Stay Out of Syria!
by David Bromwich
The New York Review of Books
After the troubling revelations of the May 8 Senate hearing on Benghazi, much remains unclear about the attack that killed four Americans last September. Were the killers aiming to prove the incompetence of American power? Or was the assault directed more specifically against CIA operations? How did the White House, the State Department, and the CIA all agree to say so early and wrongly that the attack could have been the spontaneous action of a crowd infuriated by an anti-Muslim video? Why did the administration delete from its talking points the mention of five similar attacks in Libya, and the fact that al-Qaeda-linked forces were known to be active in the vicinity?
One thing is clear. The Benghazi killings were an indirect but predictable consequence of the NATO intervention that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi. Disorder was a necessary condition of the attack. The “light footprint” of NATO was never going to be sufficient to contain the forces the war released. With the death of Qaddafi and the instability of NATO’s interim arrangements, his troops and weapons moved southward in Africa; and the evacuation of US State Department workers in Mali in January and the attack on international workers in Algeria are now widely understood to have been another fruit of the NATO action in Libya. For Americans, of course, Libya is almost forgotten, but for North Africa and the watching Arab world, it remains a vivid and disturbing memory: seven months of air attacks, with thousands of sorties, 7,700 bombs dropped or missiles launched, and uncounted civilian casualties.
The deepening violence of the Syrian civil war is also in some measure a consequence of Libya: Qaddafi’s disbanded army and unguarded weapons moved southward in Africa, but they also moved eastward to Asia. The state terror of the most “surgical” air war leaves in its wake many thousands of stateless terrorists. As Nancy Youssef pointed out in a penetrating survey on March 14 in the McClatchy newspapers (“Middle East in Turmoil 10 Years After Iraq Invasion”): “The most effective anti-Assad rebel military faction [in Syria], the Nusra Front,” is itself “a branch of al Qaida in Iraq, the same radical Islamist group that the US fought in that country and that the current Iraqi government also is battling.”
The recent past is still with us, if we take the time to look. This is the background against which one must assess the judgment of those persons—well placed in the media and the foreign policy elite—who have lately urged another violent intervention by the US in Arab lands. Three days before the Benghazi hearings, on May 5, Bill Keller published a double-length Op-Ed in The New York Times. His column was entitled “Syria Is Not Iraq,” and its moral was adequately conveyed in Keller’s final words: “Getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.”
Let us pause to remember Iraq before we follow Keller’s invitation to get over it. Almost 4,500 Americans died in Iraq, and 32,000 came home wounded. Of the numbers of Iraqi dead that would be living had the Americans not bombed, invaded, and occupied their country, reliable estimates are harder to come by, but in 2008 The New England Journal of Medicine estimated a total of 151,000 violent deaths by June 2006; and the seven years that followed have added many thousands more.
At the time of the Iraq invasion, Keller was an Op-Ed columnist and senior writer at the Times. In 2002–2003, when his newspaper’s slanted coverage of Iraq played a significant part in leading the country into war, Keller believed the Times stories based on forged or dubious evidence circulated by the Bush administration, and threw his considerable journalistic energy into support of the war. Looking back, in his May 5 Op-Ed, he speaks euphemistically of “our ill-fated adventure in Iraq”; his own part in it he calls “a humbling error of judgment” that for a time “left me gun-shy.”
But Syria is not Iraq, he says, and he now recommends the deployment of American military might against Syria. Keller’s pressing fear is that by inaction, the US may surrender its role as international leader: “Prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.” By means of violent intervention, he believes, the tragedy can be made smaller; and he deplores the reticence of President Obama as the evasion of “a president looking for excuses to stand pat.”
There follow, in Keller’s piece, a series of elaborate distinctions intended to show that Syria presents a more soluble problem than Iraq. “In Iraq our invasion unleashed a sectarian war” whereas “in Syria, [sectarian war] is already well under way.” We ought to intervene, then, because things are already bad. The underlying assumption is that American action could not make things worse. “This time,” Keller continues, “we have allies waiting for us to step up and lead.” We did have allies, and much the same allies, in Libya, but in the thirteen hundred words of this column the word “Libya” does not occur.
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