Is a dangerous partisan divide really destroying the American government? It’s pretty hard to discern that from the policy debate on Syria, where our two-party system divides like this: Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky on one side, and everybody else on the other.
Paul argues that there are no clear good guys in Syria; that the recent U.S. track record in the Middle East — from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya — suggests that nobody in the American government has a credible understanding of the region’s political nuances, and that any U.S. intervention is likely to create more problems than it will solve.
On the other side of the argument are such supposed ideological opposites as Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; Bob Casey, D-Pa., and John McCain, R-Ariz., all of whom want the United States to sweep into Syria with guns blazing. McCain, who has never encountered a foreign-policy problem that couldn’t, in his opinion, be solved by dropping a bomb on it, even labeled Paul a “wacko bird” for his dangerous unbelligerence.
The relentless yammering of the Syria hawks is pushing President Obama steadily toward another Middle Eastern military intervention. The administration originally offered rhetorical sympathy, but not much more, to the rebels trying to oust Bashar Assad. Then it decided to permit other countries to ship U.S. arms to the (supposedly) nonradical factions of the rebels. Now we’re giving guns directly to those rebels.
The next step down this slippery slope, which McCain and others are urging (and for which the Pentagon is preparing plans), is establishing a no-fly zone over Syria to negate the power of Assad’s air force against the rebels. This sounds innocuous, but it isn’t.
U.S. planes attempting to enforce the no-fly rule will come under fire from Syria’s sophisticated anti-aircraft systems — including, soon, the Russian-made S-300, with a range of 125 miles. That will enable Assad’s army to shoot down planes well outside Syrian territory, including the skies over Israel. We, in turn, will have to launch heavy bombing raids to suppress the anti-aircraft fire. That’s why NATO military commander Gen. Philip Breedlove last week bluntly called a no-fly zone “an act of war.”
The good news is that we’d be fighting the war against not just Syria but the army of Hezbollah, the arms of Russia and the treasury of Iran, the allies who’ve kept Assad in power the past two years despite nearly unanimous world opinion that he would fall.
That’s good news only in relation to the bad-news part of the equation, which is that our principal ally would be Al-Qaida, the puppetmaster behind the most effective of the Syrian groups. The last time we made common cause with those guys, aiding the resistance to Soviet rule of Afghanistan, we wound up with the Taliban rising to power and inviting Osama bin Laden to be their guest.
Anybody living outside the Washington Beltway should be thinking long and hard why reluctance to go along with this policy prescription is getting Rand Paul denounced as a libertarian loon. The problem in our capital is not that there’s too much division between Republicans and Democrats, but that they’ve merged into a single War Party when it comes to the Middle East.
There might have been at least a tenuous case to be made for intervention in Syria back at the beginning of its civil war, at least if you accept the view that the United States cannot disengage from the Middle East because it is, for the foreseeable future, joined at the hip with Israel.
Unlike Libya or Somalia, strategically useless states in the middle of nowhere in which Washington mysteriously chose to intervene, Syria is a pivot point in the Middle East. It shares long borders with our two major allies in the region, Israel and Jordan, who cannot help being affected by what goes on in Syria.
Two years ago, we could have acted decisively to end the Syrian civil war before it really got started. We could have made a realpolitik decision to support Assad, who, though a vicious brute to his own people, mostly minds his own business. Or we could have thrown in wholeheartedly with the rebels, picking one faction to provide with arms and international prestige, keeping (maybe) the worst elements out of power.
Instead, the Obama administration dithered, denouncing Assad and drawing lines in the sand over his behavior, then backing away every time he crossed one. We managed to alienate both sides as well as convincing all concerned that our bark had no bite.
In short, Obama has adopted as his guide Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy of 1979, when the United States cluelessly half-yanked the rug from beneath the shah in Iran and Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, then primly tsk-tsked their opponents. The eventual result was that two of our allies were replaced with regimes implacably hostile to our interests, which quickly began destabilizing everything around them. Sadly, that’s now the best possible outcome in Syria. If the War Party get its way, you’ll see the worst.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.