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The Big Picture: Why the Syrian Attack on the US Embassy is “Our Business”

As you know, yesterday the United States embassy in Syria was attacked. Embassies and naval vessels throughout the world are by longstanding tradition considered representations of their nations. Article 31 of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations formalizes this sentiment: 

3. Subject to the provisions of paragraph 2 of this article, the receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the consular premises against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the consular post or impairment of its dignity.

We are not dealing with a situation in which the government of Syria merely failed to prevent this; there is no way it was not planned and authorized by Assad. Meanwhile, Syrian envoys in the United States have flagrantly been using their diplomatic status to spy on American citizens:

The State Department is investigating charges that Syrian diplomats are spying on Syrian anti-government demonstrators in Washington and other U.S. cities in order to intimidate their relatives in the restive Middle Eastern nation.

(Note to Washington Times’ copy-editors: “The restive Middle Eastern nation?”)

So, why can’t we say, “What’s happening in Syria’s terrible, but it’s not our business. Just one of those eternal hellholes. Leave the place alone?” 

Let me spell out the big picture. Iran is blatantly killing US troops in Iraq and blazing forward with its nuclear weapons development program. It has the region cowed. Assad is allied with Iran. This axis has gobbled up Lebanon and poses a major threat to every other country in this region. To describe the Middle East as “volatile” right now is like describing the Manson family as “frisky.” Hezbollah–the external shock troops of the Iran-Syria axis–is on the southern border of the US. 

As General Eisenhower remarked in 1951, and as every rational strategist has always acknowledged, “As far as the sheer value of the territory is concerned, there is no more strategically important area in the world than the Middle East.” The region borders Europe, Asia and Africa; it is bound by the by the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea and the Caspian. By land, sea and air the region links communications between Western and Eastern Europe, East Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, the Far East. and Australasia. The Suez Canal is the shortest shipping route between Western Europe and Asia and the major supply route for the transport of Persian Gull oil to Western Europe. The Gulf area houses the world’s largest known oil reserves. Right now the whole world–not just the United States–depends upon this oil. The Left tends to forget that developing countries in particular would be crippled instantly by any interruption of those supplies.

The United States has far more than a limited economic interest in preventing an extremely hostile power from becoming the region’s hegemon. If that happens, it means lights out–and not only for America. 

Someone will say “The answer is energy independence.” It’s not–notice the part about the geography of this region and its shipping lanes–but even if it were, “energy independence” is right now a fantasy, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. This is happening today. And “independence” is economically meaningless unless it is energy that costs less than energy purchased overseas. I don’t think I need to spell out why. 

The only world in which this is “not our business” is one in which we’ve embraced economic autarky. We’ve withdrawn from global trade and commerce, including but not limited at all to purchasing energy from this region. (Energy: “the stuff that keeps the lights on.”) We’ve put up a million-mile high border fence. No one leaves, no one comes in. 

If you’re proposing that will work, I’d like to hear one example from history of a country embracing that policy to a happy end.

We have an overwhelming national interest in these developments, which happens to coincide with an overwhelming moral interest. Assad is not a force for regional stability, he’s a time-bomb. And for some reason, we’ve chosen to approach his regime with the most appalling unseriousness and fantasy-mindedness I think I’ve ever witnessed.

Clinton at last said yesterday that the regime had lost its legitimacy. It took an attack on the US Embassy to prompt her to say that. The length of time and the extremity of the provocation required even for us to say that signals to everyone in the region that we’re credulous, unprincipled bozos–not to put too fine a point on it. 

No one in his or her right mind thinks we should “attack Syria.” That’s not an option, though every planner in our government needs to be working around the clock to figure out what the military options are if Syria attacks one of its neighbors, which dying regimes often do. But some things are obvious: We take a stand that at least hints that we know what we’re dealing with.

Expel the Syrian ambassador. Kick out the entire Syrian embassy staff–no diplomatic relations. Withdraw our ambassador. Get American citizens out of that country: How long do you think it will be before we have a hostage crisis that limits our options even further? Mobilize a complete European boycott of the regime: I suspect the French are convinced. No more phone calls to Assad. No more visits. No recognition. International pariah status. Freeze every asset we can freeze. Use the ICC. Put public pressure on the Arab League–make it clear who’s propping him up. Stop, completely, with the fantasy rhetoric about reform–it won’t happen, and the language signals that we are living in an alternate reality. Stop saying that military intervention is not on the table: Don’t tip your hand, for God’s sake. Let Assad worry about what we might do. Go to the Security Council: If the Russians and the Chinese veto a resolution, at least the Syrian people will see who’s really backing Assad.

Here’s our real-world goal: To visibly distance ourselves from the Assad regime in every conceivable diplomatic, economic and rhetorical way we can, support the opposition in every conceivable diplomatic, economic and rhetorical way we can, and to leave the world wondering whether we just might be crazy enough to rain destruction on the presidential palace.

Right now, the IHH is leading the way in providing assistance to the Syrian opposition. Not us. Turkey is hosting the conferences for the opposition, not us. I’m sure the logic is, “We should keep a low profile, let Assad get angry at Turkey, not us. It’s not in our interest to look involved.” I’ve got an important tip for people who think this: People in this region are not stupid. We look involved already. We just look like we’re fools at best, on the wrong side at worst.

  1. Percival

    Ideally, we would have started all this already, while leaving us enough room to maneuver further now.  At the bare minimum, we should be severing diplomatic connections and communicating through back channels that we are not amused.  Bashar can’t be sleeping well lately.  (I said Hafez a day or so ago: I get my multi-generational dictatorships confused.  I’m just now getting over not having Kim Il-sung to kick around anymore.  The Duvaliers were evil, but at least that “Papa Doc”/”Baby Doc” schtick helped me out some.)

  2. Crow

    Exactly right.

    As far as scary scenarios go, this one is right up there at the top of the list.

    The world’s strongest power has crippled itself through unwise engagement in many places of the world, and through overindulgence at home.

    Meanwhile, it has a credibility deficit in a very volatile but hugely strategically important area of the world where the underlying causes of the conflict are massive, and ancient.

    Nevertheless, the strategic importance of the area and the potential consequences if this tinderbox goes up means that isolationism is not only unbecoming, it is unwise.

    Opening some kind of 4th front war in Syria is not a desirable. But we ought to be isolating this regime, condemning it harshly, and harnessing the full power of international institutions to bear down upon it, as well as protecting our citizens and interests. And we needed to start putting these things in motion yesterday.

  3. Supergenius

    First I should say I am loath to criticize the Administration harshly because I don’t know what is happening below the obvious level.

    And we should remember that what sparked the attack on the Embassy was Ambassador Ford (along with the French Ambassador) actually visiting Hama.  That was powerful statement which *had* to be cleared with the President because it was bound to stir the hornet’s nest.

    That said, you are spot on.  We should not be maneuvering “behind the scenes”.  We should be out front.  I am not even hostile to military maneuvering (staging carrier group exercises in the eastern Med, forward placing American troops on the Syrian border to “train” Iraqis in border enforcement) to draw out and wear down the Syrian military.

    The President should be waking up every morning thinking “What can I do today to overthrow the Alawite regime?  How can I agitate the Sunni majority to rise up against their Alawite masters?  How to I play on the Arab fear of the Persian to hook up the Arab states with their Sunni Arab brethren?”  You break Syria, you deal a devastating blow to Iran and Hezbollah.  It’s a major strategic win.

  4. Judith Levy, Ed.
    C
    Joshua Rosenblum: You break Syria, you deal a devastating blow to Iran and Hezbollah.  It’s a major strategic win. · Jul 12 at 6:26am

    Exactly.

  5. outstripp

    Would it be too much to say that democrats are not all that into foreign affairs?They didn’t bust their butts getting elected in order to fool around with some damn foreigners .  They got elected to channel money to their totally committed friends and get gay marriage legalized at the same time.  Syria’s not really on their radar.

  6. Pseudodionysius

    Its too bad we can’t convince the President that Assad is really a Republican. That would have the desired effect.

  7. flownover

    Maybe you can talk to the HuffPo and get them to strongly condemn Syria. Their record here is pretty clear.

    And when that’s done, Vogue magazine can do a hit piece on her accessories, or something.

  8. Steven Zoraster

    According to to the US EIA URL posted below, 23% of our electricity is generated by natural gas. Most I assume is from domestic production. 45% with coal. I have been admonished here that the single largest source of US imported oil is for the US is Canada.  But according to the second EIA URL, in total we import almost as much from Arab countries plus Venezuela.

    It’s the marginal cost of oil and gas that is important to world markets. We should be saving that domestic gas for the heating and converting to fertilizer, avoiding the pollution from burning coal, while messing over the Middle East oil producers.  Despite what Eisenhower said in 1951, the Middle East becomes a backwater if the world can break its stranglehold on petroleum.

    To this end, we should be building nuclear power plants as fast as possible. To avoid hurting our Canadian suppliers, I am happy to build those pipelines to get more of their oil into the US.

    Cut demand for Arab oil by 5% and see what happens.

    http://www.eia.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epa_sum.html

    http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_move_impcus_a2_nus_ep00_im0_mbbl_m.htm

  9. Kenneth

    Certainly, Iran’s actions are our business.  We should have dealt with Iran, summarily, long ago.

    But whether Assad or Mubarak or Kaddafi deal out bloody slaughter within their own borders is none of our affair. 

  10. Sisyphus

    An Iranian puppet has provided the United States with casus belli. The only reason not to intercede now is to avoid our ridiculous string of installing democratic republics that murder Christians and apostates as public policy. It is unclear to me that any intervention by the current Regime is more likely to avoid that outcome than the previous Administration.

  11. G C Andersen

    We need to prepare for world war.  Eventually Iran’s strength and our preceived weakness will make either war or our capitulation inevitable.  If Obama loses next year’s election, particularly if a strong-on-defense candidate wins, look for Iran to strike in a big way either during the transition or shortly thereafter.  That, I think, is why they are in a hurry to arm with nukes – they perceive their opportunity to fulfill their dreams of first regional then world dominance is at hand, and will pass if we wake up. 

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