As Rosh Hashana, the New Year with its awesome judgment approaches, we remind ourselves in prayer that all mankind are judged on this day, wittingly or unwittingly. There is a special resonance this year to the passage: “Regarding countries, it is said today which is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for hunger and which for abundance…?”
President Obama has certainly worked himself into an untenable predicament – and of his own making. The obvious should be stated at the outset: once he launches an attack against another country – e.g., Syria – that has not attacked the United States, he becomes what he long decried, mocked and lambasted. He becomes Presidents Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II. He becomes the commissioner of America, the world’s policeman. No wonder he is tap-dancing around this decision and his ever-fanciful foreign policy. His background, temperament and every instinct militates against aggressive action against Syria, and yet on some level he certainly realizes that the American president has a different role on the international scene than, say, the Chilean president.
Obama, who has long confused his musings for policy and his speeches for action, has boxed himself into a corner. Whatever the polls say – and I believe that Americans have little interest in intervening in Syria’s civil war, notwithstanding the horrendous loss of civilian life and the wanton use of chemical weapons – the United States still defines itself as the nation that upholds the world’s moral order, that seeks justice for the oppressed, that has less interest in expanding its empire than in exporting its values. (There’s a reason why super heroes who fight injustice – Superman, Batman, et al – were all American creations.) Obama has never subscribed to that notion of American exceptionalism, and tragically abdicated that role; the vacuum has been filled by an assortment of rogues, miscreants and murderers, and especially Russia’s Putin, who has run circles around Obama on several occasions and does not seem to be swayed by Obama’s “charm.” Putin is today the world’s most consequential leader, the first time in generations that role is not being played by an American president. It is Putin, ultimately, who will decide Bashar Assad’s fate, not Obama and his missiles.
For sure, Obama recognizes the foolishness of his red lines and the vacuity with which his threats have been greeted in the Middle East. He would love to be the first president since Hoover (Carter?) never to have fired a shot at an enemy of his own making. But the world does not lend itself to liberal fantasies, and has become under Obama’s watch a much more dangerous place given America’s retreat from the global scene.
That is why the current “crisis” atmosphere is surreal. The “red line” was crossed months, not weeks, ago and prompted no reaction but words, threats and investigations. Then, battleships were dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean, ready to fire. Then, nothing, except an unnecessary deferment to Congress and a quick round of golf. The hunger for political cover is itself stunning, as if Congressional approval will allow Obama to tell his friends on the left that he had no choice. The hypocrisy is also breathtaking; would Nancy Pelosi et al support such an authorization requested by a Republican president? And the delay masks a plan that, by all accounts, will do little more than lob missiles at Syrian targets – but not endanger the regime (ruled out) nor seize the cache of chemical weapons (not possible without ground troops). The purpose is to “do something;” in halachic language, it is to “be yotzei,” but without accomplishing any strategic objective. “Doing something” may play well on television, but has little effect in the Middle Eastern cauldron.
Obama’s caution was warranted for at least one reason: the civilized world benefits from evildoers killing each other, even if the collateral damage (innocent civilians, women, children, etc.) are sadly slaughtered in the process. The world has long looked at the massacres of innocents with treacly laments, pious intonations, and chants of “never again,” from the Holocaust, to Biafra, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, a host of others, and now Syria. The custom is to pay lip service and vow action, but remedial or effective action is exceedingly rare. And, the innocents aside, who is really fighting and dying in Syria’s civil war? The combatants share two common denominators: all the groups hate Jews and Israel, and no group boasts a Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. Assad’s use of chemical weapons is horrific, but so was the cannibalization by one of the rebel groups of a dead loyalist soldier whose heart was summarily excised from his chest and proudly consumed by his killer, sans condiments or cutlery.
One recalls the Iran-Iraq war that lasted almost a decade in the 1980’s and how the civilized world benefited from that carnage. It is easy to draw the same conclusion here. While the loss of any life is a tragedy from a divine perspective, the world in which we humans live benefits from the death of the wicked. “The death of evildoers is satisfying for them and for the world” (Masechet Sanhedrin 71b). The lucky Syrians – and the intelligent ones – seem to consist of the two million refugees who have fled the killing fields, and surely they are ripe for humanitarian assistance. But it is hard to see how an Assad replaced by another murderous dictator really solves anything or advances any moral cause.
It is also hard to imagine that Congress will deny Obama the right to fire his missiles. Too many Congressmen are genuinely troubled by the butchery (some of them, by the way, like Secretary of State Kerry, not long ago considered themselves confidants of Bashar al-Assad), others enjoy the projection of American power, and some responsible ones see the defeat of an American president’s request in this sphere as a terrible loss of prestige for the United States and a further erosion of American influence in the world. An Obama threat of retaliation against Syria that goes unfulfilled will simply further embolden Iran to ignore this President’s idle blandishments and hasten the completion of its nuclear program. What to do? Here’s a suggestion.
Go to the source. Rather than waste rockets and missiles in a futile effort to weaken Assad, expend that effort in militarily engaging Iran. Iran is Syria’s sponsor and patron. If Iran is weakened – nuclear capabilities thwarted, regime changed, etc. – then Syria falls. The source of evil in that part of the world is not Syria but Iran. Wasting energy on a theatrical attack on the proxy but leaving the principal in place accomplishes less than nothing. By all accounts, the US (and/or Israel) will have to confront Iran someday soon. A nuclear weapon in Iranian hands is more dangerous than even chemical weapons in Syrian or rebel hands. It is not at all unlikely that the use of chemical weapons here was undertaken at Iranian initiative to gauge the American response, as Assad has the upper hand over the rebels with his conventional weapons. So why delay until tomorrow what can be done today?
This would be an opportune moment for that attack. Nonetheless, it is unlikely because Obama is so enamored of his rhetorical abilities he believes his words alone will halt the Iranian race to the bomb. So, for all the current commotion, there will be a lot of sound and fury signifying next to nothing, as politics once again trumps policy.
“And so of the countries, some will be destined for the sword,” not because G-d necessarily decreed it but because they have chosen it, and others will be blessed with peace because they have worked at it, fought and bled for it, and appreciate it. And some, like Israel, will desire peace, but not yet be its beneficiary because it is surrounded by hostility, evil and the forces of intolerance.
We are left to mourn the loss of innocent life, and pray for the time when G-d will instill His awe upon all His works and His dread upon all His creatures, so we may yet become a single society – a bond of brothers and sisters that do His will wholeheartedly.
And may the world then be blessed with redemption and peace.
Shana Tova to all !
well said (yes, I read quickly); shana tova! m
Mark I. Sokolow
Amen, Shana Tova, and I wish you would run for President.
You would have my vote!
If America does nothing, we repeat the tolerance we showed for the chemical murders of Poland’s death camps. When, does it stop being okay to be more concerned about the risk to ourselves that we are about the slaughter of the innocents?
That’s all well and good, Deborah, but where is the outrage over the children that are murdered every day in this country. How dare this president site in judgment over the atrocities in Syria when he sits complacent and compliant over the murder, in the form of abortions, of some 4000 American children EVERY DAY.
From a Catholic reading your posts; you speak such common sense. We can change our country and bond with Israel our friend by voting very carefully.
I have been mystified for many years and perhaps you can enlighten me. Why do Jewish Americans overwhelmingly vote for the candidate of the party that is openly hostile to Israel and hostile to the party that is pro-Israel? Like lemmings they rush right over the edge into the precipice and feel like, socially, they’ve done the right thing when, really, they’ve put one more nail in Israel’s coffin.
It’s always been a mystery to me as well. Pehaps this explains it, at least in part:
If Obama ever “decried, mocked and lambasted” Bush II with regard to foreign policy it was for the fact that Bush II attacked Iraq on the basis that Hussein had WMDs that we would find and destroy. We attacked Iraq, got bogged down in a war that lasted more than 8 years, lost thousands of US soldiers, and we never found any WMDs. With regard to Syria, on the other hand, there is now overwhelming evidence that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian regime, which is the basis for Obama’s intention to launch an attack. So whereas you present this as Obama acting no different than prior presidents who have been criticized, Obama is in fact taking an entirely different approach. But perhaps you are unable to see this because of your blind spot due to your unmitigated hatred for this president. See, e.g., nearly every other post on this blog since Obama became president.
By the way, is it possible that Assad’s WMD’s were Hussein’s WMD’s? There were transports between these two Baath allies. And the evidence is as “overwhelming” here and now as it was there and then. Every major intelligence agency in the world supported the finding. And was it true? Of course it was true! Huseein gassed tens of thousands of Kurds in the late 1980s. The question is not whether or not Hussein had WMD’s. The only question is: what did he do with them?
Perhaps that mystery is being solved now.
It certainly seems possible that Hussein had chemical weapons and that those were at some point transported to Syria. The amazing thing is that you still see Bush II as having done the correct thing in connction with Hussein and his WMDs and Obama as making a muddle of the situation. Let’s follow the logic based on what you seem to be certain is what transpired. Hussein had WMDs. He used them to kill tens of thousands of Kurds. Bush II launched a US war against Iraq. Thousands of US troops were killed as the US got bogged down in Iraq for a war that lasted for years. (To be clear, up until this point I agree with you that these are facts.). At some point , Hussien sent those WMDs to Syria. So despite Bush II’s argument that we’re attacking Iraq to capture its WMDs, we don’t find any WMDs there. Instead the WMDs make their way to Syria. And a dictator running Syria recently used those WMDs against his his people, killing thousands. So how was Bush II’s invasion of Iraq a success? And how is the current Syria situation a muddle “of Obama’s own doing”????
The war, such as it was, was a success in that it removed a hostile, genocidal dictator who had, used, and planning to construct more WMD’s and inserted a democratically-elected government that was friendly to American interests. The war, too, quickly defanged another hostile, genocidal dictator, Muammar Qaddaffi.
That war, whatever its length (an irrelevancy; the Cold War lasted 45 years) and despite its loss of life (every life is precious, but the US suffered more casualties in the Battle of the Bulge than in Iraq), has been effectively lost by Obama, who pulled US troops out without leaving any residual force. Iraq has again descended into chaos and will soon be radicalized. Iran routinely uses Iraqi air space to fly weapons, supplies and manpower to Syria, something with long-term consequences for US security and would have been impossible had the US Air Force remained. The failure to negotiate another Status of Forces Agreement was just another diplomatic fiasco for the Obama admninistration and for Hillary Clinton, whose tenure as Secretary of State was marked by repeated failures. But, wait, she did travel over a million miles.
The sad part is that Obama will spin the Iraqi collapse as a Bush failure when in fact it happened on his watch and with his complicity. His media acolytes and die hard supporters will do the same.
Obama and Kerry were big Assad supporters, especially Kerry. Obama tried to reach out to Assad early, then called for his removal, did nothing to advance that end, set meaningless red lines, supported the rebels, betrayed the rebels, now acquiesces in Assad’s remaining in power and given him a free pass after he murdered 1400 people with poison gas. (Usually, we punish a murderer by doing more than taking away the murder weapon.) He has relinquished leadership to the Russians and made the US a supporting player in a hostile world. Freedom and good people will suffer as a result. That is a muddle.
The firstborn Egyptians, having already witnessed the first nine plagues occur exactly as Moses had warned, approached Pharaoh and his generals and demanded that the Jews be freed immediately.
When Pharaoh refused, the firstborn took up arms against Pharaoh’s troops, killing many of them. This event is alluded to by King David, who sang:
“[Offer thanks to G-d,] who smote the Egyptians with their [own] first born” (Bible, Book of Psalms, chapter 136, verse 10).
We Jews must thank our G_d when our enemies kill each other.