Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Déjà vu in Syria

I started this post last night before I watched the O'Reilly Factor, but the entire show was about Syria and O'Reilly came out in favor of military action there. He had John McCain on and gave him an uncharacteristically softball interview, probably the only way McCain agreed to come on the show in the first place. O'Reilly spent much of the show insinuating that conservatives who oppose action in Syria are only doing so because a Democrat is President and we will oppose anything he does. It was his usual schtick that he is not an ideologue like everyone else. He then argued that it would be immoral to stand by and do nothing when we had the power to act and save innocent lives. This post has become a reaction to O'Reilly's arguments, such as they are.

The last argument is childish and can be defeated with three patently obvious questions, which I sent to O'Reilly's email address because I "wish to opine":

1. Is God all-powerful?
2. Has God always acted to protect all the innocent from harm and suffering?
3. Has God ever been immoral?

Obviously, if you believe in a morally perfect and all-powerful God, then you believe this God has stood by and done nothing to protect the innocent from suffering when it was within His power to act. Therefore by pure deduction it is not logical to conclude that doing so is immoral. Period.

But I suspect this argument will cut no water with O'Reilly or his softball guest John McCain because they do not operate from the assumption that morality comes from God and not from Man. They operate according to the dominant, leftist and atheist understanding of morality in our culture: that morality stems from human empathy towards those who are suffering. It is a classic case of conservatives who are not acting as such because they have already given up the most important ground to progressives. That is the moral ground. The great leftist villain Rousseau haunts us to this day. 

The other argument, that conservatives only oppose action in Syria because they hate Obama, is an invalid argument on the face of it. First, it is entirely ad hominem, impuning the motives rather than the arguments of opponents. Second, it assumes that conservatives only supported the Iraq war because it was pursued by a Republican. Third, it assumes that the Iraq war and the coming war in Syria are basically equivalent. But I will give it the treatment it doesn't deserve, mostly because I was already writing it.

O'Reilly compares the Syria action to the Iraq war of 2003. The Democrats are, of course, loathe to compare the two. In Iraq, we went to war supposedly to prevent them from using chemical weapons or other WMDs. In Syria they have already used them. This contrast is patently false and was implicitly acknowledged by Obama himself in a speech in which he said the chemical weapons attack in Syria was the worst in the 21st century. Surely his fact checkers warned him against saying it was the worst ever, since that honor belongs to Saddam Hussein who attacked the Kurdish minority in Iraq in 1988 with chemical weapons causing between ten and twenty thousand casualties. This fact suggests that O'Reilly is right to compare the coming action in Syria with a war in Iraq. He's just thinking of the wrong war.

I was seven years old when the Persian Gulf war began in 1990. I remember distinctly being allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch the news as the campaign began. The vividly green infrared scene of flak flying over Baghdad left an indelible impression on my mind, and I can clearly recall it to this day. In the years that followed, most forgot about the war. The real action lasted only days after a period of bombing. In the end the old Soviet era Iraqi army, such as it was, lay in ruins and President George H.W. Bush called a halt after his limited goals for the international coalition were met.

Only the war never really ended. Shortly after the cessation of ground hostilities and the removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the U.S. declared "no-fly zones" over the top and bottom portions of Iraq amounting to over half the country. The purpose of these no-fly zones was to prevent the Iraqi government, headed by the dictator and Sunni tribal leader Saddam Hussein from using air power to persecute the minority Kurds in the north and the majority Shiites in the south. Immediately after the war U.S. forces operating primarily out of Turkey engaged in Operation Provide Comfort to help Kurdish refugees whom Saddam was trying to pacify. In 1996 they began Operation Quick Transit to help persecuted Kurds leave Iraq for Turkey, then in 1997 assumed Operation Northern Watch to enforce the Kurdish no-fly zones. In the south of Iraq, the no-fly zones were patrolled by Operation Southern Watch from permanent U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region. In 1998, President Clinton ordered a limited bombardment of Iraq for violations of U.N. resolutions which resolved nothing, except to make even more frequent the already daily military incidents one would expect from an operation denying a country the use of its own airspace. The truly epic fail came in the guise of the U.N. Oil for Food Program intended to allow Iraq to sell its oil in exchange for food instead of money. This was sold as the perfect solution to the suffering caused by international sanctions, for it would allow food into Iraq without allowing other resources in that could give Saddam ammunition against his enemies. In the end, the Oil for Food Program became known as the Oil for Food scandal when rampant corruption, bribery and embezzlement was revealed up to and including the U.N. secretary general's son. It was largely during this period that the U.N. gained its current reputation for being ineffectual.

The Iraqi no-fly zones were a well-intentioned but ineffectual attempt by the U.S. to prevent Saddam Hussein's Sunni minority government from persecuting the Kurds and the Shiites in its own country. President Bush wanted to prevent Hussein from taking Kuwait, but did not want to go into Iraq, in large part because he could never have gotten the "coalition of the willing" to go along with it. As a result, the Kurdish and Shiite elements inside Iraq were left exposed, as many had risen up during the war in the expectation that the U.S. would topple Hussein's tyrannical regime. The U.S. did not, and now Saddam knew who his enemies were and spent his last years of impotent rage visiting revenge upon his enemies inside Iraq who had shown their hand. In the Iraq war of 2003, advancing U.S. troops found mass graves of Shiites all across southern Iraq, and there was essentially an ongoing civil war with the Kurds in the north, whose resistance was more organized and successful. We knew this was happening, which is why we tried to use no-fly zones in a failed attempt to prevent it. We also knew Saddam had already used chemical weapons against his own civilians and had a history of pursuing them, prompting Israel to launch one of the most daring air raids in military history to destroy a French-built Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. (The French connection came through Syria, a former French colony. France is the only former imperial power which has failed to extricate itself from the baggage of its colonialist history. See Algeria, Congo.) We tried to prevent Saddam's pursuit and especially use of WMDs by instituting vigorous U.N. sanctions and inspections. It was largely Saddam's refusal to cooperate with inspections that led Western nations to strongly suspect he was pursuing them and possibly even had them.

To be fair, the Persian Gulf War was not about WMDs. We went primarily to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces. However, we failed to bring a decisive end to the conflict by refusing to go into Iraq and remove the problem, which was and had always been Hussein's Baathist, Sunni government. As a result, the next twelve years became an exercise in futile, supposedly peace-time humanitarian half measures designed to protect a foreign country's civilian population from its own government. These measures failed miserably. They did not prevent or stop the ongoing civil war between Hussein's faction and the Kurds. They certainly did not prevent Hussein's massacres of the Shiites in the south. And it certainly wasn't "peace" by any definition. American forces patrolling and enforcing the "no-fly zones" came under daily fire from Iraqi ground forces and occasionally were allowed to fire back. You know, just like all those real wars.

The elder Bush's biggest mistake was to conduct a limited war without going all the way and removing Hussein, but it may not have been a mistake in the end if he had ended our involvement in Iraq after the limited goal of liberating Kuwait had been accomplished. Instead he turned an instrument of war into an instrument of peace and tried to use military force with handcuffs on towards humanitarian goals, a situation President Clinton did nothing to change. In 2003, the younger Bush tried to correct his father's mistake and succeeded brilliantly, but once again failed to withdraw once the goal had been completed. The younger Bush's biggest mistake was to allow the American public and the world to assume that we went to war in Iraq primarily as a defensive measure rather than a humanitarian measure. Everyone believed that Bush 43 understood Saddam Hussein to be an imminent threat to use WMDs in a 9/11 style attack against the United States, when the real concern was and had been since the Gulf War that he would use them against his own people, as he had done before. It was this situation which inspired continued U.S. involvement in Iraq, another thing Bush 43 failed to explain to the American people and to the world. Americans to this day think of the Gulf War and the Iraq war as separate wars, when in fact the first one never ended. Had Bush 43 used this argument, he could have explained the options clearly: Either we withdraw and let Saddam massacre his own people, or we end the threat of this madman against his own people once and for all. Those are conditions under which I could have supported the war without equivocation as the best solution for a twelve-year old problem that never should have been created.

Our involvement in Iraq after the Gulf War was unsustainable, open-ended and hopelessly ineffective. Faced with a decision to withdraw and watch a massacre or ending an evil madman like Saddam, I could have supported it more strongly. As it was, I was in college, and a staunch conservative listening to everyone support the Iraq war of 2003, and so I also supported it, albeit uneasily. I supported and trusted Bush, but I was never quite sold on the Iraq war. At the time I had the understanding of the situation that most Americans do. I thought it was unrelated to the Gulf War. I thought it was about WMDs. I thought it was about preventing another 9/11. I also thought something smelled fishy. I remember getting in a rather heated argument on the subject with a die-hard Republican friend of mine and having difficulty expressing my hesitancy. In the end I said without much satisfaction that the war in Iraq set a bad precedent, that we would go to war to prevent a crime which hadn't happened yet and which we had little evidence was ever going to happen. Today I don't believe that's the real reason we went to war to take out Saddam in the first place.

So no, Mr. Bill O'Reilly, sir, conservatives are not against war in Syria because a Democrat is President now. We are against it because we have learned our lesson. If we are going to give military support to a humanitarian mission, by itself the poorest excuse for sound military doctrine that I ever did see, then we had better be ready to go all the way or we are going to create more problems than we solve. Obama is making it very clear that he does not intend to go all the way.

I will give the Obama administration this: At least he is being open about the reason for going to war in Syria and not pretending that Syria presents an imminent WMD threat against the United States. And I will give Bush 43 this: At least he understood that Americans do not believe in going to war to protect foreign civilians from their own government. Now Americans are waiting for someone to put the two pieces together. It appears we will have to wait longer.


1. We will take limited, "stand-off" military action in Syria with the goal of taking out Assad's air power.

2. This may be effective initially but will not be a permanent solution, either in preventing Assad from using chemical or other weapons to massacre his own civilians or even in preventing him from using air power.

3. Obama or whoever comes next will argue that in order to fulfill the mission of denying Assad air power we must institute Iraq-style "no-fly zones" over Syria.

4. They will strenuously object to calling these "no-fly zones" because they do not want anyone to make the accurate comparison between Iraq and Syria which I have just made.

5. American combat personnel will be killed and our planes will be shot down by the very same anti-aircraft missiles we purposely smuggled to the Syrian jihadist rebels through Libya, and my prediction about giving them a sword with which to strike us, made before the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, will come true in a far more literal fashion than I originally meant it.

6. A future American administration will be faced with the same dilemma in Syria faced by George W. Bush in Iraq: an open-ended, unsustainable and ineffective attempt to protect civilians from their own government. I don't envy the person faced with solving that problem, the very same problem Obama excoriated Bush for solving and is about to create himself.

Now that's whack.