Obama’s New Syria Strategy is Nixon’s Vietnam Negotiation Tactics Redux (Meyer)

Carlyn Meyer writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

For better or worse, Obama came of age well after the Vietnam war. Had he lived through the daily body counts, he may have stood strong against arming the Syrian opposition.

The President’s new ‘strategy’ is to get enough arms to the ‘right people’ in Syria and to centralize arms delivery through General Idris. The goal is to rebuild the opposition’s strength after recent loss of ground to Assad forces. The theory is that once the ‘balance’ between Assad and opposition fighters has been restored, the opposition would be in a more advantageous situation for Geneva !! negotiations. The opposition is loathe to negotiate after its recent set-backs.

We’ve seen this before. Just as Nixon doubled down on a losing war in Vietnam, Obama seeks his own version of ‘peace through strength’.

Although Nixon and his war cabinet knew the Vietnam war would never be won and that political negotiations were the only end-game the US and South Vietnamese had, the President who promised to ‘bring the boys home’ continued and expanded the war several more years at the cost of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives.

Nixon’s goal was to strengthen the military position of the South Vietnamese so they would have more leverage in peace talks with the Vietcong and North Vietnamese.

Now Obama wants to send more light arms to the Syrian opposition to give it more leverage in any Geneva !! negotiations with Assad.

It was a foolish gamble in Vietnam. It’s not working too well in Afghanistan. Why would it succeed in Syria? Especially absent establishing a ‘no-fly’ zone and taking out Assad’s heavy artillery and missile launchers? That is, deeper involvement.

The President’s calculations stand little chance of working to bring the war to an end. . Meanwhile sending American arms leads the Syrian opposition to falsely hope President Obama will eventually OK a no-fly zone or (as an opposition representative told a group the other night) deploy drones to take out Assad artillery.

In 1993, Colin Powell articulated the Powell Doctrine after Desert Storm. The key lesson he took from Vietnam was the necessity of applying overwhelming force in any military action the US engaged. Get it over and get out. The corollary, of course was if the political will did not exist to go all out, it is not worth the US getting involved period because It will end up in defeat or quagmire.

Cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq did everything in their power to overturn this seemingly simple tenet of superpower warfare. Donald Rumsfeld claimed the US could go ‘military lite’ in Iraq – leaving chaos in Iraq and a map rewritten for the worse in the Middle East.

This is the danger of foreign intervention in local wars. The lessons of modern history teach third-power interventions are much more likely to inflame and extend hostilities than tamp them down. The expansion of US military power after WW11 is littered with examples.


Carlyn Meyer is a blogger and peace activist.

25 Responses

  1. General Salim Idriss

    General Salim Idriss is currently the Chief of Staff to
    the armed opposition Supreme Military Council. The
    55-year-old Brigadier General defected from the Syrian
    Army in July 2012 after dozens of his family members
    reportedly were killed by government forces in the
    city of Homs. Educated in East Germany, Idriss had
    been the dean of the Aleppo military engineering
    academy before his defection. Within the Syrian
    opposition, he is considered more of a political figure
    than a respected military commander. He routinely
    appeals for outside funding and material support to
    secure the loyalty of various commanders and militias

    Most observers believe that General Idriss does not exercise daily command and control over all
    SMC-affiliated soldiers. Instead, individual commanders who have affiliated with the SMC have
    done so on the assumption that their support would be rewarded militarily and financially, but
    have maintained control of their own forces. According to General Idriss, “Fighters go to where
    there is money and weapons and if I had the means … within one or two months everyone would
    join…. They will know that this is a national institution while the brigades and battalions will
    eventually disappear.”1

    It should be clear from this CRS analysis that Idris commands no loyalty beyond that required to get weapons from him. Once received rebel groups will simply pursue their own ends, or bypass him if they can.

    link to fas.org

    • Idriss was a brigadier general in the Syrian Army Corps of Engineers.

      He has no known experience as a battlefield commander.

      Once rebel leaders who have been “vetted” to receive U.S.-supplied weaponry get them there is no guarantee where they eventually wind up. Guns and artillery pieces have generally high intrinsic value in the black market.

  2. I agree 110%,, but that great logic has no effect when the goals are being set by the Saudis and our Military industrial complex. War, and the chaos that follows fuel the demand for more weapons,, and that is what we export. The circle of violence continues for the sake of profits. Sad, but true.

  3. “…arms to the right people in Syria….”

    While the emphasis has been on the “Free Syrian Army” as the “good guys” fighting Assad, and the Al-Nusra Front as the “bad rebels”, the truth is likely that somewhere around half of the Syrian rebel forces are Islamic fundamentalists of varying degrees and orientation.

    The Syrian Islamic Front and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front are composed of Muslim fundamentalists; the former is composed of Salafists who deem Al-Nusra Front as an ally and the latter are composed of both Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood adherents. The Syrian Islamic Front and Syrian Islamic Liberation Front together field about 65,000 fighters.

    These two Islamic forces are needed to oust Assad and are being funded via Persian Gulf oil-rich states. To the extent that they are excluded from U.S.-supplied weaponry, this will likely engender enmity between those forces and the Free Syrian Army.

    Syria is the next Afghanistan.

  4. Powell would have kept us out of Kosovo, Bosnia, and Libya, but we are not in quagmires in those places.
    Desert Storm wasn’t a good test case of the Powell Doctrine because all that was needed was an air campaign. Only a few hundred Americans died, thus no great political will was called for.
    In Syria, nothing can be accoplished easily. There are many reasons we won’t go all out in Syria. One is that goal is unclear. Removing Assad won’t be enough to bring peace and stability.

    • Wrong, there was 6 weeks of air campaign and Iraq did not leave Kuwait. Powell articulated that the flaw of an air only campaign is that the enemy decides when they have had enough. Ground troops were necessary.

      • The ground campaign took four days.
        I’m just saying there are some things a superpower can do without committing all of its resources. And there are things it can’t do.
        The Iraq War might have turned out better if we had had an intelligent plan for what to do after we toppled Sadam. Our leaders are surely considering this when they think about Syria. They are trying to somehow influence what rises from the ashes.

  5. …but don’t forget, Russia is back. They have a huge investment in Syria; the naval base being one. Then there is their support of Iran. They know our game and will not hesitate to bugger our efforts. No-Fly Zone is out of the question because Russia WILL install the latest S-300 AA missile system. It’s not to be underestimated; it’s highly considered as very effective.
    And Edward Snowden is on his way to Moscow as I type this on an Aeroflot flight with the transponder turned off.
    Russia is back, a new sheriff or should I say cop, in town.

  6. “Desert Storm wasn’t a good test case of the Powell Doctrine because all that was needed was an air campaign.”

    Desert Storm was much more than an air campaign. The US had 500,000 ground troops in Saudi Arabia, and it took a ground campaign to get Iraq out of Kuwait and defeat Saddam Hussein. Desert Storm was a perfect example of the Powell Doctrine succeeding.

    • 245 coalition troops were killed by in-theater accidents, 190 by enemy fire. It was over in six weeks. If the Powell Doctrine is to only go to war when these kinds of outcomes can be achieved, it was a good test case.

    • You are absolutely correct, but the history of the region indicates that the replacement for the bloodthirsty tyrant will also be a bloodthirsty tyrant. The people who support Assad are willing to commit mass murder because they are certain that they will be mass-murdered if they lose. Until you break that circle you accomplish nothing, and we are woefully unqualified to pick a sure-thing alternative.

  7. “Powell would have kept us out of Kosovo, Bosnia, and Libya, but we are not in quagmires in those places.”
    The ‘West’ helped bring about the conditions that ‘justified’ intervention in the first place. It’s interesting that the US can do anything to other peoples, and the only reasonable argument against it is that it will have negative consequences for the US.

    • Well, I’m not one of those who consider only negative consequences for the US. I opposed the Gulf War even though it had UN approval. The Arab world was divided on approving Western intervention. We didn’t need to kill 30,000 Iraqis in 1991.

    • The West certainly did not help to bring about conditions in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Libya that justified Western intervention. This is a complete misreading (or misunderstanding) of history. It was Milosevic’s slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia that led to the Western intervention in that conflict. It was Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Muslims that led to Western intervention in that conflict. The West did not create the conditions that led to Milosevic’s Balkan Wars and his dream of Serbian supremacy among the wreckage of the former Yugoslavia. It was Milosevic’s show from beginning to end.

      And as for Libya, Ghaddafi had a decades-long history of anti-Western policies. Even after he had decided to temper his policies and make peace with the West, his erratic behavior and absolute rule created the conditions that led to Western intervention to assist the rebels. He, too, like Milosevic, was responsible for the conditions that led to Western intervention and his downfall. The West had nothing to do with creating those conditions.

      • Bill has a nice adjustable loupe through which he wants the rest of us to view ‘history’ as he declares it, by which the area under examination can be shrunk to a little point a couple of millimeters across.

        “The West” has had a lot to do with the political and social structuring of the Balkans, all part of the idiot Great Game that has been in motion for a couple of centuries now, as most responsible historians of the area and its complexities would allow. Without “The West’s” enormous wars and secret pacts and all that, the Balkans would likely be a lot less, er, “Balkanized.”

        Per Bill, apparently, regarding Serbia and ethnic Albanians and Kosovo, what went on there was all Milosevic’s personal evil, like Gadaffyduck’s antics were just his personal foibles, detached from all that had gone before and all that was in play in the Great Game that Bill thinks is the Right True Order of Things.

        I’m curious what Bill would say is the “legal” underpinning for the current plunge into Ohmygodherewegoagainstania, with the make-the-manufacturers-happy, feed-the-ego-of-idiots-like-McCain injection of guided anti-tank weapons and man-portable antiaircraft weapons (bought from where, Russian clients? since they are apparently all from the “Warsaw Pact” armory to let the “fighters” replenish their ammo from captured “Government” stores. How about it, Bill? Does the AUMF cover this too, or is all we need that UN text without even the benefit of a Security Council or General resolution? Or are we now freed by greed and our grand Power to just do whatever our little idiot jackal hearts desire? And how does that preserve our way of life (whatever that currently is) and FreedomnDemocracynLiberty ™? Or increase our “security?”

        Never mind, we are on the greased rails, running fast downhill, with Bill and others cheerleading from the slopes…

        • I suppose I should be flattered by the amount of ink you feel compelled to spill in addressing my comments, Mr. McPhee. I feel a certain satisfaction in knowing I have that effect on you.

        • ““The West” has had a lot to do with the political and social structuring of the Balkans, all part of the idiot Great Game that has been in motion for a couple of centuries now, as most responsible historians of the area and its complexities would allow. Without “The West’s” enormous wars and secret pacts and all that, the Balkans would likely be a lot less, er, “Balkanized.””

          You would do well to read some of the “responsible historians” to whom you refer in your cited quote above. Had you actually read some history of the Balkans, you would have learned that the West had a lot to do with forming the former “Balkanized” states of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro into the newly-formed state of Yugoslavia as part of the post-World War I settlement.

          Rather than “Balkanizing” the Balkans as you suggest, the West helped create a less Balkanized area by supporting the establishment of Yugoslavia. But then, to understand that one has to reach beyond the Wikipedia School of Misinformation and actually read some solid history.

        • The US supported Yugoslavia because it opposed strict Soviet rule. Germany and the US were the first to recognize Croatia, which pulled the thread that led to Yugoslavian demise.

    • “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality, judiciously, as you will, we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

  8. I signed Senator Tom Udall’s petition against this policy of sending arms to the Syrian rebels. Then I contacted my other New Mexico Senator (Heinrich) and my Representative (Lujan-Grisham) and ask them if they would stand with Tom on this matter. Haven’t heard back yet.

    I am hoping we can get some pushback from Congress on this. After all, they control the purse strings.

  9. Is this really about America versus Assad, or is this about America versus Saudi Arabia in a proxy war over who will rule Syria next?

    Because if the Saudis, who are not stupid, recognize that we’re funding the FSA to cheat the Saudis’ fanatic proxies out of their victory, we are making an enemy out of a kingdom that has far greater power over us than Iran ever has.

    The real negotiation, and the one the American people need to prepare to be involved in, is the one with the Saudi kingdom over whether the Arab Spring will end with republics or with jihadi states. We don’t even know what the Saudis want, or why they’re creating new Talibans when they know we will violently freak out over that. Everywhere in the world, Saudi-backed forces have turned civil wars from negotiable situations into apocalyptic struggles that allow US Islamophobes to claim that all Moslems are evil and plotting to enslave the world. Yet those Islamophobes never call for sanctions against Saudi Arabia, their partner in far-right capitalist greed and oil economics.

    • Too bad all there is in all of this is a mashup of egos and “wants” and other greeds, churned with a fine selection of “doctrines” and “strategies” and “tactics” and “initiatives,” half-baked until it blows up in the oven, all with essentially zero attention to anything more than moving from this little scenario-cum-shootin’-crisis to the next, via stratagems and “investments” that make for fun careers and big old wealth transfers. Not a whit of an inkling of a passing thought given to anything more than the perceived (dimly) possible moves that might provide some momentary advantage in a stupid game, not a concern given to the lip-serviced myths of any polity involved, or its rulers. Who thunder forward, convinced they are In Control Of Events…

      We are such a profound, subtle species, aren’t we?

      Shall we embrace Thanatos more ardently, anyone? link to thoughtsfromthemiddleseat.com

  10. Hasn’t that train of ‘foreign involvement in local wars’ already left the station? Russia, Iran, the Gulf States, factions in Lebanon.

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