Thursday, May 28, 2015

Frontline's "Obama at War:" The Trials and Tribulations of "Not Doing Stupid Stuff"

Frontline aired a tough to watch piece on May 26, 2015 entitled "Obama at War." It focuses on the 2011 uprising, U.S. Ambassador Robert S Ford's enthusiastic--and seemingly naive--embrace of the Syrian Arab Spring, and Obama's serial reluctance to get more deeply involved.

The main criticisms of Obama's inaction is his decisions to seek Congressional approval before bombing Syria after Assad used Sarin gas on civilians, and his decision not to act on a CIA/State Department plan in 2012 (supported by David Patreaus and Hillary Clinton) to covertly arm the "moderate opposition."

One friend who watched the program felt it leaned strongly pro-war: that the program leaves the impression Obama should have bombed without seeking Congressional approval, and that he should have moved forward with covert aide to opposition forces before the ascent of ISIS.

I don't see the program that way. The decision to seek Congressional approval was politically healthy for the U.S. and it opened the door for the Russian orchestrated peaceful handover of all chemical weapons by Assad; and it is not at all clear that covert aid of supplying weapons to vague opposition groups through Jordan would have prevented the rise of ISIS. It seems just as likely that those weapons would make ISIS stronger today as we experienced in Afghanistan. The Frontline program is difficult to watch primarily because Syria is a tragedy of epic proportions--with more than 200,000 dead, and millions of internal and external refugees, and the rise of ISIS in Syria/Iraq...and no resolution in sight. It's hard to watch and not get involved.

Here is a hypothesis for further study:

1. We want peace and quiet in the region so we can buy oil, trade, build, and invest in peace. We have accepted the fact that this peace has historically been supplied by dictators, as long as they didn't act too wild. Hussain was pushing the envelope on acting wild, but toppling him sure seems like a mistake in retrospect. Mubarak seems like a pussycat to El-Sisi.

2. We have limited control over how these events play out short of full scale occupation. Invading with shock and awe from the air, followed by a quick and dirty ground campaign does not give us control over the outcome. That seems clear in the wake of Iraq.

3. Control requires an Imperial occupation that is all in, like the Roman Empire was all in. Imperial rule is not compatible with civil rights or human rights. It means occupation with overwhelming force, an imperial administration, and the ruthless suppression of opposition.

4. The U.S. has neither the stomach, desire, nor resources for all-in imperial rule in the Middle East. We've tried imperial rule light with drone killings, limited troops on the ground for limited time in Afghanistan and Iraq, but really our heart is not in it for a real Pax Americana. Imperial rule light does not bring us control over events.

5. So when war hawks like John McCain and ex-ambasador Ford say Obama should have done more in Syria, they are fooling themselves. They are fooling themselves that pouring weapons into the hands of some opposition forces would bring us control over the outcome. We've tried this when we armed the Mujahideen in Afghanistan (see "Charlie Wilson's War"). Asserting control and determining the outcome means full on imperial rule. That's the choice: assert Pax Americana or stay small and avoid doing stupid stuff. Invading Iraq in 2003 was stupid stuff.

If you watch this program, which I recommend, take note of the question to John McCain: who replaces Assad if we help topple him? McCain--who seems not to have thought about the question before--says "it's very difficult to predict." Not so much... Given the fact we--including John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio--are not ready for full out imperial rule in Syria, if/when Assad falls the replacement is ISIS or the Nusra Front. The control is not ours. The wise course, in the absence of full Imperial Rule is to avoid doing as much harm as possible and help where we clearly can.

Tragedy in Syria

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