Syria and the Slide Toward Insanity

We should not close our eyes to genocide and injustice, just as we shouldn't ignore world hunger or disease. But we do need to understand what works and what doesn't.
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A popular, non-medical definition describes insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time. If one adheres to this idea, the White House is about to manifest a level of insanity that confirms yet again a national failure to formulate a defense strategy that makes any sense, and, instead, purely reacts to the media story of the moment.

Some months ago, President Obama announced that use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would represent the crossing of a red line that would prompt a major U.S. response. Now, the White House is convinced that something everyone knew for some time has happened. The Syrian government has definitely used chemical weapons to kill approximately 150 of the 100,000 who have already died. In response, the United States will step up aid to Syrian rebels, aid that may include heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and increased training, no doubt provided by U.S. Special Forces.

Is there coincidence in the White House deciding to acknowledge the use of chemical weapons just now? I think not. What has changed recently? What is new is the appointment of Susan Rice as National Security Advisor and the naming of Samantha Power as U.S. United Nations ambassador. Upon Rice's appointment, which requires no Senate approval, Senator John McCain, who had shown nothing but disdain for Rice since the Libya debacle, stated that he would do his best to work with her. Did McCain already know that the White House would approve Syrian intervention, a pet project of McCain and other strategic simpletons in the Senate like Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, in exchange for making life easier for Rice? Can we also expect a smoother confirmation for Power than might have been expected otherwise?

What might have greased this deal is the fact that politics make strange bedfellows. Extreme hawks like McCain, Graham, and Ayotte, who see terrorists under their Senate desks and think the solution to every foreign policy problem is military force, mesh perfectly with Power and Rice, who are ready to sacrifice American lives and treasure to stop every instance of human cruelty anywhere in the world.

What have we fixed by such tragic shenanigans? Civilian deaths in Afghanistan continue to rise. Iraq is sliding toward an ever-deepening sectarian civil war. Pakistan and the Middle East remain tinderboxes. Egypt is going who-knows-where. Libya is breaking up. And, with all this, there is absolutely no evidence that we've improved security against terrorism in the United States, a problem that remains in the purview of domestic intelligence and police agencies.

Where does the greatest insanity lie? It is in the idea that if we keep inserting ourselves, we will suddenly make Sunnis and Shi'ites get along. Syria's president Assad is fighting for his life. The Sunnis are fighting to throw off the minority government's oppressive policies. Both sides are guilty of horrendous human rights violations, something endemic to every Islam-based civil war, and probably all civil wars, for that matter.

Is it surprising that Assad has used chemical weapons? His Shia Alawites are outnumbered five-to-one by the Sunnis, many of who have vowed to exterminate the Alawite minority upon gaining victory. It is unlikely that Syrian Christians and Kurds would fare much better. Does this justify using chemical weapons? Then again, how would we react to Israel using a nuclear weapon if it were about to be defeated and faced national extermination? Are chemical weapons, so far used on an obviously small scale, worse than cluster munitions, napalm, phosphorus, or Agent Orange?

Our stance is that the solution is for Assad to step down. Again, we are talking about the insanity of dabbling in regime change, and again, we think that, this time, things will work out for the better. Through all his ranting for involvement, I have yet to hear Senator McCain state what he would do if Assad's replacements were as brutal, or even more so. Does he expect democracy to take hold? Is he sure that the Islamic extremists, who are currently the most effective fighters in the insurgency, won't take over and appropriate every heavy weapon we provide?

And what about the cost? Every penny spent will come out of some already emptying pocket. Most likely, stuff like training and flight hours will be curtailed. One way or another, our military will be hit with more financial problems as it struggles with sequestration. We can only hope that McCain is being honest about not putting a single American soldier or pilot inside Syria.

The Bay of Pigs; Vietnam; Iran and the overthrow of Mossadegh; support for the Shah of Iran, and, when he fell, support for Saddam Hussein against the Shah's successors; Libya; Afghanistan. So many examples of the insane idea that a military of a million men and women can control over a billion Muslims, as well as tend to all the other missions our politicians dream up.

We should not close our eyes to genocide and injustice, just as we shouldn't ignore world hunger or disease. But we do need to understand what works and what doesn't. We should not waste national treasure or American lives in trying to settle a 1,400-year-old dispute whose depth seems beyond our comprehension. Syria is a catastrophe of major proportions, and its ultimate disposition will affect its region. We should do what we can diplomatically to show our interest in a resolution that will benefit the entire region, but we need to steer clear of the insanity of thinking that American military muscle is the solution. There's too much history against us.

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