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Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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O’Neill: Muddled Mideast police veers off course

Sometimes it’s just not in the journalistic cards to write about a baseball stadium, a political convention, a Channelside subplot, a residential tower, a homeless ordinance, a code-enforcement crackdown, a security-camera windfall, a mass transit scenario or a mob plot to fix a tennis match.

Which brings us — less than seamlessly — to Syria. The global village impacts us all.

First, some context. Ever since the U.S. got involved in the Taliban-enabling effort to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, America’s foreign policy has been synonymous with unintended, often tragic, consequences. (We won’t use this forum to revisit America’s role, for example, in restoring the Shah in Iran or replacing the French in Vietnam.) We’ve paid the price of invasion and counter-insurgence in steep human, economic and geopolitical costs. Middle East minds and hearts have gone unwon, while jihadist, pep-rally fodder continues apace.

This was not how our post-9/11 response was supposed to play out. But as soon as the U.S. pivoted out of Afghanistan — abandoning the viable Tora Bora hunt for Osama bin Laden — to invade weapons of mass distraction-bearing Iraq, the die was cast for a decade of Middle East blundering. That it came in the good name of fighting for freedom and democracy didn’t matter — or ultimately fool enough folks. The point was that the U.S. just didn’t get the Muddled East.

Joe Biden was right during the 2008 presidential primaries when he acknowledged that nation-building was foolhardy in countries that are, in effect, arbitrarily bordered, post-colonial constructs steeped in tribal/religious enmities. He didn’t quite say so, but I will. Ultimately, Iraq will look like Yugoslavia — if it’s lucky. Renewed chaos and carnage will inevitably bring about separate sovereignties for Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. Until then, an autocrat who, however heavy-handedly, keeps factions from killing each other and prevents the devolution of society would be preferable to faux “democracy,” whatever that means in the context of a country otherwise ill-suited to build a new government and civil society. And Iraq is hardly unique.

Syria is now Exhibit A. A two-generation, imperious dictatorship, Assad & Son had arguably been preferable to a horrific civil war, where the good guys now seem outnumbered on the anti-Assad side. Regardless, isn’t it the purview — no, duty — of Syrians — not unlike Cubans or North Koreans — to do their own dictator-ousting and implement a society of their choosing, whether it’s an Islamic Republic or an Arabian secular state?

Even where chemical weapons appear verified, how much civilian, collateral damage would be done by a retaliatory U.S. cruise-missile attack? How will that play on Al Jazeera? And what about the thousands of civilians who have already died in old-fashioned, brutal, non-chemical ways? That barbarity never elicited a “red line” rationale, let alone plans for military action.

The ripple effect of a U.S. military strike in this tinder box region is of pre-eminent importance. Some scenarios are downright scary. You know the ones, starting with Iran and Israel. And what again is the threat to the U.S.? And, no, that’s not a rhetorical question.

President Barack Obama, of course, cites the moral obscenity of chemical weaponry. But he also sees U.S. credibility at stake if we don’t act on Syria crossing his rhetorical “red line.” Not even Great Britain, no longer George W. Bush’s foreign-policy lap dog, will go along with a military strike. And U.S. public opinion polls don’t support direct military action. That speaks volumes louder than any inaction by the United Nations Security Council or NATO. And how did it happen that “change we can believe in” seems like neo-con code these days?

Remember when the operative, post-President George W. Bush, foreign-policy metaphor was that “reset” button? As in, “Where does America fit in this complex world?” Presumably, it was a role beyond drone targets, a role that would transcend any “world’s policeman” responsibilities. Anyone else see this trumpet of uncertainty, this ironic extension of foreign-policy status quo coming?

Also worth noting amid the Obama administration’s congressional lobbying for “limited,” “no-boots on the ground” military strikes against Syria: politically strange bedfellows who are not impressed by the administration’s rationale for military action. Since when do libertarians and liberals agree on anything other than the other side’s addled approach to governance? Both groups, labeled “armchair isolationists” by Secretary of State John Kerry, look askance at military-strike scenarios.

We even see an unusual alliance in our own back yard. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, the Lakeland Republican, are both outspoken skeptics of unilateral, direct military action. In her letter to Obama, Rep. Castor urged him to be “cautious and conservative and fully analyze the strategic aftermath.” That’s because “An overt military strike by the United States is likely to exacerbate violence in the Middle East and put needed stability further out of reach,” she wrote. Castor also underscored Syria’s historic, religious divisiveness and “proxy actors in the region” and warned: “A singular military strike by the United States will not change these dynamics.

“I strongly reject the view that the lack of an overt military strike is equivalent to U.S. inaction in the face of the brutality and violation of international norms by (Bashar) Assad and Syria,” summarized Castor. “At this time,” she concluded, “I urge the Administration to focus on measures that bring stability to the region and not exacerbate the dire situation through overt military action.”

Alas, that is not an argument that would appear to resonate where it matters most.

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