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Phil-osophically Speaking - July 3 - July 9, 2013

Crossing The Red Line

It is time to admit the painfully obvious: Things are a mess in the Middle East and half measures by the United States have only exacerbated the situation. What started as a local conflict in Syria has now become a multi-national bloodbath. We can no longer say that what’s happening there is a civil war. It is impossible to argue that the struggle there is now trans-national.

We now have Iran and Hezbollah fighting with Bashar al-Assad. These are not populations indigenous to Syria. Add to that fiery mix Russia, China and a host of other belligerents and you have a 21st-century version of the Spanish American War, which claimed nearly a million lives in the 1930s and was a precursor to the global conflagration we know as World War II. Everyone, until most recently, seems to be involved in the struggle over Syria except the United States who has a great deal to lose if either Assad or another one of the radical elements prevails.

From a purely humanitarian perspective, the bloodletting in Syria cries out for American intervention of some sort. Of course boots on the ground is not something the American public will have any appetite for after the two unsatisfactory interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But even Bill Clinton, no Wilsonian interventionist, has chided the docility and insouciance of the Obama Administration, which was content to watch from the sidelines. What will history say, Clinton lamented, regarding the lack of American will amid the unfolding tragedy in Syria: That public opinion polls were against it?

From the outset, there were no ringing polemics supporting American involvement in the Administration, which is curious because the Syrian trauma should be a call to arms for the United States. It had the right ingredients: It was a spontaneous, secular liberal uprising that was not alien and perhaps even sympathetic to American values and ideals. The United States, however, chose to follow the pattern it set in Libya and lead from behind. I was a mild supporter of that strategy, although I wish America had supported that insurgency with a little more alacrity and vigor. The Syrian strife is more problematic since it has been a magnet for rogue regimes and radical Islamic elements. Obama waffled and cloaked his indecisiveness by invoking an imaginary red line that would be crossed if Syria used chemical weapons against the rebels. The Syrians undaunted, leapt, over the line leading the Administration to engage in a kind of circuitous dance on whether Assad actually crossed the line by using these weapons.

So more delaying … posturing … filibustering. Soon even the Obama Administration could not escape the evidence. Shaking off its inertia, America roared into the fray by promising the rebels small arms and ammo. That’s like trying to kill an enraged rhinoceros with a BB gun and it turned our foreign policy into a farce. Finally, the president felt compelled to send F-16 Patriot missiles and an armored division to Jordan, America’s most steadfast Arab ally, in a belated attempt to establish leverage against Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and China, all of whom had more sway in Syria than the United States.

The folly of squandering many of the costly gains we won in Iraq has come home to roost; slipping through our callous and blood-stained hands that have indelibly marked our sacrifice there. Once the American military unwisely evacuated that country we also surrendered its vital air space, which is now being controlled by Iran who is using it to sustain Assad. Perhaps, even at this late stage the U.S. can disable Assad’s missiles and establish a safe zone to protect the people of Syria who have been slaughtered by the tens of thousands. It is clear that neutrality will only equate to a strategic victory for Iran, Hezbollah and Russia in the Gulf States.

Committing the American military to Syrian rebels, I recognize, should not be undertaken lightly especially in light of public sentiment that the president must always correspond with. But he also has an obligation to influence it if he can. It might not be too late; after serious foot-dragging in the face of atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo back in the ’90s, U.S. intervention made a significant difference. What we want is stability for the region by encouraging and supporting progressive secular elements in Syria. That might have gained traction early on with the right combination of sticks and carrots, but now too many have been brutally killed by the current regime. Meanwhile, the U.S. looks weaker than ever by cutting America’s military budget by $1.4 trillion over the last four years and by sounding the bugle of retreat. For all the lives and treasure that was sunk in destroying Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, it’s shocking and horribly dismaying how quickly these victories can slip away especially if abdication rather than engagement is your desired goal. Despite all the risks it entails, our best bet is diplomatic and military support for the rebels in return for a more pro-Western government if they’re victorious. Such an outcome would decisively weaken Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and China’s ambitions in the region.

The Syrian punt offers but another lesson if we would only bother to learn it. The President of the United States cannot afford to be an uninterested witness in the world; he must always remember his role as leader of the free world for weakness invites provocations and provocations lead to confrontations. The stakes, you see, are always high.