making common cause with the United States. Yet the number of Americans taking assurance from this prospect approximates the number who know that Bernard-Henri Lévy isn’t a celebrity chef.

John F. Kennedy once remarked that defeat is an orphan. Here was a war bereft of parents even before it had begun.

Whether or not to approve the war for the greater Middle East
Still, whether high-minded constitutional considerations or diabolically clever political machinations motivated the president may matter less than what happens next. Obama lobbed the ball into Congress’s end of the court. What remains to be seen is how the House and the Senate, just now coming back into session, will respond.

At least two possibilities exist, one with implications that could prove profound and the second holding the promise of being vastly entertaining.

On the one hand, Obama has implicitly opened the door for a Great Debate regarding the trajectory of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Although a week or ten days from now the Senate and House of Representatives will likely be voting to approve or reject some version of an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), at stake is much more than the question of what to do about Syria. The real issue—Americans should hope that the forthcoming congressional debate makes this explicit—concerns the advisability of continuing to rely on military might as the preferred means of advancing U.S. interests in this part of the world.

Appreciating the actual stakes requires putting the present crisis in a broader context. Herewith an abbreviated history lesson.

Back in 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would employ any means necessary to prevent a hostile power from gaining control of the Persian Gulf. In retrospect, it’s clear enough that the promulgation of the so-called Carter Doctrine amounted to a de facto presidential “declaration” of war (even if Carter himself did not consciously intend to commit the United States to perpetual armed conflict in the region). Certainly, what followed was a never-ending sequence of wars and war-like episodes. Although the Congress never formally endorsed Carter’s declaration, it tacitly acceded to all that his commitment subsequently entailed.

Relatively modest in its initial formulation, the Carter Doctrine quickly metastasized. Geographically, it grew far beyond the bounds of the Persian Gulf, eventually encompassing virtually all of the Islamic world. Washington’s own ambitions in the region also soared. Rather than merely preventing a hostile power from achieving dominance in the Gulf, the United States was soon seeking to achieve dominance itself. Dominance—that is, shaping the course of events to Washington’s liking—was said to hold the key to maintaining stability, ensuring access to the world’s most important energy reserves, checking the spread of Islamic radicalism, combating terrorism, fostering Israel’s security, and promoting American values. Through the adroit use of military might, dominance actually seemed plausible. (So at least Washington persuaded itself.)


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What this meant in practice was the wholesale militarization of U.S. policy toward the Greater Middle East in a period in which Washington’s infatuation with military power was reaching its zenith. As the Cold War wound down, the national security apparatus shifted its focus from defending Germany’s Fulda Gap to projecting military power throughout the Islamic world. In practical terms, this shift found expression in the creation of Central Command (CENTCOM), reconfigured forces, and an eternal round of contingency planning, war plans, and military exercises in the region. To lay the basis for the actual commitment of troops, the Pentagon established military bases, stockpiled material in forward locations, and negotiated transit rights. It also courted and armed proxies. In essence, the Carter Doctrine provided the Pentagon (along with various U.S. intelligence agencies) with a rationale for honing and then exercising new capabilities.

Capabilities expanded the range of policy options. Options offered opportunities to “do something” in response to crisis. From the Reagan era on, policymakers seized upon those opportunities with alacrity. A seemingly endless series of episodes and incidents ensued, as U.S. forces, covert operatives, or proxies engaged in hostile actions (often on multiple occasions) in Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, the southern Philippines, and in the Persian Gulf itself, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider them altogether and what you have is a War for the Greater Middle East, pursued by the United States for over three decades now. If Congress gives President Obama the green light, Syria will become the latest front in this ongoing enterprise.

Profiles in courage? If only
A debate over the Syrian AUMF should encourage members of Congress—if they’ve got the guts—to survey this entire record of U.S. military activities in the Greater Middle East going back to 1980. To do so means almost unavoidably confronting this simple question: How are we doing? To state the matter directly, all these years later, given all the ordnance expended, all the toing-and-froing of U.S. forces, and all the lives lost or shattered along the way, is mission accomplishment anywhere insight? Or have U.S. troops—the objects of such putative love and admiration on the part of the American people—been engaged over the past 30-plus years in a fool’s errand? How members cast their votes on the Syrian AUMF will signal their answer—and by extension the nation’s answer—to that question.

To okay an attack on Syria will, in effect, reaffirm the Carter Doctrine and put a stamp of congressional approval on the policies that got us where we are today. A majority vote in favor of the Syrian AUMF will sustain and probably deepen Washington’s insistence that the resort to violence represents the best way to advance U.S. interests in the Islamic world. From this perspective, all we need to do is try harder and eventually we’ll achieve a favorable outcome. With Syria presumably the elusive but never quite attained turning point, the Greater Middle East will stabilize. Democracy will flourish. And the United States will bask in the appreciation of those we have freed from tyranny.

To vote against the AUMF, on the other hand, will draw a red line of much greater significance than the one that President Obama himself so casually laid down. Should the majority in either House reject the Syrian AUMF, the vote will call into question the continued viability of the Carter Doctrine and all that followed in its wake.

It will create space to ask whether having another go is likely to produce an outcome any different from what the United States has achieved in the myriad places throughout the Greater Middle East where U.S. forces (or covert operatives) have, whatever their intentions, spent the past several decades wreaking havoc and sowing chaos under the guise of doing good. Instead of offering more of the same – does anyone seriously think that ousting Assad will transform Syria into an Arab Switzerland?—rejecting the AUMF might even invite the possibility of charting an altogether different course, entailing perhaps a lower military profile and greater self-restraint.

What a stirring prospect! Imagine members of Congress setting aside partisan concerns to debate first-order questions of policy. Imagine them putting the interests of the country in front of their own worries about winning reelection or pursuing their political ambitions. It would be like Lincoln vs. Douglas or Woodrow Wilson vs. Henry Cabot Lodge. Call Doris Kearns Goodwin. Call Spielberg or Sorkin. Get me Capra, for God’s sake. We’re talking high drama of blockbuster proportions.

On the other hand, given the record of the recent past, we should hardly discount the possibility that our legislative representatives will not rise to the occasion. Invited by President Obama to share in the responsibility for deciding whether and where to commit acts of war, one or both Houses—not known these days for displaying either courage or responsibility—may choose instead to punt.

As we have learned by now, the possible ways for Congress to shirk its duty are legion. In this instance, all are likely to begin with the common supposition that nothing’s at stake here except responding to Assad’s alleged misdeeds. To refuse to place the Syrian crisis in any larger context is, of course, a dodge. Yet that dodge creates multiple opportunities for our elected representatives to let themselves off the hook.

Congress could, for example, pass a narrowly drawn resolution authorizing Obama to fire his “shot across the bow” and no more. In other words, it could basically endorse the president’s inclination to substitute gesture for policy.

Or it could approve a broadly drawn, but vacuous resolution, handing the president a blank check. Ample precedent exists for that approach, since it more or less describes what Congress did in 1964 with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, opening the way to presidential escalation in Vietnam, or with the AUMF it passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, giving George W. Bush’s administration permission to do more or less anything it wanted to just about anyone.

Even more irresponsibly, Congress could simply reject any Syrian AUMF, however worded, without identifying a plausible alternative to war, in effect washing its hands of the matter and creating a policy vacuum.

Will members of the Senate and the House grasp the opportunity to undertake an urgently needed reassessment of America’s War for the Greater Middle East? Or wriggling and squirming, will they inelegantly sidestep the issue, opting for short-term expediency in place of serious governance? In an age where the numbing blather of McCain, McConnell, and Reid have replaced the oratory of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster, merely to pose the question is to answer it.

But let us not overlook the entertainment value of such an outcome, which could well be formidable. In all likelihood, high comedy Washington-style lurks just around the corner. So renew that subscription to The Onion. Keep an eye on Doonesbury. Set the TiVo to record Jon Stewart. This is going to be really funny—and utterly pathetic. Where’s H.L. Mencken when we need him?

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of the new book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (Metropolitan Books).

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Obama Syrian Souza

President Barack Obama is taking heat from prominent figures in both parties who are eager to intervene more in Syria and help topple President Bashar al-Assad. But Obama rose to the presidency in large part because he promised a humble, restrained foreign policy completely different than his predecessor’s. In American politics, sensible restraint is often viewed as a display of weakness or indecisiveness. But this White House’s caution on Syria is completely justified in the broader, historical context. There is undeniably a horrible humanitarian crisis occurring in Syria, but modern history suggests U.S. involvement would be disastrous.

Over the past few decades, there have been three major uprisings in the Middle East against minority-controlled governments. In Iraq, we assisted Saddam Hussein’s opponents, but it wasn’t a clean and quick removal of the Sunni regime. We found ourselves mired in a sectarian war for 10 years. And proponents of interfering in civil conflicts like the one in Iraq, and now in Syria, always make it sound easy. It’s worth remembering the rosy predictions of the Iraq War enthusiasts in the Bush administration, who claimed the war would cost $50 billion, and the reconstruction efforts would be more than covered by internal oil revenue. Ten years later we’re inching toward $2 trillion, with estimates that future costs for Iraq veterans will reach nearly $600 billion. Not to mention the $4 trillion that the tax payers will pay off in interest on money we borrowed for that misadventure. And far worse is the loss of life: hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, and nearly 4,500 American troops.

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