Robert Morgenthau, the legendary Manhattan District Attorney, used to have a framed Oliphant cartoon in his office. It comically depicted the attempt by the newly inaugurated President Nixon to fire Morgenthau, a Democrat, from his then position as U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York, arguably the most influential federal jurisdiction in the country. Morgenthau refused, until he was sure Nixon would replace him with someone who would be non-partisan and of a caliber that this office with its wide remit including Wall Street traditionally demands. The hilarious cartoon's frames begin with a fiery Nixon giving a direct order to Morgenthau to leave and then transitions through succeeding frames after the D.A. refuses the president's direct order, to the final frame that has Nixon finally begging him to leave.
I have often thought about this cartoon as the tragic events in Syria have gone from bad to worse. For two years now President Obama and his administration have been advising or ordering President Assad to "go," or announcing to one and all that "Assad must go." The problem of course is Assad begs to differ. It is his country he says and he is staying put. The louder the United States and its allies shout for Assad to leave, the more impotent those commands sound.
And when the going looks like it might get tough for Assad, as it appeared a few weeks ago when Israeli jets blasted targets in Syria or when the United Nations Security Council appeared ready to pass tough sanctions against it, Assad rolls out his heavy artillery: Russia and China. Both vetoed the UNSC resolution and Russia, in retaliation against the Israeli action, appears to have sent a sophisticated battery of anti-aircraft missiles to protect Syrian airspace.
The situation in Syria now appears to resemble the mid-point of the Oliphant cartoon in which Nixon has realized that his commands don't count for much with the powerful U.S. Attorney who has his own power base, and the president chooses a more polite tack which as I recall went something like, "Mr. Morgenthau I really would like you to leave." Followed by "Bob, won't you please think about leaving." It seems to me that is roughly where the West is with President Assad today.
But that is also where I think the Assad trajectory begins to separate from the Oliphant cartoon. In the end President Nixon did pick a U.S. Attorney deserving of the Southern District of New York, and Morgenthau having forced his opponent to see reality, did finally resign.
The crucial difference between Morgenthau's story and Assad's is that Morgenthau always knew the President would ultimately have his way. After all every U.S. Attorney's office reports through the Justice Department to the President, who in the end always calls the shots. In the case of Syria, as all of us now know, the White-House does not call the shots. The fact that President Assad's fortunes now seem to be ascendant again, with the support of Hezbollah, only complicates the outcome. If things continue to go his way, as the Russians and Chinese block Western moves to forcibly remove Assad, the intrepid leader of Syria will slowly but surely destroy the rag tag opposition. What then?
My best guess is Assad will continue in office, ruling what remains of his nation as best he can. Perhaps that is when it will be time for the United States and the European Union to speak to the Russians and Chinese and together with the United Nations find some way to help stop the bloodshed that will follow the end of Syria's Civil War. An international reconstruction project for instance that even the ruthless Assad might support. But until that point is reached, there isn't much the United States can do besides work on the margins to alleviate the suffering of civilians.
It is a scenario that Susan Rice, the new National Security Advisor will have to deal with. My advice to her is to go over to Morgenthau's new-office -- he is in private practice now. I bet that framed cartoon is still on the wall of his new digs. She might want to sit and ponder its lessons before she begins to add her own imprint to the debacle that is Syria.
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