We are arming al Qaeda-aligned rebels in Syria. We are doing this because Bashar al Assad is supposedly a bad guy and now we are told there is a cassus belli in that he may have used chemical weapons.
Was it OK, by contrast, when the rebels massacred a Shia village earlier this week or shot government soldiers in cold blood and posted it on youtube? Under what principle is it worse for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons than it is for the rebels fighting that government to engage in numerous, intentional, very brutal violations of the law of war?
One or another side’s tactics does not logically tell us that we ought to choose a side and go to war. It matters a great deal what each of the sides are fighting for. And it is even more important to assess whether assisting one or the other side is in our interest. There is always the option of neutrality. It should be adopted in the vast majority of cases.
Assad is no great guy. He, like most Middle Eastern dictators, has little regard for the rule of law, has enriched himself at the expense of the public, has used disproportionate violence against his opponents, supported our enemies in Iraq, and has associated with Hezbollah, which is undeniably a terrorist group. That said, he has led a moderately prosperous, orderly, and tolerant regime that is multireligious, protective of Christians, and otherwise stable and predictable. We’ve seen in recent years similar dictators deposed in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt with totally unpredictable results that are clearly worse than the status quo ante. We can deal with dictators; we cannot manage anarachy. Even if Assad deserves to be toppled–and I am doubtful of this–what business is it of ours to sign on with a rebel group that is even more hostile to our nation and its principles?
One may wonder why Russia has become so involved with this conflict, supplying sophisticated arms and a great deal of diplomatic support to Syria. Two reasons seem clear. Russia, like the US, has carried on some of its Cold War alliances out of habit, such as its friendly relations with Cuba and North Korea. More important, Russia is acting as the protector of Orthodox Christians throughout the world. This is in line with Samuel Huntington’s thesis in Clash of Civilizations and explains at least a portion of Russia’s foreign policy. This was the chief reason for its support of Serbia during the Kosovo affair, for example.
Why this would be so in Syria is not readily apparent, as the Alawite minority ruling group is a subgroup of Shia Islam. But there is a pretty obvious explanation. The Alawaite Ba’athist regime in Syria, like Saddam’s Ba’athist regime in Iraq, grew out of a secular ideology and historically has found its greatest support in a hodgepodge of ethnic and religious minorities. These minorities are all scared of the numerical majority Sunnis and their increasing extremism. In Syria, the Sunni extremists are part of the broader Salafist/Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam that finds its most militant expression in al Qaeda.
Thus, we have a war with secular and religious minorities (Christians, Shias, Alawites, Druze etc.) on one side, who favor law and order and the devil they know, and, on the other side, fanatical Sunni extremists aligned with increasingly irrelevant secular enemies of the regime. The rebel platform is essentially one of genocide and religious totalitarianism. This is what we are supporting, and this is undeniably worse than what Assad has delivered throughout his time as leader, in spite of himself, because of the coalition nature of his minority support and the type of governance that flows naturally from such a coalition.
America and Reagan were criticized for “arming bin Laden” during the fight against the Soviet client state in Afghanistan. This criticism always struck me as pretty stupid and facile. It’s like saying we were incredibly wrongheaded in World War II to support the Soviet Union, whom we later opposed, in order to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Things change. Coalitions come and go. There was no easy way to predict what exactly would come of the anti-Soviet rebels back when there was no Taliban or al Qaeda and, more important, it was worth it at the time to contribute to the devolution of the Soviet regime, even when some risks were apparent.
Whether that criticism of US policy has any merit, it surely is absolutely ridiculous to arm al Qaeda-aligned rebels simultaneously when we’re fighting a war with such people. There is no need for a crystal ball, unlike the 1980s support of the Afghan mujaheddin. The better analogy would be if the US had adopted a schizophrenic policy during World War II of aligning with Nazi Germany, while we were fighting Imperial Japan, even as the two remained allies themselves.
Let’s not forget what the real Benghazi scandal is. Libya spun out of control after the US and European powers in 2011 undertook a totally lawless campaign there, a campaign without UN Security Counsel or Congressional authorization. The rebels killed Qadaffi in cold blood, when they were not killing black Africans allied with the government. Soon Libya, like Syria today, became a magnet for the “jihad tourists,” who undoubtedly could not resist the American target. Learning nothing of the very recent past, we’re now going to arm al Qaeda rebels because the regime they are fighting against used one among many nasty weapons in what is invariably the most nasty of wars: a civil war.
The law of war is important, as is respect for the rights of civilians and other noncombatants. But violations of the law of war alone are not a reason to go to war. This is doubly so when the so-called good guys are just as guilty of violating the law of war as those whom we now aim to oppose. Most important, the people we are proposing to support with arms, in addition to fighting atrociously, are fighting for a goal that is fundamentally atrocious: Islamist totalitarianism and mass murder of the Assad regime’s supporters.
For a guy who appeared to have some sensible, nonideological instincts to oppose a great deal of military intervention during the 2008 campaign, Obama has shown himself to be as deeply wedded to the Washington DC interventionist consensus as anyone before him. Indeed, he has apparently doubled down in his recent elevation of the interventionist Samantha Power to the post of UN ambassador.
We find the answer to this apparent contradiction in Obama’s lifelong leftism. Obama is not essentially a pacifist, but rather an anti-American leftist. He most favors wars that have nothing to do with America’s interest. In the liberal imagination, such wars are far preferable to wars where strategic goods like oil or commerce may be affected, as these interventions are marked by purity of intention. Thus, he proposed to fold up the tents and scale back the war on al Qaeda earlier this week, even as he propels our forces into messy civil wars in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Worse, Obama is willing not only to ignore America’s interest in these cases, but to work directly contrary to it by arming al Qaeda-aligned rebels in the name of “humanitarian war.”
This is more than misguided do-gooderism. This is treachery that knows no bounds, as it is no ordinary betrayal of the common good, but rather a treachery that imagines itself as a cosmopolitan, universalist morality that transcends parochial and discriminatory notions of mere national interest.