Saturday, August 23, 2014

Intractable Unwinnable Confounding Astonishingly Complicated Tripartite (Quadripartite?) Clusterfuck

"The notion that the only reason that the Islamist militias emerged in Syria is because we created a vacuum by not adequately arming the secular rebels is laughable nonsense."
 —Thomas Friedman

Almost inevitably, for a variety of complicated reasons we need not get into here, Barack Obama looks pretty bad while ending up being quite right. The situation in Syria is a case study.

Obama has endured withering criticism, from the cheap seats all the way up to the likes of John McCain and (now) Hillary Clinton, for not aggressively arming the Syrian rebels who began battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad more than three years ago. The critique now in vogue has it that had the U.S. provided robust support early in the conflict, the ISIS (a.k.a. ISIL a.k.a. "Islamic State") ascent and takeover of large sections of Syria and now Iraq could have been averted. That is patent bunk.

Simple minds want simplistic solutions, but sometimes there just aren't any (solutions, that is—simple minds are in great abundance). It's an important but overlooked part of leadership to understand when there aren't any good options available. Unlike his predecessor, Obama doesn't shoot from the hip or think with his gut. That's a good thing. Unfortunately, he also doesn't do a good job of explaining nuance and complexity to the American people. I doubt they would listen if he did.

There were always immense difficulties with the notion that we could identify and support a side in the Syrian conflict that was amenable to our values, and that had a chance of prevailing. There were surely true freedom fighters amidst the scrum, bravely fighting for a democratic Syria with little more than sharpened sticks and burning passion, but these were not a unified, capable fighting force ready for advanced weapons. And into the swirling cauldron streamed all manner of Islamic fighters from inside and outside the region, intent on waging jihad and ultimately creating an Islamic state. Factions alternately coalesced and dissolved, and soon enough the Syrian opposition was fighting not just Assad but amongst itself. The civil war devolved into a nasty, intractable three-way morass.

Obama surely understood that inserting U.S. armaments into such chaos was fraught with peril. There was no good way to give weapons to rebels we approved of—even if we could identify them, and even if they could use them (big ifs)—and at the same time keep those weapons from the jihadists. There was low confidence that the U.S. could affect the outcome in a way that would ultimately result in a Syria that was better than the one we had even under the brutal Assad. Sadly, there were plenty of ways things could get worse.

If you're one who wants simple answers to complicated problems you will be disappointed. Reality has no patience with our inability to think and our unwillingness to understand. If you'd like to try thinking about and understanding the complicated situation in Syria and Iraq, you really should read this short but cogent analysis by Thomas Friedman. Friedman's facts are unimpeachable and his logic unassailable. This will likely change how you think about the situation. Then, ask yourself: What would you have us do?

Update: Sept 3, 2014 - Tom Friedman is on a roll. See his latest column on what it means to have a strategy for defeating ISIS, and why we need one.

Copyright (C) 2014 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

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