Jamie Rubin, a one-time foreign policy spokesperson in Bill Clinton’s administration has put forward a truly diabolical argument in Foreign Policy Magazine on behalf of Syrian regime change as a way of defanging the Iranian mullahs. The odd thing about Rubin’s essay is that while he’s offering nostrums on behalf of U.S. foreign policy objectives, he makes no bones that the reason we should do these things is not so much for ourselves, but on behalf of Israel. Once again showing that for pro-Israel mandarins like Rubin and Dennis Ross there is no difference between Israel’s interests and our own. Personally, I think this is one of the most pernicious notions affecting U.S. Mideast policy.
Of course, Rubin formulates his ideas as aiding the people of Syria in determining their own future. But make no mistake: the interests of Syrians, as interpreted by the author, are refracted through a distinctly Israeli lens.
Despite my intense dislike of Rubin’s argument here, he does put forward a crystal clear notion that I’ve been advocating here for months. That is that Israel’s concern with Iran has nothing to do with nuclear weapons and everything to do with rising Iranian regional power:
Israel’s real fear — losing its nuclear monopoly and therefore the ability to use its conventional forces at will throughout the Middle East — is the unacknowledged factor driving its decision-making toward the Islamic Republic.
For Israeli leaders, the real threat from a nuclear-armed Iran is not the prospect of an insane Iranian leader launching an unprovoked nuclear attack on Israel that would lead to the annihilation of both countries. It’s the fact that Iran doesn’t even need to test a nuclear weapon to undermine Israeli military leverage in Lebanon and Syria.
Though Rubin ostensibly formulates Israel’s interests in defensive terms, any reasonable observer can see that Israel projects its power aggressively and doesn’t wait for competitors to challenge it either economically or militarily. That’s why it must knock Iran down to size now, before it can increase its influence in the region more than it already is. And lest we confine our notion of the challenges that Israel contemplates as purely military in nature, remember that Israel has begun making noises about the recent gas finds off its western Mediterranean coast as part of its military-economic sphere of influence. In that sense, Israel reminds me a bit of the western powers who divvied up Chinese territory and resources after the Boxer Rebellion.
As with many such pro-Israel policy bromides, this one is replete with exaggerations and distortions that help advance a pro-Israel narrative. For example, Rubin asserts that one reason to overthrow Assad is that it will neutralize Hezbollah. But where he really comes a cropper is here:
…Through Hezbollah, which is sustained and trained by Iran via Syria, the Islamic Republic has proven able to threaten Israeli security interests.
How exactly does Hezbollah threaten Israel? By capturing two IDF soldiers to which Israel responded by igniting a major war? Sorry, but there’s no conceivable way anyone can make such a claim. At most, Hezbollah is an irritant in Israel’s side. But a “threat?”
Next Rubin conveniently pimps his wife, Christiane Amanpour’s interview with Ehud Barak, another Israeli spookmonger. Here’s how he characterizes the Israeli defense minister’s views on Syria and Iran:
…The Assad regime’s fall “will be a major blow to the radical axis, major blow to Iran…. It’s the only kind of outpost of the Iranian influence in the Arab world … and it will weaken dramatically both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.”
I’ve got news for Barak: all of these militant groups existed before Iran become a regional player and they will exist if it ceases to be one. What the Israeli leader refuses to understand is that these groups respond to a need within their societies. When you offer your followers hope, then they will figure out a way for you to continue to be relevant in your political context. So Assad falls and Iran’s influence wanes (I don’t accept the premise except for the sake of argument)…does anyone think for a minute that these groups will fold up their tents and fade silently into the Arabian desert? While Iran may be providing financial and military support to some or all of these groups, their will to fight and resist Israel will remain regardless of any collapse in Damascus or Tehran.
The problem with Israeli leaders is that instead of sitting down at a table and negotiating with their enemies, they’d rather engage in the game of regional super-power. I can’t totally blame them. It’s heady stuff. Sort of like playing a game of chess on a board the size of the Middle East. It’s so much more cool to think about where to move the chess pieces than it is about the plain simple fact that you need to make peace with those pesky, troublesome Palestinians, the equivalent of a lowly pawn on the board.
There is another deeply troubling aspect of Rubin’s analysis that afflicts many U.S. foreign policy analysts who overextend their reach. He ostensibly begins by trying to resolve one problem: Syria. But his real goal has little to do with Syria. Rather, it’s to foil the rise of Iranian power. The problem with using one problem as a way to solve another is that the first problem has a habit of rising up and biting you in the ass. Which screws up your chance to address the second problem. Think of the war in Vietnam. We entered it not because we had any real interests in that country, but because we wanted to deter the projection of Russian and Chinese power into southeast Asia. Look how that ended up.
Similarly, Israel started both the Lebanon and Gaza wars (2006 and 2009 respectively) ostensibly because of provocations like rocket barrages and the capture of Israeli soldiers. But those were only excuses allowing Israel to pursue a much broader objective. In Gaza, it was to reoccupy the enclave (though Olmert had a failure of nerve and decided ultimately not to do so) and so destroy Hamas once and for all. Similarly, in Lebanon Israeli leaders repeatedly said their goal was to destroy Hezbollah. But they could not do it in either case.
The final, nasty truth is that unless Israel is willing to engage in the sort of ethnic genocide which the Sinhalese pursued against the Tamils in Sri Lanka, it cannot prevail as the sole, Big Daddy power in the Middle East. It will have to figure out some modus vivendi with its neighbors and other regional competitors like Iran. There is simply no other reasonable choice, despite what the smart-set like Jamie Rubin say.
Let’s return to the author’s game plan for U.S.-supported regime change in Syria, and note the illusions therein:
A successful intervention in Syria would require substantial diplomatic and military leadership from the United States. Washington should start by declaring its willingness to work with regional allies like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to organize, train, and arm Syrian rebel forces. The announcement of such a decision would, by itself, likely cause substantial defections from the Syrian military.
In the World According to Rubin, merely the announcement that the U.S. was prepared to arm and bankroll a Syrian coup would cause the disintegration of the Syrian army. Really? George Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld believed something very similar in Iraq. And after the Iraqi army did disintegrate, its place was taken by a massive armed insurrection which has fought us ever since 2003. So why couldn’t something similar happen in Syria, especially if we frustrate Iranian plans and motivate them to fund a domestic resistance?
Anyone identify the strategic fallacy in this bit of wisdom?
…Using territory in Turkey and possibly Jordan, U.S. diplomats and Pentagon officials could start strengthening and unifying the opposition. Once the opposition knows real outside help is on the way, it should be possible over time to build a coherent political leadership…
First, there is a presumption that Turkey and Jordan would be pleased to offer their territory for a U.S.-led invasion of Syria. Then there’s the hubris of presuming that when U.S. diplomats and Pentagon advisors start pouring into the region those dysfunctional Syrian exiles and dissidents will hop to it and form the sort of cohesive resistance they’ve failed to do until now. Again, this reminds me of the Bush-Cheney Chalabi debacle: look for the magic bullet that will bring your imperial adventure to a happy conclusion. But there are no happy endings when you invade Middle Eastern countries (Libya may be the closest to one, but it’s far from happy) as England, France, Russia and the U.S. have all found.
And don’t ya just love that phrase “help is on the way?” Reminds me of the old cavalry and Indians movies in which the white men on horseback charge in to save the day. Does anyone still believe things happen that way in the Middle East? Has the history of the past ten years not challenged any of these odd notions in Rubin’s mind?
In Rubin’s dream, the U.S. creates a bold coalition of the Arab willing to bomb Assad and his regime to smithereens. One problem: earlier in the Foreign Policy piece he noted that the Arab League has yet to support taking any serious action against Assad. Now, all of a sudden this shrinking violet is going to blossom and become our partner in regime change?
A second step…is to secure international support for a coalition air operation…This operation will have to be a unique combination of Western and Middle East countries. Given Syria’s extreme isolation within the Arab League, it should be possible to gain strong support from most Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
I especially like the part of his piece in which he claims that a Syrian collapse will end Iranian influence in the region AND bring to power a regime friendly to the U.S. (which, by extension would mean one friendly to Israel as well). Can anyone think of an outcome more ludicrous than a frontline Arab state having friendly relations with the U.S. and Israel? Especially given the current Israeli far-right anti-Arab government and the Obama administration’s do-nothing approach to the Israel-Arab conflict?
Rubin’s closing sentence is a real stunner and exposes some of the pro-Israel assumptions I mentioned above:
With the veil of fear now lifted, the Syrian people are determined to fight for their freedom. America can and should help them — and by doing so help Israel…
America should do nothing in the Middle East because it helps Israel, unless it also helps U.S. interests. U.S. military intervention to overthrow Assad is a harebrained scheme destined to fail. Note that I am not saying that the Assad regime doesn’t deserve to fail and that efforts shouldn’t be supported to achieve this outcome. But U.S. military intervention based on a grand scheme of ultimately blocking Iran’s ascendancy in the region is a recipe for failure–perhaps even disaster. An alternative that placed the burden on the Syrians themselves to bring about regime change (with limited help and resources offered from the outside) and that sought to find an indigenous leadership that answered to Syrian interests and ideals (rather than western or Israeli ones) after the current one fell–that plan might have a chance of success.