The Vacuum, that is. That’s the Beltway fairy tale about how Syria was teeming with secular-democratic Muslim moderates ready and willing not only to topple the barbarous Bashar al-Assad regime but simultaneously to rout al-Qaeda. They were not able to pull off these feats, we’re told, without the massive help that President Obama refused to give them. This default, combined with Obama’s unconscionable retreat from neighboring Iraq while jihadists were on the rise, created a leadership void — the Vacuum — into which the Islamic State (formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) poured in . . . or spontaneously generated . . . or . . . something.
The Syrian mess has gotten messier because Vladimir Putin, with all the unpredictability of the morning sun, has invaded Syria on behalf of Assad and Putin’s more important ally Iran — Assad’s longtime string-puller. The Russian strongman’s claimed purpose is to fight the Islamic State — a pretext no more real than was the supposed need to protect indigenous Russian populations that Putin cited in invading Georgia, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine.
Putin, with China’s indulgence, is obviously attempting to fortify a sphere of anti-American influence across the Middle East. Anti-Americanism in this Islamic-supremacist region long predates Putin, of course. What has changed is that the United States is governed by a man of the hard Left — a president who is sympathetic to the Islamist narrative about American imperialism, ambivalent at best about American power, and determined to diminish America’s regional commitments, and thus American influence.
In Obama’s fantasy world, Iran is a potential ally and Russia a potentially stabilizing influence.
Obama, however, is different. He was going to befriend the Islamists by paying homage to the Islamists . . . and then leaving them to their savagery and dysfunction without American interference. This would be fine if (a) the United States had no vital interests at stake, and (b) Obama had not executed this strategy by materially supporting the ascendance of Iran, the jihadist revolutionary state that is America’s mortal enemy.
Obama’s fantasy world, in which Iran is a potential ally and Russia a potentially stabilizing influence, created the opportunity for Putin to move in. He loves to humiliate Obama, so he is having his moment now. It should be remembered, however, that the Soviet Union, though far mightier than the pale imitation that is Putin’s basket-case, was devastated by its failed invasion of Afghanistan. That was a less ambitious project than the one today’s Russia appears to have set upon.
Clearly, there is some real upside for Putin in this. It is an object lesson to the Baltic states that Putin covets: The United States is unwilling to fight so take no comfort in NATO’s empty security guarantee. But for Putin, propping up Assad by making his bed with the snakes in Tehran is no sure thing. If the Kremlin found Afghan jihadists to be a problem, wait until it experiences the pain the more formidable al-Qaeda and ISIS can inflict.
Putin’s latest gambit may end up being less of a boon for him than for the Republican presidential field. It brings to the fore Obama’s treacherous Iran deal — the insanity of empowering the mullahs while they actively threaten the region under Putin’s cover. It brings into sharp relief Obama’s patent paralysis against Putin’s bold decisiveness and scorn.
This provides a timely campaign opportunity for Republicans to inveigh against Obama — who, after all, deserves it — while hoping no one notices that they don’t offer much that they’d do differently in Syria. When occasionally pressed, we hear, yet again, about filling the Vacuum.
It is not true that Obama failed to back the Syrian “rebels.” In fact, after the mutual Obama-Beltway GOP strategy of siding with Islamists against Qaddafi blew up on us in Libya, a reprise was attempted in Syria. Alas, the “rebels” we backed kept aligning with the jihadists (just as they did in Libya); the weapons we gave them kept ending up in jihadist hands. That was not just because the “rebels” were insufficiently “vetted”; it was because there was no way to overthrow Assad without the Islamists’ playing a major role — and, probably, a leading role.
This contributed to the ascendancy of ISIS, but was not the cause of that ascendancy. The cause is the dominant regional culture — Islamic supremacism. If Washington won’t face up to that fact, then it will of course continue strengthening our enemies in the delusional hope that they will someday become our friends.
Then, to make matters worse, Washington forgot that it had gotten enmeshed in Syria in order to oust Assad. Obama desperately wanted his deal with Iran, which wanted Assad left alone. So the Syria misadventure turned on a dime from targeting Assad on behalf of Sunni Islamists and jihadists to targeting Sunni jihadists — ISIS — to the benefit of Assad. Does anyone wonder why the U.S. has no credibility in the region?
Our interests in the region are to defeat both Russia/Iran/Assad and ISIS/al-Qaeda/Muslim Brotherhood. It is not either-or.
Republicans, especially those seeking the presidency, will never get the policy right until they get reality right. It is reality that must inform American interests, which in turn must inform American action.
Our interests in the region are to defeat both Russia/Iran/Assad and ISIS/al-Qaeda/Muslim Brotherhood. It is not either-or, and it does not serve our interests to elevate one side at the expense of the other. After all, the players change sides — Iran, for example, helps al-Qaeda and Hamas, which is the Muslim Brotherhood. The only thing you can really bank on is that they all hate the United States.
Our vital interest in Syria (and Iraq and elsewhere, for that matter) is to prevent its being used as a platform for the launching of attacks against the United States, our allies, and our interests. Moreover, this, it is crucial to remember, is an American problem. It is not one we could responsibly delegate to another country’s “moderate rebels” even if they were numerous enough to need something bigger than a phone booth for their meetings.
That means it is going to take a large commitment of American forces on the ground as well as in the air to achieve our vital interests. But there is no political support for that in our country at the moment. That, no doubt, is why a candidate like Marco Rubio, who is smart enough to see the writing on the wall, seems reluctant to come out and say it.
Even if there were political support for using American force, it would be a losing cause to take up unless and until we finally start seeing Iran the way Iran sees us: as the enemy.There are not good guys and bad guys in this equation. There are bad guys and other bad guys. And quelling the threat these bad guys collectively pose to the United States is our responsibility — not something we should do out of humanitarian concern for Middle Easterners, or because we are somehow obliged to slake their purported thirst for freedom.
Until we have that right, we should continue to stay out of Syria. Not because Obama has it right — he doesn’t. And not because Putin’s aggression could end up being good for us — if Donald Trump really believes that, it is yet another demonstration that he is not a serious candidate even if he is running a serious campaign.
No, we should stay out because if we go in for the wrong reasons and with the wrong assumptions, we will do our security more harm than good.
Make no mistake, though: This challenge is not going away. The threat to our national security posed by radical Islam — both the Sunni and the Shiite varieties, plus their state sponsors — is intensifying. It will have to be dealt with, hopefully before it deals with us in a catastrophic way.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book is Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.