Travelling through Europe and the Middle East last week John Kerry may well have wondered if giving up his senate seat to become Secretary of State meant he had merely traded one set of intractable problems for another.
Washington’s political battles over budgets and taxes lurch from crisis to crisis, defying resolution. The Middle East confronts Kerry with interlocking political and military challenges; a situation where fixing one problem runs the risk of making several others worse.
Though Kerry visited nine countries on his first overseas swing as secretary of state, Syria’s civil war inevitably dominated the trip. Perhaps predictably, the $60 million (Dh220.2 million) in “non-lethal” US aid that Kerry announced at the latest Friends of the Syrian People meeting was denounced by both Bashar Al Assad’s government, which sees it as meddling in Syria’s internal affairs, and by Syria’s rebels, who find the help shamefully inadequate.
In a Washington consumed with fiscal and economic issues, whether or not to arm Syria’s rebels is one of the few foreign policy questions that can still break through and find a place on the broader news agenda. On Sunday morning John McCain spent 15 minutes on a TV talk show discussing budget matters and then, as the host was wrapping up and thanking him, interrupted to blurt out: “60,000 dead in Syria. We still haven’t acted!”
The problem, as Kerry surely knows, is that it is one thing to declare that something must be done, but an entirely different matter to figure out what that ‘something’ might be.
This is not a discussion about active intervention. No one in Washington in either party has any appetite for another big military adventure in the Middle East. But there is a difference between providing, say, humanitarian supplies and logistical support and providing weapons and training.
The argument in favour of deeper involvement is both moral and tactical. Moral, on the grounds that the Al Assad regime is a blood-soaked monstrosity lacking legitimacy. From this it follows that right-thinking people ought to support the uprising. Tactical, to the extent that almost everyone now agrees that Al Assad’s days are numbered. From this, it follows that only those who store up capital with Syria’s opposition now will have any influence when Al Assad falls.
Like many things in the worlds of politics and diplomacy it all sounds very straightforward until one begins to look at the details.
Of particular concern in Washington are Syria’s Islamists. As noted, the most powerful policy argument in favour of arming Syria’s rebels — an argument that is being made in Washington with increasing frequency and force — is that doing so is necessary to guarantee American sway with Syria’s future rulers.
The counterargument is that the Syrian opposition is increasingly dominated by Islamist groups of various stripes and it will be impossible to ensure that arms sent to Syria wind up only in the hands of committed democrats. At a moment when most of America’s political right, and a good chunk of its political centre, remain pathologically suspicious of political Islam, this alone is probably sufficient to guarantee that Washington’s aid to the Syrian opposition remains mostly, or wholly, non-lethal for the foreseeable future.
Obsessing over whether the ‘right’ people get whatever aid is sent to the Syrian rebels, however, misses the point.
The real argument for keeping clear of the Syrian conflict, at least in a military sense, is this: neither America nor any other western nation is prepared to commit to the struggle against Al Assad in any substantive way. There will be no ground troops. There will not even be a no-fly zone. The political will to sustain an intervention in Syria simply does not exist. Lacking that will, it is better to keep clear of the conflict in any military sense.
In this context one often hears comparisons to Afghanistan in the 1990s, where America’s loss of interest after Soviet troops withdrew contributed to a collapse of the state and the eventual rise of the Taliban. The more relevant cautionary tale, however, may be 1980s Lebanon. There, an overwhelming desire to do something as the country collapsed led to an ill-considered American, French and Italian military deployment that ended in grief for everyone concerned.
The comparison may seem far-fetched right now, but it goes to the heart of the issue for Americans and other well-meaning outsiders: before taking a well-intentioned move today, consider where it logically leads. If that is not a place you want to go, then you are not doing the Syrians any favours by raising false hopes.
Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.