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 !