August 29, 2013
Still Searching for the Camel’s Butt
Fulton, Missouri is mainly known for one big speech- Winston Churchill's famous 1946 address in which he coined the term 'the Iron Curtain'. But in 1996, one of Churchill's successors, Margaret Thatcher, came to Fulton to give a speech which some have since referred to as prophetic. Three countries received special attention in the Thatcher address- Syria, Iraq, and Libya. "Rogue states" is what she called them (this was before the term became commonplace among other statesmen and politicians). Thatcher was already past her prime at that point, and her warning against "the single most awesome threat of modern times: the danger of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction" received relatively little attention.
Thatcher gave her speech back in the days of the Clinton administration- an era of financial prosperity and 'the end of history'- at a time in which Syria was considered to be a peaceful ally. She thought the American President was taking too long to intervene in Bosnia, but her most caustic remarks were reserved for her successor at Downing street, John Major. The contempt she showed him resulted in her expulsion from the PM's inner circle of advisors.
Just over a decade and a half after that speech in Missouri, Iraq has already been conquered and evicted, Libya has been bombed and invaded, and only Syria remains as it was (only much worse). The "rogue states" have lived up to Thatcher's grim prediction, including- last week- the warning about WMD's.
Clinton was late, but eventually he acted in Bosnia. He eventually got to Iraq as well- he and his British allies- and ordered a bombing campaign in retaliation to Saddam Hussein's refusal to adhere to the decisions of the UN Security Council. This punitive bombing raid, which was named Desert Fox, took four days and- incidentally of course- coincided with, and overshadowed, the impeachment hearings which were being held at the time following the Lewinsky affair. The ending is well known- Clinton managed to survive the impeachment hearings and to serve for two more years; Saddam survived a bit more.
A few years later, Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, whispered his opinion about Clinton's bombing raid. It happened in a meeting a few days after 9/11, when the former President's wife, now a Senator, came to the Whitehouse with three of her fellow colleagues. Newsweek's Howard Fineman, who sat in at that meeting, wrote down the following presidential quote, which was said in reference to Clinton's attempt at taming the rogue states: 'I'm gonna be patient, about this thing, and not go firing a 2 million dollar missile at a 10 dollar tent just to hit a camel in the butt.' I wonder what he will say- if he says anything- which I doubt he will- about Obama's punitive operation in Syria…
Today, after a few days of harsh words and attack plans leaked to the media, the wind has almost been taken out of the sails of an operation which hasn't yet begun. The British have backed down, and have asked for some more time; the Chinese and the Russians have voiced their disapproval as expected; the NYT has asked for some more evidence that Assad is indeed guilty; Congress has asked to be consulted with (as the constitution demands); and the public hasn't showed enthusiasm: a Huffington Post poll shows that only 25% of Americans support an aerial attack, even after the government has stated loud and clear that the evidence that Assad use chemical weapons is solid. This is a bit higher than previous polls, but the difference isn't really significant (6% up from a poll conducted in June).
While President Obama isn't absolutely in line with public opinion on every single subject, his foreign policy has never significantly diverged from public opinion. If he isn't enthusiastic about intervening in Syria, he seems to be reflecting not only his own personal fatigue, but a National mood. In fact, he's being dragged into this battle against his will, and there's quite a bit of irony in this. President Assad has been toying with Obama for years now and doing whatever he wants in Syria, and now he has taken it up a notch showing how powerful he is: if up until now he has made the US follow a 'sit and do nothing' policy, now he will prove that he can make it change course and take action. Obama, throughout this whole affair, is nothing more than a puppet controlled by the Syrian despot. While some of his decisions are smart and some are stupid- Assad is the one who is calling the shots, not the leader of the superpower.
If he will act and the Syrians won't respond, he will be humiliated and will be deemed as ineffective. If they will respond he will have to deepen his involvement. Israel also has the ability to make things even more complicated for him. So do Iran and Hezbollah, of course. Obama, in any case, will continue pretending that he is 'leading from behind' (in the famous words of one of his generals in the Libya campaign) while actually being dragged forward by a galloping camel. A few of his advisors explained earlier this week- they sounded very knowledgeable, similarly to our experts in Israel- why none of the other players are interested in an escalation. According to their flow chart, Iran doesn't want an invasion into Syria to open the door for American forces in their backyard, and for that reason it will prevent Hezbollah and Assad from responding to an American punitive strike. And, of course, if Syria doesn't respond, Israel won't do anything as well. A few missiles and that's that. But Obama is smarter than most of his advisors, and he knows that while you can plan the beginning of an operation, you can't plan its ending.
From Granada to Beirut
Thatcher's relations with Reagan were good most of the time, but not always. When he decided to invade Granada Island he pretended to consult with her, but when she phoned him to explain why the forces shouldn't be sent he didn't have the courage to tell her that the operation had already begun. Reagan's decision to bomb Libya also gave her some political difficulties, but Thatcher decided to stand by Regan's side, facing hostile public opinion back home and a grudging Europe. This was possibly the defining moment in which she became an idolized figure not only in Britain but in the US, the moment she became one of the great symbols of the 'special relationship' between these two countries.
The relationship continues, but David Cameron, who went to the UN Security Council to ask for its approval for an operation in Syria, is barely a shadow of Thatcher, and the man sitting in the Oval office is having a hard time forging a meaningful foreign policy of the kind that brought President Reagan his eternal fame. The truth must be told: Reagan was scathed by his attempt to tame Syria, and he too came running back with his tail between his legs after a terrorist attack against American soldiers in Beirut. And Reagan too aimed at Gaddafi but only hit a camel's butt. If Obama decides to do little, declare victory, and leave before the dust has dispersed, he won't be the first American president to do so. America only seldom decides to truly get involved, and it only seldom risks its soldiers to protect human dignity and freedom in faraway lands- Washington's rhetoric, on the other hand, is quite often more convincing than its actions.
And yet, Obama's weakness is very different from Reagan's occasional hesitancy. Reagan gained enough credibility, built himself a reputation as someone you shouldn't mess with, made sure that deterrence was well felt in presence. Obama has gone in the opposite direction: he first showed everyone they have nothing to fear, and then he started making threats. This brings to mind another Thatcher quote: "Being powerful is like being a lady... if you have to tell people you are, you aren't."