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Commentary: Obama gambles in Syria, and Putin lends a hand

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 12, 2013 - Douglas MacArthur once remarked, “The history of failure in war can almost be summed up in two words: too late.” George Patton said, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” These men understood the urgency of warfare and the subsequent need to act with alacrity and dispatch.

In light of the generals’ thoughts on the virtues of speed, one must conclude that the current commander-in-chief is not a student of military history. In the wake of a purported chemical weapons attack by forces loyal to Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, President Barack Obama assigned Secretary of State John Kerry the unenviable task of trying to gin up support for some sort of retaliatory strike among war weary allies. 

While Kerry gamely advanced the case for unilateral action, the president changed his mind and decided to seek congressional approval before acting. Though the sudden reversal of field left most onlookers puzzled, I suspect the move was a pragmatic gamble.

Obama was slated to attend a G-20 Summit hosted by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in early September. As relations between the two leaders have been strained at best in recent months, and as Putin is a close ally of Assad, bombarding Syria while visiting Russia figured to make his trip socially awkward.

Referring the matter to Congress provided a deft solution to that problem because the legislature was not scheduled to reconvene from its summer recess until Obama returned from abroad. The convenient delay, however, also doomed the already remote chances for an effective military response.

With the president in Russia, members of Congress were left at home with their constituents, who they discovered to be overwhelmingly opposed to involvement in yet another Middle Eastern fiasco. Add Tea Party conservatives — who reflexively oppose anything Obama favors — to chronically dovish liberals, season with general public disapproval and you have a sure-fire recipe for an embarrassing political defeat on Capitol Hill.

Obama had lost his earlier bet that his “red line” warning would deter Assad from deploying gas; now he appeared poised to lose a subsequent wager that a diplomatic delay would not preclude his ability to retaliate.

In the event, it would be Putin who spared the president this indignity by agreeing to referee the seizure of Assad’s chemical arsenal. Welcome to the Land of Paradox — a convoluted hall of mirrors constructed of uncertain purposes and contradictory outcomes.

During the First World War, gas attacks were common. The resultant devastation prompted chemical and biological warfare to be outlawed by the Geneva Protocol of 1929. At the time — 16 years before the debut of the atomic bomb — this weaponry constituted the cutting edge of mass destruction. Ironically, by keeping war just horrible enough to be tolerated, the ban made future combat more likely. Indeed, in WW II — mankind’s bloodiest conflict — neither side violated the Geneva ban in battles waged across the globe.

The rules allow one to shoot, bayonet, explode or set fire to the enemy but not to gas them. Enforcing this somewhat paradoxical regulation in the Middle East is especially troublesome because paradox is endemic in the region.

The Obama administration bet on the so-called Arab Spring and helped to topple regimes of iron-fisted tyrants. In each case, the successive administration made life worse for the people on the ground and increased the threat posed to the United States by the destabilized nation.

Egyptians, for instance, deposed the pro-American strongman, Hosni Mubarak, and replaced him with a democratically installed administration of the Muslim Brotherhood. The military subsequently removed the Brotherhood by force. Our leaders can’t refer to that action as a “coup” because if they did, policy would preclude further foreign aid to the new government and they want to continue to support the world’s most populous Arab nation to keep it from violating its peace accord with Israel, the only genuine democracy in the area.

Obama led from behind in Libya while helping to chase the by-then tamed Muammar Gaddafi from power. That maneuver set the stage for the slaughter of our diplomats at the Benghazi mission.

We were about to double-down on a losing bet by intervening in the Syrian civil war when Putin agreed to save us from ourselves. Assad isn’t much to brag on but neither are his adversaries, who would benefit from any American military intercession.

First came apocryphal tales of rebels eating hearts from the corpses of fallen regime soldiers. Then came actual video of rebels calmly executing defenseless prisoners prostrate on the ground before them. Now, the Associated Press reports of pogroms conducted against the indigenous Christian populations of areas liberated by the rebels.  These are our friends?

Luckily, military intervention is presently deferred, pending the outcome of the Russian venture. Ironically, the former KGB officer, Putin, thus emerges on the world stage as the peacemaker, while the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Obama, is seen as the constrained aggressor. In the paradoxical casino of the Middle East, that’s the closest we’ve come to a winning hand.

M.W. Guzy is a regular contributor to the Beacon.