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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.