Saturday marked an historic event future generations will read about in books. Over the weekend, Russia and the United States reached an accord over the question of the Syrian government’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, most recently used against civilians late last month.
Whether the United States “won” depends entirely upon your definition of victory. Personally, I define victory in terms of the stated goal of the administration’s actions of the past three weeks: to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons to prevent another attack on Syrian civilians.
On the other hand, Jeffrey Goldberg, in a Bloomberg column on Sunday, detailed his personal criteria for why he believes the crisis in Syria was a victory for Bashar al-Assad. And for Russian president Vladimir Putin. And, begrudgingly, for President Obama and the United States.
Everyone gets a trophy. How millennial.
One of the reasons for Assad’s victory, Goldberg wrote, is that the disarmament agreement would somehow forbid future Western military action against the regime. This isn’t entirely true. U.S. officials have been perfectly clear that military intervention is still possible, especially if, as Goldberg conceded, Assad were to snap and use chemical weapons again. Nevertheless, Goldberg wrote that Assad will continue to kill people the old-fashioned way and now we’re powerless to stop him.
But intervening in the civil war and thwarting Assad’s military capabilities was never a goalpost beyond providing arms to moderate opposition forces.
Realistically, it’s impossible to fail at a mission that never existed. Naturally if intervening in the civil war and achieving victory against the Assad regime was Goldberg’s goal, then of course this deal seems like a victory for Assad. However, the goal was obviously to disarm Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities. Full stop. Even though the weapons haven’t yet been removed or destroyed, a deal is in place to do so. If Assad tries to use them again in the interim, he will incur the military wrath of the United States and perhaps the international community along with it. Yet now that he appears to have fully acceded to the disarmament process, Assad has lost a major weapon against the rebels in a conflict wherein government forces are suffering greater casualties than the opposition factions.
Indeed, there will be many more casualties in the civil war. But it’s unlikely, especially now, that there will be the kind of mass civilian casualties that were inflicted on August 21.
On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Goldberg accused the administration of “partnering with Assad” on an “outlandish project…to remove all of the chemical weapons from Syria.” This statement is both revealing and baffling.
First, clearly Goldberg would’ve preferred a more extended invasion, the likes of which no one in the United States, except for Goldberg and a select few others, would ever support. How the hell would Congress approve such a mission when it had to be exhaustively lobbied in order to barely-if-at-all support an “unbelievably small” air strike?
Second, if physically hauling the weapons out of Syria is “outlandish” and ineffectual, how on earth does Goldberg believe air strikes would be more effective in destroying the weapons? In fact, destroying the weapons themselves in a series of cruise missile attacks probably wasn’t part of the plan in the first place since blowing up chemical weapons would disperse the chemicals in the process. Instead, targets would’ve likely been the chemical weapons launchers and production facilities.
Lastly, I suppose the Kennedy administration partnered with the Soviets and Castro to remove the medium and long range ballistic missiles from Cuba. Clearly any peaceful, diplomatic solution that achieves precisely the U.S. goal from the outset would somehow be seen as “partnering” with whomever. It’s nonsense.
In his column, Goldberg warned about “some adverse consequences for the U.S.” in the long run. Well, yeah. Maybe. But imagine the adverse consequences in an invasion with our soldiers mixed up with a highly factionalized civil war. In the long list of potential adverse consequences of intervening in the Middle East, I’ll take the consequences of finding a peaceful solution for attaining 100 percent of the mission’s primary goal. The alternatives not only include adverse consequences for the U.S. in the Middle East, but also both domestically and internationally as we’d seal the deal on our caricature as unilateral, cowboy aggressors foolish enough to drop our soldiers into the middle of a multi-layered spiritual, territorial and political blood feud that’s lasted for centuries.
Goldberg wrote that Putin won because Russia has achieved a stake in the Middle East, while Putin has become “a power player.” Did I miss something or has Russia had a stake in Syria for quite some time now? Also, in order for Putin to be seen as a power player, the deal has to stick — Syria must disarm, or else Putin’s role in the process will seem just as ineffectual as Obama’s. And I thought Goldberg wrote in the exact same column that the deal probably won’t stick. Confusing. As for Putin having skin in the Middle East game now, bring it on. It’s about time there was some additional outside leverage pulling in our general direction in a region where the notion of lasting stability is a punchline. (Goldberg parenthetically noted that the next item on Putin’s agenda is to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program. Well, you know, good!)
And finally, Goldberg offered the president a halfhearted victory because the president didn’t have to defy popular opinion with air strikes. If that’s a victory in Goldberg’s view, then how would he have described an all out intervention in the Syrian civil war, which, as I wrote, would probably have officially sparked impeachment proceedings? Goldberg wrote that the president “achieved a limited goal.” Just conceding for a moment that this unprecedented accord is “limited,” shouldn’t the achievement of any goal in the Middle East, no matter how minor, be viewed as a success? Perhaps small victories (not saying this one is small, but you know) are the best we can hope for in a region where victory is often ill-defined and not easily-if-at-all achieved. Lord knows, the last time the United States swung for the fences (the Iraq War) it didn’t turn out very well and the sectarian bloodshed continues to this day.
So let’s stop playing this game. U.S. forces were deployed by the commander-in-chief to achieve one goal: to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons — not to oust Assad; and not to fight on behalf of the rebels, many of whom hate us and will continue to hate us irrespective of what we might have done, or might not have done. I thought this was about getting the WMD. The administration, at least on paper, has achieved this goal without firing as so much as a water-balloon in the direction of Syria. Goldberg and other pessimists and administration opponents are free to spin away, but it doesn’t change the fact that the administration’s saber-rattling led to an eleventh-hour deal which will lead to the sole goalpost: the disarmament of Syria’s massive stockpiles of chemical weapons. The chain of events is undeniable, regardless of which other parties jumped into the fray. If it hadn’t been for the threat of military action, along with wiggle room for diplomacy, there wouldn’t be a deal on the table and we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now.