Arm the Syrian Rebels?

The level of John McCain and Lindsey Graham agitation over any given foreign policy issue should have an inverse correlation with the general public’s perception of what amounts to a good idea.

In the case of arming the “vetted” Syrian rebels, each successive shrieking bleat for more urgency in the matter of placing sophisticated weaponry in the hands of “moderate Islamist” militants should cause a respective dose of pump the breaks among public opinion.  The Free Syrian Army, whose virtues McCain, Graham, Jen Rubin, Bill Kristol and the rest of the neocon amen chorus never tire of extolling, is in fact a Muslim Brotherhood operation. But you wouldn’t know that from the way the political class talk about them. In the eyes of the always-already interventionists, there is always a ready force of Jeffersonian freedom fighters just waiting to be aided by the benevolent American liberators. The reality is more like having a disparate arrangement of angry Sunnis who tilt closer to the jihad than to pluralism or liberty. And they are likelier to view US assistance as reckless and clumsy machinations from the world’s most visible hand. And just as unwelcome meddling by the state corrupts the market, so does muddled policy in a sectarian conflict elicit only resentment and treachery among those we are ostensibly helping.

We cannot possibly know who the “good guys” are in Syria. Some rebel factions are only interested in toppling Assad, while others are committed to fight ISIS. Many are just waiting to see how things shake out and then will fall in with the whoever the victors are. The so-called moderates that inhabit the Free Syrian Army are just as fond of beheadings as ISIS. They possibly sold Steven Sotloff to ISIS, who ultimately decapitated him. Now there are signs they have signed a cease-fire with ISIS so they can concentrate on battling Assad, though they of course deny that. (Not much prospect of getting free US-made RPGs and MANPADS if a pact with ISIS leaks). The clear takeaway is that Syria is riddled with chaos that cannot be easily navigated or solved. The sectarian conflict within Islam has been going on for close to 1500 years, yet our genius foreign policy mandarins in Washington think they can waltz in and fix everything, yet again. We’re only three years into the fallout from the Tunisia and Cairo affairs igniting the Arab Spring, an event that has seen secular autocrats deposed in favor of a toxic vacuum from which only chaos and jihad could ever have sprung. But the neocons can’t bring themselves to admit that there is no amount of top men capable of turning that region of the world into a peaceful democratic redoubt.

Lately I’ve been especially bothered by the conservative hawk tendency to mirror perfectly the follies of progressivism. It’s the fatal conceit applied to foreign policy. Neocons believe they are the only ones equipped to address the problem of radical Islam. Dan Henninger (who I otherwise like in matters not related to foreign policy) went so far as to assert that the world is too dangerous to allow the Democratic Party to be in charge. I would agree wholeheartedly if the brief against allowing progressive reign was to do with their economic agenda; but I can’t rightly get behind a platform that thinks its stewardship of foreign policy under George W. Bush is the beacon from which all future American foreign policy must shine. No thanks. That is not to say the progressives have a better vision or policy regarding America’s place in the world; they absolutely do not. The point is that on matters of state in regions rife with sectarian hatred living under a religion yet to undergo its much awaited Reformation, there simply aren’t any easy answers, if there are answers at all. The worst thing a democratic republic of free people can do is sanction their government’s insistence that they know – this time – they know exactly how to solve impossible problems.

Is that isolationist? Of course not. For starters, isolationism implies a reluctance to trade with the world as well as an ignorant suspicion of global markets and free movement of capital around the planet. Neither is it a call for doing nothing. By all means, work with allies, build a coalition, get consent and authorization from Congress and then hit ISIS where they can be hit from the sky. The special ops ground forces will undoubtedly be asked yet again to perform heroic acts while undermanned, but that is the unfortunate yield from last decade’s wars of occupation and incompetence: a thorough “No Mas!” from the citizenry back home regarding the insertion of whole new brigades into Iraq. And in Syria, the situation is far more confusing, dangerous, and not worth our investment, especially if infantrymen are going to be asked to clear corners and go door-to-door in urba warfare as they did in Fallujah, as they would no doubt have to in Aleppo and Raqaa. It can’t be done, at least not as efficiently and smoothly as the hawks so offensively suggest.

The sardonic hilarity that one can glean from this whole episode is this: due to unbridled hubris on the part of Dick Cheney and the neocons, we have spent eleven years poking our big stick in the world’s biggest pile of fire ants, and arguing over the welts on our ankles as we stand idly in the ant hill, clumsily and futilely swinging the stick where and when it suits us. But we continue to be bit. And is there a more stark manifestation of this parable than in our Air Force now having to launch airstrikes against our own vehicles and weaponry, stolen by ISIS from the Iraqi Army that we spent a decade equipping and training?

Let’s not arm the Syrian rebels, because we’re just as likely to have to face our own weaponry at some point in the future.

Bring Back the Despots

Let me state this at the outset: foreign policy is hard.

It is particularly hard for libertarians and non-interventionists when global conflagrations are on the rise, as they are today. So I don’t pretend to have the answers. Better to profess ignorance than to claim to have all the knowledge. Someone once called that wisdom.

When an awful atrocity like the beheading of an American journalist occurs and is broadcast proudly, tauntingly to the world by the barbarians who comprise the Islamic State, it is tempting to cast the the absurdly complicated conflicts of the Middle East in black and white, good vs. evil lines. No doubt, ISIS is evil. Basic human decency and threads of common morality running through disparate cultures are in accord with the need to confront this type of evil directly. In times like these, emotion almost always prevails over sobriety, and here the appropriate emotional response is likely the visceral one.

And I am not even going to say that sobriety should necessarily prevail here. My instincts upon hearing of the beheading of James Foley were to unleash holy hell on militant jihadists the world over and to rigorously condemn the global obsession with “multiculturalism,” the phenomenon which undoubtedly provided the space for such an absurd circumstance as a British citizen’s decapitating an American civilian on YouTube to materialize. By encouraging large quantities of Muslim immigration and requiring little to no assimilation in host countries, the EU and UK have created pockets of Muslim populations in Europe who do not see themselves as European or Western, and are quick to revive tendencies such as anti-semitism. The predictable results of un-assimilated populations experiencing poverty from their preferred atomization from western society is what we’re seeing today: thousands of European and British citizens flocking to Syria and Iraq to join the cause. This is maddening, and makes one want to do something about it. And yet, once the emotional rage subsides, as it inevitably does, it behooves us to consider the broader implications of whatever retaliatory measures we select.

It is beyond ridiculous that the great existential threat to human decency of three years ago – Bashar Assad – is now poised to be our great ally in the existential fight against ISIS. Likewise with Iran, who will undoubtedly launch a pseudo invasion of Iraq if ISIS manage to conquer Baghdad. Your average western citizen could be forgiven for suffering from a major case of logic whiplash: recent history has preached the necessity of confronting the evil of Iranian hegemony and the specific threat to global freedom that would entail should they acquire nuclear weapons capability. Even more recently we have been told that Assad “needs to go” because he was a vicious and evil dictator prone to the comprehensive abuse, torture and murder of his own people. And before we found out about the immediate threat to our way of life posed by ISIS, we endured the spectacle of Russians on the march.

The same voices that wished us to intervene on behalf of “the rebels” to counter Assad’s vicious brutality in Syria are now admitting that we in fact require the Assad regime’s assistance in confronting ISIS. What I take from this is that it’s best to not rush to judgment about who the good and bad guys are in a cauldron as unpredictable and volatile as the Middle East. The more difficult takeaway is the one nobody likes to verbalize, yet everyone is beginning to understand to be the hard truth: that as long as the Middle East is engulfed in a vicious Sunni-Shia civil war (going on 1300 years now) and religious doctrine that (for whichever of the numerous reasons) breeds only contempt for western values and economic prosperity, the only bulwark against chaos and anarchy is despotism.

It feels vulgar to even express this sentiment, but the Middle East was simply less volatile and less of a threat to the West (and really, even to its own people) when it was largely governed by despots and tyrants. Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Bashar Assad and Moammar Qaddafi were/are terrible human beings who abused their own subjects, but they were also effective corks on their respective nations’ bubbling discontents. Remove the corks, as the United States did in Iraq and Libya and the Arab Spring served to do in Egypt, and the resulting vacuum is filled not by democratic pluralists but by fundamentalist Islamists. I think we have enough evidence now to conclude this to be more than a trend. It is an inescapable reality.

I think the only thing that can heal the Middle East in the long run is the injection of some Deng Xiaoping style market reforms, so that those subjected to such violence and suffering can instead have a little wealth and prosperity. But until the Middle Eastern Milton Friedman emerges, the only way to stop the madness over there, unfortunately, is to bring back the despots. I wish it were not so, but it is. In the meantime, I think the responsible non-interventionist position is to continually highlight the perils of even trying to figure out which rebels are “good” or “moderate” and to discourage emotional reactions that lead to irrational commitments to nation building or other general efforts at imposing order on a permanently disorderly part of the world.

Ultimately, when it comes to the Middle East our position should heed the wisdom of Socrates and admit the truth: “we know nothing.”