Advocates of U.S. military intervention in Syria argue that a failure to act would undermine our credibility. America’s credibility in the Middle East is certainly at an all-time low, but bombing Syria would only bring it lower.
Barack Obama struck the greatest blow to America’s credibility back in 2011, when he joined the mob calling for Egyptian president Mubarak’s ouster. Hosni Mubarak was widely considered our closest and most reliable friend in the Arab world, and the way we summarily threw him under the bus shocked the Saudis, the Jordanians, and other pro-American autocrats. Of course, they didn’t know Barack Obama the way we do. If they had only paused to consider how ruthlessly he abandoned his long-time spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, when it suited his interests, the Arabs would have realized that the only thing Obama is loyal to is his overweening ambition.
But Barack Obama’s betrayal was Vladimir Putin’s opportunity. The former KGB agent has long regarded his country’s fall from superpower status as a major catastrophe, and he is diligently seeking to regain lost ground. Putin’s message to the Arab world’s despots is straight-forward: The Americans may be (temporarily) stronger than we are, but they’re totally unreliable. One day they’ll nominate you for the Nobel Peace Prize, the next day they’ll bring you to trial for war crimes. Russia, on the other hand, is the soul of fidelity. Once you become our friend, we stick by you through thick and thin, no matter how many atrocities you commit. So ditch the Americans, and sign up with us.
Putin’s strategy is on full display in Syria. Besides defending Assad in the Security Council, he’s also threatening to send Damascus a long-delayed shipment of Russian-manufactured S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, should the United States violate international law and attack Syria. Unfortunately, these “defensive” missiles can reach deep into Israeli air space, thereby giving them an “offensive” capability and changing the balance of power in the Middle East. So Obama’s “shot across the bow” might well end up triggering a new Arab-Israeli war.
That’s just one example of the oldest and most trustworthy rule of statecraft (both foreign and domestic): the Law of Unintended Consequences. A second example has to do with perspective. From Washington’s Olympian perspective, lobbing a few missiles at Syria might seem like little more than a pin-prick. From the perspective of a hapless Syrian soldier on the ground, it might be perceived as the end of the world. From all reports, Assad’s army is already demoralized, and an American attack, though far from measuring up to Sen. McCain’s formidable standard of ferocity, might just be the “tipping point” that brings about mass defections and desertions. Like Putin’s much-lamented Soviet empire, Assad’s army and regime could crumble overnight -- and whether we want to or not, we’d have to put “boots on the ground” to prevent al Qaeda from inheriting his weapons of mass destruction. Of course, these troops would need to be protected from irate locals, which means we’d have to send in still more troops. Pretty soon, we’d be constructing a “Green Zone” in Damascus and overseeing another military “surge” to prevent Syria from descending into utter chaos. Chalk up another victory for the Law of Unintended Consequences.
“Not so fast!” cry the interventionists. “We don’t have to send in more American troops. All we need to do is empower the moderates, and let them do our dirty work for us.”
Although I, personally, have never encountered an Arab moderate, I suppose they do exist, and perhaps there are significant numbers of them among the Syrian rebels. The problem is that there are also many radicals who masquerade as moderates in order to garner American support -- a strategy the communists called “boring from within.” Distinguishing between real and phony moderates is a daunting task, and I mean no disrespect to the outstanding men and women of our intelligence services when I point out that ever since we supported the late Col. Nasser in the early 1950s on the assumption that he was a reliably anti-Soviet moderate, our record in distinguishing friend from foe in the Middle East has been less than stellar. We might easily end up helping our worst enemies come to power in Syria. Wouldn’t that be a doozy of an Unintended Consequence?
Does all this suggest that we don’t have a credibility problem in the Middle East? Of course not. Our problem is real and serious, and we need to think long and hard about ways to overcome it. But bombing Syria would only give us a reputation for stupidity, on top of our already well-deserved reputation for fecklessness.