Everything about Syria is a paradox. Obama came into office with the idea that Syria would be one of the jewels in his Bush “reset” crown. So we naively re-opened the Damascus embassy; Hillary in surreal fashion declared the thuggish Bashar Assad a “reformer”; and the Western press in lapdog fashion discovered his supposedly Voguish wife. In this messianic spirit, we were to assume that all Assad’s recent evil—the assassination of Hariri, the subversion of Lebanon, the alliance with Hezbollah, the sly attempt to go nuclear, the facilitation of jihadists into Iraq—were simply responses to Bush provocations. But now what? Suddenly, we are resetting reset and now back to the Bush policy of 2008? And we learned exactly what from 2009-12?
Second, the Obama Doctrine, as I understand it from Libya, is to bypass Congress in its use of force and instead seek authorization from the U.N. But we subverted the U.N. resolution in Libya, vastly exceeding “no-fly-zones” and “humanitarian aid” through bombing Gaddafi’s forces — in direct air support for the rebels — in order to win the war. The result is that China and Russia will not get snookered again on a U.N. Syrian or Iranian authorization; and perhaps our Congress won’t either.
Third, due to the costs and the demonization of Iraq from 2005 onward, the use of ground troops is now taboo. But unfortunately, the history of US intervention is clear: put boots on the ground and it gets messy, but you have a say in the postbellum government; just bomb and it is less messy, but you have zero say in what follows—as Libya reminds us. There was a reason why after bombing Milosevic out of power, we inserted ground troops. Thus Serbia (and Iraq, for that matter) is not now quite Libya. Ridding the world of the Assad carcass is easy; ensuring that something like him, or worse still, does not take over is terribly hard.
Fourth, the politics are Orwellian. Obama et al., between 2006-8 mocked the Bush ‘freedom’ agenda of trying to promote consensual government, as if it were little more than ethnocentric neocon triumphalism. But now we are to give up on their idea that an Assad or Ahmadinejad is an authentic “other” who, to be properly understood, requires the sensitive diplomatic skills of a post-national Barack Obama? A lot of those who now would support action to remove the odious Assad or to preempt the madcap dreams of Ahmadinejad cannot quite believe that yesterday’s critic of US intervention as inherently improper is today’s humanitarian interventionist. In 2008, declaring the surge a failure or requiring a suspension of disbelief was patriotic dissent; in 2012, critiquing Obama’s serial apologizing is dangerous factionalism during a time of war? They have to figure it out before we can.
Fifth, in a sane world, the removal of Saddam would have been recognized as a necessary, but dangerous gambit, ridding the world of the Middle East’s strongest, most dangerous and most genocidal monster, without whom change in the region at last might be possible—as we saw with the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, the surrender of the Libyan WMD, the lectures to Mubarak by Secretary Rice, the house arrest of Dr. Khan, and perhaps even the present unrest. But those in the present administration did not see it that way, and in fact made our effort more difficult with unnecessarily partisan criticism. So now no one knows quite what this erstwhile war-critic, reset, outreach bunch is doing by kinda, sorta leading from behind in Libya, and praising/demonizing Assad.
Where does this all get us? The fact is that leftist laureate Obama has all sorts of advantages and choices that were impossible between 2001-2009: the American Left, the once-critical press, the sanctimonious Europeans, and the Arab world all will keep mum should Obama bomb Assad, arm the rebels or put peacekeeping forces there. It is his call and a far easier one than Iraq. And conservatives? We are mostly Jacksonians, who rally around the U.S. once the bullets start flying, but otherwise are so confused about Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s Middle Eastern views as expressed between 2006-2012 that we are going to keep quiet and let them sort it out until they get their stories straight.