|Cobbler's shop, Syria, early 20th century, via Pieter van Ostaeyen.|
Verbatim David Brooks, "Being Who We Are", New York Times, January 30 2015:
The Middle East is not a chessboard we have the power to manipulate. It is a generational drama in which we can only play our role. It is a drama over ideas, a contest between the forces of jihadism and the forces of pluralism. We can’t know how this drama will play out, and we can’t direct it. We can only promote pluralism — steadily, consistently, simply.It's possible that our correspondent is not fully conversant with the rules of chess, but it is a game in which players cannot manipulate the board but only play their roles.
It is certain that our correspondent is not wholly on board with the forces of pluralism (if he were, he would hardly be such a fervent supporter of the Likud dream of a "Jewish state" in which Muslims and Christians, or people who are not Jewish by religion or race, are second-class citizens by definition), but that's exactly the problem in Syria, the country he's dwelling on today: that pluralism in urban western Syria clings desperately to the figure Brooks wants to attack, the (unarguably) evil Bashar al-Assad, and the figures Brooks wants to support, the "moderate rebels", have mostly not been able to broaden themselves to include people outside the observant Sunni community, and cannot be trusted to oppose the jihadists. They are not moderate pluralists but moderate jihadists. If you want to promote pluralism steadily, consistently, simply, you will have to side with Assad, and if you don't want to literally side with Assad, gods forbid we should do that, you'll have to adopt a less steady and simple approach, as President Obama has chosen to do.
It's because of his inability to understand these things that Brooks took his place among the Keyboard Kommandos of 2002-03 in ginning up war fever against the (unarguably) evil dictator Saddam Hussein of Iraq, with its deadly consequences not just for America and not just for Iraq but also for Syria—it's the Iraq invasion that gave Syria its (unarguably) evil jihadist forces (built out of veterans of the international jihadist struggle against Soviet-sponsored pluralism in Afghanistan, with the enthusiastic support of the notably jihadist Reagan administration, who congregated in western Iraq to combat the no longer jihadist Americans and then fled into Syria to regroup). It's not an issue on which we need to give any consideration to Brooks because we know he doesn't have a clue.
On the other hand this isn't just a case of what an ignorant idiot Brooks is, because a large part of his misunderstanding is shared by a pretty wide swath of opinion, among politicians, journalists, and the public on a variety of sides. As I've written before, I think Obama is onto the best (pretty awful) approach available for Syria and Iraq, for reasons it wouldn't maybe be wise for him to give very explicitly, and I'd like to go over that again here, using Brooks as an excuse for refreshing the argument. [Update: For Brooks himself, see the savage fisking of the column by Tom Levenson, every word of it richly earned.]
His column today is basically an expansion of Senator McCain's Tweet:
Must-read @WSJ: "Covert CIA Mission to Arm #Syrian Rebels Goes Awry" http://t.co/4sd6JXUrv4The Wall Street Journal story, by Adam Entous, gives Brooks eight of his sixteen paragraphs—I don't think this one is a plagiarism case, he identifies the source right at the outset, but it's pretty lazy, and he'd know more about the situation if he'd looked at another source, like the fine piece by Jamie Dettmer and Tim Mak at the Daily Beast, which delivers a perhaps less McCain-driven picture of why the CIA funding of the "moderate" Syrian rebels is getting messed with (I say "perhaps" because I don't know exactly what the WSJ article says behind its paywall, with only McCain and Brooks to tell me):
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) January 27, 2015
It wasn't just the incompetence or corruption of the fighters, or the fear that they might defect to jihadists, but the fact that they did defect:
Another wave of US support, the program to train 5,000 Syrian fighters a year for the next three years, run by the US Armed Forces instead of the less than trustworthy CIA Ops division, is meanwhile getting on board.
The most important thing to understand, though, is that the Syrian Militias of Moderation (or Hordes of Humility, maybe, or let's just call them the Burke Brigades) are not going to overthrow Assad and ISIS, or one of the two; militarily, they can do little more than strengthen whichever force they decide not to fight.
This is very well understood by the CIA Analysis division, too, as Mark Mazzetti reported in the Times last August:
An internal C.I.A. study..., one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.
Obama himself can't say exactly what he has in mind, which would require insulting or putting off a lot of people on whose cooperation he depends, but he can repeat over and over again what I guess all the journalists think is a bromide slogan, but I think Obama really means, because it happens to be literally true: There is no military solution in Syria, the solution must be political.
Qualified: There has to be something like a military solution to the problem of the Caliphate or Da'esh forces, which are as yet unable to turn to the political and can only fight, or rather a military route to a political situation, but the solution of Assad is and must be political. This is the reason, as I've argued plenty before, for the administration's emphasis on Kurds, Christians, and Yazidis and other minority peoples in northern Syria and Iraq, because it is so strongly committed to the pluralism that Brooks casually endorses without any idea of what it means, and this is also the reason for its sort of desultory, on-again off-again support for the Syrian Sunni militias: it's important to attack the Da'esh and al-Nusra forces, and it's important to allow all these peoples to develop their community identities that can be deployed as a political force when that becomes possible, but attacking Assad is not going to succeed and is largely a waste of good blood and good money. The importance of the Syrian Sunni militias supported by the US government is political too. They aren't there to win a war but to be ready for peace.
It's very distressing, not just to McCain and Brooks, that the monster Assad should have a "place at the table", but it can't be helped. That's part of what it means to say the solution must be political.
This morning the BBC was running a story about another monster, the South African torturer and murderer Eugene De Kock, former head of the counterinsurgency unit that used to maim and kill the opponents of apartheid at the Vlakplaas farm west of Pretoria in the days of white rule; he cooperated with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was sentenced in 1996 to two life sentences plus 212 years, that's an index of the magnitude of his crimes and his cruelty, and he has now been granted parole. He is being released, said Justice Minister Michael Mutha, "in the interests of nation-building". A lot of people feel bad that he's not being punished more, but the ideas unleashed by Nelson Mandela of building the nation by mercy, even if it meant living with the Afrikaner and English and "Colored" populations without adequate retribution for the centuries of ghastly crimes committed against the native people of South Africa by their oppressors, are generally accepted as necessary.
The world doesn't owe Assad any consideration either, whatsoever, but the terrified people under his protection are another matter. The US threw the Sunni minority of Iraq under the juggernaut in order to punish their disgusting dictator Saddam Hussein, and it wasn't worth it. I still think the US assistance in the murder of Muammar Qadhafi was nowhere near as bad as that, but I can't say it was very helpful to the people of Libya either. Not killing Assad isn't going to make us feel good, but it is going to save a lot more lives than killing him would. That's just politics.