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July 03, 2013

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mostly-peaceful stalemate is simply not on the menu for at least the next six months. check back in 2014, at the earliest. also, I'm on record as saying that I don't think a divided Syria is long-term viable.

rebel victory? this wouldn't be a horrible outcome from the US' POV -- it would be somewhere between not so great and so-so, depending on which configuration of "rebels". but it's also, at the moment, the most unlikely. certainly it's not going to happen any time soon.

an Assad victory should be an acceptable outcome from a US POV. it's a return to the status quo ante, except that Assad is much weaker. But not we enter the realm of US internal politics. for a plain sad fact, lots of people in the US will get upset if Assad wins. It'll be seen as a defeat for us, presumably because a victory for Iran and Hezbollah. this is stupid, but there you go.

so, that's a reason to drag out the war. (in addition to bleeding Iran and Hezbollah, of course. while I think our relationship with Iran is much more adversarial than it ought to be, what's not to like about having them bogged down in an expensive proxy war with the possibility of a humiliating defeat?) from the Obama administration's POV, this is a low-cost strategy that kicks the can down the road a year or two.


Doug M.

I agree with you about the pressures of U.S. internal politics!

Your earlier comment was a bit misleading: I took it to be concerned with the U.S. national interest from a realist perspective. The phrase "brutal realpolitik" was what confused me.

I think this means that we both disagree with Dan Drezner: it might be in the Obama administration's political interest to send arms to the rebels, but the United States has no reason to prefer a prolonged conflict between Assad and the rebels above any of the other possible outcomes. Correct?

what would "the United States" like? here's a toy model, in descending order of preferences.

1) victory by a rebel coalition that includes and can be influenced by "moderate" and "pro-Western" elements that are broadly friendly to US interests. this would be great, but it's frankly not a very likely outcome.

2) victory for Assad, after a long war that leaves him in a very weak position, ruling a divided country with a shattered economy.

3) victory by a rebel coalition dominated by groups that are hostile to US interests.

4) a swift and decisive victory for either Assad or "bad" rebels.

what's bad about a long war from a US national interest POV? it's training lots of jihadis and urban fighters. what's good about it? it's exhausting the various factions, most of whom are neutral to hostile, and it's bleeding Iran and Hezbollah on the cheap.


Doug M.

"Bleeding Iran and Hezbollah."

This calls from some off-line analysis. To the statmobile, Doug-E!

Two problems, one metaproblem.

First, does it seem ironic to anyone else that "realist" is the word being used to describe a hypothetical United States which can carry out a policy of brutal realpolitik, but not the real US which is inhabited by liberal interventionist oped writers and fairly softhearted Main Streeters?

Second, both of you seem to think that what happens in Syria stays in Syria. That may be likely, but not certain, and I can think of some nasty ways it could escalate. Like I said before, "brutal realpolitik" is ignoring some big risks. Not very realistic, IMO.

Finally, maybe there isn't that much downside to the US from "a grinding war of attrition in Syria where neither side can win". But do you really think there's more downside in trying for a better solution? If we try and get nowhere, what do we lose?


"Both of you"?

David, you're arguing with Doug not me! I'm against intervention and think it incorrect to think that a prolonged civil war helps the United States. Help me out: what did I write that was confusing on that point??

(Actually, I think you're arguing with Doug's straw man; I wouldn't bet that he actually supports arming the rebels.)

I'm against intervention too, if that wasn't clear. But I'm less sure that a prolonged civil war is bad *for the United States*, though it's certainly very very bad for Syria.

Trying for a better solution: well, but like what? As I said in my first comment, a peaceful settlement is not in the cards any time soon. A rebel victory leading to a US-friendly government, also not too likely. So what does that leave?


Doug M.

Doing nothing and letting them fight, no?

Reviewing the bidding...Drezner (as I read him) said that while the administration's policy was probably a really unsatisfactory compromise between wanting to be seen as Doing Something and even more strongly not wanting to Get Involved, it was possible that he was following a good strategy of ruthless realism. Or had blundered into one, which comes out to the same place. It seems to me that both of you think he has a point.

One of the things I've been saying is that even by the standards of "brutal realpolitik" this is baloney. For one thing, the current Obama policy risks domestic and possibly international pressure for mission creep, especially if "our" side seems to be losing; for another, there seems to be to a risk that the war might escalate over the border into Turkey, or Lebanon, or Iraq. More than it already has, that is.

(Of course, both of you know a *lot* more about the Middle East than I do. Do you think there's a real risk here?)

So what should the administration do? I don't have clue one. Marc Lynch said that it might be possible to work for an accommodation between the US, Iran, and Saudi Arabia that would lead to a moderation of the conflict, but the more I think about it, the more that sounds like a job for ASBs. So, yeah, I don't like intervention either but I have no positive suggestions.

If I was getting huffy with a straw man, apologies; sometimes I miss that.

No worries.

The current plan (assuming there is one) isn't all that good, and you're correctly pointing out some of the problems with it. But the question isn't "is it good", but "is it the least bad".


Doug M.

David, I have some worries. I thought I was clear that I share your opposition to arming the rebels. You say that you didn't get that. Since I do not want to mislead, can you tell me where in the post you lost that point? That way, I can be clearer in the future.

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