Krauthammer: Syria as the Spanish Civil War


What with all the travelling I’ve been doing the last few days (I was working on the coast Wednesday and Thursday, drove to Memphis Friday, drove back yesterday), I’m just now getting to Charles Krauthammer’s column from late last week.

I liked his analogy:

The war in Syria, started by locals, is now a regional conflict, the meeting ground of two warring blocs. On one side, the radical Shiite bloc led by Iran, which overflies Iraq to supply Bashar al-Assad and sends Hezbollah to fight for him. Behind them lies Russia, which has stationed ships offshore, provided the regime with tons of weaponry and essentially claimed Syria as a Russian protectorate.

And on the other side are the Sunni Gulf states terrified of Iranian hegemony (territorial and soon nuclear); non-Arab Turkey, now convulsed by an internal uprising; and fragile Jordan, dragged in by geography.

And behind them? No one. It’s the Spanish Civil War except that only one side — the fascists — showed up. The natural ally of what began as a spontaneous, secular, liberationist uprising in Syria was the United States. For two years, it did nothing….

As will not surprise you, he is not satisfied with President Obama’s belated decision to help the rebels with nothing more than small arms and ammo.

He gets way harsh on the pres with regard to Iraq:

The tragedy is that we once had a counterweight and Obama threw it away. Obama still thinks the total evacuation of Iraq is a foreign policy triumph. In fact, his inability — unwillingness? — to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement that would have left behind a small but powerful residual force in Iraq is precisely what compels him today to re-create in Jordan a pale facsimile of that regional presence…

We had a golden opportunity to reap the rewards of this too-bloody war by establishing a strategic relationship with an Iraq that was still under American sway. Iraqi airspace, for example, was under U.S. control as we prepared to advise and rebuild Iraq’s nonexistent air force.

With our evacuation, however, Iraqi airspace today effectively belongs to Iran — over which it is flying weapons, troops and advisers to turn the tide in Syria. The U.S. air bases, the vast military equipment, the intelligence sources available in Iraq were all abandoned. Gratis…

27 thoughts on “Krauthammer: Syria as the Spanish Civil War

  1. Steve Gordy

    For a person who’s never served in any military organization, he’s always ready to send someone else’s kids into a fight. I can’t decide who’s more worn out, Krauthammer or George Will. At one time, they could occasionally print something worth reading. No longer.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Yes, the filter is so clogged, there’s no chance any clear thinking will perc through.

    2. Doug Ross

      ” During Krauthammer’s first year of medical school, he was paralyzed in a diving accident and was hospitalized for 14 months. ”

      The fact that he’s in a wheelchair and that he grew up in Canada may have limited his military options.

      1. Steve Gordy

        Doug, it reinforces the point: Krauthammer has never been at risk for having to fight in a war. That hasn’t stopped him from beating the drums for war against Iraq, Iran and Bashar al-Assad.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yeah, and you know what, Steve? That has zero bearing on whether he’s right or not.

        I mean, really — when he was opposed to our involvement in the Balkans, was his opinion disqualified because he never served?

        Perhaps I’m a bit touchy on this subject because I couldn’t serve, either. (And have always sort of felt deprived because of it.) I don’t see how that disqualifies me as a citizen with a legitimate opinion. (Although… I was intrigued by Heinlein’s idea, in “Starship Troopers,” of only allowing veterans to be full citizens. There’s something to be said for it.)

        And I’m one of those awful, horrible people who wasn’t opposed to our involvement in Vietnam.

        Nope, I never had to go to Vietnam. But my Dad did. And let me tell you something — I’d much, much rather have gone in his place. He didn’t mind. He rather embraced the opportunity. He was a career officer, and this was his job. But I sure did hate sitting here while he was over there.

        No, I don’t know what combat is like (nor, for that matter, do most people who have served in the military in the past). But I know what it’s like to be one of the kids of somebody who’s over there, and I think the fact that there are dependents today who have to go through that again and again is a very bad thing.

        Which is why I like the idea of a draft. And I mean, draft all of us. There’s got to be something I could do, even at my age, with my asthma (which is totally under control, as long as I have my meds).

        But maybe, not having served, I’m not entitled to that opinion.

        1. Steve Gordy

          Brad, I have trouble believing that someone who has spent as many years in the news business as you have overlooks the distinction between having an opinion, voicing an opinion, and being paid big bucks to demand policy changes whose impact will not fall on you. If Krauthammer had been on the back of the George W. Bush administration demanding tax increases to pay for Afghanistan and Iraq, I’d have more respect for him. I must’ve missed all the columns he wrote about that.

  2. Mike F.

    He compares it to the Spanish Civil War? Just before World War II. And that’s supposed to make us want to get involved?
    Worst metaphor ever.

  3. Peter O'Boyle

    Krauthammer used similar apocalyptic language to urge intervention in Iraq. I don’t know why anyone reads him anymore.

  4. Bryan Caskey

    I thought was a very good line from Krauthammer: “Serious policymaking would dictate that we either do something that will alter the course of the war, or do nothing. Instead, Obama has chosen to do just enough to give the appearance of having done something.”

    At this moment, I haven’t heard a compelling reason to get involved. Anybody got one?

    1. Juan Caruso

      There is no compelling reason to involve US boots on the ground or even in the air; according to Obama’s red-line criterion, however, the proven (to BHO’s satisfaction) use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime qualifies for US involvement, and I must agree. Why? Former President Eisenhower may have said it best as a 5-Star General:

      “”History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid”

      Translation for left-leaners: Either use your power when judiciously appropriate or cede such power at great cost.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Deciding that some fights aren’t worth fighting isn’t the mark of being either weak or timid. It’s the mark of intelligence. Sometimes discretion IS the better part of valor.

        Since you don’t advocate for any actual military units, what “involvement” do you propose? I’m (genuinely) confused by your position.

        1. Juan Caruso

          Bryan, Bart seems to have understood my points well enough (about an hour before your question was asked – see below, please) with a capsule that requires no repetition.

  5. Bart

    Krauthammer like other intellectuals, liberal or conservative, who earn their income from positing their opinions and observations, is as Brad notes, an acquired taste. However, to date, I have not acquired anything other than a “vanilla” taste for Mr. Krauthammer but in this instance he does make a couple of good points in his comments; Bryan made note of one.

    As Juan pointed out, when a leader makes a declarative statement and defines the red-line, he or she must be willing to stand behind the declaration and make the difficult decision of acting or facing the world and declaring a position of non-involvement other than humanitarian aid.

    I can see no justification at this point of committing to arming the rebels or troops to the conflict in Syria. Lybia should have been our learning curve and maybe it was since the administration has not agreed to supply arms to the rebel forces. Let this regional conflict be resolved within the borders of Syria.

  6. Phillip

    Heartened to see so many of different political persuasions come together in agreement that wading into the Syrian civil war would not be wise.

    But seriously, you’ve got to hand it to neocons like Krauthammer, who put the proverbial kid-who-killed-his-parents-then-begged-for-clemency-because-he-was-an-orphan to shame with their gall, their revisionist history, and their plain imperialist arrogance.

    Exhibit A: Even though it was the very fact of the US invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam that was the single biggest factor in the strengthening of Iran in the region in the past decade, Krauthammer has the gall to dismiss THAT reason, claiming instead that the failure (which he slyly insinuates, though he knows it to be false, was an “unwillingness”) to extend the Status of Forces agreement with Iraq is to be blamed for the Iranians being able to fly unimpeded through Iraqi airspace. Gee, I don’t recall Saddam allowing Iran free access through Iraqi airspace…

    Exhibit B: Having falsely assumed that we would be unanimously greeted with rose petals as saviors in Iraq, the neocons continue to this day to fail to comprehend that the Iraqi people a) didn’t exactly relish the idea of extending the already-agreed-upon SOFA that George W. Bush signed, and b) had and have the right to determine for themselves the question of foreign troops on their soil. This is the crux of the neocon or imperialist delusion: the inability to empathize with other peoples’ points of view in the world, and the inability or unwillingness to grant other peoples in the world the same rights of self-determination that they so proudly hail as hallmarks of American-style liberal democracy. Krauthammer’s delusion is entirely contained in his phrase, “still under American sway.”

    In fact, the sticking point over which the SOFA extension failed was the Iraqi government’s refusal to grant US forces immunity from prosecution over crimes against Iraqi civilians. Does anybody honestly think Krauthammer would have wanted Obama to yield on THIS point in order to obtain that SOFA extension? But in this way of neocon thinking, Iraqis exist only to facilitate the foreign policy objectives of the United States, and if we decided that it was best for them that we should invade, remove Saddam, create the conditions for chaos within the country, shake up the Middle East dynamic in such a way as to remove Iran’s biggest counterweight, well then, hey, the Iraqi people’s only job is to roll over and thank us and sign whatever we want them to sign, those ungrateful little so-and-sos…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Phillip, you are becoming rather strident lately. And in your desire to say things as strongly as you can, you reach too far and say things that are not logical.

      For instance, when you compare neocons (whom you unfairly lump into a homogeneous group, ignoring that they don’t always agree on everything — more about that in a moment) to “the proverbial kid-who-killed-his-parents-then-begged-for-clemency-because-he-was-an-orphan,” I have trouble following you. Never mind that you act as though there is malice present in the neocon’s positions, as though their motives were akin to someone killing his parents and wanting to get away with it.

      I THINK you’re using that as an analogy for “the very fact of the US invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam that was the single biggest factor in the strengthening of Iran in the region in the past decade,” as though invading Iraq were the killing of the parents, and Iran becoming more influential were the state of being an orphan. Then you go on to recite one of the favorite antiwar canards, “Having falsely assumed that we would be unanimously greeted with rose petals as saviors in Iraq.”

      You suggest a couple of things there. One, that all neocons (a set to which you assign Krauthammer) were either a) a bunch of dummies who thought everything would be hunky-dory in Iraq once we invaded, and it would be easy, and there would be no repercussions, or b) that the whole idea was this wicked scheme to strengthen Iran and then use that as an “excuse” to extend our presence forever.

      As it happens, Krauthammer’s views on Iraq before the invasion were very much like my own. He said “Reformation and reconstruction of an alien culture are a daunting task. Risky and, yes, arrogant,” then added, “But we cannot afford not to try. There is not a single, remotely plausible, alternative strategy for attacking the monster behind 9/11. It’s not Osama bin Laden; it is the cauldron of political oppression, religious intolerance, and social ruin in the Arab-Islamic world—oppression transmuted and deflected by regimes with no legitimacy into virulent, murderous anti-Americanism.”

      Earlier, he had written, “Nonetheless, I can both understand and respect those few Democrats who make the principled argument against war with Iraq on the grounds of deterrence, believing that safety lies in reliance on a proven (if perilous) balance of terror rather than the risky innovation of forcible disarmament by preemption.”

      I agreed with all those statements. I could respect the argument against going into Iraq. What I could NOT respect was all the people who wanted to pull out when things got tough later — whether they had originally been for the invasion or not.

      Because — and this is the crux of our disagreement, and where I think what you say falls down completely — once that power vacuum was created (the vacuum George H.W. Bush regarded as not “prudent”), we had to deal with it.

      In terms of this nation’s or the region’s interests, the fact that a power vacuum had to be dealt with was indeed a fact, no matter who caused it or why. I really can’t follow the thinking of anyone who believes that, since we “shouldn’t have gone into Iraq to start with,” we shouldn’t maintain a presence there to counter other forces that might flow into the vacuum.

      Once the surge had succeeded, it seemed OK to me to reduce “combat forces” in the country, as both Bush and then Obama were doing. But pulling out completely — not having a presence, a base, both in case trouble started again but even more to prevent such trouble by our very presence — made little sense.

      I didn’t write about it, I don’t think, when the Status of Forces Agreement failed and Obama hurried us out to great fanfare. At least, not much. Mainly because I saw little point. This was going to happen, I saw no political viability for any further effort to stay. So I just hoped things would go well, and that our presence elsewhere in the region would have a certain calming effect.

      But Krauthammer is right that we shouldn’t have let it happen.

      Let me pose a question — how come nobody on this blog ever gets worked up and demands that we pull our boys (and girls) out of the Balkans? One of my younger son’s best friends, who is in the National Guard, just returned from there, from at least his second deployment to that region (he’s also been to Afghanistan, of course).

      Ever since the ’90s, we’ve maintained a presence there — the kind that works wonderfully, which is why we don’t hear much about it. We should have maintained that sort of presence in Iraq. At the very least, as Krauthammer says, it would make protecting Jordan a little easier now.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And who were these people who “falsely assumed that we would be unanimously greeted with rose petals as saviors in Iraq?” I certainly wasn’t one. Nor were the people I was listening to at the time. Lindsey Graham went on and on and on about how hard it would be, and what a long-term project it would be to build civil institutions based on the rule of law in a country so long ruled by the iron fist of a dictator.

        No doubt there were some in the administration who thought it would be easy, which is why they botched it so badly, up until the time Bush finally replaced Rumsfeld. But please don’t lump us all together. There were all sorts of us favoring the move into Iraq — Krauthammer (but NOT, by the way, George Will, whom you lump in with him), Tom Friedman, The Washington Post, The New Republic — and the idea that it would be hard ran through everything that I took to heart at the time.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Oh, by the way…

        I mentioned the Balkans. Krauthammer was opposed to intervention in the Balkans. Another bit of proof that neocons are not all one.

      3. Bart

        “Phillip, you are becoming rather strident lately. And in your desire to say things as strongly as you can, you reach too far and say things that are not logical.”…Brad

        Nothing more can be added. Direct to the point. Thanks.

      4. Phillip

        You weren’t kidding when you said “I have trouble following you.” I’ve made a lot of comments on your blog but I’m not sure one was ever as misinterpreted as this one. Have you not ever heard that classic definition of chutzpah? I just reread my comment and I don’t know what you were thinking. You take a famous proverbial definition of chutzpah (which is the principal thing of which I was accusing Krauthammer) and turn it into a cartoonishly literal reading, so that I’m now saying neocons’ “motives were akin to someone killing his parents and wanting to get away with it”? Are you kidding me?

        My comment nowhere contained accusations of evil malice against “neocons.” What it does attribute to neocon worldview (and yes, there is an element of overgeneralization here but in a broad sense one does find these elements, I believe, in the writings of Krauthammer and the views of Perle, Kristol, Cheney, etc.) is exactly what I said above: the inability to empathize, the inability to imagine that other peoples of the world might have the same wish for self-determination that we have…and to those I would add an naive or misplaced confidence in our ability to solve problems in the world by military might, and maybe a poor understanding of history. Oh, and a view of American exceptionalism that’s gone over the line into something a little disturbing. That’s basically it. Of course war-profiteers are another category altogether, but that’s not really of whom I was speaking…I’m thinking of those shaping public opinion, and policy makers.

        I would sort of resent the accusation of stridency save for the knowledge if I had read my comment the way you did, I guess I’d think it strident too! 😉

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, I’m still having trouble with what you’re saying.

          You say that neocons lack “the inability to imagine that other peoples of the world might have the same wish for self-determination that we have.” And yet, that is what so much of the supposed hubris and/or naivete to which you refer is based.

          What I heard from Bush and others is that people everywhere wish to be free of tyrants and have free and open elections and choose their course, that it’s not a special yearning that only Americans have.

          And indeed, Bush’s faith in this was probably too naive, in that he seemed to think that all that was needed to achieve a good result in Iraq was to knock down the obstacle to self-determination for that country’s people — Saddam Hussein’s regime. But you can’t just do that without providing some kind of basic order and security afterward, which is where Bush/Rumsfeld fell down.

          1. Mark Stewart

            George Bush wasn’t a neocon; the men he surrounded himself with were however.

            Phillip’s not far off though, especially in the case of Afghanistan. we haven’t shown a whole lot of respect for self-determination there. That may be far more of a realistic view than a cynical one. But in the end, it is all the same when viewed from a domestic American viewpoint.

            We as a country need to demonstrate more follow-through on our ideals in our international relations. We experience more successes that way – and of course still plenty of failures, too. But when Cheney, as but one example, distorted our American character, it was a net loss to our country even when we achieved our goals. That’s a serious and avoidable problem. Leadership is a tricky business. Done right, the benefits and rewards are spread wide. Done poorly, the problems become an endless quagmire.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            We also have to ask ourselves what we mean by “self-determination.” Is it majority rule? In that case, an ethnic majority — say, Shiites — can deny the fruits of such “self-determination” to minorities.

            A functioning liberal democracy that is guided by majority (or better yet, consensus) will but which protects the rights of minorities is a relatively recent invention and requires a delicate balance. Relatively few nations, or cultures, are prepared to do it right.

          3. Brad Warthen Post author

            I’ll add that I appreciate Mark’s distinction regarding who is a neocon and who is not.

            I avoid using “liberal” and “conservative” much of the time because of the ways we’ve abused the words and changed their meanings. People want to do the same with “neoconservative,” which actually can be a useful word as long as we preserve the meaning.

            It refers to people who were once liberals, or would have been, but in the late 70s and early 80s started shifting away from that, largely over national security issues. They’re the kinds of people who might say that the other liberals changed, and left them behind.

            When I first heard the term, back in the early 80s, I was confused about what it meant. I associated it, for some reason, with the fiscal policies advocated by Reagan and David Stockman — with the whole “trickle-down” thing. I wasn’t much enamored of it.

            It was only later that I learned they held some views on foreign relations with which I agreed…

  7. Silence

    Going into Syria would be lucrative to me, personally. It would be nice for humanitarian reasons to stop the killing of civilians, but I agree that going in would not be in the best interests of our nation.

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