April 19, 2017
As a young physician, I spent a volunteer year caring for the poor in Haiti. After seeing eighty patients, the vast majority whose condition was secondary to malnutrition and poor sanitation, I sat down to dinner with a minister who had lived in Haiti for longer than I had been alive. I opined that doctors could not solve Haiti’s problems and that the Duvalier government had to be overthrown. He responded, “And replace it with what?” I did not have an answer.
I do not recall this minister’s name but let’s call him Reverend Bill. He did not go to Harvard or Yale. He did not have a Foreign Service degree from Georgetown University. He was not a Rhodes Scholar. He went to a Baptist Seminary in Nowheresville, Mississippi.
Yet if Reverend Bill was sitting with the best and the brightest when George W. Bush was planning to overthrow Saddam Hussein, he would have asked, “And replace him with what?” If he was with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama while they plotted the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, he would have asked, “And replace him with what?” And if Reverend Bill was part of Trump’s inner circle now insisting that strongman Bashir al-Assad of Syria has to go, he would ask, “And replace him with what?”
President Trump did a 180 degree pirouette from his campaign position and bombed an airbase in Syria after Assad reportedly used chemical weapons. The Obama administration was assured by the Syrians that these weapons had been destroyed. Secretary of Defense, General Mattis, told the President that allowing Syria to get away with such an atrocity was intolerable. General Mattis was correct. A response had to be made.
But then President Trump went further and insisted that Assad be removed from power. But how? The Russians, who are now Assad’s protector, tersely refused to back such an outcome. Are we going to risk a confrontation with a country that could lay waste to our country over Syria? Even if Russia agreed to back down, how would we remove Assad? Bomb Syria into oblivion? Invade with hundreds of thousands of troops? And even if we conquer Syria, how would we govern it? Does anyone expect that the Syrians would welcome our governance with open arms? One thing I learned in Haiti is that people would rather be governed incompetently by their own kind than competently by outsiders.
What has to be understood is that Syria is not really a country. Like Libya and Iraq, it is the creation of European cartographers. Syria consists of dozens of ethnic groups and multiple religions who have been at each other’s throats for millennia. Since World War II, it had numerous coups, wars, and massacres until Hafez al-Assad consolidated power in 1970. He ruled until his death in 2000, when his son Bashir al-Assad replaced him in a Presidential election where he had no opposition.
Bashir al-Assad was not able to keep the lid on the ancient rivalries and during the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, a civil war erupted. Brutal repression, poison gas and multiple massacres have not stopped it. Five-hundred-thousand Syrians are dead and there are over one-million refugees.
The pro-war branch of the Republican Party are chortling that this mess is due to the fecklessness of President Obama who drew a “red line” in the sand an dared Assad to use chemical weapons. President Obama then backed down after Assad did so. But this is not exactly what happened. Rather when some congressmen were beating their chest for war, President Obama suggested that Congress vote on whether we should intervene. These same congressmen then did a Gilda Radner and said “Never mind.” No vote was ever taken.
It may well be that President Trump’s decision to bomb Syria was necessary not only to stop this abhorrent behavior, but to put Russia, China and especially North Korea – who are openly threatening to bomb our West Coast – on notice that the days of America’s leading from behind are over.
But if the President thinks that deposing Assad will lead to Syrian stability, he is mistaken. Like President George W. Bush, he will see his public support plummet if the body bags of our youth start returning from this quagmire. The best option is to negotiate a deal involving the Russians, Assad and ourselves. But if no deal can be struck, the Syrians must solve their problems themselves.