The belated, reluctant assistance of the United States to some of the anti-Assad forces in Syria has all the distinctive signs of a Great Power’s being dragged into a combat zone that were prefigured in Libya. There, President Obama uttered sanctimonious comments for weeks that Moammar Qaddafi “must go” without lifting a finger to ensure that that happened. Finally, after French intellectual and controversialist Bernard-Henri Lévy telephoned French president Nicolas Sarkozy from Benghazi and told him that blood would be on the French flags fluttering from the windows of that city if he didn’t do something, and the French acted, bringing the British with them, and they ran out of air-to-ground missiles and importuned the United States, material reinforcements were contributed that ultimately ensured that Qaddafi did, indeed, “go.” (I.e., in the usual manner of Arab changes of government, he was captured by opponents and summarily executed.) The mobilization of France by Lévy was complicated in the inimitable French way by the fact that Sarkozy’s wife, Carla Bruni, a professional vocalist, had had an affair with Lévy’s son-in-law, Raphaël Enthoven, and had named a song after him.
There has been no such interesting train of events with Syria, but we have had the same sequence of Uriah Heep handwringing and unctuous moral imperatives inconsequentially uttered for years while the United States officially havered in the gaseous zone — between declaring, as Secretary of State James Baker said of the Balkans nearly 25 years ago, “We have no dog in that hunt,” and actually doing something. President Obama was apparently swayed by repeated reports that Assad had used sarin gas against his own people in several incidents, killing over a hundred, and after being shown a map by Jordan’s King Abdullah that included the area of Syrian desert that would likely be occupied and used as a staging area by al-Qaeda if nothing was done. It is impossible not to identify with the administration’s desire not to be dragged into another Middle Eastern war, but no one was asking for the insertion of American forces on the ground, just the sinews of war, and training, and, at the most ambitious, a no-fly zone. Sweeping the Syrian air force out of its own airspace could be done in an afternoon by the U.S. Air Force or Navy, though getting rid of Assad’s Soviet-supplied anti-aircraft missile defenses could be more complicated.
The rebels have almost run out of ammunition, and American officials privately attribute this to their inexperience at conservation of fire. Of course, this is illustrative of the problem. The Syrian rebels have no ability to make their own ammunition. Assad is supplied by Iran and Russia, and if the rebels aren’t supplied by someone they are going to be exterminated (and join the more than 100,000 Syrians who have been killed already), or driven out to join the 1.2 million Syrian refugees who have already fled, about half in camps in neighboring countries, where they are a threat to political stability. Pious lectures about economical use of ammunition are no substitute for the means of self-defense against a well-armed enemy.
What is missing, as with so much of American foreign policy since George H. W. Bush, is a policy. The Obama administration seems to have returned to what was orthodoxy prior to George W. Bush’s forays into Afghanistan and Iraq, that the U.S. will not get involved in military-led nation-building. It had been hoped by many of us that this lesson had been learned in Vietnam at least by the final debacle there in 1975, and then relearned in Somalia in the fiasco of 1993, which overtook a mission that began in 1992 as a delivery of food aid. But the country oscillates between catastrophic efforts at reconstructing societies in primitive and war-torn places, and complete isolationism. It should not have been beyond the wit of American foreign-policy planners to have devised a bipartisan agreement between the executive and legislative branches on the criteria for the use of different possible levels of force in or against foreign countries.