Note to John Kerry: Any US role in the Syrian conflict will end badly.
A quote and two questions… The quote comes from Salim Idris, the self-styled chief of staff for Syrian opposition groups seeking to topple President Bashar Assad: “We don’t want food and drink, and we don’t want bandages. When we’re wounded, it’s time to die. The only thing we want is weapons.” He openly mocked President Obama, who has offered $60 million in non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. Now the questions: How many secretaries of state does it take to make up a collective train wreck? Will John Kerry be the next engineer to hurtle toward derailment? Let’s hope not. Step one in avoiding this is for President Obama to put the money back in the treasury. Step two is for Secretary of State Kerry to smile before the TV cameras after that is done and say things such as, “Syrians need to work out their destiny independently of Western interference.”
Alas, odds are long that either of these things will happen. It’s hard to resist several myths that persist despite all evidence to the contrary. The first of these is the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Assad is a bad man—make no mistake about that—but it is absolute conceit to think that his enemies are friends of the United States. It’s always very tempting to think we can make friends of enemies. It runs counter to two powerful national myths—the belief that the world lusts to become just like the United States, and the belief that America only wants to help the rest of the world.
America gets into trouble when it acts like the world wants what it has—including democracy. We want to believe, which is why the public is still bottle-fed fantasies of “Arab spring,” as if a thousand ballots are about to spring in the dessert and usher forth republicanism, equality, and human rights. Here’s the reality of the Middle East: it’s a quagmire becoming a nightmare. Democracy? Where? Egypt? Yemen? Libya? (How’d that Benghazi situation work out?) Yet American policymakers continue to act as if “progress” is being made toward “liberating” the peoples of the Middle East. It leads to absolute stupidity on occasion. Such as pretending that Saudi sheiks have a better human rights record than Bashar Assad; such as intelligent people tricked into thinking there may be moderates within Hezbollah with whom they can negotiate. (Reality: Hezbollah is a more dangerous terrorist group than Al-Qaida.) And don’t get me started on those who think that an independent Palestine would actually be a viable nation-state. (If Israel ever did close the borders the way it is accused of doing, Palestine would starve to death.) The Middle East is where Sunnis kill Shiites, everyone hates the Kurds, non-Muslims are unwelcome, and anarchy prevails with such tenacity that some group you’ve never heard of this week is likely to control vast swaths of an erstwhile nation-state next week. A dispassionate observer might conclude that anti-Semitism is the only shared value in the region.
But forget Middle Eastern history; let’s examine our own. If we’ve learned little else in the last five decades we should see that the Marshall Plan—aid plus covert activity to weaken rebellions--may have worked in postwar Europe, but it sure doesn’t work in the Middle East. The United States hasn’t been very successful in nation-building for a very long time. It has, alas, been very successful at making bad situations worse. Think back to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The U.S. covertly aided a group of “freedom fighters” there called the Mujahedeen. They got rid of the Soviets alright, and then morphed into the Taliban. One of its leaders was a Saudi exile named Osama bin Laden who, of course, headed Al-Qaida. And didn’t Reagan, Clinton, and the two Bushes do a great job by playing Iran and Iraq off against each other. We gave Saddam Hussein weapons to help him against Iran—a sworn enemy since 1979, but a place in which the US has meddled since the Eisenhower years. Somehow, Reagan was actually stupid enough to think that if we sold weapons to Iran to help it fight the very Saddam to whom we had previously armed, Iran would be grateful enough to help secure the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon. Note to all future presidents: If a nation’s leaders refer to your nation as the “Great Satan,” gratitude is unlikely. Assistance is even less so.
It’s equally unlikely that anything happening in Syria these days will yield good results. Consider the comments of Mouaz al-Khatid, the man who desperately wants to take Assad’s place as Syria’s leader. He complains that the West worries more about “the length of the fighters’ beards” than of Assad’s massacres. And well it should. The very idea that supporting the lesser of two monsters somehow yields a purring kitten when the fighting stops, is foolish. The more probable result is that Syria’s new government will contain a radical Islamic majority contemptuous of the United States. Syria is on the path to theocracy, not democracy, and is better positioned to devolve to the 12th century than vault into the 21st. The only question is whether it becomes antagonistic to the U.S. with or without U.S. cash and weaponry. Syrians won’t love us; they’ll just be better armed. Note to John Kerry: Don’t be a chump like your predecessors. Just walk away, with your hand over your wallet.