10 September 2015

In defense of Syria

I'm not necessarily defending Syria -- much less the Assad regime -- but Russia is. Americans are in an uproar this week over reports that the Putin government is increasing military aid to Assad on the actually rather reasonable pretext of combating terrorism. I assume that any reasonable person would assume that the self-styled Islamic State, one of the factions fighting Assad, is a greater threat to global security than Assad himself is. To my knowledge, no one ever accused Assad or his father, for all their misdeeds, of seeking regional hegemony or more than that. The most that can be said against them is that they've meddled consistently in the affairs of Lebanon, a neighboring country, but Syria isn't the only power guilty of that offense. If you have to choose between the Daesh and Assad, the choice ought to be pretty easy -- but Americans don't like limits on their choices. The way the Obama administration sees it, Russia is unfairly tipping the balance in favor of Assad as against the legitimate dissidents and rebels we'd prefer to see in power in Damascus, despite their oft-demonstrated inability to make headway against Assad or the IS or other jihadist militias. In other words, the bipartisan dream of replacing the region's dictators with reasonable, cooperative, liberal regimes -- or at least with reasonable, cooperative dictators -- endures despite the emergence of a threat potentially greater than that posed by any existing regime. Not so long ago the U.S. did things differently. When Iraq occupied Kuwait, G.H.W. Bush went out of his way to secure Syria, no less tyrannical under the elder Assad and no less hostile to Israel, as part of his extraordinary coalition against Saddam Hussein, Assad's fellow Baathist. So what's different now? For one thing, we have a Democratic President this time, and Obama and Clinton (not to mention Mrs. Clinton) have proven time and again, despite all the Republican railing against their alleged anti-American activities or attitudes, that Democrats are as fanatical about spreading "freedom" as the neocons, if not more fanatical about "humanitarian intervention." For all the elder Bush's talk of a "New World Order," his Democratic successors seem just as convinced that the U.S. is "the indispensable nation" and just as intolerant, if not more so due to their humanitarian pretensions, of "authoritarianism" in any form. Leaving parties aside, a generation of de facto hegemony has spoiled us and stunted our capacity for strategically realistic thinking. By comparison, while the Soviet Union often was a subversive force in the world, under Putin Russia is acting as a conservative force, either for good or ill depending on your opinion of popular uprisings in Syria or Ukraine. From an objective international perspective the Russian stance in defense of the sovereign, whatever his moral legitimacy may be, is the only legitimate one, especially when you consider the alternatives that are actually plausible instead of building foreign policy on dreams.

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