Obama’s Decision to Arm the Rebels: A Syria(ous) Situation

I apologize for the holdup on this one fellas, I promised on Saturday that I’d post my reflections on the recent development concerning the announcement that the U.S. will begin arming the rebels in Syria but I left my readers high-and-dry. Some things came up that prevented me from typing my big thoughts on my 5-year-old, dying laptop so just bear with me.

Ok so in case your head’s been in the sand forever like how Miss. Utah’s is from last night’s Miss. USA pageant, on Thursday the U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, announced that the U.S. would provide direct military assistance to the rebels, after concluding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons on several occasions. Good idea or bad idea? Observe:

  1. Recently, in a major blow to the rebels, Assad’s forces took the city of Qusayr and are closing in on Aleppo.
  2. Hezbollah (the Lebanese militants and Iranian proxy group) has not only been helping them with Qusayr and Aleppo, but has also publicly and fully committed to the Assad regime’s survival.
  3. Iran has supported Assad not only through Hezbollah but also with their very own elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard (the same guys who gave us hell by supporting opposition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan when we were there).
  4. Russia continues to support Assad with funding, armaments and a guaranteed veto in every international conference whenever Syria comes up on the schedule.
  5. The Syrian government, by using those chemical weapons we’ve all been hearing about, has crossed that “red line” that Obama mentioned last year.  The use of chemical weapons, he said, would be a game changer that would warrant more action. 

As you can see from the points above, chemical weapons use is but one part in a five part equation. And because Obama pigeonholed himself in a corner by drawing that line in the sand about chemical weapons, and they’re used, what do you expect him to do? He can’t not do nothing; superpowers do not bluff. Oh, and no, Mr. Obama probably didn’t come to the decision because he succumbed to Bill Clinton’s pressure after he called him a wuss; for the record, if someone calls you a wuss for not doing something, and then you go ahead and do it, that just proves you are, indeed, a wuss. President Obama is no wuss.

I’ll start by saying this, though: Obama’s decision is shrewd and realist. The developments likely got Mr. Obama thinking:

  1. Peace-talks are coming up soon, and the rebels are not likely to come to the negotiating table without some sort of a confidence boost in the form of new gains and outside support.
  2. The rebels don’t have to win, they just have to make sure they don’t lose. That is guerilla strategy 101, used by groups throughout history from Latin America to Africa to those insurgents who welcomed us with open arms in our recent Middle Eastern escapades.

With that in mind, what’s the solution if you’re Obama? What if you could get Al Qaeda and Hezbollah to fight eachother in Syria? What if you could do to Iran in Syria what they did to us in Iraq and Afghanistan?: commit them to a resource-draining war with no end in sight. What if you can keep the rebellion alive to the point of bogging down Iran and their allies in their own resource-draining civil war, and all you have to do is give some Kalashnikovs and humanitarian aid  to make sure the rebels live to fight another day? I’ll take it for now.

That being said, I want to tell you all something that you probably don’t want to hear: this whole Syria thing is going to play itself out for at least another 10 years. With about 1,000 militias and roughly 6 major minority groups (All Christian groups, Jews, Druze, Kurds, Alawites, and other Shia Muslim sects), there are too many players with their own agendas and interests. A report by the New York Times states “Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.” There are only Islamists, and less Islamist groups, some with ties to Al Qaeda, and others with the Muslim Brotherhood. The reality is that the fiercest and most seasoned fighters that have made significant rebel gains in this war are the hardliner jihadis.

And if we do end up intervening any more than just sending light weapons, supplies and moral support, it probably won’t change the reality that with Assad deposed, everyone will keep killing each other anyway. Why? Because that’s what happens in a civil war.  If we intervene, than we own Syria, just like Afghanistan and Iraq, and we will again be forced to control an uncontrollable situation. Think of this: the losers in this war and every war like it know what they have coming to them when they do lose (I’ll give you a hint, the technical term is “massacre”), so they will fight to the very end.  Think of Lebanon and their 15 year-long ‘75-’90 civil war that resulted in the ouster of the Christian-minority regime, and Iraq when we invaded in 2003 to overthrow the minority Sunni regime, only to fight them again as guerrillas all the way up until today. No fly zones have to be enforced, and enforcing those increases the risk of escalation and greater miscalculation that could turn ugly. The only thing intervening any further would do is change the reality of who is massacring whom.

There’s a saying: Things usually get worse before they gets better. Unfortunately for Syria, it looks like things will stay the same for a very long time before it gets worse than that. So good idea or bad idea then? For now, it looks like there are only bad ideas and worse ideas; in fact, it’s kind of like taking sides in Game of Thrones.  Looking forward, I see the U.S. involving itself in some good ol’ asymmetric warfare; that is, everything short of committing U.S. forces.

(N)ot (S)urprised at (A)ll: thoughts on the NSA “scandal”

In his interview, Edward Snowden revealed himself as the source for a series of leaks to the Guardian last week, which included disclosures of a secret court order dealing with Verizon passing the details of phone calls to the NSA related to millions of customers, and a vast NSA intelligence network called Prism, which collects data on foreign intelligence targets from the systems of some of the biggest tech companies. My knee-jerk reaction to this was thinking that James Madison should have thought about this stuff when he wrote the Fourth Amendment, but that was over 200 years ago so we can’t really blame him.

That being said, I was bored the other day and thought to browse through George Washington University’s National Security Archive (yes I do this for fun sometimes), where I found a recently declassified memo from 2001: the NSA wrote to the Bush Administration requesting new powers and authority to adapt to the internet era we now live in. In it, the memo points out that “today’s and tomorrow’s mission will demand a powerful, permanent presence on a global telecommunications network that will host the ‘protected’ communications of Americans as well as the targeted communications of adversaries.”

The 9/11 attacks, which happened in the same year, was precisely what the NSA needed to grow to the size that it is today, billions of dollars and dozens of new legal authorities later.  We seemed to be perfectly fine with the Patriot Act and FISA’s passage in the wake of 9/11, but a decade later we’re disgusted. In fact, Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act in 2011 and the FISA Amendments Act in December of 2012, with no serious debate or limiting of the laws even as a decade had passed since the terrorist attacks. As Paul Pillar pointed out, anyone who was interested in having a debate about this privacy-security balance everyone is talking about now could have done so:

“We also are again hearing nonsense about how a leak is somehow critical for obtaining public accountability or a public debate. Any other members of Congress who listened to Ron Wyden or Mark Udall could have joined their cause if they were so inclined and there would have been the debate. But evidently other members, including the leaderships of both parties, were not so inclined.”

Also, anyone who is surprised or shocked by the NSA revelation obviously does not read the news. Here are a few stories you may have missed from some of the most popular news sources.

But before you make your own judgment on whatever it was that actually happened last week, think of this:

1) as far as we know there have been no abuses of the NSA’s  authority during this program’s lifetime.

2) can we afford to live in a world pretending that 9/11 did not happen?

3) and if one more 9/11 were to happen, considering there are groups and individuals out there trying to carry one out as I write this, and it could have been prevented by the simple data mining procedures that are being called “scandalous,” that help connect the dots for 9/11 like plots, what do you think will happen to your civil liberties (the ones you falsely believe to have been violated now) when it does happen again?

And as I wrote this, I came across Tom Friedman’s piece which expands on my point. And to think, I could have been in the NY Times today…

High Hopes, Low Expectations: Xi and Obama

When people don’t know what else to say, they typically throw words around like “comprehensive,” “cooperation” and “mutual” to make their hollow comments look more appealing. My thoughts on the weekend meeting in California between Chinese President Xi Jingping and President Barack Obama will contain none of these words.

The Chinese are coming to California. But although I agree with former National Security Advisor Zbignew Brezkinski when he referred to the American-Chinese relationship in an interview with Xinhua  as  “the most important bilateral relationship of the world,”  my expectations for this meeting between two of the most important administrations in the world are quite low. However, I still think the summit’s significance cannot be understated.

For one, there will only be about 6 hours of formal meetings over the course of the two day visit in California. There are big expectations for this summit, and I don’t doubt that some of the major issues at stake like cyber-security, the economy, and the U.S. “pivot to Asia” will be on the schedule. However, do decades of mistrust and skepticism go away after a 6 hour-long talk?

As far as we know there is little else planned for the weekend; this means plenty of free time and less scripted talking points that have plagued previous meetings between the leaders in larger summits. In short, this is an opportunity for Obama and Xi to talk to each other, instead of talking at each other. Perhaps the intention of the meeting is just that: to get to know one another over a couple of days of informal R&R; heavens knows they both probably need it! We all know the theory that nation-states and institutions make policy based on their respective national interests. This is true, but it’s more complicated than that. Policy is a constant tug of war, and although the end result is often a combination of national interests, economics, and institutions, in the end it is people that make decisions. Both sets of leaders are investing a great deal in this personal diplomacy that may help clear up misconceptions about the other.

Over the course of my education I can’t say that I have learned a great deal about China, but what I did learn was that the Chinese people favor actions and subtle gestures over words. To them “official” meetings mean nothing, as policy is typically kneaded out informally over a long period of time. I find it so interesting that with all the advances of technology and globalization, this meeting proves that nothing can replace personal contacts between leaders of different countries. Whatever the results of the meeting, we can foresee a better understanding of each other and the countries they represent emerge. Understanding is the first step of better trust. And trust is what is sorely needed in Sino-US relations . 

But regardless of anything “substantial” coming out of the summit, no one can ignore that the symbolic importance of this meeting is akin to Nixon’s visit to China, which eventually led to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Like Nixon and Mao before them, Obama and Xi both know that China is here to stay, and they know that in tackling the world’s most pressing issues, two heads are better than one. 

Brooklyn Is Still the World

In the spirit of Brooklyn and Queens Day (that’s right, our hometown has its own holiday recognized by the city, so get over it!) I recommend my readers to delve into Elliot Willsensky’s “When Brooklyn Was the World 1920-1957.” I won’t spoil it all for you, but Willsnesky takes you to a magical place to discover what made Brooklyn so special. I challenge you to find one person in this country that does not have some connection to Brooklyn, be it one of their relatives (even from a generation or two ago), a friend, or an acquaintance.

At times he describes Brooklyn as though it were only a temporary phase that is no more; he is right to an extent since many of the sites and smells described in the book are long gone, including Dodger Stadium and The Navy Yard (once New York’s largest industrial center, which was dismantled). Brooklyn’s downtown area was rebuilt and renamed the Civic Center. The knishes from the man in the pushcart, the Seltzer man, and the pickle barrel in the local drug-store are a rare find. Most importantly, economic growth allowed many Brooklynites of European descent to drive down the Long Island Expressway and move out to the suburbs, making room for the new waves of immigrants trying to make a new start.

 But not all is lost. If you ever visit, you’ll find that Brooklyn   may have never left. Summer nights biting into a square at L&B Spumoni Gardens where the cops don’t give you a ticket for your triple-parked car because they understand your addiction. Brooklyn baseball is back thanks to the minor-league Brooklyn Cyclones, which along with the new Astroland and revamped Boardwalk is reviving the once crime-ridden and underdeveloped Coney Island. The Cyclones, and now the Brooklyn Nets, are beginning to correct the great mistake of 1957, when the Dodgers left for L.A. And aside from my personal distaste for hipsters, they appreciate the artisan, hand crafted trades and culinary experiences that made Brooklyn so alluring; and those businesses are making a comeback.

So if Brooklyn was the world, what does Brooklyn mean today? The name is so alluring that it’s become a brand name, a global phenomenon: Brooklyn Industries, heck even Swedes love things with Brooklyn on it. Brooklyn was and is everything that Manhattan is not: the working class, the creative class, the localness of everything. After reading Willsensky’s book, you may find that perhaps Brooklyn is still the world. In fact, maybe it’s because Brooklyn is a way of thinking, a state of mind…and if you ever were to leave Brooklyn, Brooklyn will never leave you.

***NOTE*** The whole Dodger fiasco started over a disagreement about where to build the new ballpark. Walter O’Malley (boo…hiss..) wanted to build the stadium at Atlantic Yards (where the Barclay’s Center stands today) but Robert Moses (boo…hiss…), NYC’s building czar, refused, wanting to build a parking garage at Atlantic and move the ballpark to Flushing Meadows. No one budged and O’Malley moved his team to Los Angeles, also convincing the NY Giants to move to San Francisco to keep them company. You’d hardly recognize the ballpark anymore, because “Ebbets Field” is now an apartment complex. The move was considered “one of the most notorious abandonments in the history of sports.”