This morning, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and JCS Chairman General Martin Dempsey are once again testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Often these meetings are political posturing but sometimes the questions are pertinent and the answers are revealing. As so often in the past, the Senators are probing into our strategies in Iraq and Syria, and what comes across strongly is that, in both cases, we are following what we hope is the least bad of very unpalatable alternatives. But, like it is said of second marriages, these strategies are the triumph of hope over experience.
“Take Syria – please!”, as Rodney Dangerfield might say. We want Assad to go, but we don’t want either a descent into chaos or a replacement regime that is just as bad or even worse. It isn’t surprising that we really don’t have a strategy to accomplish this, as Obama has repeatedly admitted. We have two recent examples of what can happen when a dictator is overthrown in the Middle East. We helped topple Gaddafi in Libya, and the result gives even chaos a good name. In Egypt, Mubarak was removed with our encouragement and connivance only to be replaced by an autocratic military dictatorship. And in each of these cases the countries involved were fairly stable before their revolutions, at least by Middle East standards. By contrast Syria is a boiling cauldron of conflict that is already producing one of the greatest human catastrophes of recent times.
So let us suppose for an insane moment that Assad voluntarily leaves without taking down the instrumentalities of government. What then? As Ash Carter relates, we want “some reasonable Syrian opposition” to take charge, commit to a pluralistic government, and execute a forceful and successful campaign to purge Syria of ISIS and the al-Nusra front. This fanciful dream is what passes for our strategy.
I am reminded, as I am so often with the international policies of the Obama administration, of an oft-quoted paraphrase of an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.”
This brings me to my point. Take the premise which began this exercise in futility. Precisely why do we want Assad to go? No doubt he is a murderous thug, but at least he was maintaining some semblance of stability, and he had reached a partial accommodation with our ally Israel that avoided outright confrontation. Given a realistic assessment, might he not indeed be the least bad of unpalatable alternatives? The results of attempting his overthrow so far, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, include 7.6 million internally displaced persons and 12.2 millions desperately needing humanitarian assistance. This is not the direct consequence of our actions alone, but we do bear some responsibility. And there is no light at the end of this tunnel.