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Americans are instinctively wiser than their leaders when it comes to foreign policy, at least until their emotions are manipulated to support mindless war.
A poll early this month showed that only 5 percent of Americans support sending troops to overthrow the Syrian government, 12 percent want to arm the rebels and only 16 percent favor air strikes on Syrian installations. All the rest have had enough of Middle East war and they sense, if only vaguely, that 60 years of intervention in the bitter rivalries of the Muslim world have not served us well. They have changed America irretrievably for the worse.
But the neocons who told us that Saddam Hussein had and was about to use weapons of mass destruction are beating the drums for the United States to take a bigger role in ousting Bashar al-Assad, including arms for the rebels, air support and ground troops if necessary.
Republican hawks in Congress, including Sen. John McCain, are disingenuously pushing President Obama to get tough to demonstrate American "credibility" while deftly saying they aren't advocating that the United States go to war.
The big guns are shrewd enough to mount the pressure while keeping their powder dry with vague assertions about credibility, but they sent to "Meet the Press" young Tom Cotton, the Arkansas congressman who has shown that he will say anything for the cause, notwithstanding truth, logic or history. Cotton said the U.S. should arm the rebels and take over Syria's skies to speed Assad's fall.
Liberals have joined the cause. Obama's former foreign policy planning director wrote a piece for the Washington Post recalling Bill Clinton's shame for not acting to stop the genocide in Rwanda and warning Obama that he would earn censure, too, if he failed to throw in with the revolutionaries decisively. Other voices followed.
Obama has played the crisis with a balance of support, caution and diplomacy, except for last year's foolish warning that the deployment of chemical weapons would be a "game changer," but the critics are pushing him perceptibly toward the cliff. If he yields, that — not Benghazi — will be the shame of his presidency.
The United States has no stake in whether the Sunnis or the Shias rule Syria, regardless of whether Assad is a thug. Whoever is the more brutal, Assad or the insurgents, it is a matter of degree. Whatever the outcome of that increasingly sectarian war, it will yield far worse consequences for Syrians, all their neighbors, Israel and the United States than even the brutal Assad could inflict before the uprising. The product will be either a radical Sunni government, hostile to the United States and Israel, or else ceaseless sectarian and tribal anarchy — or both.
Hezbollah, the Shiite guerrilla army from neighboring Lebanon, has joined the war to maintain Syrian dominance over the Sunni majority. Our Shiite government in Iraq is quietly sympathetic to Assad. Shiite Iran is helping him. The Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere want us to get more involved against the Shias in Syria and Iran because they fear doing it themselves.
What have we ever gained by these interventions? In 1953, President Eisenhower acceded to the British, who were mad that Iran's democratically elected president, Mohammed Mossadegh, and parliament had nationalized the British petroleum cartel. The CIA overthrew the secularist Mossadegh, had him kept under house arrest for the rest of his life, and installed the corrupt and ruthless shah. The Iranians have never forgotten. Twenty-five years later, they drove the dictator out, put the radical Islamists in charge, held 52 Americans hostage for 144 days, and brought on an endless series of U.S. diplomatic disasters.
President Reagan's dispatch of Marines to Lebanon in 1983 to cover his failure to discourage Israel in the slaughter of Palestinians in two refugee camps ended with the deaths of 241 Marines, a humiliating retreat and loss of U.S. face.
President George H.W. Bush's successful dislodging of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 and the subsequent maintenance of forces in Arabia led to two attacks on the World Trade Center, in 1993 and 2001, with all the terrible consequences for America's liberty and sense of security.
President Reagan's decision to arm the Mujahideen to fight the Russians and the communist regime in Afghanistan doubtlessly helped the Russians decide to go home, but it put a radical branch of the Mujahideen — the Taliban — in control, which gave al Qaeda safe haven in the Afghan wilds. After 9/11, President George W. Bush paid the tribal warlords to help and sent American troops to dislodge our old Taliban allies so that we could then go after al Qaeda. Our old arms were turned against us.
Told by his vice president that America had to establish a friendly beachhead in Islam, preferably in Iraq, to spread American influence, President Bush engineered the WMD sham and invaded Iraq. There is no need to list all the horrors that flowed from that, in blood, treasure, self-esteem, international prestige and the perpetual threat of retaliation from Islamists at home and abroad. The Shiite government we helped install is getting increasingly nasty cracking down on the restless Sunni minority. And we should want to give it one more shot, in Syria, the one spot where we might ignite war across the whole region?