Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal”, the blog that doesn’t change its ideology based on economic interests (unless, you know, someone wants to make early retirement for me a reality).
In this week’s blog entry, we’ll discuss what the U.S.’s role is in Syria and how the American Government could potentially respond as the situation develops. We’ll also look at how American relationships with Dictators past and present have evolved (or not).
Now, I won’t give you a comprehensive day by day account of the current events in Homs or Damascus; the horrible siege and brutality by the Assad Govt. on his own people is shown across the news on a daily basis. A simple summary of the Assad Regime’s actions and the international community’s response is sufficient for this post. My blog post on the Syrian uprising from June explains the history of the country, the rise of the Assad regime, and the revolution from February 2011.
The bloody year-long crackdown on protesting Syrians by the Assad regime and his army has caused several countries in the West, Arab League, and nearly unanimously in the UN to condemn the regime. Assad himself has only relented in a “way too late” fashion by suggesting that there could be a reformed constitution and “elections” in a handover of power. This suggestion is seen as a joke at this point, considering the atrocities he’s committed and the economic sanctions by nearly every country (except China, Russia, Iraq, and Iran) that are throttling the Syrian economy. The vote on the new constitution (that limits a presidential term to two 7 year terms) this Sunday is being boycotted by the opposition.
While the UN has failed to convince Russia and China to join the UN Security Council condemnation party, more calls for the U.S. or some international agency to intervene to defend the rebels in Syria are growing louder. As the siege on Homs continues into its sixth day and since a prominent American journalist and French photographer have died from the violence, increased pressure has mounted on someone to do something.
So, that’s the question: Will the U.S. lead a military intervention to oust a regime that has killed more than 5,000 people since last March?
So many analyses have arisen about this possibility, including no more than 3 questions during the Wednesday 2/22/2012 White House Press conference for White House Press Sec. Jay Carney over the potential of a “Libya Like” intervention in Syria to get rid of Bashar Al-Assad. Carney answered in perfect circumlocutive fashion (because he’s not the President) citing different conditions for every country, time, dictator, economics, culture, etc… Good points, Jay.
And, a nice segway to an explanation of former American involvements in ousting dictators, or keeping dictators, or producing dictators. By reviewing some former involvements (but not all, because hey, it’s not a book) we can understand the predicament faced by President Obama (as Commander in Chief) and the UN on what to do about Syria.
Keeping Business Interests
U.S. intervention abroad after the Spanish American War and the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine has had a primary business or economic interest. These efforts often displaced democratic movements with authoritarian governments that allowed American business monopolies to continue to exploit foreign resources and reap the benefits. Direct, clandestine campaigns in this regard took place in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama. These campaigns (that sometimes involved US troops) kept the US business monopoly in power in these “banana republics.”
Indirectly, the U.S. has caused the rise of dictatorship in keeping its own economic interest in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Popular anti-US or anti-trading policies are easier to keep down with a American-friendly General or dictator, and so the U.S. was happy to have assisted in the rise of a megalomaniac as long as they kept U.S. commercial interests as their best interest. Democracy and human rights have not been the first priority: As F.D.R. said of the brutal Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, “he may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.”
In some cases, U.S. intervention to keep a dictator involved helping the economic interests of its allies along with its own. The best example of this is in Iran, where in 1953, a CIA led coup of popularly elected Mohammad Mossadegh re-instated the exiled Reza Shah and prevented a nationalization of Iranian oil fields and refineries which had been owned by the British for decades. In another (but more complicated) example: The initial presence of American “advisors” and later troops in Vietnam was undertaken to protect the dying French colonial and economic presence in Indochina presiding over rubber and other resources. The installation of Ngo Dinh Diem as the Dictator showed the American intent of keeping South Vietnam’s government in the best interests of the West.
An Ideological Alibi
In halting democratic revolutions, elections, or policies and helping replace them with business friendly autocrats, the U.S. has shown a consistent priority for economic interests over the ideological alibi for their foreign meddling. The justification for U.S. involvement has varied from country to country, but often U.S. intervention has been framed as necessary to *prevent the “dangerous” spread of communism, *spread a higher culture to a downtrodden backwards people (read: Non-Christians), and to *defend the U.S. national security.
All of these alibis for intervention and the resulting dictatorships were generally accepted as measures of high priority for the U.S. How would they have reacted if they knew the U.S. was halting the spread of democratic movements if they were told it was purely for economic interests?
So, American relationships with dictators in these examples has been, well, pretty friendly. The only times things have turned ugly is when the dictator decides not to directly support American business. These are some examples, but they don’t exactly relate as well to the Syrian predicament as these next three, more recent examples do.
“To Help the People”
The title of this section may suggest another alibi similar to the ones I mentioned earlier. These next three (more recent) examples, however, show that the U.S.’s main interest was in stopping or removing a dictator because of human rights abuses (among other reasons).
- In the Kosovo conflict, the Clinton Administration joined the UN and NATO forces in preventing a continued ethnic genocide in a civil war like atmosphere, carried out by both sides, but more vigorously by Serbian dictator Slobadon Milosevic.
- The 2003 Iraq invasion had many, many reasons beyond the humanitarian effort, but it is true that President Bush wanted to oust Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator who had killed millions of Kurds and dissenters in the 1990s. The method to accomplish this of course was flawed, detailed in my previous blog post on the Iraq War.
- The assistance of NATO (with the U.S.) to the Libyan militia groups last year helped beat Moammar Qaddafi’s forces and forced him into exile and eventual capture.
In each of these examples, the primary motive of the U.S. military action was to remove a dictator, and begin the process of democratization. It is from here that these examples differ in the American approach, and the most important factor that President Obama and his Joint Chiefs of Staff should consider: who to assist in ousting the dictator/promoting independence and the immediate and long term effects of removing a dictator.
Making the Decision
Choosing a full-scale invasion with only 2 major allied force involvement and no thought out plan for post-dictatorship governance or transition (the Iraq war) seems to be out of favor for Mr. Obama. Obama campaigned for President against this strategy which led to the 9 year war. The President recognizes the consequences of creating a power vacuum in multi-ethnic countries who have a history of ethnic conflict or discrimination. Further, President Obama knows an international decision is much more powerful and won’t isolate the U.S.
Supporting a known or listed terror group like NATO and the Clinton administration did in Kosovo in 2000 (supported the Kosovo Liberation Army) may not be a wise decision either. this may be the predicament that Mr. Obama runs into if he decides to send arms or back directly the opposition movement, a group comprised of the Free Syrian Army, revolutionaries, possible members of terror groups, and others. Direct support for this group may be a backwards step in the “War on Terror.” Further, the opposition is deeply fractious and divided: How would they handle power sharing?
Imposing a no-fly-zone like NATO did in Libya and Kosovo is not an effective strategy in Syria because Assad’s forces have not used an air force to put down the uprising. While the Free Syrian Army says they have Alawites (the Shia islamic sect that Assad is part of) and won’t impose any recriminations if they succeed in the revolution, it is hard to take them at their word. We’ve seen these types of retaliatory actions taken against former Qaddafi (aka Gaddafi, Ghaddafi, Khadaffi, Quaddafy) sympathizers and immigrants in Libya.
A more diverse ethnic background in Syria (Kurds, Assyrians, Arabs, Alawites, Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians) makes it more difficult to give power to one group (such as the Sunnni majority). President Obama is facing a similar history of ethnic strife in Syria that President Bush did in Iraq, and of course does not want to set off a bloody civil war that might deadlock the country if Assad is taken out. Meanwhile, the siege of Homs and the massacres at Dayr az-Zawr, Baniyas, and Aleppo have recalled to mind the horror of Benghazi in Libya, the impetus for NAtO supporting the Libyan rebels.
So these are the circumstances which face the President and the UN today: they are facing what reporters are calling their “Benghazi moment.”
Clearly, any economic attachment to Assad has gone out the window, as both Sec. of State Clinton and President Obama have condemned Assad along with the accompanying economic sanctions. America’s relationship to this dictator has long passed the commercial interest barrier. But, consider this: there are those who would favor a war because certain companies stand to gain significantly, like defense contractors. If this sounds familiar, its because the same defense contractors in the Iraq war were given no-bid contracts because they had a hand in Government. Some say the same conspiracy existed for the Libya campaign and would for Syria as well. Here we arrive at the intersection of the economic priority in dealing with dictators. American track record of working with dictators is pretty poor, and so it makes sense that these theories would look to that conclusion. An interesting thought to remember, but conspiracies aside, the effort here as in Libya is for the most part humanitarian.
So what should President Obama do? We here at “What’s the Deal?” believe that the President should consider the examples we’ve mentioned here today and especially keep in mind the ethnic and religious differences that exist and seriously work with both NATO, the UN and the Arab League in pursuing any action, or inaction. The isolationist stance in the U.S. is growing, and the President would very much like to avoid another conflict as we are winding down other operations (oh yea, I almost forgot about Afghanistan). So perhaps the non-aggression is the best method.
As the “Friends of Syria” met last Friday to condemn the regime, any consensus on action is non-existent. It seems that any action or decision is very difficult and is a perfect case of “pick your poison.”
An interesting component of this situation is the question: Why just Syria? There are several countries around the world that are suffering under long term brutal repression of a dictator (see Zimbabwe, Sudan, Bahrain, and arguably Saudi Arabia). If America is going to be the world police, we need to address all of the repression (Don’t we?).
Just some thoughts to consider as the world (w/o China + Russia) attempts to force Assad out of power diplomatically, and give aid to suffering Syrians.
Until the next serious panel discussion,
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Sources and further reads:
Overthrow! America’s Imperial Century, by Stephen Kinzer