Syria: The Quintessential No-Win Predicament

High-level policy-making in the U.S. government is a big ole booger in and of itself, but the situation that President Obama finds himself is the Kobiyashi Marue of predicaments: it is literally a no-win predicament. koby

For those of you are not Star Trek fanatics, the Kobiyashi Maru was a Star Fleet training exercise which involved either breaking a boundary treaty or saving a another vessel with people on board who were going to die without the Enterprises help. Captain Kirk, of course, was the only Star Fleet trainee who ever found a way to beat the scenario: by cheating and reprogramming the simulation so that it was not a no-win situation any longer.

Unfortunately, Syria is not a simulation and real people are dying horrible deaths either by napalm, deadly gas or both.

This Decision-Making Flow Chart Has Only Three Paths 

These seem to be the three paths to me:

  1. Do nothing
  2. Do it all
  3. Find a middle ground and grope along and figure it out as we go along.


It appears to this kibitzer that the President has decided on #3 and for the life of me; I don’t see what else he could do under these conditions; especially given as messed up as previous meddling administrations have left the Middle East. And to make matters exponentially worse, America is being crippled right now by the unruly, hell-bent-on- obstructionistism, Confederate wing of the GOP in charge of the House of Representatives.

The three paths.

Do nothing

This hardly seems to be a realistic option. Forget about the politics of the fact that the president a year ago drew his own red line against Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Discount the reality that this is reportedly the largest single deployment of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds in 1988. Ignore the fact that 100,000 Syrians have died in this civil conflict; and the president is accused of fiddling, while Syria burns..

If you only concentrate on the events of the past five days in Washington, what has been emerging from administration officials is the most well-advertised and telegraphed military action in the history of modern warfare. Rarely do we get this kind of preview of the operation, its size and make-up.

Combine that with the Secretary of State John Kerry’s brief but powerful statement of moral outrage the other day and the president’s PBS interview, and you get as authoritative a commitment to strike as is humanly conceivable.

In fact, powerful statements and actions of the past few days have now constituted their own red line. And if the president doesn’t enforce it, he will be truly damaged goods when it comes to foreign policy for the remainder of his term in office.

The ramifications would be that neither his regional allies (Israel and the Saudis) nor his adversaries (Iran, Hezbollah, Russia) will find him credible. As it is now, everyone says no to the U.S. without much cost or consequence anyway.

Do it all

As expected, Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham (not to mention a whole host of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives outside the government) have repeatedly called for a more forceful policy on Syria, with some idiots even suggesting that the president enabled all of this misery to unfold.

Thankfully, none of the arguments have not called for boots on the ground, but extensive use of no-fly zones, the use of U.S. air and missile power to degrade the regime and military support for the opposition, could easily morph into that the first time one of Syria’s considerable Russia-supplied air defense knocks one of the U.S. jets out of the sky. This is NOT primitive Afghanistan…Syria has some serious, if limited firepower.

Obama: Syria strikes would be limited

We should all be grateful that President Obama has wisely and willfully avoided this most foolhardy-of-all approach.

And he continues to avoid it because the reality of the problem of an open-ended military commitment and the lack of correlation between the use of U.S. military power and its relation to the end state.

Syria is in the throes of a brutal civil war. The opposition is composed of more than 1,000 disparate rebel groups, the most effective is allied with al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists. A victory by the latter would be a terrible blow to U.S. interests. And ousting al-Assad has already shown that it will be neither cheap nor easy.

It took eight months to get rid of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, and he had no weapons of mass destruction, no serious air defenses or military capacity and no credible allies. The end result? A post-Gadhafi environment in which there are too many guns, too many injustices and too many regional rivalries with a decided absence of a realistic central authority.

And by all authoritative sources, Libya pales in comparison with Syria’s complexities. Devising a serious military strategy to get rid of al-Assad — serious weapons in the hands of the rebels; no-fly zones; and sustained air/missile strikes against Syrian military units, infrastructure and leadership targets — also means U.S. responsibility for what ever new brand of hell follows. Lastly, but certainly not leastly, President Obama has avoided this option because he sure as hell doesn’t want America getting stuck with the check for Syria in perpetuity.

Muddling  through

This, hopefully, is the option the U.S. is most likely to undertake. The one focused more narrowly on trying to deter the Syrians from using chemical weapons again and eroding al-Assad’s military capacity in the process –but even this option is far from ideal.

Although I personally think the administration’s military actions will be far more overwhelming than the limited strikes being talked about, it is unlikely to change the battlefield balance.

There are other downsides, too. Once the glass ceiling against the use of force is broken, the expectations and pressures to use it again will grow, especially within the ranks of uber-hawks like John McCain and his pet poodle Lindsey Graham. There’s also always the danger too of a response by Hezbollah or Syria against Israel, however unlikely. And as night follows day, sooner or later, al-Assad will commit some other horrific act—like yesterday’s dropping napalm on a playground for fuck’s sake– that will require another U.S. response.

Without question, there are real risks in acting on option three, and Obama most assuredly is a reluctant warrior. Moreover, in light of the parliamentary opposition to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s willingness to join the U.S., he may be a lone warrior, too.

But I’ve got to come to grips with the fact that he’s going to have to take some sort of war-like facade with Syria. Al-Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons, and the napalming of a playground of all things, will force hand of the U.S if for no other reason than the president’s own words and those of others in his administration leave him no other choice.

If anyone knows of a way to get a do-over, like Captain Kirk got by re-programming his own no-win situation, please, please give the White House a call.

Harvey A. Gold

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