Syria has no simple resolution

Here’s what I think: I am happy not to be the president of the United States. President Obama is faced with a really difficult choice when it comes to the idea of military retribution in Syria for the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

The American people sure don’t like the idea of anyone using chemical gas. The world agreed after the “Great War” that these types of chemical weapons are intolerable. On the other hand, there are some real bad guys among the so-called rebels. Some of them are Jihadists of the al-Qaida variety, the sort of people we’re trying to kill with drones.

Early on, the thinking seemed to be that we could encourage the good ones, the liberal democrats, to take over the revolution and become good, strong democratic leaders. Can I offer to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge? The chances of that happening are almost nonexistent.

This is just one of those situations where there really aren’t any good answers. If the president argued that this wasn’t about regime change, I just didn’t get it. This is what is called a zero sum game. If you bomb one side, you are clearly helping the other. Plus, there is so much going on that we can’t possibly know about. As a democratic society, citizens depend on getting salient information so they can decide whether their leaders are calling the right shots.

In contrast, take the Russians. They have considered the Assad Syrians to be “clients” all along. Tens of thousands of Russian citizens are working in Syria. The head Russian, former KGB colonel-spy Vladimir Putin, is a tough guy who keeps putting his thumb in the American eye. He gets away with it because of the Russian history of czars and communist dictators. You don’t make a democratic society overnight. People revert to the old ways of taking orders. After all, Russia was embarrassed when it was announced that they had “lost” the Cold War. Oh, yeah, it was the old Soviet Union but please let me remind you about Putin, the KGB guy. The names may have changed but the players seem familiar.

I am willing to bet you that there was a good deal of back channel communication with the Russians who I suspect did not want to lose their client, Assad. This would be akin to what happened during the Cuban Missile crisis when Khrushchev “backed down.” But wait, did he really back down or was it all part of the deal in return for the United States dismantling our missiles on the rim of the USSR in Turkey? That information may not be part of the official settlement but was certainly part of the deal which inevitably came out as these things tend to do.

So why did Assad chemically attack the suburbs of his own major city? Could it be that he was losing and desperate? Could it be that there was a stalemate and he wanted to get ahead? We really don’t know and that is where we get into difficulty as a democratic society.

Why does a leader do what he does? Is it because he is expected to do something? Is it because he has information that his electorate can’t have? Is it part of our strategy with the Chinese or the Russians of the Saudis?

All week long, I’ve been getting feedback on our WAMC Vox Pop show or by email. People tend to project their ideas into an explanation. From plots to hopes to shock, there are a thousand theories out there. But when you have no-win choices and people like John McCain trying to prod you into real war, it is not surprising that the president’s hair is turning gray.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 9/3/13

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