Face It, Benghazi Made Syria Intervention Impossible

Recent historical memory weighs heavily on future actions.

Face It, Benghazi Made Syria Intervention Impossible Face It, Benghazi Made Syria Intervention Impossible
Azaz, Syria during the Syrian civil war/ Voice of America News Face It, Benghazi Made Syria Intervention Impossible Recent historical memory weighs heavily on... Face It, Benghazi Made Syria Intervention Impossible
Azaz, Syria during the Syrian civil war/ Voice of America News

Face It, Benghazi Made Syria Intervention Impossible

Recent historical memory weighs heavily on future actions.

A year to the day after Pres. Barack Obama declared the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s government a “red line,” it appears Syria has done exactly that.

Of course, the White House acknowledged Syrian chemical weapons attacks in April. The red line is an empty promise, a rhetorical device, an ever shifting goal-post moved just beyond reach of the last triggering event. It is, by design, supposed to stall American intervention into the civil war. If, instead of chemical weapons, the trigger was just the killing of civilians in large numbers by their own government, intervention would already be happening.

This is not the case. By all appearances, the executive branch has no interest in fighting the Syrian civil war, instead offering verbal condemnations and finger-wagging while not joining the fight. Even the promise of weapons to America-friendly Syrian rebel groups appears uncertain, as the weapons have yet to show up.

Contrast this approach with the president’s words justifying intervention in Libya:

At this point, the United States and the world faced a choice. [Libyan strongman Muammar] Qaddafi declared he would show “no mercy” to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we have seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city.

We knew that if we wanted — if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.

It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen. And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.

Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad is no less brutal to his own people than Qaddafi was to his. So why is the administration avoiding intervention, despite repeated crimes by the regime of Assad?

History, mostly. While the Libyan intervention was initially hailed as a great success, the war in Libya didn’t end with the overthrow of Qaddafi’s regime. Arms supplied during the intervention made their way out of Libya well before Qaddafi’s death. The coalition of militias that overthrew Qaddafi left a power vacuum in his place, with ethnic violence, foreign fighters and local warlords all filling the void.

For the observer paying close attention, Libya looked more stable than post-invasion Iraq, but widespread armed groups and inability of the new official government to challenge them was a poor omen.

The Sept. 11th, 2012 attack on an American consulate in Benghazi, the very city intervention in Libya saved, and the death of four Americans including Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, quickly eroded optimistic views about the Libyan intervention. In the disgusting way that Washington treats foreign policy, Benghazi became a political football, in an attempt to make a tragedy a toxic stain during an election campaign.

Lost in the bullshit point scoring analysis was the fact that Benghazi itself was a profound failure of national policy, and also a logical outcome from the light-footprint approach to intervention preferred by a nation that never wants to see another Iraq war.

Writing at Abu Muquwama, Adam Elkus captured the failings of this policy:

Benghazi is the Banquo’s Ghost of the post-Bush counterterrorism wars, a lingering symbol of a dangerous flaw within a consensus national security policy that many in Washington have convinced themselves is the way to fight the wars of future while avoiding a heavy ground presence.

Light footprint plays really well, as it conveys a sense that the United States is both doing something and doing something without serious, expensive, dangerous commitment. Instead, a light footprint policy, when poorly executed, means America is risking highly skilled individuals in dangerous places without adequate preparation for disasters or even a serious acknowledgement of risk. Elkus continues:

The CIA and the State Department stuck their personnel out in post-civil war Libyan bandit country, involved them in activities that could likely draw the ire of the kind of heavily armed bandits known to inhabit said backwoods, and could neither hide their base of operations nor properly defend it. As we know from previous reports, reports of escalating insecurity and the unreliability of local forces were ignored.

This is not the specific failing of a party or an administration, but is instead the status quo of light footprint approaches. If the Obama administration is going to intervene, it will want to do so in a way that minimized the American presence on the ground, letting special forces work with rebels while aircraft overhead attack the vehicles and armies of the Assad regime. In the campaign to oust Qaddafi, this was a winning approach.

After the attack on Benghazi’s consulate, even a light footprint intervention seems unwise, and the aftermath of an intervention so undesirable that even the use of chemical weapons against civilians, officially the one-step-too-far for Assad, becomes just another tragedy observed from afar.

Faced with the choice between the bad strategy of a Libya-style intervention,and the worse strategy of an Iraq-sized one, the administration has instead decided that inaction is the lesser evil.