By Charlie Johnston
(When confronting foreign policy and the questions of war and peace, observers too often monochromatically only over-correct for the last significant blunder. That leads us to lurch erratically, bouncing from one wall to another, like a drunken man walking down a hotel corridor. In all crises, we should look at the total framework and seek to carefully calibrate an approach that gives us the best chance of both prevailing and of establishing stability. Seeking to keep out of all conflicts gave us WWI, WWII, and the 9-11 attacks. Acting out of hubris sucked us into Vietnam. I was asked today about my take on Syria by a few friends. Rather than write a lengthy column, I will just share with you the (slightly modified) email I sent back to two of them.-CJ)
While I was worried most of last week, the way this is playing out looks like the most brilliantly deft foreign policy move in a very long time. I did not want to get in a war with Russia, I did not want to get in a new ground war in the Middle East…I wanted to isolate Iran – and hopefully enable regional players in alliance against Iran. I was not sure early on whether this was really done by Syria or whether it had been done by another faction trying to pull the US in. If it was done by Syria, we could not just leave it be, as the last century has shown quite clearly that nothing is so provocative to tyrants as weakness and irresolution, but I did not want to be suckered, either.
Russia wants a sphere of influence in the Middle East. We had shut them out so completely that when Obama gave them the opening in Syria, they took whatever they could get to get their foot in the door. I get that. Like a crooked card game to an obsessive poker player, he would not go there – unless it’s the only game in town. Syria was the only game in town when Obama opened up the Middle East to Russia.
When French President Emmanuel Macron said France had indisputable proof that Syria had done it – and our current National Security team confirmed it, I was relieved on that point. But it meant we had to act. Then I was worried about how to calibrate it properly. I was heartened when I heard credible reports of America and Russia coordinating through back channels.
Take a close look at the official statements that came out about this. First, Trump and Mattis made clear that this is a one-off, provided there is no more use of chemical weapons. In his statement, Trump did NOT say that Russia had to get out; rather he subtly invited Russia into a coalition against Iran and for stability. A spokesman said right after the attack that we had not told Russia when and where the attacks would be. Ha! We didn’t need to…if we simply told them back channel that we would be targeting chemical weapons sites and warehouses and would act soon, that would give them all they needed to know while making it true when we said we had not coordinated as to time of attack and specific targets. Russia’s ambassador’s comments that there could be grave consequences were remarkably pro forma and restrained if you are accustomed to actual serious Russian protests after a provocation.
The argument that Syria protects Christians was unpersuasive and even a little embarrassing to me. Are we so self-absorbed that we will give a guy a pass for routinely murdering innocent civilians, including large numbers of children, in exchange for leaving us alone? I thought this particularly distasteful since we have the young Saudi prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has taken firm control of the country, openly collaborates with Israel, is working seriously to wipe the scourge of jihadism from his country and towards a solid alliance with the US and Israel. There, I thought, lies the hope for real stability in the Middle East and protection of Christians – we need to strengthen his hand and isolate Iran. Lo and behold; in the aftermath of our attack, Saudi Arabia has been joined by the United Arab Emirates and it looks like Egypt and maybe even Turkey in seeking to isolate Iran. Now Turkey wants to stop Iran because Erdogan wants to be the Jihadist Caliph, himself – but this coalition is firmly under the leadership of Saudi Arabia and bin Salman. There will undoubtedly be mischief from Turkey and Erdogan in years to come, but we will deal with that when it is time – and strengthening bin Salman’s hand now will help us enormously then.
The only real demand we made of Russia is that it prevent another chemical attack. Now that Russia knows we are not seeking to evict her, that strengthens her hand enormously internally. She can put a choke collar on Assad – or more likely wait a respectable time, oust him (perhaps even giving him asylum in Russia), install its own puppet (undoubtedly repressive, but not savage), and actually collaborate with America and Saudi Arabia in stabilizing the Middle East, isolating Iran, and waging a real, coordinated mission to wipe out Jihadists.
Meanwhile, I had been pleasantly surprised for months by French President Macron, even thinking he may be the most serious Western European leader since Margaret Thatcher. (They have had a really bad run in all Western European countries of incompetent bumblers at the helms). Europe faces a far more serious internal crisis than we do (and we face a deadly serious crisis), even though it is not as obvious yet. It is where ISIS and Jihad will ultimately regroup. I am heartened that France, at least, has a real president instead of a self-absorbed technocrat.
There are, of course, many things that could go awry…but this was calibrated just right – and if the signals I am picking up come to fruition, it is a gift that will help us endure the worst of the conflict we face.
Ave Maria, Stella Maris!