Every year, on or close to George Washington's birthday, the Senate has one of its members read Washington's farewell address on the Senate floor. This year was no exception. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a proponent of arming the rebels in Syria, blandly read through the address, ironically verbalizing Washington's admonition against "foreign entanglements."
At the time, Washington was concerned about alliances that would land us in the middle of wars among European heavyweights while we were still trying to figure out who we were as a nation. But it does not seem a leap to assume that Washington would have been just as unhappy about involvement in parts of the world where we have an inability to appreciate local sensibilities, and where our intelligence services seem incapable of providing critical information.
This brings us to our governmental obsession, the Middle East, and the crisis du jour, Syria. It is a little difficult to imagine Washington endorsing our offer of aid to the Syrian insurgency, a muddle of groups whose identity we can't really appreciate. One thing we do know is that the most effective of the insurgents is the al-Nusra Front, and that this gang associates itself with al-Qaeda.
Currently, we're talking about non-lethal aid, a euphemism for not supplying weapons. However, our administration is considering training insurgents, night vision equipment, body armor, and stepped-up humanitarian aid. The delusion is that this stuff is "non-lethal."
We trained Mali's special forces, many of whom then defected to the Islamists, whom France is currently fighting along side Malian and ECOWAS soldiers. The idea that the United States and its allies "own the night" in combat is based on night vision equipment. A bad guy in body armor is a bad guy who's harder to kill. Humanitarian items that are unmonitored get traded for currency spent on weapons. No aid is really "non-lethal."
Who are these people we are proposing to help? They claim that the Assad government has committed atrocities on a vast scale while they do the same on a smaller scale, and are kept from being just as prolifically vicious because they lack the aircraft and artillery of the Syrian government. Many have publicly vowed to slaughter the Alawite minority, to which President Assad and his family belong, to the last man, woman, and child. What are we going to do if that starts to happen?
Speaking of foreign entanglements, what would be the implications for Israel and Lebanon if Sunni extremists seize the Syrian government and its arsenal? There has already been cross-border skirmishing between Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite Hezbollah in Lebanon. Would the new Syrian government be ready to surrender its chemical weapons to the international community, or look upon those weapons as an equalizer in a corner of the world where they are outgunned by everyone around them?
There are people in Congress, particularly some Senate Republicans, who still think that we've done well in our recent wars, and have not commented on this week's revelation that NATO statistics show no improvement in violence levels in Afghanistan. They remain convinced that American arms, whether held by U.S. troops or given away to people whose loyalties we can't even identify, will improve every situation. They ignore the fact that military stores, regardless of their origin, somehow always end up in the hands of people antagonistic to everything we stand for, causing us to look on in horror, or worse, forcing us to send our own people to ameliorate the mess we've helped to create. Their continuous yowling has budged the administration into its current consideration of non-lethal aid. Since such help would be unlikely to alter the course of the violence in a meaningful way, the Senate hawks will persist in asking for weapons. Unfortunately, George is no longer in the White House.
Particularly interesting is that the American public has no stomach for such an adventure when our own economy is limping and sequester is in the offing. Average citizens have a better appreciation for where our attention needs to be focused than do the people being sent to represent those citizens in Washington.
I'm not trying to undersell the tragedy of the tens of thousands dead in Syria. However, American involvement has a better chance of making things worse than better, and at a cost that the American public is not willing to bear at present. Almost every large country from India west to the Mediterranean is seeing some measure of violence, and some are experiencing serious loss of life through terrorist bombings and assassinations. This way of doing business is anathema to Americans, and will continue as long as there are sectarian differences. We're not going to alter the equation. George would have understood that.