Who put Oscar Wilde in charge of U.S. policy on Syria? It must have been a bipartisan decision, because both President Obama and his Republican critics on Syria are proceeding in rigorous obeisance to Wilde’s famous dictum that, “We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”
Seriously: Obama is trying to hush his detractors by invoking the Christian crusades and inquisitions, as if actions that occurred six centuries before the United States was a country are somehow the cause of the Islamic State lopping off the heads of nurses and journalists. And his opponents demand that the president chant the I-word as if he were conducting an exorcism.
I’m not part of the why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along cult that thinks voices should never be raised in Washington. But the debate over the Obama administration’s foreign policy, in Syria and elsewhere, has been an orgy of knee-jerking on both sides.
The president’s supporters praise actions, like the lengthy bombing campaign against Libya, that would have made them froth at the mouth if carried out by George W. Bush.
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The president’s Republican critics argue one day that he’s abusing his power as commander-in-chief, the next that he’s not doing enough, leaving the impression that if he said the sky was blue, they’d invite Benjamin Netanyahu to explain to Congress how world order depends on it being pink.
Here are some questions that might be asked about Syrian policy if we had a serious debate between serious people:
▪ What is it in our recent Middle East adventures that makes us think we understand the region?
Our first invasion of Iraq, in 1991, left Saddam Hussein in power but with an implacable rage against the United States that, we feared, could result in an attack on us. That led to a second invasion, in 2003, which toppled him but unplugged a vicious geyser of ethnic and religious bloodletting that has engulfed Syria and — after our bombing campaign helped topple Moammar Gadhafi — Libya.
That’s three different wars, initiated by three different American presidents, that backfired. Is there some reason to believe we can predict the possible blowback from Syria any better?
▪ What, exactly, is the American national interest in Syria?
Bashar Assad is undeniably a terrible, bloody-minded man who is massacring his own people indiscriminately. But his depredations are mostly confined within his own borders. If he’s toppled, there’s no guarantee that the government that follows his — certainly Islamic, and probably radical — will mind its own business, or even that it will treat Syrians any better.
The Soviet-backed dictatorship we helped overthrow in Afghanistan in the 1990s was awful, but the Taliban government that followed was even worse. This is not just an idle historical footnote but a directly relevant argument. If we help depose Assad, the most likely beneficiary will be the Islamic State, the most powerful of the anti-Assad forces and a group so barbaric that even al Qaida has denounced it.
▪ Is the Islamic State a threat to U.S. national security?
The Islamic State looks tough against Iraq’s inept and demoralized army. But as it comes under attack from Jordan, Egypt and the rest of its neighbors, the military equation is likely to change — especially since the Islamic State’s economic prospects are nil. The oil and gas reserves it has captured from Iraq are mostly undeveloped and won’t yield any benefits without foreign investment and technical expertise. Beheading and burning foreigners alive don’t make for the best investment brochures.
The Islamic State’s murders of American hostages are appalling. But it’s risky building an entire foreign policy around that. If Vladimir Putin continues making trouble in the Ukraine, it’s likely that the victims will eventually include some Americans. Are we ready to go to war with Russia over that?
▪ Do we even have a Syria policy?
Perhaps the reason Republicans have been so incoherent in challenging President Obama’s policy is that they can’t figure out what it is. In March 2011, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, said Assad was not a tyrant but “a reformer.” Eight months later, President Obama declared that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
In 2012, the president drew a “red line” at Assad’s use of chemical weapons; a year later, he undrew it. In 2014, he snorted that the Islamic State was a junior varsity team; last month, he asked Congress for authorization to go to war against the group. To quote Oscar Wilde again: “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”