Hold Your Horses!
By Sol W. Sanders
Monday, September 9th, 2013 @ 4:26AM
The old cliché has it that history is written by the victors. But the victors’ historians, too, are human.
In an effort to write a narrative that the rest of us can follow, they pick up what we diginiks call a “thread”. Until someone identifies a major theme and writes (and rewrites) that narrative, much of the important peripheral events get lost in the shuffle. Or they may get exaggerated beyond their eventual importance. All of this to say that just now in our world of instantaneous communication, everyone and his brother is grasping at straws in an unfolding crisis and drawing conclusions that will not stand the test of the coming historical narrative.
If that sounds wordy and pretentious, dear reader, you are right. What I want to say is, simply, the old-fashioned, “Hold your horses!” Wait out developments because we do not know what is happening or what will happen next before making final or even partial judgments.
I am appalled that radio and TV talking heads–as well as friends–grab a piece of this infinitely complicated geopolitical and humanitarian puzzle and run with it.
At the risk of seeming glib myself, may I just throw out a few of what I hope are helpful if not saving interpolations:
No, I am not an “Arabist” nor have I done more than stick my foot across the Israeli-Syrian Golan Heights truce line toward Damascus only 40 (all downhill) miles away. But I have watched the Mideast for half a century out of the corner of my eye and, if for no other reason, do think I have some semblance of historical perspective.
Yes, there is a general consensus that the U.S. should not intervene further in what began as a civil war in Syria unless “American national interest” is threatened. But like so many other political concepts, “national interest” is defined in many different ways: the fact that Bashar al Assad is increasingly kept in power by the mullahs in Iran, while developing their own weapons of mass destruction, and a Russian UN Security Council veto camouflages Putin’s arms sales to Assad has changed the nature of the conflict.
No, President Obama does not need a vote in the Congress in order for him to take military action in Syria in pursuit of American national interest and without a declaration of war. Almost every recent U.S. president has done just that. It is ironic that many of today’s opponents trace their opposition to foreign intervention as “progressives” to President Woodrow Wilson who “unilaterally” used American military power repeatedly including intervention in the Mexican Revolution and, indeed, its civil war.
Yes, there isn’t much chance the U.S. or any one else can stabilize Syria, an artificial state created in the last gasp of British and French colonialism in the 1920s. Before the murdering Assads arrived on the scene in the mid-1960s, with their domination of its air force by their Alawaite minority, there were some two dozen Syrian (mostly failed) coup d’etats. The Assads established whatever stability the country has had by brute force–including a 1982 month-long artillery shelling of a civilian population in Hama that killed tens of thousands.
No, there is nothing new about the reluctance of America’s ostensible allies to join in what they generally say is a worthwhile military effort. After years of lobbying the British and the French, whose citizens like those of the infant American Republic’s were being held for ransom, President Thomas Jefferson (who had originally opposed any kind of permanent military) in 1802 went to the Congress for permission but no declaration of war to go for a military “strike” against the Barbary pirates.
Yes, there is no telling where President Obama’s request to the Congress would lead were his “strike” against Syria to be carried out (with or without Congressional approval). Please note all the essential subjunctives here! I recall the old generals’ adage that all war plans and strategies go aglimmering with the firing of the first shot in any military engagement.
Assad, for example, has chosen not to respond to Israel’s three raids wiping out Russian munitions intended for Hezbollah–Assad’s ally in Beirut and southern Lebanon–that threatens the destruction of Israel, and he might try to ignore any American attack however effective.
No, Washington cannot back away from the Mideast whatever the decision Obama/Congress makes on this current issue. The U.S. has too many interests there including the region’s essential role in the world economy producing about two-thirds of the oil necessary to keep European and East Asian economies afloat, even though the U.S. is now approaching fossil fuel self-sufficiency (no thanks to Obama Administration policy but) because of the new shale technological revolution.
Yes, there is an overriding issue in Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical warfare because for a hundred years the world has largely abided by an international agreement not to use this most merciless of all weapons in combat, even with occasional violations by such monsters as Saddam Hussein and the Assads. That prohibition has been observed in no small part because “poison gas”–used by both sides–turned out to be a dubious weapon in World War I for both its user and its victims. That evaluation could be hanging by a thread because of new delivery systems (i.e., medium and long-range missiles).
No, the power vacuum created by Obama’s four year effort “to lead from behind” and his Administration’s flirtation with the terrorist Muslem Brotherhood cannot be used as an excuse now to quit and run. As the saying goes, we are where we are, and unfortunately for an American public tired of war, the United States’ overwhelming economic and military power is as potent when it is not directed and applied as when it is engaged.
Yes, a victory in the civil war would embolden Assad’s principal backer, the mullahs in Tehran moving to dominate the area, and Russia’s President Putin, trying desperately to reassert the Soviet Union’s gone-with-the-wind superpower status. Failure of American resolve to handle this crisis will likely lead to a new and more dangerous breakdown in world stability, if and when the Iranians get their nuclear weapon for which “Syria” is their diversionary sideshow or Putin with his oil and gas revenues collapsing tries some new stunt to hang on to power.
No, the U.S. did not start it all when with the British the CIA toppled the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. It was, indeed, about the nationalization of Anglo-Persian Oil Co. (ancestor of BP). But it was also about the opening salvos of the Cold War with Mossadegh’s off-and-on-support from Moscow and its Iranian Tudeh-Communist Party. (Read my Christian Science Monitor pieces in mid-summer 1951 from Tehran when, by the way, I was subbing for their Moscow staff correspondent who later turned out to be a Soviet agent!)
Yes, Syrian Christians are caught in the crossfire, as were–almost unnoticed by the U.S. mainstream media and the American mainstream churches–15 million Egyptian Coptic Christians about to be slaughtered by the former Egyptian Brotherhood regime. But leftwing Christians (e.g., one of the co-founders of the so-called Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party which installed Assad’s equally monstrous father) have been Assad’s collaborators. So much for a propaganda video of a female Syrian Christian spokesman haranguing cornered, hawkish Senator John McCain at a town meeting.
No, Assad will not be able to write off the effects of any American “strike,” although, obviously, it has lost its surprise element and permitted him to move possible targets. Many if not most of the “hard” targets cannot be moved, and while he might fly his aircraft to Iran as Sadaam Hussein did when America attacked, moving his third world command and control operations centered on a family dictatorship won’t be that easy. The mere threat of a “strike”–or its further escalation under pressure from Congressional hawks such as Senator McCain and Congressman Pete King–is already shaking the regime to its secret police torturing roots.
Yes, it would be a lot better if Obama had an overall strategy in the Mideast before setting out on a rather idealistic rectification of world morality, which in a more perfect world should be left to the UN. But that is not where we are, and the issue is whether the U.S. is to try to reinforce some international standards of decency. It is a question this country cannot escape with impunity any more than it has in the past. It is a choice that the American Republic has had to make, often to its chagrin, many times in the past.
No, historical analogies are odious as some dead white European has said, but it does seem that we are moving from the Spanish Civil War aspects of this conflict to the Munich era. Two oceans and six-and-a-half minutes for an Iranian or North Korean ICBM to reach us protect us no more today than they did in 1939–nor in 9/11 when a ragtag terrorist band planned and executed the death of some 3,000 innocents at long distance from their hideouts in isolated, backward, primitive Afghanistan.
Yes, we are under fire from propaganda (and conspiracy theorists) from various interests with their own agendas. But rest assured that the confusion is so rampant that just as the issue has cut across nominal Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative lines, it is rearranging normally Mideast and international European and Asian players. Russia wants to protect its old Soviet satellite Syrian Mideast legacy; but its nominal UN Security Council partner in vetoing American action, China, is more interested in keeping Mideast peace so its growing oil and gas import bill doesn’t go through the roof (as its economy slows), which, in turn, would profit their pal (Ras-)Putin. Ditto various U.S. domestic conflicts.
No, there are no easy explanations nor answers. This is a messy affair.
*A version of this column is scheduled for publication Monday, September 9, 2013, at worldtribune.com