Grasping the realities of the Middle East is never easy. This is not primarily because they change quickly, but because so much time, effort, and money is spent to prevent reality from breaking through. Fifteen Saudis kill 3,000 Americans on 9/11, so the Saudis spend even more millions to persuade Americans they are friends and allies. Egypt under Hosni Mubarak presents itself as the very model of stability. There is a vast industry presenting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as requiring only some tough American pressure for Israeli concessions before peace breaks out—not only for the Palestinians but the entire Middle East, whose central problem this is alleged to be.
Our own government has a hard time too. It took George W. Bush enormous effort to break through the false descriptions of the war in Iraq his own generals were giving him, and to insist on the surge so that we did not lose the war. When in 2007 Israel proved to us that North Korea was building a nuclear reactor in Syria, unconnected to any electric grid and obviously part of a nuclear weapons program, the CIA would only say officially that it had “low confidence” of this, because it had not only missed the reactor but could not find the other parts of that program. How many secretaries of state have seen Syria’s Assad as a potential “reformer,” spoken of their admiration for Mubarak, or seen an Israeli-Palestinian peace only “inches” away?
With this background, it is not so shocking that we are not grasping the reality facing us in Syria. That reality is a humiliating defeat of the United States at the hands of Iran and Hezbollah, aided by Russia, in a manner that destabilizes and weakens all our allies and our influence in the Middle East, emboldens our worst enemies, and has a significant geopolitical impact.
The “prudent” approach the Obama administration is taking is detached from reality and (this is the only good news) backed by a decreasing number of supporters. It might be summarized as follows:
“Syria is a humanitarian tragedy, but there are no good answers. It is so complex. The rebels are such a mixed bag; there are thousands of jihadists, so how can you really support giving arms to that side? You’d never know who was getting them. And we don’t want to raise the level of violence. We do support them; we give them money and other things, and we are in contact all the time with them through our embassies, and now through the CIA too. The answer here is to persuade the Russians that Assad must go in the end, and get them to ease him out; those discussions with the Russians continue. Lots of countries have interests here and they need to be balanced. American intervention would be a nightmare; after all, the Syrians have a very developed air defense system and we could lose pilots. And in the end Syria will be a mess. Anyway, what legal basis do we have to intervene, without a Security Council resolution?”
The administration has been saying this sort of thing for two years now, changing the talking points when useful (for example as the number of jihadists grew, despite the fact that they grew because Sunnis were being slaughtered by Shiites and no one was acting to help them defend themselves). When reality appeared to contradict its line—when for example the president established a red line on chemical weapons, and the Assad regime crossed it; or when the Israelis repeatedly attacked Syria and did not lose any planes—the administration stuck with the line. Reality was not permitted to change U.S. policy.
That may yet happen. One reality the administration appears to be wrestling with is the impact on Jordan of a million refugees, a number that could be reached in a few months. More chemical weapons use by Assad might embarrass the president into action, as might more Israeli air attacks. But so far, nothing—and certainly not the mere fact of 80,000 dead and 1.5 million refugees and millions more displaced persons inside Syria—has moved him.
Compare now the Iranian/Hezbollah approach of shipping arms and fighters, while Russia provides protection at the U.N. The humanitarian toll doesn’t interest them. What interests them is winning. Look at it from their point of view: