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The Black Flags Behind Those Red Lines


I don’t often disagree with my good friend Cliff, but we continue to see things very differently when it comes to Syria. Five thoughts.

1. It is not certain that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. I heard Defense Secretary Hagel, who is not the clearest fellow in any event, say our intel community had “some degree of varying confidence” that Syria had twice, on a “small scale,” used sarin. That is a hedge if ever there was one. Coming days after it seems the government had a uniform degree of strong confidence that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was nothing to be concerned about, it’s not exactly something I’d bet the farm on.

2. Let’s assume Assad did it. This would not change the underlying problem: Assad’s opposition is rife with assorted Islamic supremacists and jihadists. These include elements of al-Qaeda, the organization with which we are at war, and whose ardent pursuit of chemical and biological weapons has not only been noted but formally alleged in indictments for years. I am not saying we have no friends in the opposition. But, as in Egypt, they are a weak part of an opposition led by Muslim supremacists who hate the West. That is not going to change, no matter what weapons Assad uses.

On this score, Cliff’s argument repeats the standard interventionist narrative: Obama failed to act in support of the pro-American (or, at least, anti-Islamic-supremacist) faction(s) of the opposition, creating a void that allowed “well-funded jihadist and Islamic forces [to] take the lead on the battlefield.” I wrote about this narrative in a recent column. There is no evidence in Syria, any more than there was in Egypt or Libya, that there was, at any point, a thriving, pro-American faction that was capable of taking the lead against the dictatorial regime. The most virulent opposition to the Assad regime has, for decades, been the Islamic supremacists — the Muslim Brotherhood and its allied violent jihadists. There is no void. This is the dynamic in the Muslim Middle East: You rationalize U.S. aid and sacrifice by telling yourself you are only helping the good guys, and then, once the regime is toppled, it turns out there aren’t enough good guys — so you end up with the Muslim Brotherhood. If Assad is replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, that is not progress for America.

3. To be clear, I am not joining the argument of my friend Daniel Pipes that we should support Assad. I have contended, as Daniel does, that if America’s enemies are determined to make war on each other, we should let them. But I don’t believe we should strategically orchestrate or elongate the war — jumping from side to side to keep it going. I am advocating that we stay out of something that is their problem and that we had no role in instigating. To put ourselves in the position of being responsible for the terrible suffering attendant to someone else’s war in the absence of any vital American interest is something I beieve we’d come to regret deeply.

4. I am not suggesting that Andrew Johnson’s report is intended to be misleading, but it suggests a bipartisan consensus I do not believe exists. The fact that some left-wing Democratic senators (Feinstein and Menendez are named) find themselves in the not unusual position of being echoed by Senators McCain and Graham hardly means there widespread agreement across the aisle that the crossing of a “red line” means the U.S. must actively enter the conflict. Assad’s use of chemical weapons, if it actually happened, is going to be very upsetting to everyone. But I believe there will also be plenty of bipartisan opposition to U.S. intervention in Syria. Many conservatives deeply oppose the administration’s policy of empowering Islamic supremacists who — as the events of the last week remind us — hate the United States and are quite serious about what the Muslim Brotherhood calls its “grand jihad” to “eliminate and destroy Western civilization from within.” We find the black flags just as alarming as the red lines. 

5. It is always a very bad idea for a president, with great fanfare, to draw a line in the sand — red or otherwise — that he is not prepared to defend. It was foolish for President Obama to speak about red lines in Syria. It was done recklessly and in full moral preen. But now the stark reality: If it turns out Syria has used chemical weapons, it is no more in our interest to get (further) involved in the conflict than it was before. Now, however, we are also left with the bigger problem of an American president who looks weaker, more indecisive, and more dishonest on the world stage. Not good for the country and not good for the world. 


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