Syria: The west humiliated

President Obama’s Middle East strategy is in ruins and the west is paying the price of having its bluff called, writes John Bew.

President Obama’s thinking about foreign affairs is deep, reflective and nuanced, and not without a moral compass. But it has been severely tested by events in Egypt, and ultimately exhausted by Syria. His attempt to reconcile a broadly liberal world-view with a realist understanding of the limits of American power has been admirable but has left him with an increasingly frayed and incoherent strategy in the Middle East – perhaps no strategy at all.
 
In 2007 Barack Obama told the New York Times that one of his favourite philosophers was Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian and subtle commentator on foreign policy who advocated US intervention against the evil of Nazism. He later became known as a supporter of “containment” during the cold war.
 
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” Niebuhr wrote in 1943, “the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
 
What Obama claims to have learned from Niebuhr are two core notions that might be taken as bookends to his present approach to the war in Syria – beginning with his strongly held position of non-intervention and culminating in the military response that the US looks likely to pursue in the course of the coming weeks.
 
On the one hand, Obama argued, Niebuhr recognised “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain” but thought that “we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things”. Humility in the exercise of power has been the keynote of Obama’s post-Bush approach to foreign affairs; as he reiterated in an interview on CNN, the US cannot solve the conditions that have caused the Syrian civil war.
 
On the other hand, however, he also stated his conviction that “we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away [from Niebuhr] . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism.”
 
As every legal and philosophical red line has been transgressed in Syria, it will be interesting to see what this sophisticated doctrine looks like in practice. The answer is that it is likely to be messy. Yet the uncomfortable truth is that, with more than 100,000 people dead and most of the Middle East more destabilised than it was by the Iraq war, nonintervention has also proved to be much messier than its advocates, including President Obama, hoped.
 
Obama has been right about one aspect of the crisis all along: the conflict there is dizzyingly complex, utterly brutal, grounded in centuries of history and fuelled by sectarian and regional divisions, and it cannot be solved by external intervention. Crucially, in this view, he has had the full backing of General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
 
Yet something else was made crushingly obvious by the deaths of hundreds of people in the suburbs of Damascus on 21 August, allegedly as a result of a chemical weapons attack ordered by Bashar al-Assad’s government. It was not simply that Assad is prepared to win the civil war at any cost; that much has been obvious since the start of the conflict. It was that the Syrian regime – and perhaps more importantly its allies in Russia and Iran – seemed to want America to be watching as it did so.
 
One of the most vexed questions when it comes to Syria has been which outcome to the civil war looks worse from a western perspective. There is no shortage of advisers and experts in Washington, DC who calculate that an Assad victory would not be the worst-case scenario, in a country where jihadist groups are increasingly defining the character of the opposition. Until the 21 August chemical attack, they were winning the argument. The Syrian regime’s forces have been growing stronger since April, and with every month that has passed, the chances of western intervention have receded. Like the US military hierarchy, most Americans have supported the non-interventionist stance, giving the president a solid political basis for his position.
 
Now, however, Assad has denied Obama even the luxury of averting his gaze. In one move, he has done more to put the US president’s Syria policy under the spotlight than ten visits to rebel-held areas by Senator John McCain could ever do. The message that he seems to have sent is that he is not content with winning quietly, as Obama appeared prepared to let him do. He intends to make his victory also a defeat for America’s standing in the region.
 
Underlining America’s impotence is part of the prize, a premium on which Assad has been set by his sponsors in Tehran and, to a lesser extent, Moscow. Obama’s concern will be that what is happening in Syria is indicative of a trend emerging across the region and that the dynamics of it are already in play with regard to Egypt and Iran. 
 
The timing of the attack was highly significant – so much so, that it would give credence to the theory that it might have been a rebel “false flag” operation, if all the evidence did not point to the regime. It took place two years after Obama said that Assad “must go” and almost a year to the day that he declared: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime . . . that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised.” By “we” – as hawkish commentators in Washington are reminding the president – he meant not the United Nations, but the United States.
 
Consider the following and the Syrian leader’s brazenness takes on a broader significance. The chemical attacks took place a 20-minute drive from the UN inspectors who had arrived in Damascus a few days earlier in order to investigate allegations of previous chemical weapons attacks by the regime. This in itself was the tail end of the diplomatic process, rather than a ratcheting up of pressure from the US and its allies.
 
Just two days before the attack, a White House intelligence official briefed Foreign Policy magazine to the effect that: “As long as they keep body count at a certain level, we won’t do anything.”
 
Remember, too, that this is not the first time that Obama’s “red line” has been crossed; the US, the UK and the French governments already believed that chemical weapons had been deployed by the regime in the previous few months. Assad’s willingness to dance back over the line again – in the most grotesquely sensational way he could – can only be taken as a calculated escalation of the diplomatic game.
 
Rather than take advantage of US quietism, Assad and his allies took a gamble on flouting it, and in a manner that would cause longterm damage to American credibility in the region. Such risk-taking may seem counterproductive and irrational to external actors, but it was based on the fact that Obama’s bluff had been called. 
 
The first time that Assad crossed a red line, the US response was tentative and cosmetic and had no impact on events on the ground. It came in the form of an announcement that logistical support would be offered to the increasingly rudderless Syrian National Council. The muted nature of the response from Washington caused the rebel leadership to give up on the prospect of serious intervention from the west, creating more divisions in the opposition and leaving the door open for Assad to intensify his campaign. 
 
Obama is not a naive liberal internationalist. His thinking on foreign affairs is hard-headed and he has demonstrated – in the huge expansion of drone warfare under his leadership – his willingness to take pre-emptive and lethal action in the name of US national security. He is acutely aware that the American public shares his reluctance to assume once again the role of the world’s policeman.
 
 
Cornered: Barack Obama is finding that a non-interventionist policy doesn't work without a credible threat of force. Photograph: Pete Souza/Polaris/Eyevine.
 
It was only recently that Obama commented that Vladimir Putin behaves like “the bored kid in the back of the classroom”. But what does Assad’s boldest stunt yet, which has been followed by the usual choreographed obfuscation from Russia, make Obama look like? The kid in the front of the classroom who wants to avert his gaze from the bad boys at the back but keeps getting ink flicked in his hair?
 
The criticism that is increasingly levelled against the president, from both the left and the right of the US foreign policymaking establishment, is that his approach to international affairs is reactive, dependent on counterpunching, and has no strategic vision. His “big-tent” approach to the making of foreign policy – housing an eclectic range of views, from the staunchly realist secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel, to his liberal interventionist ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power – has clogged the decision-making process and prevented the emergence of coherent policies.
 
Each important decision – to extricate the US from Iraq, the “surge” in Afghanistan, the intervention in Libya, the response to the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the procrastination over Syria – has been played out through a series of struggles inside his administration, characterised by leaks, personality clashes and long delays. In all of this, the president has never shirked responsibility for making the final decision, but neither has he “led from the front” or set the agenda with a clear world-view.
 
Moreover, when it comes to the power struggles engulfing the Middle East, the US has been torn between a set of undesirable outcomes for the past three years. A glimpse of the most desirable scenario – the success of secular, liberal, democratic revolutions – has come and gone. However, vacillation by Washington about what constitutes the least bad endgame, particularly in Syria and Egypt, has opened the door for others to enforce their vision and interests.
 
As the moral urgency of the Syria crisis intensifies, even the selfish strategic justifications for non-intervention do not look convincing. The least persuasive objection has been Defence Secretary Hagel’s suggestion that military intervention “could hinder humanitarian relief operations”. General Dempsey’s line that “the use of US military force can change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fuelling this conflict” was more to the point.
 
Equally, the prospect of handing a victory to some of America’s most ardent sworn enemies – who increasingly dominate the ranks of the Syrian opposition – provokes an understandable neurosis. American involvement, according to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, “would simply mobilise the most extreme elements . . . against the US and pose the danger that the conflict would spill over into the neighbourhood and set Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon on fire”.
 
Yet this opinion is in danger of looking like a self-fulfilling prophecy. All of these things are already happening. It is hard to know how Syria could get any worse but it keeps on doing just that.
 
Increased pressure has come from America’s two chief allies on Syria: France and the UK. “If it is proven, France’s position is that there must be a reaction,” said Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, after the attacks. Although a ground invasion is still off the table, Fabius made it clear that the action would entail military “force” of some kind.
 
William Hague’s change of tone since the chemical attack seems to indicate a willingness to take up the gauntlet thrown down by Assad. “We, he United States, many other countries including France, are clear that we can’t allow the idea in the 21st century that chemical weapons can be used with impunity,” he told the Today programme on 26 August. Diplomacy had failed.
 
For the first time, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister think they might be able to gain sufficient support for substantive international action on Syria. Both have long wanted to do more; this is the pretext that might also allow them to win a vote in parliament for a limited military option such as precision air strikes. 
 
It was American oversight, scrutiny and leverage that prevented the Egyptian army from using excessive force against the civilian protesters who brought down Hosni Mubarak in 2011. It was partly American dithering about the army’s counter-revolution that led the Egyptian military command to calculate this summer that it could get away with massacring Muslim Brotherhood supporters of the ousted president Mohammed Morsi.
 
Meanwhile, others are filling the void and playing idiosyncratic geopolitical games in a way that defies western logic. Saudi Arabia offers financial backing to extreme jihadist elements of the Syrian opposition while supporting the crushing by the Egyptian military of the comparatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood (about which the Saudis are deeply neurotic). Within Syria, Iran and each of the Gulf states – whose interests do not align – are engaged in their own version of the “Great Game”, which is likely to have longterm effects on the region.
 
Worst still, the chaos in the Middle East is creating ideal conditions for terrorism to flourish in Syria and elsewhere. Islamist grievance narratives against the west have been given their greatest boost since the decision to invade Iraq. The attempt to smother the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt particularly risks forcing more elements of political Islam underground and into violence as the muted US response fuels a perception that the west is complicit in the process.
 
If there is one thing the west has learned, it is that prolonged and sustained conflicts that attract international jihadis have longlasting consequences. The emergence of new ungoverned spaces has given such groups the space to train, mobilise and act.
 
The fear of “blowback” is much more acute in European capitals such as London and Paris because of the relative proximity of the conflict and the flow of European citizens to fight on behalf of the rebels in the Middle East. But given that the Americans are engaged in open-ended drone warfare in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Yemen and parts of East Africa, they would be loath to have to extend such a campaign to rebelheld Syria or Sinai.
 
It is not these broader concerns that have changed the calculus in Washington, however. Rather, it is a single ghastly event that seems to have sucked Obama into the “intervention trap”, against his better instincts.
 
The likelihood is that any military action will be limited – probably Tomahawk missile strikes supported by cyber attacks, but with no incursions into Syrian airspace. It will be led by the United States, alongside France and Britain, and will probably take place without UN sanction. There is no prospect of putting troops on the ground. Strikes are likely to be directed at chemical and biological weapons installations over a relatively short period.
 
Significantly, they are not likely to be intended to destroy the Assad regime and open the door for a rebel victory. In other words, while the official position of the US, France and Britain is to support “regime change”, there is little prospect that they will make this the aim of any military campaign as they did in Libya. How the Syrian regime and its allies respond is difficult to predict.
 
And so, in effect, the implication of such a campaign is that its parameters have been set by the Syrian regime, even if unintentionally, and the Syrians will know what to expect. 
 
The truth remains that Obama’s “red lines” in themselves were conceived in the absence of a strategy for how to respond to the war in Syria. They were unscripted and speculative and reflected a desire to stay out.
 
Another lesson from the Syrian conflict is that non-intervention does not work in a strategic vacuum. To be successful, the policy needs to be more than a checklist of arguments against intervention. Counterintuitively, as Britain’s most anti-interventionist foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, recognised, it requires a credible threat of force.
 
As Castlereagh told the House of Commons in 1821, he “should deem it most pusiillanimous conduct on our part, if, after interfering on a question of this nature, we limited our interference to the mere delivery of a scroll of paper, and did not follow it up with some more effectual measures. Were we to turn itinerant preachers of morality . . . and to follow up the doctrines which we preached by nothing else but what was contained in our state papers?”
 
With deep reluctance, Barack Obama has been forced to reach the same conclusion, but his reticence and equivocation over a long period have left him at the mercy of events. It is hard to lead from behind when you don’t even want to look.
 
John Bew is reader in history and foreign policy in the war studies department of King’s College London. From October, he will take up the Henry A Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC 
Liwa Tahrir al-Sham rebels carry away the body of a comrade from the Jobar front line in the suburbs of Damascus. Photograph: Laurent van der Stockt/Reportage by Getty Images.

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Snakebites and body parts

The city at the edge of an apocalypse: a love letter to Los Angeles.

I was emailing with Kenneth Anger, the film-maker, when the coyotes across the street in Griffith Park started howling.

That’s partially true.

I was emailing him to ask if he’d direct a music video for me. Maybe Lucifer Rising 2.0. Or anything.

Just him in the kitchen making tea, as recorded on his iPhone.

Kenneth Anger is alive and well in Santa Monica, so why not ask him to direct a video for me? Hopefully, he’ll respond. We’ve never met, so I sent an email to him, not with him. That’s the partial truth.

But the coyotes did start howling.

It’s the single best sound in Los Angeles, or any city. Is there another city where you can email an 89-year-old devotee of Aleister Crowley while listening to a few dozen coyotes screaming and howling and ripping the night into little pieces?

No. Just here. This oddness by the sea and an inch from a billion acres of Arrakis.

I never thought I’d end up living in Los Angeles, but I’ve ended up living in Los Angeles. This dirtiest, strangest paradise.

Yesterday I went hiking in a two-million-acre state park that’s 30 minutes from my house. A state park bigger than all of New York City. And it’s 30 minutes away. With no people. Just bears and pumas and coyotes and snakes.

And other things. Abandoned bridges. An observatory where Albert Einstein used to go to watch space.

What a strange city.

A perfect city. Perfect for humans at the edge of this strangely unfolding apocalypse. A gentle apocalypse with trade winds and Santa Ana winds and the biannual vicious storm that rips eucalyptus trees up by their roots.

What a strange city. And it’s my home.

Today I hiked to the back of the Hollywood sign. This was before Kenneth Anger and the coyotes.

The tourists were dropping like flies on the long, hot mountain trail, not aware that this isn’t a city with the safe European ­infrastructure that keeps them happy
and/or alive.

Every now and then, a tourist dies in the hills, bitten by a snake or lost at night. The emergency rooms are full of tourists with snakebites and heatstroke.

Where are the European safeguards?

Fuck us if we need safeguards. Go live in a place like this gentle wasteland where you’re not at the top of the food chain. If you’re not in danger of being eaten at some point in the day, you’re probably not breathing right.

I hope Kenneth Anger writes back.

 

22 May

I drove some friends around my neighbourhood. They want to live here. Why wouldn’t they? Pee-wee Herman and Thom Yorke live up the street.

David Fincher lives a block away. It’s blocks and blocks of jasmine-scented name-
dropping.

It’s warm in the winter and it’s weird all year round.

And there’s a Frank Lloyd Wright that looks like a lunatic Mayan spaceship.

And there go the coyotes again, howling like adorable delegates of death.

They’re so smart, I wish they would make me their king.

You hate Los Angeles? Who cares? You made a mistake, you judged it like you’d judge a city. Where’s the centre?

There’s no centre. You want a centre? The centre cannot hold. Slouching towards Bethlehem. Things fall apart.

Amazing how many titles can come from one poem. What’s a gyre?

Yeats and Kenneth Anger and Aleister Crowley. All these patterns.

Then we had brunch in my art deco pine-tree-themed restaurant, which used to sell cars and now sells organic white tea and things.

The centre cannot hold. I still have no idea what a gyre is.

Maybe something Irish or Celtic.

It’s nice that they asked me to write this journal.

Things fall apart.

So you hate Los Angeles? Ha. It still loves you, like the sandy golden retriever it is. Tell me again how you hate the city loved by David Lynch and where David Bowie made his best album? Listen to LA Woman by the Doors and watch Lynch’s Lost Highway and read some Joan Didion – and maybe for fun watch Nightcrawler – and tell me again how you hate LA.

I fucking love this sprawling inchoate pile of everything.

Even at its worst, it’s hiding something baffling or remarkable.

Ironic that the city of the notoriously ­vapid is the city of deceiving appearance.

After brunch, we went hiking.

Am I a cliché? Yes. I hike. I do yoga. I’m a vegan. I even meditate. As far as clichés go, I prefer this to the hungover, cynical, ruined, sad, grey cliché I was a decade ago.

“You’re not going to live for ever.”

Of course not.

But why not have a few bouncy decades that otherwise would’ve been spent in a hospital or trailing an oxygen tank through a damp supermarket?

 

24 May

A friend said: “The last time I had sex, it was warm and sunny.”

Well, that’s helpful.

October? June? February?

No kidding, the coyotes are howling again. I still love them. Have you ever heard a pack of howling coyotes?

Imagine a gaggle of drunk college girls who also happened to be canine demons. Screaming with blood on their teeth.

It’s such a beautiful sound but it also kind of makes you want to hide in a closet.

No Kenneth Anger.

Maybe I’m spam.

Vegan spam.

Come on, Kenneth, just make a video for me, OK?

I’ll take anything.

Even three minutes of a plant on a radiator.

I just received the hardcover copy of my autobiography, Porcelain. And, like anyone, I skimmed the pictures. I’m so classy, eating an old sandwich in my underpants.

A friend’s dad had got an advance copy and was reading it. I had to issue the cautious caveat: “Well, I hope he’s not too freaked out by me dancing in my own semen while surrounded by a roomful of cross-dressing Stevie Nicks-es.”

If I ever have kids, I might have one simple rule. Or a few simple rules.

Dear future children of mine:

1) Don’t vote Republican.

2) Don’t get facial tattoos.

3) Don’t read my memoir.

I don’t need my currently unmade children to be reading about their dear dad during his brief foray into the world of professional dominatrixing, even if it was brief.

The first poem I loved was by Yeats: “When You Are Old”. I sent it to my high-school non-girlfriend. The girl I longed for, unrequitedly. I’m guessing I’m not the first person to have sent “When You Are Old” to an unrequited love.

Today the sky was so strangely clear. I mean, the sky is almost always clear. We live in a desert. But today it felt strangely clear, like something was missing. The sun felt magnified.

And then, at dusk, I noticed the gold light slanting through some oak trees and hitting the green sides of the mountains (they were green as we actually had rain over the winter). The wild flowers catch the slanting gold light and you wonder, this is a city? What the fuck is this baffling place?

I add the “fuck” for street cred. Or trail cred, as I’m probably hiking. As I’m a cliché.

You hike, or I hike, in the middle of a city of almost 20 million people and you’re alone. Just the crows and the spiralling hawks and the slanting gold light touching the oak trees and the soon-to-go-away
wild flowers.

The end of the world just feels closer here, but it’s nice, somehow. Maybe the actual end of the world won’t be so nice but the temporal proximity can be OK. In the slanting gold light. You have to see it, the canyons in shadow and the tops of the hills in one last soft glow.

What a strange non-city.

 

25 May

They asked for only four journal entries, so here’s the last one.

And why is # a “hashtag”?

Hash? Like weird meat or weird marijuana? Tag, like the game?

At least “blog” has an etymology, even if, as a word, it sounds like a fat clog in a drain.

A friend who works in an emergency room had a patient delivered to her who had a croquet ball in his lower intestine. I guess there’s a lesson there: always have friends who work in emergency rooms, as they have the best stories.

No coyotes tonight. But there’s a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn. Where?

Where in LA would there be a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn?

It’s such a faraway sound. Lonesome hoboes watching the desert from an empty train car. Going where?

I met a woman recently who found human body parts in some bags while she
was hiking.

Technically, her dogs found them.

Then she found the dogs.

And then the sky was full of helicopters, as even in LA it’s unusual to have human hands and things left in bags near a hiking trail a few hundred yards from Brad Pitt’s house.

What is this place?

When I used to visit LA, I marvelled at the simple things, like gas stations and guest bedrooms.

I was a New Yorker.

And the gas stations took credit cards. At. The. Pumps.

What was this magic?

And people had Donald Judd beds in their living rooms, just slightly too small for actual sleeping – but, still, there’s your Donald Judd bed. In your living room at the top of the hill somewhere, with an ocean a dozen miles away but so clear you can see Catalina.

They drained the reservoir and now don’t know what to do with it.

Good old LA, confused by things like empty reservoirs in the middle of the city.

Maybe that’s where the lonesome train lives. And it only comes out at night, to make the sound of a lonesome train whistle, echoing from the empty concrete reservoir that’s left the city nonplussed.

“We’ve never had an empty reservoir in the city before.”

So . . . Do something great with it. I know, it’s a burden being given a huge gift of ­empty real estate in the middle of the city.

Tomorrow I’m meeting some more friends who’ve moved here from New York.

“We have a guest bedroom!” they crow.

A century ago, the Griffith Park planners planted redwoods across the street. And now the moon is waning but shining, far away but soft, through the redwoods.

No coyotes, but a waning moon through some towering redwoods is still really OK. As it’s a city that isn’t a city, and it’s my home.

Goodnight.

Moby’s memoir, “Porcelain”, is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad