The Saudis and Washington in Afghanistan and Syria: the 1980s and 2013
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
Looked at one way at least, the president's Syrian war proposal -- itself an ever shifting target -- couldn't be more brain-dead. The idea that one country, on its own, has the right to missile and bomb another to resolve the question of a chemical attack and war crime should, on the face of it, seem strange to us, like the most random death-dealing response to an already horrific act. Certainly, if done, it would have an effect; it's just that no one has any idea what that would be, though as with so many military-first acts of the U.S. government in recent years, it already has "This Can't Turn Out Well" scrawled all over it.
If you believe in the cycles of history, the Obama administration's Syrian policy should seem eerily cyclic. Last Sunday, after all, Secretary of State John Kerry proudly announced that the Saudis were "backing" an American strike plan (and might even be willing to pay for it). Shouldn't this have fired some residual brain cells in Washington and produced a bit of a memory buzz? After all, in some twisted way, the present plan developed at the Pentagon, the White House, and an ever more militarized State Department brings us full circle to the moment in the early 1980s when this all began.
In the Syrian nightmare, we see an old alliance being reconstituted. Back then, the Reagan administration (spearheaded by the CIA) and the Saudis, as well as the Pakistanis, supported with money, training, and weaponry the most extreme and fundamentalist of the Afghan mujahedeen in their struggle against the Soviet Union. They were then called "freedom fighters" by the president. Their job, as Washington saw it, was to give the Soviets a bloody nose in their own special Vietnam (and so indeed they did). We know, of course, just where that propitious plan ended.
Now, the Saudis are, it seems, doing the same thing in Syria, once more funding and arming extreme fundamentalist forces and, however reluctantly, the U.S. is backing and being backed by them. As a result, if the Obama administration, with or without congressional agreement, were to launch an attack on Syria, it would functionally be fighting on the same side as, and advancing the fortunes of, al-Qaeda-cloned forces. It's not exactly an ad man's -- more a Mad Men's -- dream and, if you think about it for a moment, can you doubt that the whole crazed project has "This Can't Turn Out Well" scrawled all over it?
In the tragicomedy that is now American policy, it may be the president's good fortune that a seemingly inadvertent comment by his secretary of state (who seems to be a paid staff member of The Daily Show) about how the Assad government could save itself by handing over its chemical weaponry within a week may provide him with an exit ramp. A funny thing happened on the labyrinthine road to Damascus: the Syrians quickly assented and Russian president Putin (clearly playing a smart hand and evidently having the time of his life) offered to help out.
It seems the American people are pitching in as well. Unlike the Obama administration and its congressional backers, opinion polls clearly show that, decades later, as another grim 9/11 of endless war planning passes, Americans have gotten the message. They don't want to see Washington loose the missiles and drop the bombs. As Peter Van Buren, the former State Department whistleblower and author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, notes in "Giving New Meaning to the Day After 9/11," the question is whether, at this late date, Congress is finally capable of responding as well -- or whether it will even have the chance.