Amid all the hysteria surrounding the rise of the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIS), even the most frantic have usually refrained from calling for "boots on the ground," i.e. the re-invasion of Iraq. Except for John McCain, at most they say we need to arm the Syrian rebels (the "good" ones, mind you), step up the bombing campaign, unleash the Kurds, and refrain – for now – from sending US soldiers to fight alongside the Kurds and the nonfunctional Iraqi "army." The reason? There is no political support in this country for a full on reenactment of what Gen. William Odom rightly dubbed "the greatest strategic disaster in US history."
The Obama administration’s present plan – if it can be called that – is to conduct air strikes against ISIS positions in support of Kurdish and Iraqi ground forces. The problem is that the former are few in number and the latter are unreliable. Neither constitutes a professional fighting force with the ability to confront and defeat ISIS. A change of regime in Baghdad, which was supposed to inspire the Iraqi army not to throw down its weapons at the first sight of ISIS, had zero effect on the conflict: ISIS has reached the outskirts of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, and launched a multi-pronged offensive against the Kurds.
Clearly, air strikes alone aren’t enough. Arming and training the Kurds and stabilizing the regime in Baghdad will take more time than we have. So what to do?
Leslie Gelb has the solution:
"[T]he only way to check ISIS, as the self-declared caliphate is widely known, is for the United States to work with Bashar Assad’s Syria, and with Iran. It is a tricky and perilous path, but there are no realistic alternatives."
Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, is the veritable embodiment of the Establishment inside-the-Beltway policy wonk. A former Pentagon official, and diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, he is by no means an anti-interventionist: Gelb fully supported the Iraq war. Yet he was honest enough to admit not only the total failure of that fateful enterprise but also his dubious reasons for initially endorsing it:
"My initial support for the war was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility."
Those unfortunate tendencies are even more evident today, as the "foreign policy community" (i.e. a baker’s dozen of neocon-dominated Washington thinktanks) cheerleads Iraq War III and eggs on the apparently reluctant Obama administration to expand our role in the conflict. Our war-birds shriek: "Overthrow Assad!" Unlike Gelb – and like the Bourbons of eighteenth century France – these people have learned nothing and regret nothing.
While I don’t endorse everything in Gelb’s article – e.g. his notion that we should "undertake a careful long-term program to arm and train these [Syrian] rebels so that over time they will be strong enough to fight and/or bargain with the Alawite Shiites in Damascus" – his core argument is essentially correct:
"Only Assad’s Syria and Iran can and would provide plausible ground forces in short order. Turkey, the other possible partner, has shown itself to be more interested in checking its own Kurdish population than in fighting ISIS abroad. On paper, Assad’s army numbers over 100,000, and his air force contains around 300 jets. Even if his actual fighting force is half that, Syria’s is still the best positioned and most usable outfit among the neighboring Arab states. Iran’s forces are even more potent."
The moral arguments against the Gelb solution raised by liberal interventionists and by the conservative anti-interventionist Daniel Larison are based on confusion as to what it would mean in actual practice. Larison describes Gelb’s idea as a "horrendous alliance of convenience" with Assad, but in truth it is neither an alliance nor is it all that horrendous. In terms of horrendousness, I’m not sure the Islamist rebels we are funding rate any lower on the scale than the supposedly Hitler-esque ophthalmologist and his Ba’athist generals. Although Larison is reacting as if Gelb wants Syria to join NATO, nowhere does Gelb say we should forge any sort of "alliance."
That’s because in practice on the ground the new policy would be to simply lay off the Syrian regime, stop directly meddling in Syria’s internal affairs altogether, and – contra Gelb – cut off all funding to the Islamist rebels.
The moral objections raised by Larison and others don’t apply because the US would in no way be actively propping up the Assad regime: we would simply do … nothing. I can just hear the liberals wailing that "inaction is a form of action" etc. etc., blah blah blah. In which case, we should simply invade the entire world, as Murray Rothbard once suggested, and get it over with.
And why do these moral objections apply to the Iranians? They aren’t exactly a bunch of cuddly libertarians, but, hey, it’s a rough neighborhood over there. As Gelb points out, ISIS and Tehran are natural enemies. And the reality is that Iraq’s closest ally isn’t the US, it’s Iran. Why can’t the Iranians rake up some casualties in the never-ending Global War on Terrorism? Why does it always have to be Americans coming home in bodybags? As Senator Rand Paul says, let the people who actually live over there step up and start fighting ISIS.
Unlike Sen. Paul, I do not support US air strikes. Larison is right that any form of intervention over there will make us more enemies: let the Syrian air force take on the moral burden of inevitable civilian deaths. Don’t we have enough of that on our shoulders?
In a refreshing display of contrarian thinking, Gelb even goes so far as to suggest we let Putin in on the mugging of ISIS:
"Russia, brimming with unhappy, armed Muslims, is even more threatened by the existence of ISIS than the United States. Moscow could help facilitate cooperation between Syria, Iran, and the U.S., not because Vladimir Putin is kind-hearted, but because it is in his obvious interest."
That the US government – and its British allies – have been supporting, succoring, and giving asylum to many of those unhappy, armed Muslims in the former Soviet Union may have something to do with the West’s legendary kindheartedness, although I’m not sure what.
In any case, Gelb is surely confronting Washington’s groupthink head on when it comes to Russia. Having run out of major candidates for the "new" Hitler, the War Party has settled on the need for a "new" Stalin, albeit with Hitler-esque undertones. That’s why platoons of aging – and woefully underemployed – former Sovietologists are telling us Putin fits the bill. Gelb is here tweaking their noses, and never was a tweak so well-deserved.
I see on our front page today that the new Iraqi Prime Minister is declaring "no foreign troops on our soil," although there’s some confusion as to whether this applies to Iran. In any case, if the Iraqis are telling Washington "no ground troops," then what are those US special forces doing over there canoodling with the Kurds? What about the thousands of US troops Obama has already sent, purportedly to guard the consulate in Erbil and our Vatican-sized embassy?
I have referred to my "theory" of international relations as libertarian realism, with the libertarian aspect being the unoriginal insight that political leaders act to preserve and extend their power – and that therefore all "foreign policy" really boils down to maintaining the domestic political advantage of the ruling clique. In considering Gelb’s farm-it-out solution to the ISIS "crisis," we encounter the realist side of the equation.
Support for liberal democracy – let alone libertarianism – is close to nonexistent in the Middle East (excluding Israel): furthermore, the region – including Israel – has no history of liberal movements that ever attained any level of mass support. Certainly nothing remotely resembling a free society is on the Middle East’s agenda any time soon. The harsh reality is that the regimes we targeted for destruction in Iraq and Syria – nationally particular forms of Ba’athism, or secular pan-Arab nationalism – are the closest approach to modernity currently possible in the Middle East.
As dark as that may be, Bashar al Assad is the best Syria can do at the moment, and acknowledging that is key to freeing oneself of the liberal guilt Americans are so prone to suffer. When the alternative is cannibalistic "rebels" who want to establish a theocracy that would take the country back to the 12th century, that is praise so faint as to be nearly nonexistent.
Yes, folks, it’s a cold cruel world out there, and it’s the job of US policymakers to make sure its cruelty has a minimal impact on American citizens. In policy terms, this translates into exhausting every means short of war before sending in the Marines.
The Gelb solution to this eruption of blowback from Iraq War II is the only one that will a) keep the US out of the conflict, and b) actually succeed in eliminating ISIS. I’m glad a prominent foreign policy expert has spoken up in favor of Sen. Paul’s very similar plan, and I trust the Senator, in examining Gelb’s proposal, will shortly realize US air strikes are a moot point if Syria, Iran, and the Russians are allowed to take care of what is really their problem, not ours.
It’s not too late for common sense to win out over hysterical war propaganda and the yelping of discredited neocons and their ready-for-Hillary allies. The Gelb solution is the answer to the problem of how to deal with ISIS – unless, of course, you don’t want a solution that doesn’t give Washington a pretext for yet another massive military intervention.
On a personal note: I’ll be undergoing surgery on Wednesday, and will be needing some recovery time. I’m not sure how much time I’ll need at this point, so suffice to say here that there will be no Friday column, and perhaps no Monday column either. I very much regret missing two whole columns in a row, but age catches up with all of us eventually, and I am certainly no exception. At any rate, I’ll be back sometime next week: keep checking this space.