This journal deals in a fraught subject, policy: "the unplanned and unforeseen result of a myriad of contingent strategic decisions" (according to Michael Ignatieff, New York Review of Books, 11/19/15). Gareth Porter charges that the United States, in regard to Syria, is not "capable of formulating a regional policy on the basis of an objective analysis of strategic interests." Well, no, since the administration is trying to avoid being publicly identified with ISIS, al-Qaeda, Iran, Russia or Bashar al-Assad — as if it were clear how to deal with what David Ignatius calls "an Islamic extremism that can destabilize the entire world if left unchecked" (Washington Post, 11/11/15). That seems alarmist, perhaps, conflating the current threat with World War II or the Cold War. The Soviet empire had nuclear warheads homed in on American targets over the North Pole. I still remember those arrows in newspaper maps pointing at Montana's missile silos, Omaha's Strategic Air Command bases and my classroom in New York City — where we were ducking and covering, afraid the sirens were not just tests but warnings of the blinding flash of light to come. We tried to keep our upper lips stiff.
Global thermonuclear war stalked the planet 60 years ago, and "everyone" knew that communism had to be stopped wherever it dared raise its head, like Vietnam. This public perception kept LBJ from cutting U.S. losses in the mid-sixties instead of doubling down — that and the sunk costs, mainly the 30,000 Americans who could not be allowed to have died in vain. Johnson confided to Senator Richard Russell that the public would not tolerate weakness in their president. Vladimir Putin also seems convinced of this, though his acts are usually interpreted by our media as aberrant. You do not have to be a macho man to feel the need to take action against heinous outrages (see Leila Hudson's "Liquidating Syria, Fracking Europe," which also explains the Schengen zone now in the news, p. 22).
No candidate running for president has openly advocated sending U.S. troops to Syria, though the shock of the Paris attacks may have put a dent in that resolve. Many, however, Hillary Clinton being one, adhere to the idea of a no-fly zone, despite the fact that it would be an act of war entailing the support of thousands of boots on the killing ground. Second-guessing what could have been done back at the beginning is merely an exchange of notes now, not disprovable. The potential anti-Assad force such a policy would have leaned on was always a very weak, if well-meaning, reed. And there was no spinmeister like Iraq's Ahmad Chalabi to weave a plausible narrative for action, no neo-con insiders to propagandize for him, and no 9/11 terrorism to galvanize public fear. But now, tragically, Paris may test whether we have learned anything from past mistakes.
There are no easy answers to what ails the Middle East today (see the redoubtable Chas Freeman, p. 65). Is the main problem the U.S. inability to assess its own strategic interests? Perhaps this is partly due to the domestic political "realities" at play, starting with the gargantuan Israel factor. But there is more. Referring again to Ignatieff, it is unnatural to be a realist. People seem to need meaning; hence the regret by some at the demise of communism. For the non-religious, it offered an explanation of socioeconomic evolution and the march of history toward Enlightenment. Entropy is a paltry substitute. One is left, lamented Kirkegaard, the first existentialist, with the human condition: the sickness unto death. This drives many to take a "leap" of faith. If that is Islam, some are now branding it a criminal act rather than a pursuit of meaning and dignity. They forget that our enemies are sociopaths, not Muslims. The perpetrators of the Paris attacks were homegrown, in the slums of Brussels, apparently, and they could have traveled freely to New York without the special screening refugees would receive.
All the news has not been bad. This bit of optimism is from Secretary Kerry's press conference in the traumatized Paris of November 16 — where he stopped en route home from his meeting in Vienna with Putin and the other G20 leaders: "[W]e are weeks away, conceivably, from the possibility of a big transition for Syria." The first step is a unified opposition that can negotiate with the Syrian government. This is holding up a unified front to combat ISIS/Daesh. Equally important is finessing the matter of how soon Bashar al-Assad "must go," as President Obama put it at the beginning of the misnamed Arab Spring. Is the defeat of ISIS all-important now, after Ankara, Sinai, Beirut, Paris and Mali, or are we still stuck in a rhetorical trap of our own making? The idea is in the air of a two-year period during which the retirement of Assad and his close family and aides will be negotiated, while the Syrian army bolstered by Russia, Iran, France, Britain, Turkey and the United States brings down the so-called Islamic State. This effort must be joined by foot soldiers from Muslim countries to be effective, though ISIS is hoping for a clear dividing line against the West.
Despair is rife in war-torn Iraq and Syria, and spreading. The proximate causes of the humiliation Muslims feel are sometimes aired in the U.S. media, but history is beyond their mandate. It is left to journals like this one to publish analysis of what has gone down in the Middle East and North Africa over the past century. An article we ran in winter 2011, still Arab springtime though not for long, is enlightening. A scholar from the UK, Ayse Tekdal Fildis, explained a significant bit of history in "The Troubles in Syria: Spawned by French Divide and Rule":
Great Britain and France transformed what had been relatively quiet provinces of the Ottoman Empire into some of the least stable and most internationally explosive states in the world. As a consequence, the First World War agreements are at the very heart of the current conflicts and politics in the Middle East. … France hoped to preserve her centuries-old ties with the Syrian Catholics, gain a strategic and economic base in the eastern Mediterranean, ensure a cheap supply of cotton and silk, and prevent Arab nationalism from infecting her North African empire (Vol. xviii, No. 4, Winter 2011).
France thwarted Arab nationalism in Algeria until 1962, when the De Gaulle government cut its losses. Indigenous military rule was not much better, and the seeds of past outrages keep germinating, now in jihadist form all over the world, though elite attention is best captured by mayhem in a Western city.