Too much of the commentary on Syria around here reeks of conspiracy-theorizing and disaster hyperbolism. This is not a particularly new phenomenon; I encountered it quite a bit during my involvement with the now moribund “Eyes on Egypt and the Region” group, and it simmers in some corners of the site on a near-daily basis. Neither has it been exclusive to Syria, as evinced by the (un)timely flurries of wild-eyed commentary on Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Iran et cetera when events draw the attention of this community. Recent developments in and related to Syria have certainly brought this class of comments and diaries to the fore manifesting, in Hofstadter's words, “the big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable.”
My intent in this diary is to address one of the oft-cited conspiracy theories with respect to Syria—the PNAC CT—and then offer a few thoughts on the forms and difficulties of some of the disaster hyperbolism. I'll conclude with my perspective on the wisdom of any U.S. or allied military intervention in the Syrian crisis. For those unheeding of twigg's exhortation to R.T.F.D. (have you made it even this far, or are keywords in the title mere chum in the wine-dark waters of the Sea of Outrage?) I look forward with especial bemusement to your comments.
The PNAC CT refers, obviously, to the neoconservative think-tank "The Project for the New American Century," founded in 1997. The views expressed in PNAC's Statement of Principles and in Rebuilding America's Defenses—the authors and signatories of which stand as a Who's Who of the depraved assholes whose exaggerations, lies and jingoism helped to drive and sustain the invasion and occupation of Iraq—represent an ideology that should without doubt be anathema to us in this community. It is not hyperbole, I think, to state that the PNAC agenda, their obsession with regime change in a broadly defined Middle East, was a malevolent force throughout the long and dark Presidency of Bush the Younger, exacting in blood and treasure and fundamentally harmful to the credibility of American foreign policy. Often cited in this context are comments and remarks by Wesley Clark who in his 2007 memoirs and various speaking engagements mentioned having been told of a strategy-document originating from the Office of SecDef Rumsfeld detailing a plan for fomenting regime-change in seven countries in five years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, culminating with Iran. The “seven countries in five years” memo is typically held to represent the PNAC agenda.
So far, so good, right? PNAC's neoconservative obsession with regime change in the broad Middle East is well-documented in both their Statement of Principles and in Rebuilding America's Defenses (add in A Clean Break, if you'd like) their ideology was an undoubtedly strong influence on the policies of the administration of Bush the Younger and, while admitting the inaccessibility of the memo to which Clark refers, a long-term strategy culminating with regime change in Iran sounds like something those zealous assholes would have fantasized.
Where the reality of PNAC crosses into PNAC CT... where too many diarists and commenters take Hofstadter's “big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable”... is in the assertion that the PNAC agenda has remained operative in the Obama administration and is guiding current U.S. policy on Syria. Let's take a reality-based approach to the situation, shall we? Shortly after taking office, the Obama administration began to expand diplomatic contacts with Syria, a move in line with not only statements by Obama during his campaign but also the perspective offered by Kerry and Hagel in their co-authored “It's Time to Talk to Syria” (Wall Street Journal, 5 June 2008), and a move in sharp contrast with Bush' rigid opposition to direct talks with the al-Assad regime. Given the flak that President Obama received from conservatives for expanding diplomacy with Damascus, and given the foregrounding of Kerry's and Hagel's op-ed in conservative opposition-research during their confirmations on account of their advocacy for intensive diplomacy with the Syrian regime, it is absolutely ludicrous to suggest that the neoconservative PNAC agenda has somehow remained operative. Absolutely ludicrous. The Obama administration has taken and continues to take considerable heat from conservative politicians and pundits for its patent rejection of that agenda. To suggest otherwise is simply unbelievable.
The Obama administration's actual diplomatic engagement with Damascus, evident through late Spring 2011, is elided by conspiracy theorists who take two “dots”—1) PNAC's undoubted significance during the Bush years and 2) the incrementally stronger rhetoric from the administration in the wake of al-Assad's appallingly heavy-handed crackdown on the political opposition since late March 2011—and “connect the dots” with an erroneous, indeed counter-factual, bridging-theory. Such is the hallmark of conspiracy-theorizing.
So, absent PNAC, how did we arrive now at a point where President Obama is considering military intervention in Syria to punish the al-Assad regime for the alleged use of chemical weapons? The reality, I propose, is far more dull than the titillation of unmasking Teh CT. Diplomatic engagement with Damascus, always intended as a means toward a comprehensive Middle East peace-plan, depended upon regional stability. The unanticipated anti-authoritarian movements folded under “the Arab Spring” shattered that requisite stability. The administration has been knocked completely off its game by the heavy-handed and at times cruel response by the al-Assad regime to an opposition that the regime views as an existential threat. Thus, deprived of its initial strategic vision, the Obama administration has been forced to react and has done so in a muddled, ill-conceived manner. There have been four major missteps: 1) recognizing the opposition-in-exile as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, thereby eclipsing the non-militarized domestic political opposition; 2) announcing that al-Assad “must go”; 3) demarcating the use of chemical weapons as a “red line”; and 4) announcing the intent to provide small-arms and ammunition to some subset of the militarized opposition. Through these decisions, the administration has backed itself into a rhetorical corner where staying out of the situation altogether (the least bad of a whole range of bad policy-decisions) is viewed as untenable, particularly when confronted by the very real neoconservative impulses of numerous political foes across the aisle. I think that wu ming got it right in a comment earlier this week proposing (I paraphrase) that Obama is trying to figure out what is the least action he can take that quiets the hawks calling for vigorous intervention. No conspiracy necessary, just muddled policy.
In addition to conspiracy theories, we've seen our (un)fair share of disaster hyperbolism in recent diaries and comments on Syria as well. These have taken various forms ranging from “it'll be just like Iraq and/or Libya and/or Afghanistan and/or Vietnam et cetera” to “it'll be worse than Iraq et cetera” to the ultimate “holy shit, it'll be World War Three!!! Russia! China! Iran! Israel!” In the first two instances—“just like […]” and “worse than [...]”—we encounter the methodological difficulties associated with historical analogies. Certainly, both foreign-policy decision-makers and the commentariat (professional or not) use historical analogies as heuristic devices both to establish precedent and make predictions, on the basis of which they can articulate and justify policy decisions. The difficulties relate to the strength of the selected analogy. How certain is the inference that two events or processes that may correspond in one respect necessarily correspond in other respects? How many correspondences between two events or processes are sufficient for an analogy to hold predictive value? Given the simplifying and generalizing nature of analogies, is there an inherent risk of obscuring significant non-correspondences between the comparanda? Finally, is that inherent risk susceptible to manipulation by those using an analogy to advocate for a particular policy outcome?
Myself? I don't place much value on the “just like [...]” and “worse than [...]” historical analogies invoked in the commentary on Syria here because for any presumed correspondence there are, in my view, as many if not more points of non-correspondence that render the analogies to Iraq, Libya et cetera mere rhetorical flourish. I prefer to weigh the cases for and against any intervention in Syria on the basis of specifics rather than presumptive generalization.
As for the “holy shit, it'll be World War Three! Russia! China! Iran! Israel!” comments that pop up here and again, I suggest that this strain of alarmist thought is quite overwrought. I actually find those comments darkly entertaining to the extent that replacing “Russia / China / Iran” with “Gog and Magog” brings such comments fairly neatly in line with fanatical prophecies of the End Times. What can I say, I'm amused by odd things...
Finally, I'm obliged to offer my opinion on potential American military intervention, of any scale and with or without allies, in Syria. The zeal for “purity” around here pretty much demands such a statement lest, as is too often the case, one come under fire in comments for being something along the lines of a war-mongering supporter of the neocon MIC totalian oligarchs (season with “!!1!” and “Fuck You!” to taste). I am opposed to American military intervention. My view is that any intervention, by further internationalizing the crisis, will exacerbate both the regime's and militarized opposition's callous and short-sighted strategies of pitting indigenous communities against each other through claims (some real, some spurious) of foreign interference. Cognizant of the humanitarian aspects, I nonetheless conclude that intervention is likely to do more harm than good. It's a calculus that leaves me feeling cold, but there it is.
Now, having spent faaaaar too much time on meta, I'll suggest you take yourself over to ivorybill's excellent diary and implore him for more. Reality, it's what's for dinner...