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.



September  11th. 9/11. Every year the same feelings return.

All around are the clear signs of what it is I should be feeling; but for me it is never that simple, is always a disturbing mix of conflicting emotions.

It’s part flashback. The surreal movie-like scenes. Me sitting at my desk as the 2nd tower collapsed. People caught in that unimaginable dilemma and jumping from a burning building.

Part remembrance. The emergency workers running towards the disaster and not from it. People frantically looking for their loved ones. The candlelight vigils held around the world.

And part reflection. Not only on the specific act and its consequences, not only on the lost lives and terrible suffering, but on the greater issues surrounding that day and the days after it. What is to be the legacy of that day? What is the point of continuing to mark this event if we will not take the time to learn from it?

These questions are the sort of thoughts that get in the way of that indisputable feeling I know I should have. I feel the guilt creep in as the speeches begin to fall on my deaf ears and the questions come to the forefront instead. But I can’t help it.

Is it our responsibility only to remember? To give a moment of silence and play back the video footage and write heart-warming updates on Facebook?

How do we truly honour the dead? By waving a flag? By violence and strong words? By regressing instead of progressing?

I know that amidst our everyday lives we must find a practical way to pay respect to such monumental events. And I know that faced with radical people armed with violence that sometimes we must in turn be violent.

But I also know that our duties do not end there.

The true tragedy would be for such a horror to have happened and not to have built something greater from it. That is how we truly honour such a thing.

Yet we are not doing it. We allowed fear to blind us into an invasion of Iraq, costing trillions of dollars and thousands of lives and building a new generation of extreme hate. Cases of violence and abuse against innocent Muslims have increased, causing a new rift between “us” and “them”.  A war-drum now beating to the tune of Iran, that old song bringing us that much closer to more suffering. Our political discourse still mired in divisive and alienating dialogue, caring more about individual gains than the greater good of the nation.

What a shame for so many to have died and so little to have changed.

That is the thought that gets in the way on days like today.

What a shame.