Tag: Syria

Dear Mr. President: It’s Time to Ignore the Polls on Syrian Refugees

The latest polls are clear: Americans want little to do with the 10,000 Syrian refugees President Obama has promised to take in, much less any part of dealing with the more than 4 million refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war. According to Gallup, 60% oppose the United States taking in refugees, compared with just 37% who approve.  As clear as the figures seem, however, there are four good reasons that Obama should avoid following the majority’s lead.

The first reason is that Americans are wildly ignorant about Syria, Islam, and the situation in the Middle East. A Pew survey in 2012 caused a kerfuffle when it revealed that 50% of Americans couldn’t identify Syria when it was highlighted on a map of the Middle East. The same survey found that just 42% could identify the crescent and star as the symbol for Islam from a set of four symbols, one of which was the Christian cross and another was the Star of David (about 34% chose Om, the symbol associated with Hinduism). This ignorance would be bad enough, but at least presidents might be able to count on American opinion, if they could only figure out which half of the people to trust!

What’s worse, however, is the collective ignorance that Americans have shown regarding major political issues over time. Thanks to fear, nationalism, religious and cultural biases, and historical circumstances, American majorities have been wrong about a number of very important issues, often over long periods of time; slavery, the treatment of native peoples, and women’s rights are just a few obvious examples. Regarding foreign affairs, the majority’s track record is very spotty. The public was far too slow to recognize the threat of Hitler, far too acquiescent when Kennedy and then Johnson escalated Vietnam to pointless disaster, and over eager to take on Iraq a second time in 2003. Regarding refugees, in particular, the current hysteria has prompted reminders that very similar majorities opposed accepting Jewish children from Germany in 1939, opposed accepting Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet control in 1958, and more recently opposed taking in refugees from Kosovo in 1999. None of those episodes seem, in retrospect, to reflect wise counsel from the public.

The third reason the president should ignore public opinion on the refugee crisis is that American attitudes are irresponsible. Even in the best of times, American public opinion does not reflect one of the most critical requirements of policy evaluation: a consideration of trade offs. Since individual Americans are not responsible for making tough decisions between guns and butter, they tend to respond to poll questions in a vacuum, unhindered by the context in which policy decisions must actually be made. When you ask Americans what they want, they want it all – military strength without economic strain, influence without upsetting the allies, and victory without casualties. In the wake of Paris, public attitudes are all the more suspect. Terrorist attacks produce fear and fear produces emotional responses, not rational ones. Of all surveys, presidents should least trust those taken in the middle of a crisis.

The fourth reason to question the will of the majority is that it is the toxic byproduct of the political echo chamber. Whether glued to the television or to Twitter, research shows that the mass public remains dependent on the foreign policy establishment for almost all the arguments and cues necessary to form opinions about foreign policy. Since the Paris attacks we have heard the Republican candidates trip over themselves to take ever more extreme positions on the refugee situation. Senator Ted Cruz has called it “nothing less than lunacy” to take in refugees; Carson called it a “suspension of intellect” to consider accepting refugees. Donald Trump has called accepting refugees “just insane” while suggesting closing mosques and considering the creation of a database of all Muslims living in the United States. In today’s information environment, such outrageous statements not only make news but they spread quickly through social media, pushing aside calmer and more reasoned assessments and proposals. Unsurprisingly, then, 60% of the public – and 84% of Republicans  – oppose Obama’s plan to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees despite the fact that the United States has an extensive and lengthy security review process for screening refugees and despite the fact that the U.S. experience with refugees provides no support for exaggerated perceptions of a terrorist threat.

Given all this, neither President Obama, nor Congress, nor the various candidates for president should put too much stock in today’s majority opinion about Syrian refugees. Instead, Obama should lead a patient and vigorous national debate about the benefits and costs of accepting refugees, working toward a policy that meets the long-run interests of the United States. Over time, as the fear and panic from Paris subside, we should be mindful that today’s “wisdom of the crowd” may eventually look like yesterday’s folly.

Terrorism in Paris: Blowback for Yet Another Unnecessary War

The latest Paris attacks rightly horrify us, but they should surprise no one, least of all the French. After all, France started bombing Islamic State forces 14 months ago. The targeting of civilians is morally monstrous. However, it is sadly predictable, an almost common practice by weaker powers.

A century ago ethnic Serbs and Russian anarchists employed this hideous tactic. More recently Sri Lankan Tamils and Iraqi Sunnis used it. Now the Islamic State is perfecting a weapon it had heretofore left to al-Qaeda.

The Paris killings weren’t an attempt “to destroy our values, the values shared by the U.S. and France,” as claimed by Frederic Lefebvre of the National Assembly. Rather, admitted French academic Dominique Moisi, the Islamic State’s message was clear: “You attack us, so we will kill you.” As America learned on September 11, 2001, intervening in other nations’ political and military struggles inevitably creates enemies and blowback.

Explanation is not justification. But any government that attacks the Islamic State should realize retaliation against people innocently going about their lives, as in Paris, is likely.

The Reckless Proposal to Impose a No-Fly Zone in Syria

Bad foreign policy ideas have a nasty habit of recirculating. One of the worst is the proposal to impose a no-fly zone in Syria to protect rebel forces attempting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime. President Obama has wisely resisted that scheme, but the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has endorsed it. And in the most recent GOP debate, several candidates, especially Senator Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina, enthusiastically signed-on to the strategy. Only Senator Rand Paul unequivocally opposed it.

Even under normal circumstances, imposing a no-fly zone in Syria would be a spectacularly bad idea. Such measures were a prelude of America’s disastrous, full-scale military intervention in Iraq, and a similar danger of escalation exists in this case. Moreover, the move would strengthen the position of the ideologically murky amalgam that opposes Assad. The reality is that even the non-ISIS rebel groups exhibit a disturbing level of radical Islamic influence. Indeed, the largest and strongest anti-Assad faction appears to be al Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. It is mystifying why American hawks would want to empower such forces.

But special circumstances in Syria make the no-fly proposal even more dangerous than normal. Russia has intervened in that country and is flying numerous combat missions against rebel units. Establishing a no-fly zone over Moscow’s objections would be extremely provocative. Yet neither Clinton nor the GOP hawks gave any hint that creating the zone should be contingent on Russia’s consent. Indeed, there was an undertone in the debate comments by Rubio and Fiorina that imposing the zone would be an effective way to humiliate Vladimir Putin and make it clear that Russia would not be able to exercise influence in the Middle East.

If that is the nature of no-fly zone proposals, they are extraordinarily reckless. How would we enforce the unilateral no-fly edict?  Would we actually shoot down Russian planes if they dared continue their combat flights?  That would carry the obvious risk that Moscow might respond in kind—and that would bring two nuclear-armed powers to the brink of all-out war. Even if Russia did not directly challenge the United States with aerial combat in Syria, it has other options to retaliate against a U.S. effort to humiliate the Kremlin. Putin could, for example, redouble his military efforts in Ukraine, intensifying that messy conflict. And there is always the chance that he would move militarily against the vulnerable Baltic republics, creating a crisis of credibility for NATO.

There is nothing at stake in Syria that warrants the United States risking such a dangerous confrontation with Russia. Imposing a no-fly zone under the current circumstances is utterly reckless. Anyone who embraces such a scheme should be disqualified automatically from occupying the Oval Office.

What Is Russia’s Intervention in Syria All About?

There’s been a lot of speculation in the press recently about Russia’s motives for its military intervention in Syria, and many are quick to attribute the intervention to a desire to – metaphorically speaking - poke America in the eye. Surrounding this speculation are images of Vladimir Putin as a strategic genius, playing geopolitical chess at the grandmaster level.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s certainly convenient for Putin to make the United States look bad in any way he can. But there are a variety of other reasons for Russia’s involvement in Syria. And though Putin may briefly look like he is in control of the situation in Syria, the intervention is likely to end badly for him.

It’s notable that while many reports are portraying the Russian intervention in terms of U.S.-Russian relations, and intimating that Russia is in some way ‘winning’, Russia specialists are more likely to point to other factors, and to view the intervention as ill-fated.

Politico recently published a compilation of interviews with 14 Russia specialists on Putin’s goals in Syria. All but one pointed to a couple of key factors to explain Russian intervention: 1) Russian domestic concerns; 2) a desire for diplomatic gain; or 3) a desire to prevent other authoritarian regimes from falling. More tellingly, the vast majority also expressed the opinion that Russia’s actions are reckless, and will end badly.  

The first of these motivations – domestic political concerns – is likely the key reason for Russia’s intervention in Syria. It’s an excellent opportunity for Vladimir Putin to distract domestic attention from his ongoing failings in Ukraine, and to present an image of Russia as a great power.

Russia Follows U.S. Script to Intervene in Syria and Embarrass Washington

Vladimir Putin opened a new game of high stakes geopolitical poker, backing Syria’s President Bashir Assad. But Washington has no complaint. America has been meddling in Syria’s tragic civil war from the start.

Russia’s dramatic backing for Syria’s beleaguered Assad government formally buries any illusion that “what Washington says goes,” even in the Middle East. Moscow has begun bombing regime opponents. Sounding almost like the George W. Bush administration, the Putin government insisted that it was fighting terrorism and there really wasn’t a “moderate opposition.”

In contrast, Russia’s intervention has resulted in much wailing and gnashing of teeth in allied capitals. In a joint statement America, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Kingdom claimed that Moscow’s intervention would “only fuel more extremism and radicalization.” The Gulf States separately warned of more “violent extremism” and “terrorists” and increased refugee flows.

Alas, promiscuous American military intervention in the Middle East long has promoted the worst forms of violence and terrorism. Further, for years Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been important sources of finance for “extremism and radicalization.”

Nevertheless, President Barack Obama declared that Moscow risked a “quagmire.” Probably true. Of course, the U.S. understands quagmires, having spent 13 years unsuccessfully attempting to bring democracy to Afghanistan and being drawn back toward a combat role in Iraq.

Secretary of State John Kerry intoned that “Russia has made a catastrophic mistake because they will be siding … against the entire rest of the community in that part of the world,” which mostly means the dictatorial Gulf monarchies, highlighted by totalitarian Saudi Arabia. He also complained about the potential ill consequences—after Washington’s extraordinary record in destabilizing the region, destroying nations, spreading conflicts, creating refugees, and harming noncombatants.

“Any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose, whether it’s in the form of military personnel, aircraft, supplies weapons, or funding, is both destabilizing and counterproductive,” asserted White House spokesman Josh Earnest. Actually, U.S. support for Assad’s overthrow is both destabilizing and counterproductive. Just like invading Iraq and intervening in Libya.

There’s little the U.S. actually can do, at least at reasonable cost, to stop Russia. Washington could push for more sanctions, but the Europeans aren’t going to destroy what remains of their relationship with Moscow over Syria. Even the most war-happy neoconservative hasn’t called for blasting the Russian planes out of the sky.

Certainly U.S. officials have no credibility in claiming that their policy will yield a better result. Washington has intervened repeatedly in the Middle East with disastrous consequences.

America’s participation in the 1953 coup in Iran set that nation on a path toward violent Islamic revolution. Fear of the new Islamic republic caused Washington to back Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Tehran, which encouraged Hussein to assume he could attack Kuwait with impunity, which in turn triggered America’s first war with Iraq.

To “drain the swamp” Washington invaded Iraq in 2003, wrecking that society, triggering violent sectarian conflict, generating millions of casualties and refugees, expanding Iranian influence, and empowering a new sectarian Shia government. The Sunni insurgency morphed into the Islamic State which, with the aid of former Baathist soldiers, grabbed control over much of Iraq and Syria.

As I point out on Forbes online: “The U.S. and its European allies also helped destroy Libya, resulting in more chaos and another fertile ground for the Islamic State. In Yemen Washington is backing Saudi aggression which has turned a long-term civil war into another horrid sectarian conflict. Weapons given to supposedly moderate Syrian insurgents have ended up with ISIL forces.”

Yet Washington is filled with voices demanding that America intervene more.

The Assad regime is blood drenched and Moscow’s efforts in Syria are likely to have ill effects. But Washington bears most of the blame for wrecking and destabilizing the Middle East.

Russia’s intervention is merely the latest unintended consequence of foolish, irresponsible U.S. behavior. Maybe Vladimir Putin can make Washington policymakers finally learn from their many mistakes.

Syria at the UN General Assembly

Presidents Putin and Obama presented two radically different worldviews at the UN yesterday morning, but both obliquely described the other as the key cause of global unrest. Putin took aim at the United States, implying that the Arab Spring was orchestrated by the United States and that sanctions on Russia are undermining global trade, while President Obama called for a return to the rule of law, and lambasted human rights violators. These disagreements reportedly carried on into the private meeting held by both leaders last night on Syria and Ukraine. 

But the root of the disagreement on Syria isn’t differing objectives: both Russia and the United States want to see ISIS contained and degraded, and an end brought to the terrible conflict in Syria and Iraq. The difference lies in the means both sides want to use to achieve this objective. The Russians want to protect the sovereignty and power of the Assad regime, while U.S. leaders insist that Assad must go, to be replaced with a government which includes representation from the Syrian opposition.

To Russia with Love: Why Obama Should Be Glad Russia Is Getting Involved in Syria

Russia’s push to support Assad in Syria and its agreement to share intelligence with Syria, Iran, and Iraq has evoked the predictable handwringing here in the United States. Some worry that Russian involvement will derail the U.S. fight against IS. Others worry that Russia’s engagement will weaken U.S. influence in the Middle East and further embolden Vladimir Putin in his various misadventures. Such concerns are misplaced. Even though Putin has no intention of helping the United States his maneuverings have in fact done just that. Rather than ramping up U.S. engagement to outdo the Russians, as hawks are calling for, Obama should instead take this opportunity to reassess and redirect U.S. policy.

Russian actions have improved Obama’s Middle East “strategy” in three ways.

First, Russian initiative in 2013 kept the United States from getting involved in Syria too early. As horrendous as the $500 million training initiative turned out to be, it was a drop in the bucket compared to what the United States would have spent by now had the United States engaged earlier and more aggressively. When Assad’s regime blew past Obama’s ill-advised “red line” on chemical weapons, it was Russia that came in to save the day, brokering an arrangement that led Syria to give up its chemical weapons. Had Obama instead launched a few meaningless missile strikes at the Assad regime the United States would have shouldered greater responsibility for the regime’s behavior. Both Republicans and liberal interventionists in his own party would have pushed Obama toward deeper and ultimately more costly intervention.

Second, Putin’s recent actions make clear that the United States does not have to carry the expanding burden of fighting IS alone. In the absence of any real partners on the ground and with no desire to go it alone, the United States has been reduced to half-measures in Syria. Had there ever been an identifiable group of moderate rebels then perhaps a U.S. training program would have made sense. Today, however, with IS pressing hard and moderates thin on the ground, such a strategy is clearly too little and too late. Without partners, the United States has no real ability to influence events on the ground. Airpower has many strengths, but even a much broader campaign of airstrikes could not win the day without the backing of U.S. ground troops. Russia is not the partner the United States would have chosen, of course, but the fact remains that Russia is willing and able to take the fight to IS in ways that benefit the United States.