Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

02 October 2015

Syria: Colin Powell’s Solution

Since FDR and his geniuses and generals (including Eisenhower and Marshall), we Yanks have rarely had a general-statesman as wise as Colin Powell.

You might cite Douglas MacArthur, whose brilliant landing at Inchon permitted an honorable stalemate in the Koran War, and hence fostered the economic miracle of South Korea. But MacArthur was insubordinate. Harry Truman had to fire him to avoid a general war with China. Just imagine what the world might be like today if such a war had happened. Imagine a new cold war with China, rather than the current, closest relationship between economic superpowers in human history.

Colin Powell never was insubordinate. He was a classic military man. He even let himself be used at the UN to promote the fiction of Saddam’s non-existent nuclear weapons programs.

But Powell had many, many redeeming virtues. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he presided over our shortest—and only unambiguously successful—major war since World War II.

We Yanks tend to forget that war, which we call “Gulf I.” Maybe we forget it because it was so different from the two sorry, decade-long ambiguous quagmires that Dubya got us into.

It was so short. It took only five months for us to build up our forces in the theater, and two months of combat to crush Saddam. Iraqi forces surrendered to ours in droves.

Our effort absolutely accomplished its limited objectives: kicking Saddam out of Kuwait and its oil fields, protecting the Saudi oil reserves, and keeping those massive reserves (the world’s largest!) available for global free-market exploitation. Just imagine what economic havoc the loose-cannon tyrant could have caused by controlling those absolutely vital resources, long before “fracking” became a word, let alone an action.

Not only was that war an unambiguous success. It was a smashing success, the only military effort of ours characterizable as such since our supporting role in World War II. (The Russians, our current sometime partners and sometime rivals, bore the brunt of that one, at least on the Eurasian continent.)

The perpetual hawks called Powell the “reluctant warrior.” They didn’t mean it as a compliment, but isn’t that the best kind?

Powell made short work of Saddam’s military ambitions by limiting his own. He didn’t invade Baghdad. He didn’t “conquer” or occupy Iraq. Instead, he beat Saddam back from Kuwait and contained Saddam for over a dozen years with a “no fly” zone.

That solution lasted until Dubya’s Oedipal impulses embroiled us in our current quagmire in Iraq, now approaching thirteen years and counting. In contrast, Powell accomplished his important but limited objectives in two months.

Gulf I was not Powell’s only triumph. I’ve written a whole essay lauding his good judgment on matters of military and foreign policy. Perhaps his second most important act, as our Secretary of State, was apologizing to China for our role in the spy-plane crisis, which might have provoked yet another cold war with China. Powell didn’t sound very sincere, but the apology worked. The result today is history’s most interdependent relationship—and so far a peaceful one!—between rival superpowers.

Not everything Powell did was a success. He never became president because, for personal reasons, he decided not to run. So he had to take orders from others, first as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and then as Secretary of State. Maybe, like another before him, he preferred to be right rather than be president.

When Dubya wanted to upset all the careful balance in Iraq that Powell had created, Powell tried to dissuade him. Powell invented something he called the “Pottery Barn” rule, after a then-nationally-prominent vendor of pottery and other household wares. (The Pottery Barn disclaimed the rule, citing customer friendliness, but the name stuck.)

“You break it, you own it,” Powell warned Dubya. Isn’t that the most succinct possible description of our decade-long quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan? Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule was not only apt, but brilliant. In six words, it predicted and described precisely what has happened in Afghanistan and Iraq for the last fourteen years and counting.

Note that the rule does not predict outcomes, only responsibilities. In each of Iraq and Afghanistan, a salubrious outcome is still possible, although uncertain. Powell’s point was not that bad things would necessarily follow, but that the actor who “broke” a nation would forever be responsible for fixing it. Isn’t that precisely our Yankee position today, as we contemplate the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan and IS’ depredations and brutality in Iraq? Even our cautious President is thinking about delaying withdrawal or sending more troops.

So if we credit Powell (as we should) as having preternatural insight, who “broke” Syria?

Is there any doubt at all? Russian and Iran broke Syria by supporting Assad, who represented a 12% minority of Alawites oppressing and dominating the vast majority of Sunnis by sheer, unadulterated and brutal military force.

It was all much like our own Lieutenant Calley in the Vietnam War. Calley, as you may remember, said, “We had to destroy the [Vietnamese] village to save it.” We Yanks later prosecuted Calley as a war criminal.

Just so, Assad has destroyed and emptied Syria in order to “save” it for his own depredation and exploitation and his Alawite tribe’s.

The result, five years later, is a nation of some 22 million people reduced to refugees and rubble. Many Syrians are “relocated” (what a dismal euphemism!) in regional states that can hardly accommodate them, let alone support them. The rest are trying to get into Europe and a self-evidently more promising life.

Russia and Iran broke Syria. So, according to Powell’s so-called “Pottery Barn” rule, they own it. They also own the turmoil on its territory, the rise of IS, the apotheosis of the jihadi, and the twenty-first-century Armageddon between Sunnis and Shiites that they facilitated, if not encouraged.

So what should we Yanks do? Should we expend yet more of our precious lives and treasure trying to glue together what someone else broke? Should we risk a confrontation with Russia, a new Cold War, or possibly another shot at nuclear Armageddon, just to prove we are right about Assad? I don’t think so.

Let’s be absolutely clear. Bashar al-Assad couldn’t win the post of sheriff in a small town in the Deep South, in a town with 49% blacks and 51% whites, in a free and fair election. He is either one of the stupidest or one of the evilest pols in our new twenty-first century. But for Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong Il, he would likely retain that title for the entire one hundred years.

So if the Russian and Iranians want to double down their misplaced bets on this cretin/devil, if they want to put their treasure and the lives of their loyal troops on the line for Bashar, should we fight them?

Hell, no! They made this mess. Let them clean it up.

Let them learn what real international responsibility means. Let them understand that they are much, much closer to the problem than we are. Let them learn that war is not a benefit or a moment of “glory,” but an expensive and painful responsibility, to be exercised only as a last resort, and only when you are absolutely sure that there is no alternative.

And let them feel the pressure as the cresting waves of jihadis turn from us relatively peaceable Yanks to suicide bombing the nasty Russians and Iranians. Let them feel the full force of the consequences of their actions, alone.

In the meantime, we Yanks have a dilapidated infrastructure to repair, a waning educational system to restore, a contact with scientific reality to re-establish, and a major party of extremists to re-introduce to the art of the possible. It’s time for us Yanks to put our own house in order and to let the folks who broke Syria own it and fix it.

Endnote: In his decision not to run for president, I don’t mean to second-guess Powell, whom I greatly admire. Every man is the best judge of his own future and capacities.

But as a dreamer, I can’t help wonder how much better we would be as nation if Powell had run, beat Dubya in the primaries, and won the presidency. As a military man in the know, he likely would have discovered the “Obama solution” to bin Laden and Al Qaeda—ninjas and drones—at least as quickly as Obama did.

Even more likely, racism in America would have taken a big hit. The GOP couldn’t have afforded to be racist because Powell would have been their man and their champion. And almost all racists already had left the Democratic party. As it happened, Obama’s vociferous enemies managed to confuse their racism with policy differences and justify it as such.

So wouldn’t we Yanks have a much less racist, much more rational country today, if Powell had run and won? In 2000, he was easily more experienced and wiser than any person running for president, bar none.

It’s fun to dream, but you can’t rerun history. All we can say today is that Colin Powell was and is an extraordinary man who might have changed our Yankee history, much for the better. And we can still appreciate the considerable contributions he actually did make.

If only the mindless hawks like McCain and Graham could recognize them also and do likewise . . . . We Yanks really don’t have to partake of every bar brawl, everywhere in the world. We really don’t have to mimic McCain as a student at Annapolis: a stalwart fighter in the bottom 1% of his class.