1) Bill Keller’s truism
Former executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller states the obvious, “Syria is not Iraq.” In short, Keller argues that he trusts President Obama’s instincts. However since he offered a mea culpa for having once supported the Iraq war, his arguments leave some skeptics unconvinced.
Bill Keller apparently lacks a working irony detector, assures us “Syria Is Not Iraq” nytimes.com/2013/05/06/opi…
— Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) May 6, 2013
— James Taranto (@jamestaranto) May 6, 2013
IN the search for an American response to the civil war in Syria, the favorite guidebook seems to be our ill-fated adventure in Iraq. We have another brutal Middle East autocrat holding power on behalf of a sectarian minority. We have another dubious cast of opposition factions competing for foreign patronage. We hear some of the same hawks — John McCain, Paul Wolfowitz — exhorting us to intervene, countered by familiar warnings of “quagmire.” We even have murky intelligence claims that the regime has used weapons of mass destruction.
This time, though, we have a president who, having opposed the costly blunder of Iraq and been vindicated, is holding back. The theme song at the National Security Council is “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
As a rule, I admire President Obama’s cool calculation in foreign policy; it is certainly an improvement over the activist hubris of his predecessor. And frankly I’ve shared his hesitation about Syria, in part because, during an earlier column-writing interlude at the outset of the Iraq invasion, I found myself a reluctant hawk. That turned out to be a humbling error of judgment, and it left me gun-shy.
Keller’s column effectively endorses any increased involvement in Syria simply because he trusts President Obama. Obama (as a state senator) opposed the war in Iraq. But at that level did he have the knowledge to make an informed judgment on the issue, or did Obama simply adopt a position that conformed to his politics at the time? Furthermore. left unsaid by Keller, is that Senator Obama opposed the surge that restored order to Iraq and, as President, concluded a disadvantageous troop withdrawal agreement with Iraq, possibly giving away the gains achieved by the surge. (Nor does Keller give President Bush – or himself – enough credit, as Fouad Ajami recalls the beginning of the war.)
While Keller draws on the views of former administration officials who advocated early involvement in Syria and concedes that there may be no happy ending in Syria, he seems to be saying we should intervene (without troops) because we have to and because he trusts President Obama. But Obama’s record shouldn’t inspire trust. In the end, Keller, rather than appearing thoughtful, comes across as unconvincing.
The point Keller refuses to address is what if there are no good choices left in Syria?
Barry Rubin writes in Syria’s Civil War: The Empire Strikes Back:
This is the mess faced by the Obama administration. It could have been avoided if the president had understood from the start that he should have supported moderate, not Islamist forces, using covert operations and even helping local warlords and pious Syrian traditionalist forces. Instead, before the civil war broke out he first backed the radical regime in Syria — America’s enemy and Iran’s client state — and then only when the revolt made that stance impossible did he switch to the rebels, empowering the opposition Islamists every step of the way.
But then he didn’t want to do what his predecessors would have done. Curiously, Obama believed that Islamist rule is good because it would moderate the radicals, deter terrorists from attacking America, and make enemies into friends.
In Syria today there is no good choice. No matter which side wins — the Syrian regime as part of the Iranian bloc of Shia Islamists or the rebels as part of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc of Sunni Islamists — the winners will be radical Islamists. In fact, if Assad creates a fortress in the Alawite region of the northwest stretching down to Damascus, it will be both varieties of Islamists simultaneously.
Keller supports intervention in Syria because Barack Obama is president, even though the situation has deteriorated largely because of President Obama’s early inaction.
2) The Thomas Principle
As for Bibi, his Tahrir lesson is obvious: Sir, you are well on your way to becoming the Hosni Mubarak of the peace process. The time to make big decisions in life is when you have all the leverage on your side. For 30 years, Mubarak had all the leverage on his side to gradually move Egypt toward democracy — and he never used it. Then, when Mubarak’s people rose up, he tried to do it all in six days. But it was too late. No one believed him. So his tenure ended in ruin.
Thomas Friedman – Lessons from Tahrir Square – May 24, 2011
Radical regimes now exist in Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkey, though Obama doesn’t see this. Obama is going to be supportive for these governments except for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Even there, Hamas benefits from U.S. help and tolerance for its allied regime in Egypt.
Barry Rubin – Israel’s situation and strategy in Obama’s second term – November 9, 2012
The Tower reports Leaked Phone Transcripts Allege Hamas Role in Triggering Egypt Violence:
Egyptian media outlets are again linking Hamas to violence in the country stretching back to the 2011 Egyptian Arab Spring. Earlier this week Egypt’s former interior minister floated the suggestion that Hamas had a hand in fomenting unrest during the revolution, which saw the overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the subsequent election of a Muslim Brotherhood-linked government. Mansour al-Essawy’s somewhat vague insinuations were met with skepticism, inasmuch as he had a motive to blame the increasingly-unpopular Iran-backed terror group for violence that he has since been criticized for seeking to put down.
Now what looked like a one-off conspiracy theory is beginning to seem like an initial shot across the bow. The daily Al-Masry Al-Youm has has published details of telephone transcripts between Muslim Brotherhood figures and Hamas officials, in which the two groups collaborated on pressuring security forces working to bolster the regime.
Friedman and others saw the Arab Spring as a great opportunity for Israel to do all it could to make peace with the Palestinians. Friedman also was appalled that Israel wasn’t more vocal in its support of Arab democracy. Two years later, all that hope seems distant. Non-democratic Islamists continue to gain power, Netanyahu was re-elected Prime Minister of Israel and Thomas Friedman is still writing columns. One of the latter two appears to be competent at his job.
3) You won’t have Salam Fayyad to kick around
Recently resigned Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad gave an interview to Roger Cohen of the New York Times last week. In his column, Fayyad Steps Down, Not Out, Cohen writes:
Fatah, the major political movement in the West Bank, is a revolutionary party that has exhausted itself; ossified and murky, lacking a popular mandate or a strategy to deliver statehood, headed by a 78-year-old man, Abbas, who did not have the courage to embrace the political program of an outsider, Fayyad, even though that program delivered growth, accountability and security.
Abbas, Moscow-educated, and Fayyad, Texas-educated, never overcame the cultural gulf those educations bequeathed. The can-do approach did not figure in the Soviet curriculum. Abbas declined to leverage Fayyad’s achievements. He refused to use Fayyad’s probity and work ethic as transformative examples. Theirs was a rocky marriage of convenience. Fayyad reckons the party spent more time worrying about what he was doing than solving anything.
“This party, Fatah, is going to break down, there is so much disenchantment,” Fayyad predicts. “Students have lost 35 days this year through strikes. We are broke. The status quo is not sustainable.” He looks at me with a fierce conviction: “In the end it did not matter what any foreign power told me about things changing for the better because I am living it. I have gone through hell before. But it’s enough. This much poison is bound to cause something catastrophic. The system is not taking, the country is suffering. They are not going to change their ways and therefore I must go.”
This isn’t about Fatah being “ossified” or Abbas lacking “courage.” The idea of a “cultural gap” has a certain literary appeal. The truth is a lot less romantic. Fatah was elevated to being essential for peace. Its leaders were promoted as moderates and funds flowed freely to those leaders as a reward for their feigned moderation. Naturally, Abbas, one of those lucky winners, wasn’t happy about having accountability imposed upon his efforts to ensure a fortune for himself and his family.
The tension between Abbas & Fayyad was arguably the closest thing to a system of checks and balances in the PA. foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/…
— Jonathan Schanzer (@JSchanzer) April 20, 2013
Of course the biggest problem according to Fayyad and Cohen is the “occupation,” but this was quite a brave thing for Fayyad to say.
So brave in fact, that he retracted.
Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad on Saturday denied statements attributed to him by The New York Times that criticized the Palestinian leadership and Fatah.
Fayyad said that he did not grant an interview to the Times or any other other newspaper or news agency since he submitted his resignation to PA President Mahmoud Abbas last month.
…if Fayyad gave an interview which provoked Fatah’s wrath, resulting in the prime minister’s subsequent denial, then this is yet another reminder about sources and journalists self-censoring when it comes to unflattering information about the Palestinian Authority.
More generally, Evelyn Gordon writes in What the West Should Learn from the Fayyad-Cohen Spat:
But this incident ought to give pause to anyone who is quick to believe every Palestinian atrocity story about Israel. Fayyad has bodyguards; he enjoys the protection of being in the international spotlight; and international credibility is his essential stock-in-trade. Thus, if even he feels threatened enough to risk his credibility by telling bald-faced lies to protect himself, that’s all the more true of ordinary Palestinians, who lack Fayyad’s protections and don’t care about their overseas credibility.
For a Palestinian, it’s always safest to accuse Israel of brutality and abuse, even if the accusations are completely false, because Israeli soldiers won’t kill him for such libels–whereas Palestinian gunmen very well might murder him as a “collaborator” if he went on record as saying, for instance, that Israeli soldiers treated him decently.
So perhaps next time, Westerners should stop and think before uncritically accepting Palestinian atrocity tales as truth. For if Fayyad could so brazenly lie about Cohen, then other Palestinians could just as easily be lying about Israel.