Kicking the ‘Iraq Syndrome:’ How to Help Save Syria

In the last few weeks, sanctimonious pundits have urged restraint regarding American involvement in Syria. In fact, many of them proffered an oddly vicarious modesty: ‘The American people,’ one often hears, ‘do not want to be involved in another sectarian war like in the fiasco in Iraq.’ (This tactic of distancing oneself from one’s true opinion, more common among the invertebrate Left than the Right, recalls Robert Frost’s observation that “a liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”) Last year, for example, our resident liberal guardian of the establishment consensus, Thomas Friedman, wrote the following analysis in an article entitled “Syria is Iraq:”

But because I absolutely would not advocate U.S. intervention on the ground in Syria or anywhere in the Arab world again — and the U.S. public would not support it — I find myself hoping my analysis is wrong and that Syrians will surprise us by finding their own way, with just arms and diplomatic assistance, to a better political future. I know columnists are supposed to pound the table and declaim what is necessary. But when you believe that what is necessary, an outside midwife for Syria, is impossible, you need to say so. I think those who have been advocating a more activist U.S. intervention in Syria — and excoriating President Obama for not leading that — are not being realistic about what it would take to create a decent outcome.

Unlike the standard Friedmanite confusion, which is the result of a labyrinth of mixed metaphors, here, the culprit is woolly thinking. First, he writes that what is necessary in Syria is some interventionist midwifery, which he strangely cannot endorse because others do not. Then, he contradicts himself entirely, claiming that the hawks who want to provide that necessary midwifery are being unrealistic about what is needed to create a decent outcome. Which is it Friedman? Is outside intervention desirable and necessary but unachievable, or is the expectation that foreign intervention will be decisive unrealistic? Even more troubling is Friedman’s awareness about his duplicity. He wants to be wise and prudent about ousting another dictator, which he presupposes the rest of the country is, but he masochistically wants to be proven wrong. His reluctance about abetting the rebels and bombing Syrian forces because others are reluctant is the perfect embodiment of the entire country’s extreme humility and prudery, which have immobilized our instinctive desire to offer the necessary assistance that will put an end to the bloodshed. What a pity. 

The typical Friedmanite,, MSNBC-type assumption is that the Bush-Rumsfeld strategy for replacing dictatorships with democracies is misguided, and that any attempt to intervene is going to produce a civil war. The invasion of Iraq is then predictably invoked as if it were proof that interventionism in this region is doomed to failure, but what I want to argue here is that, in fact, the neoconservatives, especially when it came to Iraq, were correct all along. The policy prescription that in fact is most disastrous is the prudent, ‘realist,’ anti-humanitarianism that dominated the relationship toward Iraq from the 1970s until 2003. The disastrous policies of Henry Kissinger, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Colin Powell provide some excellent lessons for how the U.S. should have proceeded – and still can proceed – in Syria.

Typically, contemporary Leftists will cite American’s complicity in the Iran-Iraq War, for example, (or the support for the proto-Taliban) as an argument for American inaction at a later date. The typical non sequitur goes something like this: ‘America armed the mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s, and 9/11 was blowback for America’s support of dictatorships in the region’ therefore, ‘this pending military action is unjust.’ Despite the lack of a syllogism here, two other rebuttals surface. First, historically, yes America was wrong to subvert democracies and support (or foment) dictatorships in countries like Guatemala, Chile, Iran, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. But what the anti-war crowd never seems to consider that America’s past complicity or blunder intensifies our responsibility to correct that mistake. For instance, America’s repeated betrayal of Iraq and collaboration with Saddam is an argument for America’s responsibility to get the policy right: to oppose realist ‘balance’ and the sordid relationship such realpolitik demands. Thus, ought not a Leftist “liberal” prefer the post-9/11 change of course? Rather than supporting oppressive governments (which the Left was and is right to condemn) in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the U.S. is now, correctly, ousting them, especially ones that support terrorism. The Left’s outrage at both kinds of foreign policy: pro- and anti-authoritarian, reveals a more deeply seated anger at America proper, as well as an ill-concealed and anachronistic preference for isolationism.

The Left’s reflexive regurgitation of accusations of imperialism, unilateralism, and racism are wholly off the mark, and liberal public intellectuals and politicians such as Andrew Sullivan, Thomas Friedman, Alan Grayson, and Charlie Rangel are now ironically beginning to adopt the most stale (and discredited) realist thinking and phraseology from Kissinger, Baker, and Stephen Walt. While the realists, and now their Leftist cohorts, claim that their position is more grounded and sensible, tolerating oppressive regimes is often far more immoral, in the long run, than replacing them when the opportunity arises. And while it is true that very few transitions to democracy are bloodless, this is because very few despots are benevolent. Dictatorships, by their very nature, are immoral, and while they may occasion “stability,” this stability is only of a fragile, volatile, and perverted kind because of its coercive repression of society’s unremitting desire for freedom. The best hope for durable regional and global stability will thus be a political arrangement than accommodates order and liberal (might I add – social?) democracy.

It’s for this reason that we should welcome the influence of neoconservatives – secular conservatives with a commitment to universal human rights – like Charles Krauthammer and Paul Wolfowitz, as well as liberal hawks such as Kanan Makiya, Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens, George Packer, Michael Ignatieff, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Samantha Power, and Paul Berman. As I will attempt to demonstrate below, their diagnosis of a generation of American foreign policy is not only correct but also especially relevant for today’s challenges in the Middle East (broadly understood): the cooperation with or appeasement of ruthless autocrats is wrong because it subordinates the promotion of freedom to the promotion of stability – a stability that cannot endure precisely for this reason. What is needed, therefore, is a long-term strategy of gentle nudging and prodding despots to liberalize, and finally, when the moment arises, a candid, timely, and, if necessary, a military endorsement of pro-freedom protestors – before those protests are co-opted or extinguished.

During the Ford administration, his realist Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the shah encouraged the Kurds in Iraq’s north to rise up against the government in Baghdad in what seemed to be an act of humanitarian assistance to oust the Ba’athist regime, and while the Kurds fully expected American support to arrive, it never did. As the Kurds were being slaughtered, their leader, Mustafa Barzani, sent diplomatic cables to Kissinger pleading for help, military or otherwise, but those at the State Department and the CIA withdrew their support for the rebellion just before it began, a move which the Pike Commission rightfully dubbed “cynical.” It was better, according to our realist foreign policy officials, that the U.S. keep positive relations with the shah, who had cut a last minute deal with Iraq and never sent even a single bullet to the Kurds. The Kurds suffered staggering casualties, as did Iraq’s chance at a multi-ethnic democracy.

This realist attitude toward Iraq prevailed throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The U.S. collaborated with Saddam during its hideous ‘dual containment’ strategy that sustained a pointless and bloody war that lasted a decade and took a million lives. The U.S. finally had a chance to remove Saddam Hussein in 1991 when a broad coalition expelled his army from Kuwait, but again, it exercised realist caution and decided not to send the tanks into Baghdad.

The consequence of this restraint was again disastrous for Iraqis. As the demoralized Iraqi soldiers returned from Kuwait, they began a spontaneous revolution that began in the southern city of Basra, where a commander blasted a portrait of Saddam with tank shells in the city square. Soon after, Ba’athist regional headquarters were raided. Rather than the U.S. taking advantage of this opportunity to dethrone him, the U.S. watched as the Republican Guards unleashed unmitigated barbarism against the Shi’ite uprising in the South. Saddam brought in Sunnis from the North to slaughter Shi’ites at the rate of 5,000 dinars per adult male. He had leaflets dropped into cities urging the inhabitants to flee only to bomb them and gun them down as they made their way out of hiding. Also, Saddam’s minions forced rebels to drink gasoline so that they exploded when they were shot at close range, and they strapped children to the sides of their tanks in order to discourage sniper fire. The author Kanan Makiya, one of the fiercest advocates for a pluralistic Iraq in its recent history, received a letter from a despondent friend after this squashed rebellion, which claimed tens of thousands of lives in the South alone. His friend was commenting on the passage of Charter 91, a document urging the West and Iraqis to work towards building a just and democratic future in Iraq. At the end of the letter was the following lament, one that could easily have been written by a member of today’s abandoned Syrian National Coalition:

All of the intellectuals have a hobby of being opponents of the dictatorship in Iraq, and urging the people to revolt. […] The whole population of Iraq has given up and has taken to blaming the outside powers (especially the United States) for their condition. They lift their hands to the sky, pleading that God may make America or George Bush or any one of those who speak of humanity and democracy and human rights save them from this pain that they are living through.

Rather than intervene when the timing was right, the United States and the U.K. chose to enforce a no-fly zone over the country to keep Saddam’s gunships grounded. For nearly a decade, American and British pilots kept the lid on violence in Iraq, a policy which had good intentions but had the rather obvious consequence of allowing Saddam to stay in power in the name of ‘stability.’ As conditions in Iraq deteriorated, the United Nations appeared to do everything it could to embarrass itself, immiserate the Iraqi people, and protect Saddam.

The U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq are infamous for their brutality, which were responsible for an estimated 500,000 child fatalities. The U.N. then put together the equally infamous Oil-for-Food Programme in 1996, whose ostensible purpose was the selling of Iraqi oil in exchange for food and medicine. Again, this policy benefitted the U.N. and Saddam while doing little for the Iraqi population. Saddam stole nearly $2 billion from the program while the U.N. underfunded and undermanned its auditing and enforcement of the program, allowing for corrupt procurement deals that benefitted European banks and oil companies as well as kickbacks for the regime. The director of the program, Benon Sevan, resigned from the U.N. after a committee led by Paul Volcker exposed the extent of the corruption. It ought not be regarded as a coincidence that the two most vociferous opponents of any kind of confrontation with Iraq were those that benefitted the most from this corrupt – and yes – criminal arrangement: France and Russia (not to mention the disgraceful British MP George Galloway who was allocated nearly 18 million barrels of oil).

In the meantime, Saddam reasserted his control over Iraqi society. In 1994, he issued harsh new punishment laws based on shari’a, including dismemberment for theft. He even added new sadistic twists, such as branding dissidents with hot irons or the amputation of the ears for medical professionals who were found to have attempted cosmetic procedures on the disfigured. He also infused Iraqi society with sectarianism: he had a mosque built in every province of the country and even claimed to have given enough of his own blood for the creation of a incarnadine Quran. In 1996, he invaded the Kurdish city of Arbil, killing hundreds who believed that the U.S.’s nearby contingency force would protect them. These episodes explode two naive assumptions of the antiwar crowd: that Saddam Hussein was “contained” before the Iraq War, and that his regime was “secular.”

The U.N. also debased itself by playing cat-and-mouse games with Saddam during the weapons inspections. In 1995, Iraq’s WMD chief defected to Jordan and revealed Saddam’s covert biological weapons program and its surreptitious effort to enrich uranium, inviting skepticism about Iraq’s past and future compliance with the UNSCOM team. Afterwards, Saddam denied access to certain sites, and high level officials attempted other subversions of the inspection, such as the construction of Potemkin facilities and the offering of bribes to inspectors. Charles Krauthammer rightfully pointed out prior to the invasion that, “in principle, a search for genocidal weapons that can be hidden in a basement or even a closet [or a garden!] cannot possibly succeed without the full cooperation of the host government. Not a serious person on the planet believes that Saddam Hussein will give it.” And while post-war reports found no evidence of WMD in Iraq after the invasion, one of the Iraq Survey Group’s key findings was that Saddam intended to comply with inspections in order to have the sanctions lifted, after which he wanted to “recreate Iraq’s WMD capability.” In short, the realist’s belief that international monitoring was an impediment to Iraq’s obtainment of WMD only makes sense if one accepts the following: a permanent inspection regime, a permanent no-fly zone, an easily subverted and corrupt sanction-and-trade agreement, the cooperation with and de fact protection of an insane and sadistic dynasty, and the indefinite captivity of a fearful population. This humiliating arrangement is the real legacy of a generation of foreign policy realism in Iraq.

In the run-up the war, the U.S. made a host of diplomatic errors, which revealed the State Department’s lack of leadership, initiative, and commitment to a democratic Iraq. Below are just some of the important distinctions that reveal that it was the realists within Colin Powell’s State Department, not Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department, that bungled the political transition and precipitated an unnecessary insurgency and sectarian war:

  • It was the Department of State that presented ambiguous plans about who should take control once Saddam was toppled. At an important meeting in July, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage presented two papers: one proposed a quick transition to Iraqi autonomy, while another advocated a longer American occupation to prevent external Iraqis from taking control. Top officials in the DoD, however, such as Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith believed that giving Iraqis as much control as possible was the best way to ensure legitimacy and fend off accusations of imperialism. Dick Cheney stated frankly: “The sooner we turn things over to the Iraqis the better.”
  • The State Department delayed crucial meetings of key Iraqi political figures for much of 2002, from Libby’s proposed meeting in January, to Armitage’s postponement in April, to the final get together in December of that year. This foot-dragging contributed to Iraqi’s frustrations the following year. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy’s Douglas Feith writes:

When the CPA’s head, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, set aside the Administration’s plan to transfer substantial political power early to the Iraqis, he did so on the grounds that he had not seen the Iraqis demonstrate teamwork and productivity. These deficiencies would have been mitigated—and perhaps remedied—with eight or ten months of intense political cooperation.

  • When Paul Bremer took over for Jay Garner as the head of the CPA, he scrapped the plans for an Iraqi Interim Authority that had been first devised by the DoD and challenged by the CIA and DoS for its reliance on distrusted externals to help decide the political future of Iraq. When Bremer arrived in Iraq, he felt no urgency to meet with the Iraqi Leadership Council, which Garner had arranged for, and which Bremer was “not in a hurry” to see. It was also Bremer who also made the disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi Army, which was perhaps the greatest turning point in Iraqi opinion about the American presence. This decision affected the financial wellbeing of several hundred thousand men, many of them minority Sunnis. Bremer then waited an entire month before announcing that these now unemployed Iraqis would receive a stipend. While it is unclear as to who initiated this order, there is strong evidence to suggest that Bremer was its primary proponent. President Bush was not aware of having endorsed it. Perhaps the confusion is the result of the president’s expressed confidence in Bremer’s decisionmaking, since, after all, Bremer was the one in Iraq. Regardless, these events gel with Bremer’s belief that an early transfer of authority from Americans to the Iraqis was a “reckless fantasy,”unlike the “neoconservatives” like Wolfowitz, Feith, et al. who wanted to execute the DoD’s plan for a rapid transition of power to Iraqis.

What, then, are we to make of this brutal history? It would seem that it was the neoconservatives who advocated the removal of Saddam Hussein in 1991 were correct. It would have vindicated the hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Shi’a who were gassed and mowed down in 1975, 1988, and 1991. A post-Gulf War intervention would have precluded the embarrassing decade that was the 1990s, with its famine, sanctions, brutality, and fraud. It would have saved billions of dollars, as Saddam’s forces were already weakened, demoralized, and vulnerable. But instead, we suffered more than a decade of stability (if you can call it that), appeasement, embarrassment, decay, and delay. In the wreckage of the realists’ policies one can find lots of evidence for how not to deal with reckless dictators.

There are at least one hundred thousand reasons to believe that, as much as it might dismay Thomas Friedman, only the help of a midwife will deliver Syrian democracy; the West must recognize that some recalcitrant governments are not open to genuine political dialogue or liberalization, and may only be removed by force. There are three important lessons that the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, need to learn from Iraq and apply in Syria:

  • Organize politically, organize early. The months of interagency squabbling and deferred meetings among Iraqi leaders are the distant and submerged but very real causes of the post-war chaos. Fortunately, there is strong evidence that the Syrian National Coalition has far greater legitimacy than the Chalabi-led INC or the IIA. Ahmad Tumeh, who was recently elected the prime minister of the SNC with a hefty majority this September, has an admirable history as a political dissident in Syria. Its president Ahmad Jarba has been a powerful voice in maintaining a principled opposition to the survival of the Assad government, and one of the coalition’s vice presidents, Suhair Atassi, is the daughter of a secular Left Syrian politician, Jamal Atassi. The SNC, which has the backing of much of Europe, the Gulf states, and the Arab League, is widely accepted as the legitimate representative of Syria – as a government in waiting. Unlike the ignored political leadership of the Kurds or the INC in Iraq, or the abandoned Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, the West is this time wisely recognizing Syria’s future leaders well in advance.
  • Timing is everything. The U.S. might have helped successfully topple Saddam in 1991. The opportunities to depose a Ba’athist family dictatorship do not come often. There is little doubt that, had the U.S. not intervened in 2003, Saddam would still be the owner of Iraq, and, whenever he did finally die, one of his murderous and equally sadistic sons would have taken his place. Bashar al-Assad has two sons, so, if he survives the civil war, Syria might fall victim to a multigenerational al-Assad dynasty as well. The West passed on numerous opportunities to tip the balance in favor the rebels. As recently as mid-September, a commander of the Free Syrian Army trying to take over the southern stronghold of Daraa claimed that a punitive strike against Assad’s forces may have allowed the rebels to take the city. Unfortunately, the West’s indifference has had the effect of strengthening the Islamists military, who are armed and to whom many moderates are defecting by the thousands. Also, just yesterday, key rebel groups claimed they were not represented by the Syrian National Coalition, some of which belong to the Free Syrian Army. In other words, the West’s prudery and its reluctance to arm the moderate rebels has not only hamstrung their military struggle, but also, consequently, endangered their political appeal and leverage.
  • Do not count on the United Nations. The U.N. has never had the resolve to prevent mass atrocities; Iraq is but one example in its shameful legacy of dithering and appeasement. Boutros Boutrous-Ghali, Kofi Annan’s predecessor, was so tolerant of the Rwandan genocide that his actions bordered on complicity. As Egypt’s foreign minister, he had defiantly pushed through an arms deal to Rwanda’s Habyarimana’s regime, and as the Rwandan killing began, he dispatched the openly pro-Hutu Jacques Booh-Booh to the country as his envoy, where he clashed with Romeo Dallaire, who had pleaded for the U.N. to intervene more forcefully. Under Mr. Annan, the U.N. was pathetically impotent in preventing the genocide in Sudan, a word which the U.N. decided did not apply in that case. Unfortunately, Ban Ki-moon’s tenure has been equally feckless: his envoys to Syria have had no measurable effect on Assad’s conscience. Sadly, this has been a repeated problem: Moon’s representative in Sri Lanka during the civil war lacked a background in politics and human rights law, and his special advisor on the prevention of genocide assured the Sri Lankan representative to the UN that he would not discuss the government’s reckless killing publicly!  Moreover, the Secretary-General’s seemingly sensible advice that all outsiders cease aiding the belligerents would have the obvious consequence of benefitting the regime that will only negotiate when it military advantage is in jeopardy. And the UN, once again, is issuing vague and toothless resolutions against the Syrian regime – much like it did against Iraq – that protect the interests’ of the murderous government and its international sponsors. So, once again, the duty to enforce international law will fall on the United States and its allies, who, domestically and globally, will be condemned as bullies as the civil war limps, like a maimed rebel, endlessly onward.

Just as expected, the realist’s dreams of producing “stability” based on 19th century diplomacy have failed to end the Syrian civil war. This is a good thing. Realism, regardless of whether it is preached by conservatives or liberals, is a status quo position.  In a region rife with dictatorship, illiberalism, political and economic inequality, and the proliferation of jihadist and Shi’a ideologies, it is time for the champions of democracy, secularism, and socioeconomic egalitarianism to assert themselves. If not now, then when?

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