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No Good Options

War drums are once again beating in the Middle East, this time with Syria as the potential battleground, and as usual it’s all a horrible mess with no happy outcomes seeming likely.
There’s always a chance the Obama administration will opt for a sternly worded speech or a scolding resolution by the United Nations or some similar dithering, which would be more in keeping with both its instincts and its campaign rhetoric, but at this point it appears likely they will soon begin air strikes against the dictator Bashir Assad’s forces as they fight various rebel groups in a bloody civil war. American and British warships are already heading to region, and the big media outlets that administration officials use to signal their intentions are quoting anonymous “senior officials” of the White House as saying they are pretty darned certain that Assad is responsible for a chemical weapons attack that killed recently killed hundreds of people. Such an attack crosses the “red line” which Obama famously declared would change his “calculus,” and although Assad has crossed the line several since then it would seem that Obama has at long last grown weary of the disrespect.
It is uncertain what can be gained by air strikes other than some proof that Obama will eventually get around to making good on his ill-advised threats. Anything American forces strike at can be quickly replaced by the Russians, who have remained Assad’s steadfast allies despite Obama’s best efforts to charm and appease them into submission, or the Iranians, who are making their characteristic threats of holy war as they continue to pursue the nuclear weapons that Obama has declared they will not be allowed to have. American military action could provoke Assad to use his chemical weapons with sufficient ruthlessness to win the war, rouse reluctant Syrians to the nationalist cause, and alienate potential allies reluctant to be seen as working with another crusader war against an Islamic country. Should Assad survive an American military intervention, his power and prestige, as well as Russia’s and Iran’s, will be greatly increased.
Should the American military effort succeed in forcing Assad out of power, there is no reason to believe that whoever takes over will be any friendlier to America. At this point the most effective rebel forces are severely Islamist, and in many cases associated with such avowed enemies of America as al-Qaeda, and of course none of them have any experience or expertise in running a country. Air strikes proved effective in removing the nasty Gadaffi dictatorship from Libya, but the aftermath of that success in Benghazi and elsewhere has not been beneficial to anyone. An occupying force in the aftermath of the air strikes might allow America to dictate a more positive outcome, but America no longer has any stomach for such adventures and it is impossible to imagine any line a foreign power might cross that would prompt Obama to take such an action.
Some smart people have reluctantly concluded that a prolonged and bloody stalemate would best serve American interests, with Russia and Iran and al-Qaeda and an increasingly troublesome Turkey all too busy slaughtering one another to pursue any mischief against the United States, but even if the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president were willing to accept the human costs of this strategy no American action would guarantee this result. Neither would American inaction, and in either case the Muslim would almost certainly revert to its habit of blaming America for the carnage. There was some hope back in ’08 that Obama would be able to solve these problems with some of his silver-tongued oratory and his Arabic nomenclature, but not even Obama seems to believe that now.
Even in the media most friendly to the administration there seems to be a growing consensus that better options were available back when the conflict started, but the Secretary of State back then was hailing Assad as a “reformer” and the president was still offering an “open hand” to Iran and seeking to “reset” relations with Russia instead of backing the moderate forces that were once in the game. This is purely speculative, if quite convincing, and offers little help in choosing the least worst of the options that are now available. All that hindsight can now reveal is that the choice is in the hands of people who don’t inspire confidence.

— Bud Norman

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