Kristof on Syria: The Politics and Strategy of Stupid Stuff

Nicholas Kristof wants the United States to set up a safe zone in Syria, as Hillary Clinton has suggested in her platform. “Don’t do stupid stuff,” as Obama once famously described his Middle East policy, isn’t good enough, says Kristof.

From a moral standpoint, it is impossible to argue with Kristof. Syria is a nightmare. From a political and strategic standpoint, it is quite another matter. A place and a name epitomize the counter-argument: Srebrenica and Adam Szubin.

Srebrenica was the “safe zone” established by the allies in Bosnia during the 1990’s. The Bosnian Serbs overran it when they felt like it, massacring thousands of Bosniak Muslims against a pathetically-overmatched Dutch “peacekeeping” force. Who is to say it won’t happen again?

Put another way, a “safe zone” is not a policy, strictly speaking, but rather a policy goal. Making refugees safe is to a partial extent just a way of restating the problem. And it is worse in Syria because Assad and Putin are not interested in a safe zone and will be happy to use their air power to obliterate it. That means risking an air war with them.

So: which troops will guard the safe zone? So far, no answer. Kristof says pretty weakly that Obama should lead some sort of international effort to develop some sort of multinational force. Good luck with that one: that’s what we did in Srebrenica. The only way a US policy can count on a genuine safe zone is with genuine US ground troops. Do we want that? (And no, the Kurds won’t do it because it won’t be in a Kurdish area, and they won’t want hundreds of thousands of non-Kurdish refugees in a Kurdish zone). Do we want our planes dogfighting with Russian aircraft, and Assad’s still-powerful anti-aircraft guns?

Now, maybe we do. Maybe it’s worth it. Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe of the greatest proportions. It’s a huge risk. US soldiers will die; they will be captured. But to avert a Syrian holocaust? That might be within the finest traditions of American idealism.

And that’s where Adam Szubin comes in.

Adam Szubin was nominated by President Obama nearly a year and half ago to be Undersecretary of the Treasury for Financial Intelligence and Terrorism. That’s a pretty important job. And you would think that it would be important to have a confirmed nominee there.

You would be wrong. The Senate Republicans have not even scheduled a hearing for him. He is sitting there, “Acting” Undersecretary, and his term ends at the end of this Congress. Without confirmation, there will be no one to fill his space.

What does that have to do with anything? Simply this: to put US troops and pilots in harm’s way in an active war theater over a long haul, especially for purely humanitarian purposes, requires broad and deep bipartisan support. No President would or should go out on a limb for something like this, which is inherently politically risky, unless he or she knows that it will not become politicized.

And the Senate Republicans can’t even give a hearing for a frigging Undersecretary of the Treasury.

Not a good example? How about this? President Obama asked Congress a year and a half ago for an AUMF against ISIS. As Tim Kaine rightly says, it’s pretty close to a legal requirement. And the Republicans have refused to even take it up. It is obvious why: if they take it up, and they approve it, then they are partially responsible for US deaths. But if they reject it, then they are partially responsible for ISIS victories. So they have taken the most craven and irresponsible course and have refused to do anything, which means that anything bad that happens is not their fault and they can just attack the President. Putting party over country is the guiding light of the modern GOP.

And Nick Kristof thinks that in this political context, President Obama should go off on his own and put together a Syrian safe zone. “Mr. President, please, put your head on that guillotine. No, really, Mitch McConnell won’t bring down the knife.” Sometimes it’s good to be a New York Times columnist.

Obama’s political opponents often accuse his supporters of thinking him a saint. He is far from that, but more to the point, they want him to act like a saint, risking his political career and legacy while full well knowing that he will be attacked for it by the most irresponsible and cowardly opposition in the United States since before the Civil War. Sorry, he’s in the politics business, not in the saint business. More importantly, they want him to risk the lives of American soldiers and potentially get us into a quagmire.

Can we do something in Syria? Yes; the United States is the most powerful country in the history of world. Is there a compelling moral reason to do it? Yes. But any adult foreign policy requires a clear-eyed view of the benefits and risks involved, and any criticism of that policy requires a mature sense of the relevant political calculus. Attacking President Obama for not acting in this strategic, military, and political context is not a critique: it is an emotional spasm.