Anton Community Newspapers  •  132 East 2nd Street  •  Mineola, NY 11501  •  Phone: 516-747-8282  •  FAX: 516-742-5867
Attention: open in a new window. PDFPrintE-mail

Philosophically Speaking: October 10, 2013

Erasing The Red Line

In the fading light of America’s foreign policy, we must grope for clarity and illumination. Two pearls of wisdom come to mind.

The first was enunciated by former President Richard Nixon in his post-Watergate years: When the balance of power changes anywhere it changes everywhere. The second comes from Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz: It’s better to use force when you should and not when you must.

These pearls of wisdom stand in stark contrast to President Obama philosophically discombobulating on the matter of Syria and the uses of America’s military. The president’s circumlocutions about the crisis can only be interpreted as an effort to talk himself out of a war he all but precipitated. First he warns about “crossing the red line” of using chemical weapons and then when that line is crossed the president insists that he did not draw a red line --- the world did. To which I reply in exasperation: Mr. President, oh please!

Presidential missteps are but part of the farce. Secretary of State John Kerry joins in the charade by weirdly positing a scenario where Syria could avoid a military strike by giving up its chemical weapons. But that, Kerry assured us, is something that will never happen. Can we extract any sense at all from that solecism? Exactly what was the point in explaining how Syria could avoid a military strike only to nullify it by saying it will never happen?  

It’s embarrassingly obvious that President Obama and his advisors tremble over the very idea of committing the military might of the United States even in a situation in which they unambiguously said they would. This is not a very comforting or assuring message to our allies; nor does it do much to deter our enemies. The Administration’s incoherent foreign policy on Syria makes Jimmy Carter’s handling of the Iran hostage crisis look like a paragon of international sagacity.

This irresolution on the Syrian mess has implausibly resulted in Assad’s reputation being partially restored, a strengthening of  the anti-Western Shiite crescent that stretches from Tehran to the Mediterranean and for Russia to re-establish itself both diplomatically and militarily in one of the world’s most vital and explosive regions.  

American abdication gave Putin the opportunity to offer Assad the chance to dispose of his chemical weapons through an international authority, a disingenuous gesture that transformed this stony faced thug into a statesman and Obama into a horse’s ass. It’s now Putin, who has as much interest in stopping the gassing of helpless children as he does watching the Simpsons, taking the glory.

I’m not unsympathetic with the difficult and unpalatable choices the president faced. The American people are tired of foreign wars; their nerves are frayed to the point of snapping. Moreover, it is altogether possible that engaging Syria on behalf of the rebels is not so much good versus evil as it is evil versus lesser evils. It is certainly not as clear cut as our intervention in Haiti, Somalia and Mogadishu where we were really saving the weak from the ruthless. No one knows for sure how deeply al Qaeda has penetrated into the ranks of rebel forces. Nor is it factual that America has intervened on such grounds before. The United States did not strike when Iraq and Iran (mostly the former) gassed each other in the 1980s or when Saddam Hussein gassed the Iraqi Kurds.

The difference is Ronald Reagan did not draw any red lines and Obama did. But when that dreaded red line was crossed, Obama faltered, backtracked and seemed desperate to find an escape hatch from the rhetorical prison he constructed. When that proved impossible, the president made some feeble remarks about “firing a shot across the bow.” After drawing a red line, can anything sound more pusillanimous and weak-kneed? If this was the best Obama could do regarding Syrian transgressions, then it was best not to talk of any lines at all. If you are going to put your finger on the trigger for the entire world to see then you must be willing to pull it.

From the onset of his presidency, Obama’s actions continually belied his words and undermined his creditability. The U.S. has been dramatically cutting its defense budget, burying missile defense programs and embarking upon a wholesale military evacuation from Iraq. This is not the kind of message one should be telegraphing to either friend or foe if the idea is to exude strength and determination around the world. If this is to be the posture of the United States, then John Kerry should govern his tongue and desist in saying that Syria represents a “Munich moment.” Munich moments, after alErasing The Red Line

In the fading light of America’s foreign policy, we must grope for clarity and illumination.  Two pearls of wisdom come to mind.

The first was enunciated by former President Richard Nixon in his post-Watergate years: When the balance of power changes anywhere it changes everywhere. The second comes from Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz: It’s better to use force when you should and not when you must.

These pearls of wisdom stand in stark contrast to President Obama philosophically discombobulating on the matter of Syria and the uses of America’s military. The president’s circumlocutions about the crisis can only be interpreted as an effort to talk himself out of a war he all but precipitated. First he warns about “crossing the red line” of using chemical weapons and then when that line is crossed the president insists that he did not draw a red line --- the world did. To which I reply in exasperation: Mr. President, oh please!

Presidential missteps are but part of the farce. Secretary of State John Kerry joins in the charade by weirdly positing a scenario where Syria could avoid a military strike by giving up its chemical weapons. But that, Kerry assured us, is something that will never happen. Can we extract any sense at all from that solecism? Exactly what was the point in explaining how Syria could avoid a military strike only to nullify it by saying it will never happen? 

It’s embarrassingly obvious that President Obama and his advisors tremble over the very idea of committing the military might of the United States even in a situation in which they unambiguously said they would. This is not a very comforting or assuring message to our allies; nor does it do much to deter our enemies. The Administration’s incoherent foreign policy on Syria makes Jimmy Carter’s handling of the Iran hostage crisis look like a paragon of international sagacity.

This irresolution on the Syrian mess has implausibly resulted in Assad’s reputation being partially restored, a strengthening of  the anti-Western Shiite crescent that stretches from Tehran to the Mediterranean and for Russia to re-establish itself both diplomatically and militarily in one of the world’s most vital and explosive regions. 

American abdication gave Putin the opportunity to offer Assad the chance to dispose of his chemical weapons through an international authority, a disingenuous gesture that transformed this stony faced thug into a statesman and Obama into a horse’s ass. It’s now Putin, who has as much interest in stopping the gassing of helpless children as he does watching the Simpsons, taking the glory.

I’m not unsympathetic with the difficult and unpalatable choices the president faced. The American people are tired of foreign wars; their nerves are frayed to the point of snapping. Moreover, it is altogether possible that engaging Syria on behalf of the rebels is not so much good versus evil as it is evil versus lesser evils. It is certainly not as clear cut as our intervention in Haiti, Somalia and Mogadishu where we were really saving the weak from the ruthless. No one knows for sure how deeply al Qaeda has penetrated into the ranks of rebel forces. Nor is it factual that America has intervened on such grounds before. The United States did not strike when Iraq and Iran (mostly the former) gassed each other in the 1980s or when Saddam Hussein gassed the Iraqi Kurds.

The difference is Ronald Reagan did not draw any red lines and Obama did. But when that dreaded red line was crossed, Obama faltered, backtracked and seemed desperate to find an escape hatch from the rhetorical prison he constructed. When that proved impossible, the president made some feeble remarks about “firing a shot across the bow.” After drawing a red line, can anything sound more pusillanimous and weak-kneed? If this was the best Obama could do regarding Syrian transgressions, then it was best not to talk of any lines at all. If you are going to put your finger on the trigger for the entire world to see then you must be willing to pull it.

From the onset of his presidency, Obama’s actions continually belied his words and undermined his creditability. The U.S. has been dramatically cutting its defense budget, burying missile defense programs and embarking upon a wholesale military evacuation from Iraq. This is not the kind of message one should be telegraphing to either friend or foe if the idea is to exude strength and determination around the world. If this is to be the posture of the United States, then John Kerry should govern his tongue and desist in saying that Syria represents a “Munich moment.” Munich moments, after all, require exercising determination and military muscle.     

The interesting and surprisingly unremarked thing about this entire Syrian episode is that when we legitimately showed our willingness to use force it produced results. U.S. warships off the shores of Syria are the only reason why there are now talks of chemical disarmament and U.N. inspections. Samuel Johnson once shrewdly noted that the prospect of hanging the next morning concentrates the mind wonderfully.

So what exactly is the larger picture for the United States in terms of world affairs? Ever since President Harry Truman invoked the “Truman Doctrine”, the U.S. has had to weigh the choices of action and inaction around the globe. I’ve written in these pages about the dangers of the new isolationism. America, by virtue of its superpower status, must play a significant role in the world. It’s a Hobson’s choice situation. But whether we should, as John F. Kennedy memorably said, pay any price and bear any burden to assure freedom around the world is seriously questionable. Clearly there are limits for even a superpower.

We’re not very good at nation building, perhaps no one can be. Our extraordinary success of rebuilding Germany and Japan after WWII created illusions about the world being pliable in our hands. These war torn nations were exceptions rather than the rule, both having been literally pounded into submission and both having formerly been shaped and influenced by Western forces. 

But we can’t be nudged to the periphery either; common sense internationalism requires the United States to be engaged without becoming bogged down in strategic areas of the world. Discretion remains the better part of valor and we must be discriminating about our prospects for success as well as limiting the damage that could be inflicted upon us. It’s less likely, for example, that where radical Islam and sectarian strife exist, there will be hope for success. This should not however prevent us from displaying force and even using it to influence events, provided a cost-benefit analysis based on recent history is factored into the equation.

Nor can America be indifferent or impotent regarding regimes who act with depraved indifference toward human life. If we are to exclude a moral component in the face of such atrocities, then what is the purpose of remembering the Holocaust or exclaiming “never again” if we really don’t mean it?

There are no exact formulas; foreign policy will always be more of an art than a science. But if we incorporate the lessons of the past, adjust ourselves to the present necessities of international politics and the impact such events have had on our country domestically, we will be able to move forward into the future more soberly and wisely than we had in the past.

l, require exercising determination and military muscle.      

The interesting and surprisingly unremarked thing about this entire Syrian episode is that when we legitimately showed our willingness to use force it produced results. U.S. warships off the shores of Syria are the only reason why there are now talks of chemical disarmament and U.N. inspections. Samuel Johnson once shrewdly noted that the prospect of hanging the next morning concentrates the mind wonderfully.

So what exactly is the larger picture for the United States in terms of world affairs? Ever since President Harry Truman invoked the “Truman Doctrine”, the U.S. has had to weigh the choices of action and inaction around the globe. I’ve written in these pages about the dangers of the new isolationism. America, by virtue of its superpower status, must play a significant role in the world. It’s a Hobson’s choice situation. But whether we should, as John F. Kennedy memorably said, pay any price and bear any burden to assure freedom around the world is seriously questionable. Clearly there are limits for even a superpower.

We’re not very good at nation building, perhaps no one can be. Our extraordinary success of rebuilding Germany and Japan after WWII created illusions about the world being pliable in our hands. These war torn nations were exceptions rather than the rule, both having been literally pounded into submission and both having formerly been shaped and influenced by Western forces.  

But we can’t be nudged to the periphery either; common sense internationalism requires the United States to be engaged without becoming bogged down in strategic areas of the world. Discretion remains the better part of valor and we must be discriminating about our prospects for success as well as limiting the damage that could be inflicted upon us. It’s less likely, for example, that where radical Islam and sectarian strife exist, there will be hope for success. This should not however prevent us from displaying force and even using it to influence events, provided a cost-benefit analysis based on recent history is factored into the equation.

Nor can America be indifferent or impotent regarding regimes who act with depraved indifference toward human life. If we are to exclude a moral component in the face of such atrocities, then what is the purpose of remembering the Holocaust or exclaiming “never again” if we really don’t mean it?

There are no exact formulas; foreign policy will always be more of an art than a science. But if we incorporate the lessons of the past, adjust ourselves to the present necessities of international politics and the impact such events have had on our country domestically, we will be able to move forward into the future more soberly and wisely than we had in the past.