National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice briefs President Barack Obama on foreign policy developments during Obama's summer break on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, on Aug. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
The neocons, who provided the propaganda framework for the disastrous Iraq War, are creating a new and dangerous conventional wisdom on Syria, blaming the emerging hardline jihadist dominance of the anti-government opposition on President Barack Obama's failure to intervene militarily much earlier.
Official Washington is now awash in the message that Obama's grudging agreement to deliver some light weapons to non-Islamist rebels is a case of "too little, too late." A corollary of this neocon analysis is that only a much more aggressive U.S. military policy, including air strikes against Syrian government targets, can now salvage the situation by forcing President Bashar al-Assad into negotiations preconditioned on his surrender.
However, the neocons are again living in their own reality. The truth is that it has been the Syrian opposition that has been the chief obstacle to peace negotiations, not Assad's government. Earlier this year, talks scheduled for Geneva were blocked not by Assad, who agreed to participate, but by the opposition, which insisted on a fresh supply of weapons and a delay until rebel forces had reversed their recent string of military defeats. In other words, the neocons, who survived the Iraq War debacle with amazingly little harm to their standing within the Establishment, are offering their usual response to every political crisis in the Muslim world: U.S. military intervention and forced "regime change" of a leader deemed hostile to Israel.
Even earlier, however, when the rebels seemed to have the upper hand in the conflict, they showed little interest in a negotiated, power-sharing agreement. Then, the rebels were set on an outright defeat of Assad's government and rebuffed Assad's overtures of constitutional and political reforms.
That is not to say that Assad's military did not respond to the civil unrest in 2011 with excessive force or that the Assad dynasty has not been among the most unsavory Arab dictatorships over the decades. The Assads, like Iraq's Saddam Hussein, have represented some of the worst examples of repression in a region that has been long known for repression.
However, as with Iraq's Hussein, the U.S. news media has painted the Syrian situation in blacks and whites. The opposition is noble and the government is evil. Every extreme claim about Assad, as with Hussein, is accepted as fact with almost no skepticism allowed. That pattern of journalistic malpractice contributed to the unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 when little credence was given to Iraq's denials that it possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Hussein also received little credit for maintaining a secular government that cracked down on Islamic extremism. Instead, President George W. Bush's administration sold to the U.S. news media the myth that Hussein was ready to share WMDs with al-Qaeda. It was only after Bush's invasion and the failure to find the WMDs that Iraq did become a home for al-Qaeda extremists -- and the U.S. press corps came to understand how the neocons had sold a false bill of goods.
But that awareness has slipped away as neocon commentators still dominate the op-ed pages and the think tanks, enabling them now to define the parameters of the debate over Syria.
The Neocon Strategy
It has long been central to the neocons' geopolitical strategy to seek "regime change" in Muslim countries that are considered hostile to Israel and -- by doing so -- to undermine Israel's close-in enemies, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Palestine's Hamas. The neocon thinking was that if pro-U.S. governments could be installed in Iraq, Syria and Iran, then Israel would have a freer hand to dictate a final "peace" to the isolated Palestinians, who would have little choice but to accept the final borders demanded by Israel. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Mysterious Why of the Iraq War."]
However, the neocons have operated with a cartoonish view of the Muslim world. They have shown no sophistication about how the geopolitics of their schemes might actually play out.
For instance, their dreams about the Iraqis welcoming U.S. invaders as "liberators" didn't exactly go that way. Ultimately, a Sunni autocrat (Hussein) was replaced by a Shiite autocrat (Nouri al-Maliki) with Iran gaining more influence than the United States, the erstwhile occupying power. Similarly, the overthrow-murder of Libya's secular dictator Muammar Gaddafi -- a bloody demise cheered by the neocons -- has created new space for Islamic militants to expand their influence in northern Africa.
The neocons' only real argument for "success" is that their mischief-making over the last decade has inflicted so much violence and destruction in the Muslim world that the region's wealth and unity has been sapped, thus limiting how much support can be provided to the embattled Palestinians.
Likewise, the shattered nation of Syria is now preoccupied with its own devastating civil war, leaving little time and money to bolster the Palestinians. But the neocon strategy to press for a military victory over Assad also carries grave risks. The Sunni-led rebellion against Assad, an Alawite representing a branch of Shiite Islam, has been an invitation for al-Qaeda militants to cross the border from Iraq into Syria, a move that was inevitable whether Assad surrendered or resisted.
Perhaps the best hope for Syria would have been for the opposition to have entered into serious power-sharing negotiations in 2011, but then the scent of outright victory was too strong. The opposition's hubris -- urged on by American neocons who smelled Assad's blood -- overwhelmed any thoughts of reconciliation. The view was that the only viable solution required ousting Assad and eradicating any remnants of the Assad dynasty.
But that uncompromising position spread fear among many of Iraq's Alawites, Shiites and Christians who foresaw possible revenge from Sunni extremists. The hardline rebel stance also forced the Assad regime to stiffen its spine and push back against the gains of the rebels. The prospect of another "Western-engineered" ouster of an Arab leader -- following the violent "regime change" in Iraq and Libya -- also raised alarms in Iran and Russia as well as inside Lebanon's Hezbollah Shiite militias.