Mac Deford: Hey, Hillary; Syria's a Disaster, but Don't Make It Worse
Thursday, October 27, 2016 10:47 AM
Cheer up, America. It’ll all be over in 10 days. Hillary will be our next president.
The key unknown at this point is what will happen to the poor Republican Party. How will it recover from its disastrous run-in with Donald Trump? Will it just pretend it never happened? Or can it somehow learn from the experience, developing policies that appeal to those college-educated women, as well as blacks and Latinos, whose votes sunk Trump? Or will it remain a whites-only outpost as whites gradually become a minority?
The US, of course, isn’t the only developed country where a racist, anti-immigrant movement has prospered. England has its Nigel Farage, France its Marine Le Pen; Hungary, as well as Germany, Poland and other European countries, also has a growing right-wing element. In the Philippines, it’s even worse: their version of Donald Trump is now their president.
So be thankful, as the pseudo-optimists would put it, for small favors: at least Trump will lose. Not only will we be spared a president who appeals to our worst angels domestically, we will be spared a foreign policy know-nothing calling the international shots for the Western world.
Having Hillary tackle today’s complex world is obviously a better deal. Or is it?
For all her touted experience — First Lady and confidante of the president for eight years, US Senator for another eight, Secretary of State for four — Clinton’s foreign policy pluses are not readily apparent.
As Senator Clinton, she failed the key international test of the current century when she voted in favor of the Iraq War. Compounding the error, as Secretary Clinton, she led the charge to overthrow Libya’s Qaddafi, which merely added another failed state to the imploding Middle East.
The most tragic disaster in today’s Middle East is of course the Syrian civil war, which has hardly been President Obama’s finest hour. His early call for Syria’s Assad to step aside, while Hillary was Secretary of State, followed by total inaction, highlighted his international naiveté. There was nothing inherently wrong with telling Assad it was time to go — so long, of course, as the president of the most powerful country in the world intended to assure it would happen. Putin’s recent, and unannounced, move into Syria only highlighted Obama’s “all-talk, no-action” misstep.
Hillary’s current approach — that we should establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria — is a highly risky suggestion when Russian fighter jets have been engaged in the area for the past year. Does she intend to enforce it through a military confrontation with Putin? Or does she believe that, come 2017, President Clinton simply declaring a no-fly zone will assure that Russia observes it?
Sometimes, and Syria is one of those times, there are no good policy options, only less bad ones. Keeping Assad in power, as the Russians and the Iranians are committed to, guarantees the continuation of the bloody war. Assassinating Assad, even if it could be done clandestinely, would accomplish nothing: one of his Alawite military commanders would take over.
Removing him and his government would obviously involve direct military intervention. And short of a prolonged military occupation, a la Iraq, the war would continue indefinitely as various rebel factions would fight amongst themselves to take power. Does Hillary really intend to insert the US into such a lose-lose confrontation?
President Obama’s current focus on removing ISIS from its stronghold in Mosul in northern Iraq, and eventually from its base at Raqqa in eastern Syria, is a rational one. The longer ISIS actually controls territory, the more it attracts followers. But when Mosul and Raqqa are liberated, ISIS will not disappear. Its fighters will simply spread themselves around the region, bringing further terrorism to Baghdad, eventually to Turkey as well, and after that no doubt to Europe.
Nor will the chaos in Iraq end with the liberation of Mosul. Iraq’s central government in Baghdad is Shia. Once ISIS, made up exclusively of extremist Sunnis, is driven from northern Iraq, where Kurds and Sunnis outnumber the Shia, who will replace them? Shia militias, which would only heighten the religious conflict? Kurdish separatists, who will have both the Baghdad government and Iran aligned against them? Other Sunni jihadists? As we learned with the overthrow of Saddam, and then of Qaddafi, getting rid of bad actors without a viable alternative solves nothing.
And I haven’t even mentioned the confusion that Turkish Sunni forces heading for Mosul are causing: the Shia Baghdad government actively opposes their presence in Iraq. And the Syrian Kurds are equally antagonistic towards Turkey. Shia Iran views Turkey as its key regional opponent as they both strive for influence in an area that Turkey’s President Erdogan has recently reminded the world was once part of the Ottoman Empire: a microcosm of the wide regional chaos.
The Middle East will remain in turmoil for decades. And it could get considerably worse: Saudi Arabia and Jordan are stable. For how long?
One could argue that the good news is that with the collapse of the price of oil, Putin’s Russia has been weakened considerably. But Putin has managed to retain, and indeed increase, his popularity at home by meddling internationally, encouraging the Russian populace to believe that even an economically struggling Russia still has a role in today’s world. Clearly, though, Russia’s growing nationalism and economic weakness are a potentially toxic mixture, even as the US will have to work with Putin over the longer term if the Middle East is ever to be stabilized. And over the near term as well — to prevent an even more dangerous disintegration.
Hillary has a well-earned hawkish reputation. Let’s hope she has learned from her mistakes in Iraq and Libya.
If, however, creating and then defending a no-fly zone, in the face of Russia’s existing military commitment in Syria, is her answer to the problem, the Middle East is going to be an even more chaotic — and considerably more dangerous — place come next year.