A Successful Debacle

The situation in Syria seems to be one perfectly constructed for a course in International Politics. This unfolding example has all the classic players and circumstances: a dangerous conflict in a volatile region, rational actors making assumptions, potential adversaries waiting to be influenced, superpowers positioning themselves for future leverage.

Will Assad follow the trend of tumbling dictators and finally fall? Who will govern Syria once he is gone? Will the final result embolden or deter Iran?

Looked at in the calculating light of strategy and favorable outcomes, the recent disapproval of President Obama’s handling of Syria seems reasonable. Yet despite a situation that is still fluid and unresolved, overly colorful opinions such as “fiasco”, “disaster”, and “utter debacle” are being tossed around. When looking at things objectively, these expressions of displeasure seem to be disproportionate to the current realities, and so I can’t help but wonder if this stark contrast is motivated by objective analysis or ideological bias? With so much on the line and public opinion affecting what may happen next, you would hope that those with a platform would be responsible with their words. Opinions on fast-changing events involving real-life outcomes should be flexible rather than rigid, and perhaps most importantly, anchored strongly by an empathetic sense of history.

Exaggerated claims of political calamity aside, the specific arguments are worth revisiting. Not enough support given to the opposition rebels in their battle against the Assad regime? Forgetting that inserting yourself militarily into another country’s civil war could be considered itself a “red line” and breaking of international conventions, supporting a leaderless opposition loaded with extreme elements, hardcore religious fundamentalist and ties to Al-Qaeda is not something we should want more of. Choosing a side in Middle East conflicts because you think it a strategic advantage for other potential problems has not worked well in the past(see: the arming and propping-up of Osama bin Laden in the 1980s leading to today’s Al-Qaeda, and the help in overthrowing Iran’s Prime Minister in the 1950s leading to today’s Iranian extremism.)

There are always unintended consequences, always. And after so many years of obvious failure at this sort of military interventionism, with those unintended human consequences now multiplying and intensifying and spilling into the very Syrian conflict we are now contemplating – you would think we would have learned a lesson.

The United States declared its intention to strike Assad militarily, a threat so credible that the world’s focus switched solely to Syria and the Russian’s final stopped ignoring the crisis. The Assad regime went from pretending that they didn’t know what chemical weapons were to agreeing to abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention and turn over their stockpiles for destruction.

Of course the final outcome is not yet known. Of course the Syrian people still live in horrible circumstances and face a dark road ahead. But short of dropping a bomb that neatly knocks out Assad, secularises and centralizes the rebels, and causes no harm to civilians while still thoroughly scaring Iran – any course of action will be imperfect.

A diplomatic solution has presented itself and for now the world has pulled back from another war. How, in any way that measures up to the potential horrors of military escalation, could this be a bad thing?

Have we gotten too used to this? This cowboy foreign policy, this ease with which we will drop a bomb? And when did it become considered a sign of weakness to be patient, to try for diplomacy and fight only when necessary? When did our finger get so close to the trigger?

Debate and criticism are crucial, but to engage in a case as complex as Syria with an already fixed position in mind is counter-productive. Seeing the world as drawn from a classroom blackboard, with a disregard for the human element in the eventual collateral damage, invites more problems than you think you are solving. To believe that you can successfully play chess with human pieces is arrogant folly, a myopia caused when ideology blocks the view.

Hawkish right-leaning folks are quicker to fire and want to play a firmer hand; dovish liberal-minded people will prefer diplomacy or non-involvement – reality lies somewhere in between.

And in specific defence of the Barrack Obama’s handling of the crisis: the citizens of your nation overwhelmingly do not want another war, your elected representatives will not vote for military action, there is no imminent threat to your national security, and you are moving things in a positive direction without getting entangled in somebody else’s civil war. You are flashing your gun without having to fire, without dropping bombs and killing civilians, all the while shining a light on the problem and letting others know that their actions will not go unnoticed. Viewed impartially, that looks more like successful diplomacy than a debacle.

A world leader being thoughtful without being passive, firm without being careless. What a pleasant change.


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