The Syria Mess

by Conrad Black
The Obama administration’s only consistent policy is its avoiding of forceful action.

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.

Obviously, there is no dispute, even from the far left, about the justification of military deterrence, and, when the U.S. is attacked, of retaliation. That last occurred after Pearl Harbor; and underlying the grappling with terrorism is the fact that some malignant elements have massacred innocents without any direct national identification, which complicates retaliation. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush said that the United States would make no distinction between terrorists and countries that supported terrorists, and that all countries were either for or against terrorism. This was a commendable assertion on the night of that terrible day, but it has not been followed: There are many designated terrorism-supporting states that have gone unpunished and — obviously, as their provocations continue — undeterred.

I have advocated, here and elsewhere, that the West and all its allies agree on the principle that terrorism-supporting states will be quarantined, outrages traceable to individual countries will lead to swift retribution against those countries, and it will not, other than in exceptional and unforeseeable circumstances, be the business of the West and its allies to be concerned with what nature of regime may follow those discommoded by our retaliation in response to terrorist provocations. It should be completely irrelevant to our calculations whether a designated terrorist regime will be succeeded by an even more odious one. This was raised in Libya and is being raised in Syria; it doesn’t matter. It is no concern of ours how those countries are governed; it is our concern if they conduct or support terrorist operations against us. If they do, their governments should be got rid of as soon as that is feasible at acceptable cost, i.e., when local opposition forces can be economically assisted in a regime change. We dithered unconscionably deciding to raise the little military finger that was necessary to dispose of Qaddafi (and his successors have been an improvement, in both international conduct and domestic governance). In Syria, we had to endure Hillary Clinton’s inanities about Assads being a “reformer” and have listened to the administration’s tortuous rationalizations of inaction made more nauseating by sermons on what should happen, as if that has anything to do with how these crises play out. If those who sponsor terrorist acts against the West are disposed of, there will be fewer terrorist acts against the West, whatever happens inside the particular countries in question.

Special allowance for intervention should be made for extreme atrocities, as in Cambodia and Rwanda. The West missed the bus on those occasions and millions died. We went from a shell-shocked torpor over Vietnam, a war that we should not have entered, but having entered, could have won, and even could have salvaged if the Congress had not cut and run after Richard Nixon extracted the U.S. while preserving a non-Communist government in Saigon; to absenteeism even in the face of genocidal horrors in Cambodia and Rwanda; to George W.’s harebrained crusade for democracy everywhere. And now we have the vacillations of the Obama administration, where any thread of consistent policy is indiscernible except a fear to do anything forceful. Dire threats against Iran if it pursued its nuclear military program were treated with derision and the “reset” of relations with Russia has produced the greatest torrent of insolences from the Kremlin since Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan while stoking up the civil war in Angola and the subversion of Central America via Nicaragua.

The ambivalence of the administration appears to be illustrated by the recent elevation of Susan Rice to be national-security adviser and of Samantha Power to succeed Ms. Rice as ambassador to the United Nations. Susan Rice is a moral relativist whose appeasement of China and Russia achieved nothing but embarrassment for America, and Samantha Power is an interventionist who has likened American idleness during the Rwanda massacres to active participation in genocide. Neither position is accurate, though America should seek accommodation with Russia and China, but from strength, as Nixon and Reagan did; and should act when atrocities impend. In this Babel of official voices, the most apt to have been raised recently is that of federal judge William Young, who in sentencing Richard Reid, who attempted to blow up an airliner with exploding running shoes, to life imprisonment plus 110 years, plus fines of $2,006,882.17, said: “You are not an enemy combatant; you are not a soldier in any war. You are a terrorist. . . . And we do not negotiate with terrorists, meet with terrorists, [or] sign documents with terrorists. We hunt them down.”

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principleand the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].