Obama should Resist the Clintons & Europe on Syria

Former president Bill Clinton criticized President Obama on Thursday for his inaction in regard to Syria. This step seems extraordinary and surely has something to do with positioning Hillary Clinton to run as a more hawkish New Democrat against anyone in the Obama circle in 2016. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton appears to have pushed for arming the Syrian rebels, but could not get Obama’s backing for the move. Bill Clinton’s criticism is extremely unfair, since there are many bad situations in the world in which the US cannot fruitfully intervene, and Clinton knows this sad truth all too well.

In 1992-2002 Algeria’s secular generals, tied to France and fueled by petroleum, fought a bloody dirty war against the Islamic Salvation Front and other devotees of political Islam. The world watched in horror as an estimated 150,000 people died. And yet, Clinton never directly intervened. Behind the scenes France backed the generals, and the latter won. The terrorism produced by the bloody repression in Algeria spilled over onto France and even targeted the United States, when a member of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group attempted in 2000 to drive a car bomb from Canada to LAX (he was stopped at the border and arrested). Nobody remembers Clinton’s paralysis in Algeria, contrary to what he is now predicting about Obama and Syria. This is because if you avoid a quagmire as president, no one holds that against you.

Obama has also been getting substantial pressure from the French and British to do something, and French intelligence has been the most vigorous in pressing the case that the Baath regime in Syria crossed the red line of chemical weapons use. France and Britain have longstanding imperial interests in the Levant, and both fear that the Syrian civil war could produce terrorism that spills over onto Western Europe. Unstated is that it may also produce a refugee crisis in which tens or hundreds of thousands of new immigrants wash up on European soil. Immigrants and terrorism are two key issues in French and British politics, and may be spurring them to action.

Likewise, the Baath and Hizbullah counter-attacks against the opposition in the past two months have yielded battlefield victories and the reassertion of Damascus over parts of the country that had been lost. Russian support appears to have increased in kind and quality, and Iran is playing the Shiite card. If someone doesn’t intervene soon on the rebel side, Washington hawks realize, the war might soon be over and the pro-Iranian regime will survive (just as Algeria’s did).

Obama seems to be attempting to find a face-saving way of getting a little involved but not too much, by sending light weaponry (which of course is not what the rebels need).

Clinton compared what the US could do in Syria to Ronald Reagan’s effort against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But that covert operation of giving billions of dollars and high-tech weaponry to Afghan jihadis was a huge catastrophe, contributing to the creation and rise of al-Qaeda and setting the background for the emergence of the Taliban. It surely would have been far preferable to let the Soviets try to build a socialist state in Afghanistan, as they tried in Uzbekistan. The whole thing would have fallen apart in 1991 anyway. (There is no truth to the notion that the Afghanistan war bled the Soviet Union or contributed to its collapse. Soviet military spending was flat in the 1980s). The Reagan jihad destabilized both Afghanistan and Pakistan and left us with a long term terrorism problem. We let the Soviets alone in Kazakhstan, and we never worry about today’s Kazakhstan.

You never, ever want to encourage the rise of private militias and flood a country with high- powered weaponry.

Clinton also has in mind his bombing of Serbian forces in the Balkans to protect the Bosnians. But the situation in Syria is not like that in the Balkans, in these ways:

– Syria has stockpiles of chemical weapons, the exact position of which is unknown; indiscriminate bombing raids on Syrian military facilities could release those chemicals on civilian populations

– Unlike in Bosnia, this is not a war by an outside force like the Serbs of ethnic cleansing against a neighbor, but rather it is a civil war. The Alawis, Christians and secular-minded Sunnis in Syria are afraid of the rebel forces and either support or are neutral toward the Syrian government; together they may well come to half the country. That isn’t exactly a mandate for outside intervention.

– Syria’s tanks and artillery are inside cities such as Homs and Damascus, and couldn’t be destroyed from the air without risking hitting civilian apartment buildings. If you want to see a war go bad real quickly, just kill dozens of innocent civilians in their own home from the air.

– The backing for the regime of Russia and Iran makes this more like Vietnam, where the Russians and Chinese supported the Viet Cong, than like the Balkans in the early 1990s when the Russians were weak and supine.

– Flooding Syria with medium or heavy weaponry could destabilize it and its neighbors, including Israel & Palestine, for decades, as the CIA did to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Often in the past, US intelligence actually urged locals involved in covert wars to grow and peddle drugs to get money for weapons, creating long-term problems of narco-terrorism, which still plague Afghanistan and Pakistan.

– The prominence of the Nusra Front and other hard liners affiliated to al-Qaeda in the opposition ranks means the US could end up arming terrorists and helping them take over a whole country.

Given the logistical and tactical difficulties of intervening from the air, and given the lack of a UNSC resolution authorizing the use of force, Obama should be training Syrian oppositionists in Gandhian tactics and encouraging them to create a long-term civil resistance instead of going the militarization route. Some struggles have to be fought over a couple of decades, and those typically only succeed if non-violent.

In general Bill Clinton had few foreign policy successes. He had many more victories on the domestic front, fixing budget woes, getting more justice for workers, and fostering heightened productivity. One of his great failures was yielding to the pressure of the hawks around the Project for a New American Century and bombing Iraq in 1998, in preparation for which he forced the UN weapons inspectors to withdraw. Had they remained on the ground, they could have continued to certify that Iraq had destroyed its weapons of mass destruction. It was later falsely alleged ad infinitum by Bush and his stenographer press corps that Saddam Hussein kicked out the inspectors. The PNAC warmongers maneuvered Clinton into helping them blind US and world intelligence with regard to Iraq, thus allowing them to make the most outlandish and mendacious allegations without fear of contradiction, and to drag us into a quagmire. Bill Clinton was a patsy for the hawks, and now he is setting up Obama to be another one.

102 Responses

  1. The US helped gin up this war, sending a proxy army of Mercenaries in from Jordan in late 2010.
    The Mercenaries have been well-funded by Persian Gulf Tyrants.
    But the people of Syria resist foreign interference, and beat our proxies back.
    So now we raise the stakes.
    If there is a final accounting, this is no way to prepare for it.

    • “The US helped gin up this war, sending a proxy army of Mercenaries in from Jordan in late 2010.”

      Please be specific. Who were these mercenaries? What is your evidence that the US sent in a “proxy army of mercenaries in from Jordan in late 2010″? I follow this pretty closely and have seen no evidence that the US did any such thing. Nevertheless, I keep an open mind and would be glad to consider the evidence upon which you base your charge.

      • hey, Bill.
        I spent about 20 minutes googling to find any news from a Rupert Murdoch media outlet to back up what I said.
        No dice.
        Most of what I found was from Russia (RT) or Iran (presstv.)
        Lots of stuff that’s no more credible than my website.
        Sorry.

        • Brian,

          I hope for the sake of your intellectual integrity that you cast the net wider for news than Russia (RT), Iran (presstv), and Rupert Murdoch, none of which can be counted on for accuracy in reporting. Murdoch and his outlets are sensationalist, and Russia and Iran for objective news about Syria? Surely you jest when you accept without question their contention about the US sending a mercenary force into Syria from Jordan. Russia and Iran would have absolutely no reason to plant subversive news stories about non-existent US activity in Syria, now would they?!

      • I’d be interested too. It’s not like the folks you imply all the time you are connected to in unspecified ways have ever done anything like send mercenaries into conflict areas to exacerbate the situation in the name of some unavowable “national interest.” Glad to know you are keeping an eye on all that for us, ready to pounce upon any disparagement of Great Game plays.

        Useful service rendered, at least, in encouraging people of good will, who try to shine light in the dark corners, as part of trying to work for that silly ideal of peace and stability, to actually research and nail down examples of the kinds of activities that have been subjected to the “impeachment by lack of references” attack…

        • I don’t think you will find any direct quantitative evidence on that subject — but Syria has been a target of SOF forces since probably that date. It is claimed that they only operate at the permission of the host government — but if Syria is or was one, that is hard to believe.

          Locations of Special Ops throughout the world:

          Here are a couple of links that may be of interest:
          link to thenation.com

          Manual detailing goals, tactics, methods and analysis of Special Ops:

          link to nsnbc.files.wordpress.com

        • “…to actually research and nail down examples of the kinds of activities that have been subjected to the “impeachment by lack of references” attack…”

          So, if someone claimed that the earth is flat, evolution is a bogus theory because it has been established that the earth is only 6,000 years old, and all creatures originally appeared as they do today, you would accept that without question because the claim may have been made by a person “of good will”? You actually call a request for references and citations, whether in my example here, or in the claim that the US sent in a mercenary force from Jordan, an “attack.”?

    • Why should I believe you, Brian?

      It looks like you have nothing but wishful thinking and snark to back up your claims, and you got very defensive when asked about them.

      That is not how someone telling the truth acts.

      Prove me wrong.

      Or don’t, and I’ll draw my conclusions from that.

  2. Dear Professor Cole

    I am not sure if I am allowed to read your blog anymore.

    link to m.bbc.co.uk

    It does seem to disagree with the wisdom of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

    All will however be well in time as, watching the TV this morning, the decisive and clear minded President McCain seems to have taken over.

  3. Hi Juan,

    Please comment on the reports of this survey:

    The Anglo-American press reports on an internal NATO study (dated June 2013), which takes stock of Syrian public opinion. The study shows that 70% of Syrians support President Bashar al-Assad, 20% adopt a neutral position and 10% support the “rebels.”

    Is this true?

    • I don’t think we can know about public opinion under these circumstances. People will be afraid of Baathi retaliation, and there is a war going on.

      Opinion polls have to be done with scientific sampling and people have to be comfortable answering truthfully. Doesn’t apply in the middle of a civil war with an authoritarian government massacring people.

      • Doesn’t apply in the middle of a civil war with any party, whether the authoritarian government or their opponents, massacring people.

      • And for the sake of completeness, it’s worth pointing out that there’s a lot of guys with ragtag uniforms and civvy clothes waving RPGs and AKs and FALs and AR15-class weapons around where they have been “victorious over the infidel,” yelling “Allahu Akhbar!” over and over and cutting throats and shooting unarmed and bound captives of who knows what persuasions. In those circumstances, as is pointed out, it’s hard to do any dispassionate and accurate “scientific polling” too…

      • Juan: Your tax dollars at work! Who says we haven’t increased spending on education? Have you heard from these guys yet?
        link to guardian.co.uk

        exerpts: It also calls for “traffic mixing”, blending the persona controllers’ internet usage with the usage of people outside Centcom in a manner that must offer “excellent cover and powerful deniability”. (I’m sending this to Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin AND Rachel Madcow!)

      • It would not surprise me if at least 70% of the population would support Assad just to end the violence. When you do not know if you will have food for tomorrow or whether or not your apartment building will be destroyed overnight by shelling, a free press and the right to vote in freely held elections are very much a luxury which can be deferred indefinitely.

        Further, the people of Syria do not have a clear and coherent alternative to Assad as the opposition is not only fragmented with no clear leadership but al Qaeda and conservative Islamic groups appears to be a part of it.

        By just looking over its borders the people of Syria have witnessed the bloodletting and rending of the Lebanese society in its 15 years long civil war as well as the complete chaos, the disruption of society, and mass killings having taken place in Iraq for the last decade.

        It is not hard to imagine a longing for stability at the expense of democratic ideals.

        The rebellion in Syria began two years ago in resonance with the Arab Spring. But the people of Syria are a long way now from those heady days.

  4. Lots of fairly biased rationalization. So, we sit and twiddle our proverbial thumbs (which by now look to be more up our butts than on the table), while Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah arm and assist the Ass(ad) regime; an evil regime with evil hereditary roots. Hezbollah exists because of creeps like the Ass(ad). Terrorism was supported by creeps like Ghadafi and Sadaam. Injustice and oppression are their hallmarks.

    You have conveniently forgotten one of the more salient legal maxims of democracy: “Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.” Great geo-political thinking.

    We did the right thing in Libya, conspicuously left out of your rather one-sided analysis; and while we did it for all the wrong reasons, the result in Iraq and Afghanistan (the demise of Sadaam and UBL), makes the world a better place.

    We cannot cure all the ills of the world; nor need we try. But, we can provide military support to just causes, wherein people struggle for freedom and a more democratic form of government. If France and the Cossacks had believed as you do, we would still be a colony of England, though no worse the wear for Native Americans. In short, we can rationalize all we wish as to an isolationist policy, but the game is too far a foot for that to be a realistic approach in today’s world of terrorist “cat and mouse.” We cannot and should not turn a “blind eye” to 93,000 good reasons for removing another tyrant from the ranks of the world’s so-called rulers.

    And please, don’t take that myopic view that Libya and Egypt are in turmoil. Look around, the world is in turmoil and the way to see clear from most of it is to have governments that are more responsive it their citizenry, who when deprived of liberty and opportunity, become the breeding ground for political unrest and terrorism. We will see if democracy is all we crank it up to be in Egypt and Libya and God willing, in Syria.

    • “You have conveniently forgotten one of the more salient legal maxims of democracy: “Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.” ”

      Unfortunately, there is an abundance of injustice here in the United States much of which is threatening justice everywhere.

    • Yes. It’s a pity the Brits and French didn’t do the right thing and act to stop the American Civil War. Freedom loving Confederates fighting for their rights against a brutal war machine.

      Clinton sanctions killed 100,000 Iraqi children but that was ok since Sadaam deserved it.

      The opposition in Syria swore allegiance to Al Qaeda and killed and tortured a 15 year old in front of his parents for insulting the Prophet. Just because Afghanistan, Iraq, Lybia, and Egypt have become Wahabist doesn’t mean that the Saudi Wahabists backing the Syrians aren’t going to do the same in Syria.

      The Freedom Loving Democracy loving Iranian students used to have a radio show in DC way back when denouncing they Tyrant Shah. They were the cute liberal western face of Khomeni’s revolution that set up an Islamic dictatorship and seized the American Embassy.

    • Opinion polls of Iraqis, taken after the US exited and shortly before, show the majority of Iraqis do NOT believe the US had the right to invade; this includes even Saddam’s opponents.
      But Abdullah’s tone suggest that of a Western liberal interventionist Elitist whose opinion he believes matters more than that of those directly involved.

    • every nation in the world has elements of “evil,” as you refer to assad and, I suppose, any purported “enemy” of the good ol’ usa. here in the good ol’ usa, we have well-placed individuals who promote global war for their own economic and political gain. perhaps we need more gandhis around the world and fewer bear-bating neocons in DC.

    • Mace Abdullah, you write, “We did the right thing in Libya, conspicuously left out of your rather one-sided analysis…”

      My wife has relatives who live in Benghazi and from what we hear things are not going very well there. I think you had better qualify your claims about Libya.

  5. It seems Obama has already done a Blair and Bush and come up with lies and deception and announced to the world that America has conclusive proof the Syrian government has used chemical weapons in the civil war there. As usual, they are not prepared to say how they know or what evidence there is for this scurrilous charge citing security reasons. Now the Americans and we stupid British under the leadership of a clown foreign minister, William Hague will be arming terrorists. followed no doubt by a no fly zone and later invasion. This complete, the oil will be stolen and military bases set up everywhere, all ready for the attack on Iran. The West goes on yet another killing spree !!

    • Obama would lie? That’s hard to believe. If he did lie, we are fortunate here in our system of government with its checks and balances, and our sterling, honorable and courageous senators and representatives would not let him get away with it. While I have your attention, I have a good deal on a bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan if you’re interested.

  6. The United States effort in Afghanistan in the 1980s, resulting in the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviet Union, can be counted a success, not a catastrophe. A Soviet occupied satellite on the borders of Pakistan and India would have been in no one’s interest. The problem was that we took our eye off the ball after we succeeded in driving the Soviets out. We allowed Al-Qaeda to rise in Afghanistan without a plan to counter it. That Al-Qaeda created a base in Afghanistan was not pre-ordained and does not detract from the success of defeating the Soviets.

    The statement concerning the Soviet Union’s collapse: “There is no truth to the notion that the Afghanistan war…contributed to its collapse,” is highly questionable. The US effort that led to the Soviet’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was part of the overall implementation of George Kennan’s policy of “Containment,” a policy that was in effect for 45 years. It was a perfect example of Kennan’s statement of Containment in his 1947 “Mr. X” article in the journal Foreign Affairs. Kennan wrote that Soviet pressure “is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” It was the overall policy of “Containment” that was the primary cause of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and our effort in Afghanistan was a part of that policy.

    Finally, the statement that, “We let the Soviets alone in Kazakhstan, and we never worry about today’s Kazakhstan,” is puzzling. Kazakhstan was a part of the Soviet Union at the time under discussion. We recognized Kazakhstan as part of the Soviet Union. It had been a part of Russia, and then the USSR, since the 19th century. That is a far different matter than the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

    • The same note rings for Mr. Cole’s claims on Uzbekistan. While there was a fledgling, post-revolution independence movement centered in Tashkent, it’s not as if American foreign policy would have been one to dictate spinning it off in the 1920s, let alone “interfering” with Uzbek SSR policies during the 1980s. The Khanates were still Russia, and Uzbekistan, just as Kazakhstan, was still the USSR. US interference there would have been of an entirely different order.

    • I lived through that era and remember the Washington think tank rats constantly suggesting we try to get up a Muslim insurgency in the Soviet Stans. We wouldn’t have liked the results if we had.

      • Glad we didn’t. Know nothing about the US’s theorizing on ginning up nationalism in the ‘Stans — after the December events in Kazakhstan in ’86? — but there seems little doubt the repercussions of Tajikistan would have been mirrored elsewhere, especially Uzbekistan, if we’d pushed a Muslim insurgency. Not that Central Asia’s at all out of the woods yet — the poverty and nationalism of Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan; the looming succession questions in Uzbekistan; and the wealth disparities in Kazakhstan all present fine inroads for extremist imams/networks — but glad the US let that lie when we did.

    • American globalist interventionism is actually more revolutionary–and not in a contructive way– than was Great Russian national imperialism, propped by an unadhered to ideological Marxist-Leninism.

    • It’s because of people like you that Kennan lost faith in America and democracy later in his life. He was warning against America’s habit of violent crusades when he wrote the Mr. X article; he knew democracies lacked the discipline to understand conflicts in alien societies. He specifically wanted the dispute isolated to Europe, where democracy had support and Americans could understand nonviolent incentives. Instead our arrogant belief that we know what’s best for other races led to the smear that the Democrats “lost China”, leading to the McCarthy horror and the Vietnam War.

      Kennan on Vietnam:

      “”During the Eisenhower years, Kennan became an outspoken critic of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s policy towards the Soviet Union. He complained frequently that the U.S. had failed to take advantage of the liberalizing trend within the USSR following the death of the country’s longtime leader Joseph Stalin. And Kennan was also a prominent critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Vietnam, he would say, “is not our business.” He argued that the escalation of the war made a negotiated settlement much less likely.”

      The author of this quote noted that Kennan endorsed Eugene McCarthy in ’68, the most anti-war of all Presidential candidates. Kennan clearly did not want what you want.

      So I am sure he would have regarded with horror our series of operations in Afghanistan, which have been even more destructive for the Afghan people(s) than our actions were for the Vietnamese people, who were sophisticated and organized enough to eventually recover. What we did, Bill, was allow our tyrannical allies, Islamic-extremist Saudi Arabia and Islamic-extremist Pakistan, a free hand in flooding Afghanistan with, you guessed it, Islamic extremists, so our boys wouldn’t have to die there.

      Now since you know, Bill, that it is our tradition to cover up all the evils of our allies, how were we supposed to explain to our citizens the need to keep our “eye on the ball” after the Soviet withdrawal because those allies had flooded Afghanistan with relentless holy warriors? Our supposed secular alternative? Karzai, the Unocal lobbyist who actually tried to talk the Taliban into giving Unocal the pipeline it wanted in the ’90s? He makes Diem look like, well, a ruler.

      Kennan, not filled with a crusader’s monomania, would have seen that we were being duped into building takfirism into the world’s next headache.

      • You have just demonstrated how little you understand George Kennan and his policy of Containment, SUPER390. At the time Kennan wrote the “X” article, he was also very much involved in “Operation Rollback,” a series of covert operations in which we inserted agents into Albania and Latvia to foment uprisings in those Soviet controlled areas. they failed, of course, because Kim Philby was the British liaison in Washington and notified the Soviets of each operation, but the point is Kennan at the time was much more willing to use such tactics than he later claimed.

        Kennan did not want to just confine the policy of Containment to Europe. The policy of Containment was first applied with the introduction of the Truman Doctrine, the first efforts of which were to counter the Communists in the Greek Civil War and the Soviet Union’s moves to subvert Turkey. The key phrase in Kennan’s “X” article was that Soviet pressure “is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” Note the terms “counter-force” and “geographical and political points.” Kennan knew full well that the application of force, as well as political maneuvering, was an essential part of the doctrine, and that it might be needed wherever the Soviet Union was actively subverting Western interests, either by force or political subversion.

        That does not mean that Kennan, or any of us, would have agreed that the application of the doctrine was essential in every case. Vietnam was a good example. It was essentially a civil war in which Vietnamese were doing the fighting. It was a far different situation than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I suspect that Kennan would have very much approved of our arming the anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

        To understand Kennan, SUPER390, you have to have followed his thinking throughout his career. In later years he repudiated some of his earlier positions (without actually saying so). I suggest you read some of his writings and books, of which there have been many, and you will see the evolution of his thinking. I would also recommend a first-rate biography of Kennan entitled “George F. Kennan: An American Life,” by the Yale historian of the Cold War John Lewis Gaddis, published in 2011. There have been many biographies of Kennan, but Gaddis had access to papers and documents that were unavailable to others.

  7. Clinton’s economic success during his administration was a case of revenues coming in faster than the government could spend them, thanks in part to the dot com boom. If he was an economic magician, Arkansas would not have been at the bottom of the economic ladder all during his term as governor.

    Clinton certainly cannot justify intervention into Syria as something he might have done, when he totally ignored 800,000 killed in Rwanda and the massacres that took place in Kosovo.

    Assad is no day in the park, but who the heck would we be giving arms to? GW Bush dropped 150,000 soldiers amongst 40 million Iraqis and thought, according to his neocon advisers, there would be a favorable outcome. See where that got us.

    I agree with former Sec of Defense Gates when Bob Schiffer asked him if we should get involved in Syria, he said…”Why do we have to do anything? Syria is more critical to countries in the region like Turkey and European countries than it is to the US. Let them get involved with Syria.” Bill Kristol must have choked on his bagel when he heard that kind of response.

  8. It could be that Bill’s zeal for a Hillary Presidency is clouding his judgement.
    He hasn’t been making sense lately, like telling Romney he thought he would win.

    • What makes you believe Hillary doesn’t agree with him?
      She voted for the Iraq War and hoped for a quick victory, even if no WMDs were found, assuming a US puppet, pro-Israel government would emerge.
      Such is the weakness of gender politics, all the Hillary PUMAS backing her as a progressive.

  9. Thank you for the glimpse into the complexities. Don’t forget that Clinton’s involvement in Somalia has pretty much become the poster child for how not to get involved in a conflict…

  10. Dr. Cole,
    Could you also provide an explanation as to why Syria is not Libya? Many of the problems you lay out in this article applied equally to the Libya intervention, which you supported. The factions have different names and wear different hats, but this point in particular applies to both situations:

    “– Flooding Syria with medium or heavy weaponry could destabilize it and its neighbors, including Israel & Palestine, for decades, as the CIA did to Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

    The people of Mali have suffered greatly because of the Libyan civil war and the Western intervention therein.

    • Gaddafi was unfairly concentrating all the oil wealth in his own home region at the expense of everyone else. The conflict was essentially secular, so the rebellion against him was widespread. Libya has ethnic groups, but it has no longstanding genocidal grudge-matches such that if one ethnic group lost, it would absolutely expect to be exterminated.

      Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case in Syria. They have learned the lesson of post-Saddam Iraq; he who loses will be ethnically cleansed. So instead of broad sweeps of motorized forces along a single coastal road, Syria is a nightmare of dug-in resistance, village by village. Any winner in such a merciless war will be someone we will regret being associated with. I wish there was an alternative but the Saudis have already decided to outspend us on putting the fanatics on top, as they successfully did in Afghanistan.

    • I’m not speaking for Juan but putting a point in the bluntest possible manner: Lebaanon, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Israel are all what the US considers vital interests for one or another reason. Two or three of them are disintegrating, AQ spillover in Turkey would be worse for US interests than the PKK ever was. Did the US for a second think of doing anything about Mali? How long would it take the US to get more deeply involved and escalate a clusterf— in this region?

    • The people of Mali have suffered greatly because of the Libyan civil war and the Western intervention therein.

      Those mean Libyans, driving the Malian mercenaries out of their country! How dare they?

  11. Maybe they could adopt a model from Latin America. In 1992, after a 10 year civil war, the UN brokered a ceasefire in El Salvador. Neither side “won”. Part of the peace agreement was a huge reduction in the size of the military, a general disarming of militias and rebels, and UN monitoring of free and fair elections. The UN monitored the agreement for years, and the country never re-entered civil war.

    Around the same time, a similar agreement was brokered successfully in Nicaragua.

    And today, ongoing talks between the Colombian government and rebels focuses on a political settlement rather than on one side destroying the other.

    And think back to 1992. The FMLN and military were fighting dirty up to the day of the ceasefire. It looked impossible. It looked bleak. But it worked.

    • THe US started the war in El Salvador. It supported on of Latin America’s worst dictators and armed them. It also funded the ‘contras’ in Nicaragua. You may have been to young to remember the slaughter of those years. The US government cannot escape the fact that, under a distortion of the ‘containment’ theory against the Soviets, it built up some of the most repressive regimes of the mid-20th century. Shah of Iran, Salvador, Honduras, Suharto, Batiste, Marcos…the list goes on and on, not to mention the autocratic governments in the MIddle East overthrown during the Arab Spring. A country reaps what it sows – even if it takes decades.

      • Hmmm, I didn’t even mention the USA, so I’m not sure why you are bringing them into the picture. I guess maybe my oblique “They” may have confused you. And Mr. Cole’s article was around the topic of American arming of rebels.

        That being said, I’m advocating that the international community learn from the Latin American successful conflict resolutions and try to apply them to Syria. Latin America is much more peaceful than it was in the 1980s, and I think it would be foolish to ignore how the transition was made.

        • Shannon,
          RBTL mentiontd the USA because that’s the center of the story.
          The US started all those wars that you talked about being resolved.
          They only ended because Negroponte ran out of bullets.
          The negotiations were window dressing.

        • “They only ended because Negroponte ran out of bullets.
          The negotiations were window dressing.”

          Wrong, Brian. Shannon is correct. The Central American wars ended because the leftist guerrillas were stopped by two events. The first was the ongoing support throughout the 1980s given those fighting the guerrillas, such as the Contras in Nicaragua (and others), by the United States. The second, and ultimately probably more important, was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The USSR was the primary source of arms for the guerrillas, providing arms for them via Cuba. When that source dried up, coupled with pressure from the anti-leftist coalitions supported by the US, the guerrillas were forced to begin negotiations. Shannon is correct when he notes that “it worked.”

      • “The U.S. started the war in El Salvador.”

        I doubt it.

        Although President Jose Napoleon Duarte had CIA ties and Robert D’Aubuisson received limited training at the School of the Americas, the ultraconservative death squads of that era and the murders that occurred were internally generated in nature.

        America did its best to keep leftist elements from acquiring power in San Salvador during the Reagan administration.

      • It’s an interesting variety of American Exceptionalism, much beloved among the so-called-anti-imperialist left, to shoe-horn the United States into the center of any and all events in the world.

        • To the contrary, it is the right wing and the neocons who have been jackbooting the United States into many parts of the world where they can expand the American empire. It wasn’t the left that pushed for the war on Iraq. It was the Bush administration and the neocons who were aided and abetted by the warmongers – McCain, Graham, Lieberman, Biden, Hillary – in Congress. (Lieberman, Biden and Hillary may have been registered as Democrats, but they are as much of the right wing as McCain and Graham.) Who went along with the overthrow of the democratically-elected President Zelaya in Honduras? It wasn’t left wingers, but empire builders including Obama and Hillary. And, who are now pushing for US involvement in Syria. McCain’s recent visit to Syria wasn’t to buy carpets for one of his wife’s homes.

  12. Professor, you are one of the few people with the credentials and the level-headed assessment of this situation that we should listen to. It appears we, the U.S. people, have learned nothing from our experience in Viet Nam, Afghanistan or Iraq.

  13. Glad to get your take on this. It is so involved, people like yourself really help. I can only bet what the MSM is doing to this.
    I wonder if the timing of this decision is also to get our minds away from the Snowden affair. Away from the hawks of disguise Pelosi, and the poor military decision makers as in Carl Levin?
    The democrats sure do look like the hawks that they are. Follow the money trail. The quid pro quo is alive and well.
    Will Amerrica survive another war? Ask a troop.

  14. Syria is strategically located, unlike Rwanda,Sri Lanka or Algeria.

    The amount of media coverage it gets dwarfs other such civil wars in the past. And so the appearance of “weakness” due to inaction is much more pronounced.

    • I think it also seems horribly familiar, after all,to many of us old enough to remember the endless multi-factioned civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990) … which ended (with a brief look at Wikipedia) as far as I can tell with Syrian occupation which ended in 2005 … Lebanon was a cosmopolitan Jewel of the Mediterranean and banking center of the Middle East, irrc.

  15. But they have so many foundations…..and they, both of them, charge under 500k for a ‘speech’. And I’m sure Chelsea will be signing up at the recruiter’s office….now that the Great One has found chemicals in the air. Maybe his daughters too…if this lasts long enough.

  16. A very wide ranging and useful summary. Here’s hoping the Obama administration continues to resist the bad counsel they’re getting on this matter.

  17. Dear Prof. Cole, Thank you so much for pointing out the historical perspective re. Algeria for example. Your articles should be read all over the country, there is a huge need for education. I also agree with the scary comment of Eurofrank – that I am cognizant that all people who read you are somehow ‘logged in’ the surveillance system. How terrible to come to this conclusion after living in my youth under the soviet system of constant suspicion of what one says and to whom…

  18. Obama’s “training Syrian oppositionists in Gandhian tactics and encouraging them to create a long-term civil resistance” seems a bit far fetched given Obama’s proclivity to murder people is distant lands, along with the ‘unadvoidable casualties’ by remotely controlled drones.

    • It’s far-fetched in the sense that it’s ridiculous. You might as well urge “Gandhian tactics” against the Charles Manson cult.

      Outside of the core of Western Civilization, murdering, raping and torturing defenseless and peaceful anti-government protesters isn’t a stigma; it’s a sport.

      Gandhian tactics have worked exactly once in human history: in mid-20th Century British India. That is because the people and government of Great Britain disreslished mass violence, even though they were capable of it.

      Everywhere else Gandhian tactics have been tried, they have resulted in nothing but vainglorious mass death.

      MLK tried to use these tactics against Jim Crow, but they yielded nothing. Only the bayonets and rifles of the United States government were able to overcome the arrant state-sponsored regime of enforced racial hatred in the South.

      Mr. Cole has overlearned the lessons of Iraq. His critical faculties are submerged in a murk of reflexive anti-interventionist cant. He was once a font of pragmatic analysis, but he is fairly useless now.

      • Mr. Cole, being a historian, does not think the British perpetrators of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre were ‘nice’ and that is why nonviolent noncooperation succeeded (it took 30 years by the way).

        There are lots of Christians, Alawites and Druze who don’t like the Baath who could over time be convinced to turn on it. But they can’t be so convinced by guys wearing those black al-Qaeda headbands talking about killing infidels and waving around rpgs.

        The point of long-term nonviolent resistance is that in some situations it is the only practical way of proceeding.

        • You have the audacity to cite the Amritsar massacre in this context?

          Refresh me, professor, did Colonel Dyer use aerial bombardment and poison gas that day?

          What next — call upon Assad to set up his own version of the Hunter Commission?

      • “MLK tried to use these tactics against Jim Crow, but they yielded nothing.”

        The non-violence approach of the civil rights movement exposed the repugnant behavior of the racists and gained MLK and his compatriots sufficient sympathy that provided force to push the government into passing and enforcing civil rights laws.

        • Oh, I think machine-gunning down men women and children is very Baathist.

          The British were perfectly capable of keeping colonial populations down by massively bombing them, which is how Bomber Harris spent the 1920s in Iraq.

          Churchill suggested poison gas for the Iraqis.

          My point is that nonviolent noncooperation succeeded because enough people joined in to make India ungovernable, not because the British Empire was incapable of massive brutality.

      • Danny, Professor Cole is so reflexively anti-interventionist that he supported the mission in Libya.

        Someone is being reflexive here, Danny, and it’s not Professor Cole.

        • I do not understand how the non-intervention strategy can produce a decent outcome in either the short or long term. Juan’s, I mean Professor Juan’s counsel to train in the ways of Gandhi does not sound so promising. More immediately, I see a horrendous amount of death and permanent dislocation on the road to Assad consolidating power.

          I prefer a diplomatic resolution. What conditions would lead there?

  19. If Clinton is acting to help his wife politically, it is not the first time. After promising Arafat that he would not be blamed if the Camp David summit of 2000 ended in failure, he did exactly that, blaming Arafat rather than taking responsibility for his own incompetence.

    This occurred when Hilary was running for a Senate seat from New York state.

    Clinton came to the Camp David Summit without an American plan, unlike Carter, who had drawn up careful plans for a solution, and also came with his delegation packed with ‘Israel firsters’.

  20. Dr. Cole,

    Am I misreading the second paragraph? Are you arguing that President Clinton should have intervened in the Algerian Civil war on the side of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group? I can hardly believe that.

    • No, I am saying that Clinton is being hypocritical because he wants Obama to do in Syria what he did not in Algeria.

  21. “This is because if you avoid a quagmire as president, no one holds that against you.”

    Yep. And even though Libya was not a quagmire at all, the blow back is the most recent example of the US’s inability to read the region. the idea that Sunni hegemony is going to lead to stability and peace, even at the cost of freedoms and protections for minorities and the secular (which we seem prepared magnanimously to sacrifice) is a pipe dream.

  22. I appreciate what Bill Clinton did for the country during his terms in office but this isn’t our fight and we don’t need to get involved in that quagmire. If the US wants to work through a larger coalition and let the Europeans more actively assist the rebels, fine. Assad’s a horror and the sooner that he and his thuggish regime disappear, the better for all. But let’s think twice and even three times about who we will be supporting and what sorts of people take over after the Ba’ath get pushed out. Syria is an artificial state, seething with bitter sectarian rivalries. And now Islamists from outside Syria are getting involved. In short, it’s a mess that’s only going to get worse.

    • Before Christopher Hitchens became a turncoat, he did a pretty good job in exposing all the “good” that Bill did for the country from a left-liberal perspective. Read his book.
      I’m not sure it included the deregulation of finance though, which paved the way to the Great Recession.

      • Well, I’m familiar with Hitchens’ work and with all due respect, you’re quite wrong. Hitchens was entertaining and a fine polemicist. But his political insights often turned out to be laughably wrong. There’s no “good Hitchens – pre-Iraq” and “bad Hitchens – post Iraq.” There’s just Hitchens. Clinton’s record is not perfect and deserves criticism for mistakes he made. But Hitchens anti-Clinton jihad reached the point of obsession, especially during the impeachment controversy. At that point, he became a caricature. If you look harder, there are any number of serious journalists & scholars who have written about the Clintons. Hitchens does not number among them.

  23. I remain deeply confused about Israel’s ambivalence on the issue of Syria. It would seem the chaotic dimensions of this civil war would directly threaten their interests, as we have seen with the increasingly heated situation on the Golan. Why would Obama choose to throw fuel on that fire? Is it merely that the Gulf monarchs are leading him around by the nose? Really, our Middle Eastern policy has gone from unconscionable pre-9/11 to incomprehensible now.

    • “I remain deeply confused about Israel’s ambivalence on the issue of Syria.”

      The Israeli Foreign Ministry has no reason to like Assad since he has allowed his country to be used as an arms pipeline to Hezbollah from Iran, however overt suport of the opposition in Syria would do little to assist rebels, but may discredit them.

      There are reports from Debka, the military news periodical published in Israel, that Al-Nusra Front fighters are receiving medical attention in Israel.

      It would not surprise me if Israel had been rendering some level of covert assistance to the rebels, however the danger in doing so would be to create a situation in which a successor to the Baathist regime may be a greater threat to Israel than Assad.

  24. link to youtu.be

    Well, the “neo-conservatives” have won, and we are going to war in Syria. What Andrew Sullivan, in his columns denouncing this policy, hasn’t figured out is that this is a bloodily “realist” policy, designed to kill as many Muslims—both Shiah and Sunni—as Obama possibly can, in order to weaken and destroy the influence of America’s rivals, Iran, Hezbollah AND Russia, in the Middle East.

    Here’s Sullivan, being his normal histrionic self:

    link to dish.andrewsullivan.com

    But Here’s Drezner, spelling out clearly the cold, calculated and murderous policy of Obama:

    “To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutallyrealpolitik policy towards Syria that’s been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible. This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished…. at an appalling toll in lives lost.

    This policy doesn’t require any course correction… so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources. A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict. In a related matter, arming the rebels also prevents relations with U.S. allies in the region from fraying any further.

    So is this the first step towards another U.S.-led war in the region? No. Everything in that Timesstory, and everything this administration has said and done for the past two years, screams deep reluctance over intervention. Arming the rebels is not the same thing as a no-fly zone or any kind of ground intervention. This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare. For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East.

    The moment that U.S. armed forces would be required to sustain the balance, the costs of this policy go up dramatically, far outweighing the benefits. So I suspect the Obama administration will continue to pursue all measures short of committing U.S. forces in any way in order to sustain the rebels.

    Now let’s be clear: to describe this as “morally questionable” would be an understatement. It’s a policy that makes me very uncomfortable… until one considers the alternatives. What it’s not, however, is a return to liberal hawkery.

    So, to conclude: the United States is using a liberal internationalist rubric to cloak a pretty realist policy towards Syria.”

    link to drezner.foreignpolicy.com

    What Drezner doesn’t understand—because it’s entirely beyond his moral or cultural compass—is that this is going to rightly infuriate and further radicalize Muslims—as it should, because it’s THEIR lives which are being played with and counted expendable, and IT WILL RESULT IN MORE EPISODES OF “BLOWBACK” INSIDE THE UNITED STATES, and there’ll be absolutely NO moral legitimacy to the Amerikan Yahoos’ cries of “terrorism” when the government they support with their tax dollars is committing acts of murderous mayhem and carnage against the innocents caught in this pointless, useless war!

  25. Good advice. This is not like Libya at all, due to the greater sectarian and geo-political regional ramifications. While I put the onus on Assad’s regime, and the stakes raised by Iran, the proliferation of local and foreign ideological like minded Al Qaeda Wahhabi/Salafi/Sunni extremist militants pushed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab and Sunni states, has somewhat ruined the opposition’s cause.

    I hope Canada’s Conservative govt has enough sense to avoid a military role and continue the path of humanitarian assistance.

    While it does label Sunni Islamist extremism of the Wahhabi/Salafi kind as its number one domestic and foreign threat (so in some capacity would be aware of certain blowback in arming them), the current Canadian govt does however have a dogmatic pro-Israel/anti-Iran ideological policy that could trump the above reasoning.

  26. “Nobody remembers Clinton’s paralysis in Algeria.”

    It is worse than that – the American public never knew in the first place.

    How many Americans actually were aware of the human rights violations and murder in East Timor – even though almost as many died there as American servicemen in WWII?

    How many Americans knew of the mass killings by Hafez Assad’s armed forces in Hama? While Sabra and Shatila made international headlines Hama was barely noticed by anyone outside the Middle East – even though the death toll exceeded 9/11 WTC hijackings.

    Syria – like many international hotspots – has had its internal affairs long ignored by the outside world. The only interest the West has currently is that it is an oppportunity to take out a Putin ally and close down Russia’s naval base at Tartus.

    • As an ordinary American interested in Algeria (from college studies) yet distracted by family life with young child, a small business running around the country for sales, etc. etc., it was practically impossible to find any source of deep or interesting news on Algeria — and I was an _Economist_ subscriber at the time — even with trying to do so.

  27. This morning on NPR I heard the Syrian situation described as a civil war between Sunni and Shia’a. Allawites while nominally Shia’a are like Druze and other groups – very heterodox in their beliefs. Nor do Christians by and large support the rebels. All have good reason to fear takeover by a sectarian Sunni regime. Sunni sufis should also fear Wahabi inspired insurgents who despise the mystical traditions that have flourished in the Levant for centuries.
    Minorities need only look across the border at Iraq to see the consequence of replacing a secular regime with a sectarian one. The convicted are ever ready to murder those who do not believe as they do.
    Despite the failings of the Assad regime and its repeated violations of human rights they are less oppressive than the rebels will be.
    Whose interests are served by a rebel victory?

  28. Bill Clinton’s foreign interventions were first cousin to the NeoCon disasters which followed under Cheney/Bush.

    The Balkans prepared the ground for Iraqi Freedom

    Fool me once

    Besides, the propitious time for outside powers to intervene is at the point where insurgents have achieved a strategic stalemate and intervention could make their victory, which is hardly the situation in Syria

    • The Balkans prepared the ground for Iraqi Freedom

      Huh?

      In the sense that one happened after the other, I suppose so. Otherwise – no, not in any imaginable sense.

  29. Officially lost all respect for Obama. I am now ashamed to have voted for Obama. Obama is now doing the same thing that George W Bush did – enter into a foreign war on false pretense.

  30. It seems to me that the outcome of doing nothing is that Iran will consolidate control over Lebanon & Syria. I don’t know the implications for Iraq and that infamous “Shia crescent.”

    How does an Assad victory impact the prospects for regional stability or (optimistically) democracy over next 20 years? I’m very much interested in Juan’s thoughts, perhaps this large topic can be addressed in a future blog.

    I consider Iran to be very bad actor. But my main rationale for intervention is humanitarian, to create a balance of power conducive to a negotiated settlement. There really weren’t any good guys in Bosnia, what mattered was achieving a military balance to facilitate diplomacy.

  31. Very sound analysis. I hope the administration will continue to hold out against the temptation to intervene. If the money and lives we lost in Iraq could not stabilize it, I don’t know how anyone can argue that intervention in Syria will make things better…

  32. There were only two anti-Elite, non-imperialist candidates in the past two elections in the major parties.
    Candidates which are not members of what we can call the “political class.”

    They were Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul.

    Voting for anyone to the right (even Dean) or left of them respectively was a vote for the hawkish continuation of Empire and its Zionist junior partner.

  33. Another question that must be asked is quite simple– is the United States and the rest of the West willing to stay and stabilize the situation after Assad falls– we’ve already seen the consequences of just deposing the tyrant with airpower and leaving in Libya. That nation is increasingly chaotic, facing growing militia challenges to the central government (such as it is), and cases of overt ethnic cleansing.

    If you want a civil war to have ANY hope of ending in anything other than a savage bloodbath, especially a civil war with an ethnic component, the nation needs to have a period of stabilization. The vengeful victors must be prevented from working their will on the losers. Militia’s must be disarmed and the framework for a civil society formed, etc, etc.

    But this means a tremendous investment– not on the level of Libya with drones flying through the air, but likely the same level as Iraq– a decade military and civil commitment.

    Will the American people accept that? I doubt it, and I don’t blame them. But without that commitment, all you’ve done is set the stage for a failed state, or another, even more savage dictatorship with a persecuted minority looking to obtain vengeance by any means possible.

  34. All this is generally cogent, but there is an important recent counterexample in Libya. This did have NATO backing and obvious self-interested motives for intervention.

    • Libya will be viewed by the administration and many others as important, regardless of dissimilarities, just because it was successful.

  35. Just something to think about:

    The historical perspective on past interventions is thorough and very interesting but to be fair I would say that Hillary Clinton along with her husband, Bill, are far more likely interested in positioning Hillary as more hawkish relative to potential repulblican competitors — not anyone from the Obama camp. The early polls are extremely favorable to Hillary Clinton. No one in the Obama Camp comes closer than Joe Biden who essentially gets trounced by Hillary. She wins overall as it stands but it is a much narrower margin with the leading Republican contenders than in the primary against Joe Biden or any other potential Democratic contender.

    If you look at it this way it may be more of a sad reflection on how Americans tend to vote, what they respond to, and the excessive influence of money on elections; then former President Bill Clinton’s statement being precidely “unfair”.

    It strikes me as a reasonable strategic move given what the Clinton’s objectives are and pressures that obviously are being applied to both President Obama and Hillary Clinton. At most, a “nonfatal error” I would grant you–but we are in the field of politics, not Actaeon’s valley of insight.

    There is a scenario where President Obama may actually have encouraged Bill Clinton to make the statement. I call this quantum politics. In this case, Bill Clinton serves as a sort of strange attractor–he attracts unto himself those dissenting forces within by first voicing their demands (in a case where the President definitely cannot and/or Hillary Clinton at this point might rather not. He then assumes leadership as the spokesperson of this subgroup to whom this clanging of the bell appeals. He does his best but ultimately expresses his regret that it just isn’t possible or whatever. The whole point is to hold the party together and keep its larger share of independent voters happy enough given the chaos of the world.

    Most of all, I think it is important to keep in mind what it must mean for Bill rather than Hillary Clinton to have had said this. Hillary would have said it herself now if it was all that serious. The last thing she needs, if she is going to run, is Bill Clinton speaking on her behalf–she’ll have enough trouble convincing some of who is running the White House. Thus, I am saying that the meaning is found between the words and lines and that we should not take all pronouncements, especially noncommittal ones by a former President, literally.

    I’m glad you reviewed the history. This blog is the only one I bother to read. I very seldom have any comments–but thought maybe you might want to reconsider the motives–if anything–its not clear why Bill Clinton said this….

    If politics were about truth, then we would have no need to name it “poltics”.

  36. Dear Peofessor Cole

    Bhadrakumar is unimpressed!

    “All in all, Obama’s momentous decision on military intervention in Syria, which could well launch a new Cold War, is a desperate diversionary move when his administration is caught up deep in the cesspool over the Snowden controversy.

    The entire moral edifice on which Obama built up his presidency and the values he espoused at the core of his “audacity of hope” when he began his long march to the White House five years ago – transparency, accountability, legitimacy, multilateralism, consensus – lie exposed today as a pack of lies. ”

    Ouch!

    link to atimes.com

    • a desperate diversionary move when his administration is caught up deep in the cesspool over the Snowden controversy.

      Yeah, no.

      The notion that the Snowden “controversy” is harming the Obama administration politically is the sort of wishful thinking one can only indulge in from a few thousand miles away.

  37. In Algeria, interventionists could at least have had fair reason to believe that they would be acting on behalf of the majority of Algerians.

    That’s because Algeria did hold internationally observed open elections at the municipal and regional levels in 1991-92–in which a coalition of opposition parties won a series of landslide victories over the FLN government.

    The civil war in Algeria did not begin until after the government cancelled the elections, banned the victorious political parties, and arrested their leaders.

    But the West couldn’t even impose a few garden-variety trade sanctions on the Algerian government. Instead, the world was treated to the sickening irony of the FLN hiring French counter-insurgency specialists.

  38. Keep out of this country, for god´s sake!! as hard as it is to watch the daily atrocities from afar and do nothing. Armed interference will not do any foreign nation much good; for Syria, it will end in a disaster. The only way to end a civil war like this one is to completely starve it. Any deadly missile fired will kill a Syrian; for every Syrian killed, another Syrian will cry for retaliation; if a foreign nation gives in turn weapons to him, the spiral will never end before every grownup male in the country is dead and everyone else exhausted to the bone. This is what we need to avoid by all means at this point: more bloodshed and radicalisation. Salafis *will* send more weapons, they *do* have money, and even if, at the moment, they´re fighting at the same side as the US, they do *seek* confrontation. So even when Assad eventually is gone, there won´t be peace. Their strengthening might exactly be what Obama is afraid of (or the Israel lobby is, and we should be, too)… the only thing is, I think trying to end this with military intervention is too late and suicidal. Starve them of weapons, starve them, starve them!

  39. A couple of other points:

    Clinton’s thinking on foreign policy is haunted by his decision to do nothing during the massacres in Rwanda. He may be over-applying that lesson.

    These actions in Washington may presage progress towards a negotiated settlement to the conflict, along the track that John Kerry was pursuing in his visit to Moscow. The hawks seem to be acting like time is of the essence. Meanwhile, the biggest rebel faction said that getting more arms shipments from the west was a precondition for talks, and now they are going to get those shipments.

    • There is unlikely to be any “negotiated settlement” without Assad leaving power.

      In my opinion, one side will have to militarily defeat the other. An that is not likely to happen any time soon without direct foreign military intervention. So casualties may mount for years as a stalemate exists on the battlefield.

      And if the Free Syrian Army wins, will they turn their guns on Jabhat al-Nusra as some have suggested?

  40. One criticism I am hearing of the Obama administration plan to supply arms to rebels is that it will only consist of small arms rather than items such as anti-aircraft missiles that could defend against the formidable air power ofthe Assad regime.

    This current plan will only extend the civil war in Syria by causing gridlock between the warring factions.

    • This is probably a ridiculously improbable area for Grand Bargaining but here are my thoughts. People keep pointing out that Syria is not an oil rich country. Civil wars are expensive. And not only are they expensive, but the destruction wreaked by them tends to be bad for GDP. So the costs of the war keep going up but your ability to pay for them keeps going down (unless your country also happens to be “blessed” with having various outside sugar daddies of death) So I’m guessing that without outside sources continuing to fund and arm the rebels and the government, there would be a certain logistical cap to the carnage. So, theoretically, one could sit down the various outside funders of the civil war, and get them to agree to a boycott of funding this. The problem of course is, as long as various sides think they have a real chance of winning things without making any concessions, then the funders have no more reason (other than general humanitarianism) to cut off the funding. Presumably though, the outside funders/suppliers of this war, would have greater wiggle room for negotiation. The locals are only concerned about the local politics and there is little wiggle room presently. But the Saudis, the US, the Russians, the Turks, and so on, care about more than the local politics. Hell, some of them might not even care about the local politics. Since they have more items on their agenda, there is more potential for haggling.

      Note also, even if outside powers were to reach an agreement to cut off funding and supplies to all their proxies, it’s entirely possible that all sides in country would continue their war by hurling stones. However, in the 21st century, reverting to Stone Age levels of barbarism, is often progress.

  41. hi, mr, cole, i never find any thing to say against your fine and always informed views. but how will you ensure the wh does not do stupid things? middle east is such a big part of our international play ground–why don’t they let you take care of it? then we can all have better sleep. over at mr Walt’s site, he is away and someone takes over the post for a day and is fine with Obama going into syria in this initial small weapons way. (i know Walt will be very disappointed by this development. he was not worried and i was earlier) we can’t let Obama play with fire. mr Clinton never disappoints–always the politician paying his due, this time to his one time first lady.

  42. I agree on the political angle on this. If this wasn’t about positioning Hillary in 2016, then I take it that he would have expressed his views to Obama privately.

    However, what puzzles me is why after 2008 Hillary Clinton would think that positioning herself more hawkishly on Syria would actually be to her advantage in a Democratic primary or even a general election? I don’t think there was a lot of difference between Hillary Clinton and Obama substantively on foreign policy in 2008. But there was difference in tone in 2008. Arguably, this hurt her, not helped her.

    I would add as well that in so far as Hillary’s hawkish tone in 2008 actually did win her any votes, it’s probably because it was coupled with the argument that Obama was inexperience and untested in the realm of foreign policy. There’s probably a certain type of voter to whom resume means a lot and a hawkish argument coupled with a thin foreign policy resume by the opponent might have an effect with them. Try working that one-two combo with Biden in 2016. It would be even less effective with him than it was with Obama in 2008.

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