Down on the Ground, Syrian Policy is Notably Lacking in Virtue

| Mon Sep. 2, 2013 10:07 AM PDT

Here's a quick trawl through the latest news on Syria:

The White House is blitzing: The lobbying blitz stretched from Capitol Hill, where the administration held its first classified briefing on Syria open to all lawmakers, to Cairo, where Secretary of State John Kerry reached Arab diplomats by phone in an attempt to rally international support for a firm response to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus. Congress is skeptical: Members of Congress from across the political spectrum reacted with deep skepticism Sunday to President Obama's bid for approval of strikes against Syria, with lawmakers raising doubts about whether a vote would succeed.

Israelis are worried: Many here viewed Obama’s last-minute equivocation as the latest evidence of a growing U.S. reluctance to engage aggressively in the Middle East, a worrisome prospect for a nation that relies heavily on its close American ties to intimidate enemies. Vladimir Putin is....Vladimir Putin: Russia dramatically escalated its denunciations of American threats to attack Syrian military targets on Saturday, with President Vladimir Putin saying it would have been “utter nonsense” for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons as the Obama administration alleges.

Republicans are agonizing between their normal hawkishness and their desire to give Obama a black eye: President Barack Obama got a chilly response from Republican lawmakers on his request for support for military action in Syria after alleged chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad....The list of criticisms from Republicans was wide-ranging: The president should act on his own; he doesn’t have a plan; the U.S. military is degraded; the U.S. is war-weary; Mr. Obama has been too tentative; he has leaked too much of his plans already. Presidential hopefuls are more concerned with 2016 than with the Middle East: Some Republicans may oppose the president simply because they are opposed to the president. But that does not constitute a foreign or national security policy. The Republican Party now is divided among those in the neoconservative wing who led the call for invading Iraq and who continue to argue in favor of more robust action in Syria; those in the libertarian wing who want the United States generally to stay out any conflicts; and those in the middle who see a need for U.S. leadership but are tempered by public weariness with war.

Syrian rebels insist that Assad is now emboldened: Opposition activists said they were “deeply disappointed” with the decision. Rebel fighters also have predicted that Assad loyalists would seek to use the delay to escalate attacks on rebel strongholds. The Saudis want America to remain the region's policeman: Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal indirectly acknowledged Sunday that the Arab world remained reliant on the U.S. as the region's policeman of last resort against transgressions by fellow Arab states, as well as the Arab world's top tier of protection against Iran. "There is no capacity in the Arab world to respond to this kind of crisis," Prince Saud said, speaking of Syria. But not everyone in the Arab world agrees: However, some influential members of the league, including Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia and Algeria, have expressed opposition to foreign military intervention.

Inspiring, isn't it? Why, it's almost as if the only thing anyone really cares about is their own narrow parochial interest. Enforcing a century-old ban against the use of chemical weapons may sound high-minded in the abstract, but down on the ground there's virtually no one who (a) actually cares about that and (b) would view a U.S. strike through that lens. You're for it because you're a Democrat or a Sunni or an Israeli or a member of the rebel army. You're against it if you're a Republican or a Shiite or an Egyptian or Vladimir Putin. Hardly anyone truly cares about American credibility or international norms or foreign policy doctrines or any of the other usual talking points. They've just chosen sides, that's all.

Regardless of your own personal view on a Syrian strike, you should keep this in mind. Your motivations—either for or against a strike—might be entirely virtuous, but there's very little virtue among the actors whose opinions actually matter. The lesson you think will be sent by either restraint or action is probably not the lesson the rest of the world will take from it.

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