Those clamoring for American intervention in Syria — I should say, even more American intervention in Syria — have a lock on two influential drivers of conservative opinion, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages. They are also bedfellows on this issue with our Muslim Brotherhood–enthralled president, even if Mr. Obama’s skittishness about going all in has them a bit testy.
All of this puts the media wind at their backs. Repeated often enough and reported uncritically enough, the interventionists’ shallow story has thus become the narrative. And so we have: The Vacuum.
The Vacuum theme goes like this: The Middle East may be in flux, but our threat environment remains frozen in time — a Nineties warp in which Iran, singularly, is the root of all evil. In Syria now, we have a golden opportunity to hand the mullahs a crushing defeat. All we need to do is commit to toppling their client, Bashar al-Assad. Media spin thus suggests that Assad’s minority Alawite regime is responsible for each of the 70,000 killings and half a million displacements that Syrians have endured since the civil war began — as if the Sunni majority, led by the local Brotherhood affiliate with al-Qaeda as the point of its spear, were not carrying out reciprocal mass murders and an anti-Christian pogrom.
Alas, misadventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have left the Obama administration gun-shy about leaping with both feet into another Muslim mess. The president thus prefers to “lead from behind” the Sunni supremacist governments of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. This failure of American will has created The Vacuum: a leadership lacuna in the anti-Assad opposition. Into this purported breach, Islamic supremacists — seemingly out of thin air — have rushed in to hijack the forward march of freedom.
As a result, the narrative continues, untold legions of Muslim moderates, secular democrats, and religious minorities who would otherwise be charting Syria’s democratic destiny are being elbowed aside. Even worse, by failing to intervene forcefully — meaning, to fuel the jihad with high-tech combat weapons and an aerial campaign to soften up Assad’s remaining defenses — the administration is frittering away the opportunity to strike up pragmatic alliances with the Vaccum-filling Islamists. Sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought — eager to help the Brotherhood, but too concerned about arms falling into terrorist hands — Obama is forfeiting our chance to influence the outcome.
Right. I mean, look at how ably our decade of heavy investment has steered Iraq and Afghanistan in a pro-American direction. And behold how they love us in Benghazi!
Syria hawks counter such scoffs by putting on their best Paul Krugman: The “freedom” stimulus was not a harebrained idea, it just wasn’t big enough. Put aside the fortune expended and the thousands of American lives sacrificed. It is not the nature of the Middle East but a void of American leadership that has the region waving al-Qaeda’s black flags. The Vacuum turns out to be the best all-purpose rationalization of failure since Barack Obama discovered George W. Bush.
Baghdad, you are to understand, would look like Bayonne right now if only American troops hadn’t skipped town, creating The Vacuum that ceded the place to, er . . . Iraqis.
The Vacuum explains the Benghazi debacle, too. Some amnesia is required: You are not supposed to remember that Eastern Libya has for decades been a hotbed of rabidly anti-American jihadists. History goes back only as far as 2011, when Obama and the interventionists decided Qaddafi — their erstwhile ally — had to go. Presto, Benghazi’s Islamic-supremacist battalions were suddenly our guys, the heroic, freedom-fighting “rebels” — and let’s not dwell on the droves of them that had raced to Iraq for the terror war against our troops.
So how come we didn’t have all that profound influence over the outcome after helping the rebels kill and mutilate Qaddafi? How come our diplomatic posts were attacked? How come our ambassador and three other Americans were murdered? Why, The Vacuum, of course. It’s not that the clock struck twelve and the rebels turned back into jihadists. It’s that by “leading from behind,” Obama left a leadership void that enabled violent jihadists — apparently beamed down from the Starship Enterprise — to grab control before Libya’s rising tide of democracy devotees had a chance to roll in.
Hate to break this to you, but there is no vacuum. The Vacuum is a spring-fever hallucination, another empty grasp at the illusion of Islamic democracy.
Syria, like Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and most of the Middle East, is predominantly Islamist. There need be no leadership vacuums to invite the Islamists in. They are there by the millions. Their supremacist ideology dominates the region.
But that’s not how the interventionists see it. On her way out the door in January, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton clung to the fiction that passes for bipartisan Beltway wisdom. She told a Senate panel that we must distinguish between jihadists and “non-jihadists.” The latter are our hope. Therefore, she maintained, we must be “effective in partnering with the non-jihadists,” even if they fly al-Qaeda’s “black flag.”
Clinton’s words were chosen carefully. The term “non-jihadist” connotes nonviolence. She was trying to distance the administration’s Muslim Brotherhood friends from the terrorists — consistent with the lunatic Beltway consensus that the Brotherhood, whose Palestinian branch is the Hamas terrorist organization, is a nonviolent organization. All right, let’s indulge that whopper — let’s, as Mrs. Clinton likes to say, suspend disbelief. Accepting the Brothers and their followers as “non-jihadists” tells us only what they are not — namely, terrorists. Mrs. Clinton avoided telling us what they are — namely, Islamists.
Islamists are Muslim supremacists who want to impose sharia. The Associated Press has a point in instructing that “Islamist” is not — or, at least, is not necessarily — a synonym for “Islamic fighters” or “militants.” The AP is all wet, though, when it further posits that Islamists are neither “extremists” nor “radicals.” If the vapid term “moderate” means anything, then “extreme” and “radical” precisely describe Islamists. They seek to impose sharia, a totalitarian, liberty-averse social system. They want Israel annihilated (even if they’d have someone else do the honors). They are implacably hostile to the United States — at least while Americans remain champions of freedom and equality. There is nothing moderate about any of this.
Even if you believe these Islamists really are “non-jihadists,” the stubborn fact remains that they wave al-Qaeda’s flag because they want the same thing al-Qaeda wants. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that they prefer to establish a sharia state through political processes rather than violent jihad (in reality, it is political processes leveraged by violent jihad). Islamists still want the opposite of what we want. If we are truly promoting liberty, we can never “partner” with them.
No one is saying there is a total dearth, in Syria and the wider region, of secular democrats, non-Muslims, and Muslim moderates averse to sharia fascism. The point is that these factions are vastly outnumbered. They are, moreover, very far from uniformly pro-American. The radical Left is well represented among them. And even those who long for Western liberty regard us with increasing contempt thanks to the administration’s infatuation with the Brotherhood. So if ousting Assad is your priority, you are stuck with Islamists and jihadists. Unless you’re in favor of a very long-term American occupation of Syria, no one else could get the job done — and, in fact, many secularists and religious minorities prefer Assad, the devil they know, to the prospect of Egypt 2.0.
It is no longer 1996 — the year Iran bombed the Khobar Towers and killed 19 American airmen. The Syria hawks are quite right to argue that Iran remains a major threat to American interests. They are wrong, however, to treat Iran as the only such threat. The Sunni supremacist crescent that the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, and their allies would run from Anatolia through the Persian Gulf and across North Africa would be no less hostile to the West than the Shiite competitor Iran is trying to forge. If Assad falls and the Brothers take over, that defeat for Tehran will not be a boon for the United States.
It is not isolationism to insist that American interventions be limited to situations in which a vital American interest must be vindicated. There is no such interest in Syria.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and the executive director of the Philadelphia Freedom Center. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy.