So the latest brainstorm from the American foreign policy establishment is to assist the “moderate” armed opponents of the Syrian government to get them to help fight the Sunni Islamic militants that now hold sizable chunks of eastern Syria and Western Iraq.
This brilliant idea was enunciated today by Secretary of State John Kerry in, of all places, Saudi Arabia. Now, if there’s one place in the Mideast that does not conjure up images of moderation (except in oil production policy, where high output suits its abundant resource) it would be the House of Saud: religious police ruling the streets and private lives of the citizenry; funders of Sunni fundamentalism across a broad geographic range of the developing world ; financiers–and foot soldiers–of the Taliban and Al Qaida.
Yet such is the desperation of US foreign policy since the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq in 2003 that a preposterous idea like this could actually be made public, much less in such a location. At this rate, the situation is going to go from worst to worster very quickly.
If the real bottom line for the US is preventing the creation of another safe haven for those who would do the West harm, there’s got to be a better way. And a way does exist that would avoid continuing the endless cycle of backing one religious sect at the expense of the others, which has all but guaranteed the perpetual carnage that axiomatically accompanies any swing in dominance in the region. (It’s been going on since the 8th Century, so we shouldn’t feel totally culpable.)
But that potential solution would surely be a hard pill for the US to swallow: an accommodation with the secular, authoritarian (and revived) Baathists in Iraq (you remember, the group we deposed in 2003), and backing off from the assault on Assad’s Baathist government in Syria, which has gone nowhere, but has inflicted untold death and destruction on the Syrian people.
I know the rejoinder: the US could never make such a reversal of policy, especially after all the sacrifice that has been made. But let’s take off the ideological and cultural blinders for a moment. Where will the current course of action in both countries lead to? In Iraq, clearly a divided, volatile and heavily armed standoff with untold bloodletting to come, angry and revenge driven Sunni and Shiite populations and a Taliban-like regime in the north that will be a magnet for devotees of terror. The only good outcome is that the Kurds will finally have a country of their own. But the West shouldn’t expect them to be our proxy to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And in Syria, the non-ISIS groups stand little chance of defeating either the Syrian government forces or the increasingly powerful fundamentalists.
So, what exactly does that leave as a rational choice? Accommodation with the Baathists. They are secular. They are local. And they are ruthless enough to crush the fundamentalists and put a lid on the sectarian chaos.
Let’s not cringe too long at the last point. The ongoing and potential carnage in the region should be enough of a jolt to bring some common sense into the silly corner we’ve put ourselves in. Yes, a lot of people will die; yes, there will be broad suppression of individual liberties. That is all regrettable. But who would like to put that likely outcome up against the all but certain unending death toll and religious/cultural/political oppression that will ensue if the current trajectory continues? There is no Hollywood-ending scenario.
The Baathists are not democrats. But we can talk to them, much as we have learned to do with the Vietnamese. Remember how evil the Viet Cong and Ho Chi Minh were in the 1960s and 1970s? Not that evil after all, are they? And John Kerry, who came back from that earlier war to throw back his battle-won medals, should know better than to lead us back into a quagmire this time around.