Questions are raised in Washington, Paris, and London regarding the coalition strikes against Syria last week. Missiles were launched against Syrian government chemical warfare facilities and, reportedly, destroyed.
Did the U.S. and French presidents and the British prime minister exceed their legal authority in ordering these strikes? Was the tactic sound in terms of larger political and diplomatic strategy?
The degree of executive authority in foreign affairs is restricted in Western parliamentary democracies, but to what extent and under what conditions? There are sound reasons for keeping these important questions without definitive answers, because foreign affairs take place in a jungle. In such an environment, you leave some leeway to the sheriff, or scout, marshal, white knight — however you want to call the man — or woman, in this case Theresa May — who is in the position of Tom Doliphon in the John Ford meditation on maintaining the peace, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
You should watch that film closely, even if you already have. You should read a version in your language of The Song of Roland. We are not there yet, but we may be getting close.
Someone has to pull the trigger and stop the bad guys. And while it is well to consult with your fellow-government officials, including even the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Mélenchon and such nominal allies as Angela Merkel and Paolo Gentiloni, you do not necessarily have time; or they cannot make up their minds; or, in short, it’s them or us.
Command is lonely. But recall: The pagans cry, the Emperor arrives, Hear the sounds and trumpets of the Franks!
Some in the media express the view that the sea-land-air attack on the Syrian chemical weapons factories represented a prudent and strategically sound response to the regime’s “barbarism,” as Brit foreign minister Boris Johnson said, noting at the same time he did not expect the barbarism to cease, a sharp insight from the man Mr. Tyrrell and I sought to draft for the Republican Party presidential nomination years ago (he is a New Yorker by birth).
Syrian government forces used the weapons to finish off an opposition enclave, Douma, near Damascus, which already was little more than rubble. Reports were that about three score people, including civilians, were gassed and burned. Any bombing of a civilian neighborhood with explosives will have the same effect, and Douma, long a center of Syrian opposition forces and organizations, has been subjected to several of the civil war’s many atrocities.
But chemical weapons are banned under international law. I almost wrote “under something called international law” but held off from a sense of fair-and-accurate; after all, there is a body of law to which many countries — including Syria — nominally adhere, and as it happens, it prohibits using chemical weapons. It prohibits many other deeds, criminalizes them in fact, with varied deterrent effectiveness. Individuals can be tried for war crimes.
The bombings were successful, according government spokesmen in all three allied capitals.
President Donald Trump, therefore, announced “mission accomplished,” which inevitably brought with it memories of G. W. Bush employing the same phrase 15 years ago to describe the rolling up of the Iraqi army. As with the best laid plans of mice and, the proverb has it, men, the mission was just beginning. The situation in Iraq and beyond, which the military overthrow of Saddam Hussein was supposed to simplify, was getting more complicated.
Today, Russia is involved in the region, and particularly in Syria, in ways it was not in 2003-4, when President Bush thought he had achieved his war aims. Iran has expanded its role and influence among the Arabs, as well, either directly or through proxies such as the Lebanese Party of God, Hezbollah. According to many observers, Iran and Russia between them saved the Assad regime in Syria at a time our government was promoting a transnational movement called the “Arab Spring,” a sirocco of liberty from North Africa to west Asia. Despite the vast resources the U.S. government expends to promote democracy, this was a flop.
Does “mission accomplished” mean we and our gallant British and French allies served peace, law, and order in Syria by destroying the tyrant Assad’s chemical arms factories, or was this rather a diplomatic message sent by military courier?
Was that the mission? Then what was the message?
In the Middle East and beyond, there is, for sound reasons, a chronic worry that nuclear weapons and launching systems will fall into the hands of men crazy or evil enough to use them. The Bush administration was anxious enough about weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Iraq’s ruler Saddam Hussein that it convinced itself it must overthrow him. Fear of the bomb is the number one worry about the Persian Shia regime in Tehran. It keeps people awake worrying about the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea. The message may well have been for them, and others around the world, as well as for the Shia sectarians in Syria.
The Assad clan belongs to a minority Shia sect called the Alawites, about 10 percent of the Syrian population, who took control of the military and security services when Bashar’s father, Hafez, seized power in a 1970 coup d’état. Hafez was a leader of the Syrian branch of the Ba’ath (Arab Renaissance) Party, as Saddam was of the Iraqi branch.
Their goal was a pan-Arab nation that would reverse the years of colonial humiliation, intellectual and economic stagnation, and widespread mental problems that exacerbated violence, political, transnational, and personal (i.e., s*x deviance). However, the Ba’athists fell out among themselves, purged their parties, and devolved into national tyrannies. They fought the Muslim Brothers, who meant to supplant pan-Islamism for pan-Arabism. Hafez is alleged to have artillery-fired a Brotherhood stronghold in the town of Hama, in early 1980s, and killed everything that moved.
Some reports mentioned poison gas. The Reagan administration did not bomb Syria, then under Soviet Russian protection; the Soviets used a naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast and military cooperation was well established. Since 2011, Russian naval vessels regularly use the Tartus base.
Foreign policy by tomahawk telegraphy? It has its advantages. But you must also consider this: Even though the Russians defended the Assad regime when the Arab Spring turned into a civil war that has devastated the country, brought a million refugees to Europe and America, and facilitated the continuation of armed Islamism in the form of Islamic State, the Russians could be exerting a moderating influence on the Alawites and the Persian Shia with regard to their actions outside Syria. Russians are implacably brutal when they believe they can get away with it and need to — viz., Katyn, 1940; Stalingrad, 1943, Budapest, 1956 — but they are mindful of not getting in over their heads, as they did in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
They might have attacked us back in the days of Soviet imperialism — but arms races from Truman to Reagan kept them within bounds, for they saw we were swifter. Try saying that to men who fought in Korea and Vietnam, but it is a sad fact of post 1945 history; the U.S.-Soviet war was one of proxies and was defined by frustrating doctrines like “containment.” You have to consider this, and make sure the Russians know it, while entertaining schemes to re-make the Middle East.
The bitter quid pro quo of containment is that if they hold theirs back, we hold ours back. Maybe you can never get the calibration right. Bush 41, belonging to the generation that invented containment, may have undersold the offensive possibilities it suddenly rendered possible in 1991; Bush 43, a beneficiary of the containment sacrifices and surrounded by men who learned it from its founders, may have oversold them in 2003 — underestimated the strange new forces aligned against us.
But this remains: Russian hands in Damascus and Tehran might be worth more in terms of preventing nuclear arms proliferation than sanctimonious democracy activism launched out of air conditioned offices in Washington, D.C. In John Ford’s old West, the lawyer Ranse Stoddard, with his well-intentioned lessons on the U.S. Constitution, urges his neighbors to opt for statehood — democracy, rule of law. He teaches them the Declaration of Independence. Liberty Valance has other ideas, and they carry the day — until Doliphon sees that he must do his job.
There were reports in the Israeli press of explosions and considerable damage in Iranian arms depots in Lebanon. These depots are there for several reasons. They give muscle to the Hezbollah’s armed wing, allowing the Shia Lebanese factions to call the shots in Lebanon; prepare for yet another invasion of Israel or artillery war on the border; support Assad as needed in his continuing chemically induced war against other Syrians, though there are at least two and a half million fewer of them than when he launched his let’s-see-who’s-boss domestic program in 2011.
Keep in mind Hezbollah does not move without the mullahs’ say-so.
It is possible, as Hezbollah spokesmen immediately stated, that the destruction of their weaponry and ammo was an accident. But people like that tend to set themselves up for accidents. And as they and their mullah masters in Tehran vent their rage at those whom they think caused this accident, darkly plot revenge stewed in the cauldron of their paranoiac and hate-filled souls, would you rather they were on their own, or would you rather a cold Russian hand, mindful of its own goals and interests, gripped their shoulders?
The Russian ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, is not a relation to Oleg Antonov, the aviation engineer, but he has a long record in arms control negotiations. You want to be careful treading there with Russians, but at least you can tread. Could these shots have been a signal that it is time to sit down and talk?
If you talk, of course, you need a stick. President Trump expresses a normal, correct disgust with the fact that we still have troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Just what is their mission now that we lost Iraq? And would Syria be a promising place to find a new one?
The commonly repeated answer is that we are pulling out, and it is just a matter of making sure the Islamists over there are hors-de-combat. Which is what Bashar says he is up to.
One mission that has not been accomplished is the deployment of the Arab nation’s combined forces in the Middle East’s war zones. Logical: there is no Arab nation and therefore there are no Arab combined forces.
Both the U.S. and the French governments recently announced mind-boggling sales of military equipment to the Saudi Arab government, now headed by a youthful desert prince who dresses in traditional robes. This is not a Catherine-the-Great drag act, but the connection is inescapable as the mighty tsarina was the very embodiment of modernization-from-above. She failed. A nearer example was the young prince’s neighbor, Reza Pahlavi Shah, dictator of Iran with President Nixon’s blessing, dropped like a soiled towel by President Carter, with consequences that ultimately bring us back where we started, an intractable situation in Syria and environs.
Not easy, the Middle East.
However, if Mohammad bin Salman ibn Saud, the young prince, has all these weapons, on top of all the weaponry accumulated by his relatives before he pushed them aside to take over the place and urge it into the modern world, complete with Israel-friendly moves and restrictions on the morals-police and public beheadings that up to now typify his family’s idea of governance, then what is to stop our government from asking him to man up and clean up the neighborhood?
Send him a tomahawk telegram? Obviously that would be rude, after all the nice things he said in Hollywood during his recent visit, even if we threw wide and said it was just for practice.
But with hard-noses like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton in charge, it may be another mission is in the works. The time may yet come for the long-delayed fulfillment of T. E. Lawrence’s Arab vision. Lawrence thought that, in freeing themselves from the hated Turks (who supported the Western strikes against Assad last week), the Arabs would get their acts together in a sort of family-related confederacy of benign monarchies, on good terms with the Brits and the Zionists (Lawrence was an ardent supporter of the Zionist movement).
It did not work out, and Mohammad bin Salman’s grandfather, Abdulaziz al Saud, reduced the place of Lawrence’s friends in the region while unifying the desert tribes into Saudi Arabia. President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II accepted him as a strategic ally and thus began the long friendship between the U.S and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi are the most likely Arabs to speak American English, to favor American automobiles, to play our sports, and in general to be the most like us, as Arabs go.
Which is perhaps why we tend to speak in low voices when letting them know that, frankly, executing a teenage girl in public because she kissed her boyfriend in secret but was spotted by her brother (jealous and horny) is wicked. Sure, the same crime may occur in our country, psycho-pathology wise, but we do not condone it officially and by law, do we?
Now we have a young dashing prince who may, in real fact, feel exactly the same way. Maybe not. He could be a closet misogynist. But heck, give him a chance. So, it may be the time to remind him that those weapons he bought have a purpose. The Middle East needs a sheriff.
With utmost reluctance, we’ve played the part, the Israelis have played the part (in defensive mode), and the English and the French have played parts. The Persians and the Turks and the Russians have claimed to play parts, but from our historic perspective, they have been playing the part of Liberty Valance, so they are playing the wrong part.
You heard the Tomahawks, Prince. Your turn.