The reports of the past week suggest that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons against rebel strongholds on the suburbs of Damascus . As the Syrian conflict goes from bad to worse to intolerably worse to indescribably worse, the extent of the damage incurred by the United States of having a ‘no policy’ policy is becoming ever so abundantly clear. From the moment President Obama in his 2009 Cairo speech re-framed the historical perspective of Islamic world instability and turmoil as a direct outgrowth of western imperialism, suppression of arab democracy, and the age old whipping boy, the Palestinian -Israeli conflict, and declared a ‘new’ American attitude of understanding and hands off policy to the region’s internal contradictions, the capabilities of promoting the positive and suppressing the negative in the region have disappeared into irrelevancy. Like the turtle above, having walked out on a precarious ledge and now facing unpleasant choices, the United States is concluding in turtle fashion, that maybe pulling inside your shell and hoping everyone just goes away is the last best policy.
This is what happens when you don’t know what you are doing, and you do it anyway.
From Iraq’s defeat in the Kuwaiti desert in 1991 to the forced overthrow of Saddam in 2003, an intense world discussion as to the incendiary qualities of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of unstable regimes gripped most of the international consciousness. Of all of Saddam’s crimes against his people the one that stood out particularly to the international forces arrayed against him was his use of chemical weapons upon his own people, the Iraqi Kurds. The world, so scarred with the 20th century use of such weapons indiscriminately for destruction, felt that zero tolerance was the only capable deterrent to further use. World bodies monitored nuclear proliferation, signed chemical and biological weapon elimination treaties, and aggressively inspected Iraq for signs of continued interest in WMD development. With the defeat of Hussein’s army in 2003, the world gasped and cringed at the lack of evidence of supposed WMD supplies, and despite a several decade history to the contrary, declared the U.S. as having created a false narrative regarding the threat. Rumors that Hussein simply redirected his stockpiles to Syria were never taken seriously. Now, with accusations of both sides of the Syrian conflict having potentially used chemical weapons, the source of these weapons becomes ever more curious.
If what is alleged is true, the use of chemical weapons would indicate a complete lack of concern on the user’s part as to potential consequences. President Obama declared in August of 2012, a “red line” beyond which the United States would find intolerable and a direct threat to its national security, and that was any use of weapons of mass destruction. This was added to the “red line” warning Iran that any development of nuclear weaponry would be considered intolerable and a direct threat to its national security. The proliferation of red lines and the crossing of them without punishment, exposes the U.S.’s internal contradictions and has only emboldened the worst elements of the region to risk further escalations. It dramatically highlights the arab suspicion that was only briefly extinguished by the U.S.’s 2003 smackdown of Iraq the the U.S. is an empty suit when it comes to acting decisively.
In an effort to absorb blame for its actions and promise to act more “constructively” , the U.S. has sown the seeds of a dramatic proliferation in its potential need for involvement. The abandonment of an onsite military presence in Iraq has emboldened the dictators of Iran and Syria to act with impunity. The declaration of disproportionate ‘blame’ by the United States for perceived injustices has led to a propagation of the idea of the United States as weak and without conviction.
So what now? What do you do when you have a policy that stands in tatters and progressive fractures are developing in your capacity to contain dangerous weapons of mass destruction? Having managed to destabilize Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and Syria in five short years, the U.S. – is now focusing its destabilizing efforts on its one ally in the region, Israel. The tortured logic has returned that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the “sore” that prevents the peaceful resolution of arab turmoil, and Secretary of State Kerry is working hard to see if he can draw Israel into the American web of defeatism. I must say, even if you don’t know what you are doing, its the height of folly to think that 1300 years of Islamic strife, the schisms that lead to Indian muslims to bomb Hindis, Egyptian muslim brotherhood to kill Coptics, Syrian Alawites to gas Schia, Iraqi Schia to kill Sunnis, Palestinian Hamas to kill Fatah, and Taliban to kill everybody, originates with a 65 year old, 40 mile wide sliver of land that stands as a local gash to Arab pride.
Arab culturists have long warned against projecting the appearance of indecisiveness and weakness to an insecure society that despises weakness. Well, the sequelae of that strategy are upon us. Violence everywhere, strengthening of radical and terrorist influences, and the unsheathing of weapons of mass destruction are the seeds of an inevitable expanded conflict. So much for this administration returning “smart power” to Washington. What to do now? There are no good options. But this time we really did do it to ourselves. We deftly managed to become a turtle in a world full of alligators.