Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Airborne elephant watch: Suck on what?

Image by Misty Vincent, Pictify.

Elephants may fly, and I really may have to forgive or otherwise learn to live with Thomas P. Friedman, describable today as Thomas L. Friedman, the Mystax Humilitatis, with his move in the following (my bold):
Today, Obama’s critics say he must do “something” about Syria. I get it. Chaos there can come around to bite us. If there is a policy that would fix Syria, or even just stop the killing there, in a way that was self-sustaining, at a cost we could tolerate and not detract from all the things we need to do at home to secure our own future, I’m for it.

But we should have learned some lessons from our recent experience in the Middle East: First, how little we understand about the social and political complexities of the countries there; second, that we can — at considerable cost — stop bad things [jump]
from happening in these countries but cannot, by ourselves, make good things happen; and third, that when we try to make good things happen we run the risk of assuming the responsibility for solving their problems, a responsibility that truly belongs to them.
It's not exactly mea culpa, but a lot more than I've ever expected, and it goes some way with me, especially alongside his longterm insistence that the Israeli government cannot dictate all the terms of a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. And the fact that he shares today's op-ed page in the Times with none other than Count Mikhail Georg'evič Ignat'ev, worst politician in the history of Canadian literature and worst writer in the history of Canadian politics, better known as Michael Ignatieff, the Bare Upper Lip of Incomprehension as it were, urging that if possible we should do the opposite, i.e. work as hard as we can to learn nothing from our recent experience in the Middle East, and mount a little air war against the evil opthamologist Syrian president, in opposition to some fictional "conventional wisdom" according to which nothing can be done at all:
The trouble is that the conventional wisdom may be fatalism parading as realism and resignation masquerading as prudence.
Both, now? Fatalism and resignation, parade and masquerade, realism and prudence?
Any realist needs to face two facts. First, absent the credible application of force against the Syrian regime, a negotiated transition leading to Mr. Assad’s departure is not going to happen.... Second, if Mr. Assad is allowed to prevail in this conflict, he will reimpose his tyranny, and his forces will surely exterminate the remaining Sunni insurgents who make up most of the opposition.
Where are your two facts? I'm stuck at zero. I see two more or less plausible predictions...
Arming the rebels is not the answer [but] appears to have only increased civilian suffering without shifting the conflict in favor of the insurgents.
Another non-fact and one that is at the moment in some dispute.
Neither is the solution to create humanitarian corridors or safe zones to protect civilians. Doing so will not succeed unless Western governments commit ground forces...
A fourth non-fact, while the word at last month's Kuwait conference, in contrast, was that it wouldn't succeed unless Western governments committed $6.5 billion, which would be significantly cheaper than troops and their hardware. Truly safe zones that are actually not in Syria but Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan are already helping a great deal but cannot be sustained without financial assistance. I argued quite a while back here that taking care of the refugees was not only a humanitarian necessity but the key to a plausible nonviolent strategy to bring Assad down.
Image by Andrea T. at ScrapGirls.
The only remaining option is to use force to deny Mr. Assad air superiority. Planes, drones and cyber operations could prevent his forces from using barrel bombs, cluster munitions and phosphorus weapons on civilian targets.... The aim would be to relieve the unrelenting pressure on the civilian population and force Mr. Assad to return to Geneva to negotiate a cease-fire. 
But saving civilian lives is exactly what air support options alone will not contribute to, to any significant extent, according to last year's extremely thorough Rand study:
What the use of US air power would do, on the other hand, Ignatieff knows perfectly well. He just doesn't care:
Given the near certainty that Russia would veto any United Nations Security Council authorization of air power, and that the United States Congress, if asked to authorize force, would likely turn President Obama down, [the Ignatieff Doctrine approach to] stopping the war in Syria will stretch domestic and international legality.
Well, that's certainly a plus. If you're a psychopath. But striking though it might be as an accomplishment to infuriate both the Russian government and the US Congress at the same time, that would only encourage the former to double down on funding Assad and the latter to double down on impeachment talk, with the difference that for a change the Republicans would have actual grounds for doing it.

Or if we wanted to enrage the Russian government and the US Congress in ways that would not tend to lead to total destruction, we might try bringing Iran into the Syrian peace process (enraging Russia and Congress by moving them out of the spotlight, and as an especially delightful bonus Israel and Saudi Arabia too!), together with the two options (funding the FSA and growing havens for Syrian civilians) that Ignatieff absolutely and groundlessly rejects. If there is any remaining option, it lies in recognizing that the conflict in Syria is (as I was arguing the other day) not the Arab Spring, if it ever was, but the Iraq War prolonged, and that  our natural partner in West Asia, our Persian friends, must play a role, and that, as Friedman said, the people of West Asia will have to take care of their problems themselves (we can facilitate) not, as Ignatieff's "conventional wisdom" might claim, because we can't afford to do it, but because if they can do it at all, they'll do a much better job, and if they can't nothing we do will change that.
Image by Hiren & Pankaj.

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