Now and then, events conspire to remind us that we can get weighed down by the past, distracting and misleading us. This is a common malady in foreign policy — the generals always fighting the last war and so on. We see that now in the Syrian fiasco.
Bill Keller of the New York Times counsels the president to start “getting over Iraq” and recognize that Syria is an entirely different situation. (I would argue that Iraq isn’t the Iraq of liberals’ incarnation, but I will save that for another day.) He writes:
[I]n Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.
The United States has supplied humanitarian aid and diplomatic pressure. But our reluctance to arm the rebels or defend the civilians being slaughtered in their homes has convinced the Assad regime (and the world) that we are not serious. Our fear that arms supplied to the rebels would fall into the hands of jihadis has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because instead of dealing directly with the rebels we left the arming to fundamentalist monarchies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and they are predictably using lethal aid to appease the more radical Islamists.
He recommends many of the same steps former Obama administration officials and conservative critics have recommended: “The United States moves to assert control of the arming and training of rebels. . . . We make clear to President Assad that if he does not cease his campaign of terror and enter negotiations on a new order, he will pay a heavy price. When he refuses, we send missiles against his military installations until he, or more likely those around him, calculate that they should sue for peace.”
Syria has also highlighted the degree to which we need to get over Colin Powell and his former aides, whose judgment and character have been shown wanting. Powell vouched for the incompetent defense secretary and has been giving Obama’s foreign policy (or what passes for it ) his approval. The latest evidence of their mendacity comes from Powell’s former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson, who accuses Israel of possibly running a “false-flag” operation to lure the United States into Syria.
Others have begun to document Wilkerson’s ludicrous statements in and out of office. Michael Rubin’s must-read piece documents a whole series of leaks, rumors, weird conspiracies and outright falsehoods flowing from Wilkerson:
That Wilkerson is a fabulist who prioritizes polemic over truth should be readily clear as his outbursts become increasingly bizarre. … It is unlikely that Powell was ignorant of Wilkerson’s actions; rather, Powell appeared all too willing to turn a blind eye in a dirty game to win a policy debate by tarring his opponents. Nor was Powell likely unaware of Wilkerson’s dangerous obsession with American policymakers who happened to be Jewish. It is quite easy to interpret Powell’s persistent silence and failure to repudiate a man whose credibility is solely based on his relationship to Powell as an endorsement for Wilkerson’s hateful views. Wilkerson’s shame is Colin Powell’s as well. Powell’s silence shows his own character is likely not much different from that of the colonel who was his closest aide.
(And if that isn’t enough, Wilkerson has been on a quest after religious observers in the military.)
There was already reason to discount Powell’s judgment. Why should we still be listening to the man who opposed the surge into Iraq (like Chuck Hagel); who remained silent in the Valerie Plame incident, thereby prompting the inquest of Scooter Libby; who sheltered Richard Armitage (the real leaker in the Plame flap) and who brought into government and presumably approved the work of Wilkerson?
So, yes, let’s get over Iraq and, while we’re at it, get over Powell and his crowd. Let’s also recognize that the president’s Syria policy is a disaster — morally and geopolitically. And if some ex-Obama aides might want to restore their own foreign policy reputations, they might begin by making public the degree to which a more robust U.S. policy fell victim to partisan politics. That would be a memoir worth reading.