The political left and the longstanding diplomatic establishment have used the irrational fear of a third world war to do nothing as American and western interests and security have been under assault by powerful adversaries and their rogue client states. In many ways, the fundamental world order that gave us the Cold War, with Russia and China juxtaposed to the United States and NATO as the power players, has not fully ended. In fact, it is being re-empowered after periods of democratization and capitalization following the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of China as a world trading partner.
The threat from China is competition in the marketplace – fair and otherwise. There is no place on earth – including Taiwan and North Korea – in which Chinese and American military forces are likely to confront one another. China is using its enormous economic power to buy influence in Africa, South America and even in the United States. China’s interest in Africa is focused more on Sub-Saharan Africa than the Arab Middle East. It has less to do with military hegemony than the acquisition of assets and natural resources to fuel its expanding economic power.
Russia is a different story.
Vladimir Putin is a Soviet Union style leader – an empire builder. He knows that his relatively small and weak economy cannot achieve influence in competitive capitalism in the same way China can. He must rely on using a disproportionate percentage of Mother Russia’s Gross Nation Product on military power and intervention. His main interest right now is the Middle East. Just as the old Soviets had Eastern Europe as a series of puppet governments, Putin has similar plans for Mediterranean Africa. He already has a client state in Iran and growing influence in Iraq through the Iranians -- and he sees Syria as the next acquisition. Stopping the Russian takeover of Syria would put an end to Putin‘s ambitions for a global empire.
The problem we faced by the United States and our allies is the result to two catastrophic foreign policy failures by two presidents – George Bush and Barack Obama.
Contrary to the common narrative, the mistake was not the Iraq War. It was more than justified by the war criminal and horrific actions of Saddam Hussein. Contrary to the neo-political interpretation, the presence of weapons of mass destruction was only one factor. He wars on neighbors, his genocide against both Sunnis and Kurds, his past use of WMDs and his plans to gain nuclear weaponry were all matters that motivated the UN and some 65 nations to call for and impose a regime change.
Again, contrary to the political narrative, Bush did not shoot from the hip. He engaged with allies and sought the approval of the Congress – which he got. Even if it was known that Hussein had removed his WMDs – gas weapons – the war would have gone forward for all the other reasons.
The Bush mistake came after the allied military actions succeeded sooner and better than virtually anyone had predicted. The march to Baghdad was faster and with fewer causalities than anticipated. The shock and awe bombardment of the capital brought down the Hussein regime in a matter of days.
The mistake had a name -- Nouri al Malaki. Rather than functioning as unifier, Malaki, a Shi’ite Muslim, refused to share power with the Sunnis and the Kurds. His animus to Sunnis was a retaliation for the actions of Hussein against Shi’ites. His oppression of those factions led to the civil war that disrupted the entire Middle East.
Regime change has two extremely important phases. Removing the bad folks and putting into place an acceptable replacement. In the initial days of phase two, it is critical that the American military remains on the ground to prevent civil unrest. This is particularly true if regime change is achieved by war rather than diplomacy or economic pressure.
The second disaster was the result of President Obama’s general isolationist policies, which he referred to as “leading from behind.” He was a much more active dis-engager throughout the world than is President Trump.
Obama’s big mistake was to remove U.S. troops from Iraq and allow the nation to disintegrate into both a combination civil and international war. Obama’s policy enabled what he dubbed a “junior varsity” to become – at least temporarily – the most vicious and powerful terrorist organization on earth. Without the help of the U.S. to fight ISIS, the Iraqi government turned to Iran and Russia – and the outcome is what we see today.
Obama’s policy of pandemic retreat was responsible for the situation we have in Syria. Even as he condemned al Assad and assured the nation and the world that the brutal dictator’s “days are numbered,” Obama did nothing to implement that vision. In fact, his refusal to respond after al Assad crossed the “red line” was the green light for Russia and Iran to move into the vacuum.
While the United States and its allies have had a long and positive history of successful regime change, we blew it in Iraq and Syria. But what can be done?
There are basically two choices. We can follow the advice of the foreign policy bureaucrats and establishmentarians who have been largely responsible for the problem. As they have in the past, they promote a policy of acceptance – even appeasement – as the only safe option. Not only should we never use our military, we should not even scare the world with a credible threat of military intervention.
Those who eschew military intervention are following what can only be described as a hope-springs-eternal policy that would have us put our trust in what has not worked for decades. Under this policy, the Syrian civil war will end with al Assad having absolute and ruthless power, Iran will move up as the local dominant power and Iraq will slip into an orbit around Iran.
Then there is perhaps the only viable option to change the disastrous course we are on now – and that means a measured and potentially accelerating the use of military force. The first step might already have been accomplished by the time this commentary is published, and that is a serious military strike against Syria for repeated use of outlawed weapons of mass destruction – in this case, gas.
One option is to take out the Syrian air force. That is not as challenging as it may seem. Critics of this plan argue that since Russians are embedded with al Assad’s air force, we run the risk of killing Russians. In a gross example of political hyperbole, they further suggest this could lead to World War III – an evergreen fear mongering argument from the left regardless of its baselessness. It is more than just unlikely that Russia would take on the U.S. in direct military confrontation.
In, 1981, President Reagan authorized the downing of two Russian-made Libyan jet fighters for provocative actions over the Gulf of Sidra. A post-Soviet Union Russian Ambassador later told me over dinner (Yes, I, too, have had meetings with Russians) that nothing scared the Kremlin more than the downing of those planes because Reagan had no way of knowing if those crafts were being piloted by embedded Russians – and he did not care. In response, Libya stopped attempting to enforce its bogus claim to the Gulf of Sidra.
The second option is an attack on Damascus – even on al Assad, himself. That may sound extreme in today’s discussions, but it was again President Reagan who virtually ended Libya’s state sponsorship of terrorism (Lockerbie and the Munich Olympics) when he ordered the bombing of Kaddafi’s presidential palace. Kaddafi escaped, but members of his staff and family were killed in the raid. Following the surgical attack, incidents of international terrorism declined dramatically.
Most folks – including the press, apparently -- do not remember those actions because they did not start a greater conflict. There was no World War III, and they did achieve their goals. It is the subsequent failure to take such swift and effective retaliatory action that has us in the situation we find ourselves today.
For several decades, now, adversarial nations around the world have called our bluff. It is now necessary to show that we are no longer bluffing – and Syria is a good place to start.