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The Amateurish Syria Debate in Congress

Judging from the tone of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and Martin Dempsey’s reception before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there isn’t much chance that Congress is going to brake Obama’s desire to strike Syria. American popular opinion (running overwhelmingly against a move which has considerable possibility of igniting a war of unknown size and consequence) seems to be viewed by everyone inside the Beltway simply as an obstacle to be overcome, not a judgement to be considered. The people, and their views, are an inconvenience.

Most Americans are not, in fact, very well informed about foreign affairs, but unlike Congress they are neither influenced by AIPAC nor by puffed up self-regard about what it means to be the world’s only superpower. In an amusing and revealing episode, The Times describes as critical AIPAC’s recent decision to back a strike on Syria, and then bowdlerized its own coverage, editing out in subsequent editions the paragraph where a White House official describes AIPAC as an “800 pound gorilla.” Yes, a gorilla powerful enough to make newspapers fearful of mentioning its existence.

I think it is no slam dunk conclusion that Assad ordered the firing of chemical weapons. Gareth Porter notes some discrepancies in the intelligence findings here, and we have learned that the critical interpretation of “chatter” came from Israeli sources, which are not necessarily without bias. Other possibilities are a rogue Syrian army unit, or some sort of rebel operation. I believe it probable that Assad did it, largely because most people do, though his motive remains cloudy. What interest would he have in provoking the firestorm of international repugnance?

The Congress was in high moral dudgeon about the killing of 400 children, roughly the same number killed by the Israelis (using white phosphorous, which leaves untreatable burns, not nerve gas) in Operation Cast Lead. If memory serves, Congress cheered on that operation by a nearly unanimous vote. It would not be surprising if much of the world takes Congress’s assertion of higher morality in matters of war and peace with a grain of salt.

I don’t want to be entirely cynical, and I don’t believe America can ignore what is going on in Syria. But it is disheartening to hear no glimmer of diplomatic strategy from the White House or anywhere else. If airstrikes undermine Assad, does that mean his chemical stockpile falls into the hands of the Al Qaeda infiltrated rebels. To be used against Syrian Christian villages? If not, why not?

And I wonder why there is no vision of diplomacy that takes seriously the interests of other countries besides Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Russia does have a stake in Syria, a longtime ally. Do we really want to try to humiliate Moscow for the sake of the jihadist Syrian rebels? And the consequence of that for American troops in Afghanistan (who may need to exit through Russian controlled territory) will be what exactly?

Secondly, Iran. Clearly the hawks in Congress are focusing there. Some worry that striking Syria may render a war weary public less inclined to attack Iran. Others are hoping that once Americans warm to the sight of our cruise missiles and planes killing Muslims, it will increase their appetite for a war with Tehran. It’s confusing. What I don’t see is anyone who thinks it might be a good time to expand the scope of diplomacy — to push for a diplomatic solution in Syria which included Russia and Iran, which brings them in to help stop the bloodshed. So far the public statements from Tehran have consisted mainly of reminders that Iran itself has been a major victim of chemical weapons attacks (something the United States didn’t mind at the time, when Rumsfeld was chummy with Saddam Hussein). There are faint glimmers of Iranian-American diplomacy, which I hope Obama is pushing. But the president has now shifted away from that, relying on AIPAC and McCain and Lindsey Graham, so he can act tough and show the world that no one can flout his schoolboy “red line.”

It’s a scary time: looking at the White House team, one has sense of amateurism, men driven by cliche. John Kerry, talking about “Munich.” Really? A comparison between a two bit dictator fighting a civil war against a nasty bunch and a dictator methodically invading neighboring countries in the heart of Europe. Can the Munich analogy be retired, or at least used only when appropriate? Oh, and dominoes. Please.

about the author

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottMcConnell9.

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