War is God’s way of teaching people geography. – Ambrose Bierce
MOST OF US – 60 percent of Americans, apparently – are breathing a guarded sigh of relief: Obama has backed off from attacking Syria, and Russia has intervened to broker a deal in which, if all goes well, despotic Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will surrender his chemical weapons to U.N. inspectors. Amazingly, an offhanded comment from Secretary of State John Kerry seems to have brought about this change of direction, which makes one wonder how many other offhanded comments have turned the tide of history.
These are thought-provoking times, indeed. Anyone paying attention can’t help but learn, although answers often produce yet more questions. Much inquiry is going down, which is good. In an effort to understand our country’s evolving role in the chaotic post-Arab Spring Middle East, we’re sifting through ‘net garbage, hoping for edification, and praying for honest guidance. We feel helpless in a high stakes situation, and, as citizens, we can do little, so we put our minds to deciphering, to gazing at maps, and arguing. It’s a nonpartisan, group struggle to grasp the complexity and absurdity of an indigestible horror, and it has revealed much about us.
It’s not the first time we’ve taken a crash course together: the 2000 election was a civics lesson, the O.J. trial was a criminology class (and a study in celebrity madness) and 9-11 was, among many other things, a sad primer in U.S./Arab foreign policy. I would like to say I already knew what those events taught me, but I’d be lying. They taught me a great deal. And frankly, when it comes to complexity, the Syria Crisis feels like an AP course with a teacher who talks in riddles. Nevertheless, here are six things I’ve learned in class:
1. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and/or the Tea Party cometh.
I actually did know this already, but only in the abstract. But when I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with New York Republican Congressman Chris Gibson, a veteran of both Iraq and Kosovo who passionately spoke out against military intervention in Syria, I experienced firsthand the coming sea change in the political landscape. Before Gibson and I talked at length on my local radio station WDST, my fellow Democrats took pains to show me his very conservative voting record, which gave me pause. But I regret nothing. On the other side of the aisle, my beloved Chuck Schumer, whom I voted for, sided with Obama on military intervention. With the strictly isolationist Tea Party making inroads into government, Republicans are wary of war’s expense – and/or resigned to the Tea Party’s power – while Dems now appear more hawkish.
2. War enthusiasts have a knack for creating pithy and euphonious terms for things that bring horror.
To wit: smart bombs, firefight, boots-on-the-ground, friendly fire, cruise missile, carpet bomb, collateral damage, drone. Interesting fact/exception: “enhanced interrogation techniques” is harder to say than “torture.”
3. Obama only invokes the Geneva Conventions at his convenience.
Speaking of torture: the Geneva Conventions forbid it. Likewise chemical weapons. But let’s not kid ourselves. Obama is still standing by while Guantanamo detainees are being tortured, yet he insists the U.S. is justified in executing an act of war on Syria for violating an international law laid out by the Geneva Conventions, which also forbids torture.
4. The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
The loosely-aligned rebels working for Assad’s downfall, i.e. the forces we help when we hurt him, are largely enemies of the United States who not only hate Assad’s secular government, but hate us, too. As Max Fisher wrote in the Washington Post, “Shipping arms to rebels, even if it helps them topple Assad, would ultimately empower jihadists and worsen rebel in-fighting, probably leading to lots of chaos and possibly a second civil war (the United States made this mistake during Afghanistan’s early 1990s civil war, which helped the Taliban take power in 1996).”
5. Advocates of military intervention who accuse pacifists of being “willfully blind” are willfully blind.
Even though our interventions have caused mass civilian casualties in the past, some folks still fantasize cruise missiles (and drones) that possess the precision of paring knives and the power of a big slap on the wrist to a madman, who, surely, will be contrite and never do anything bad ever again, and we’ll be done. Right?
This is lunacy. Where, exactly, would we “rain down a few missiles”? What would we blow up, exactly? Sarin hoards? Military bases? Or, oops, neighborhoods? And once again, would the civilian casualties whose blood is on our hands be filed under “very unfortunate?” And finally, once we’ve blown more shit up, what next? Do we really think Assad (and his allies, Iran, China, and Russia) would just accept his punishment gracefully?
6. Obama is a brilliant politician and/or lucky.
There’s a compelling rumor afoot that Obama never really intended to attack Syria, and threw the ball to Congress to “get their approval” knowing he would not get it. This would have echoed what happened in the UK, when Parliament rejected the idea of involvement in any Syria action, essentially forcing Prime Minister David Cameron to submit to the will of the people or commit political suicide. If, in fact, Obama was pulling some Machiavellian moves, he could have thrown his hands up, and, like Cameron, said, “The people have spoken.” He appears hawkish and ballsy; he’s fostered an alliance with some Republicans – John Boehner, for one – who’ve stood against him on everything, yet we don’t go to war. And he becomes a president who, backhandedly, makes legislative checks on executive power work for him.
When I spoke with Chris Gibson, I asked if Obama could’ve gone around Congress if he didn’t get the votes, just as he would need to go around the U.N. if he wanted to unilaterally attack Syria. Gibson seemed to think it possible only if Obama went to extraordinary lengths. So it makes you wonder.
But, for the time being, that’s all moot. Through Kerry’s accidental opening of the diplomatic door, Obama has been spared the “indignity” of Congress telling him NO yet again, and, by not firing on Assad, he’s also been spared the dramatically increased ire of legions of people – some very eager for yet another reason to do us and our allies grievous harm. As far as I’m concerned, his luck – or his pluck – is our own.