Right on the heels of word that the U.K. Parliament had rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid to have the United Kingdom strike Syria, President Obama has wisely decided to submit a U.S. decision to attack Damascus for congressional approval. As a result, Labor Day – normally a quiet holiday on Capitol Hill – saw a flurry of administration lobbying on Syria.
Included in this full-court press to move Congressional opinion in line with the President’s was an hour-long conference call on Monday between approximately 130 congressional Democrats and members of President Obama’s national security team. Included among those tasked with winning over skeptical Democrats was Secretary of State John Kerry, who derided Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as a “two-bit” dictator.
Ramping up the rhetoric, Secretary Kerry then declared that Washington faced a “Munich moment” that could result in grave though unspecified consequences if the United States did not respond to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons in that country’s ongoing civil war. Only more violence and conflict, said Kerry, could result from American inaction.
The use of the Munich analogy – which refers to the abandonment of Czechoslovakia by the Western allies to Nazi aggression in 1938 – is a common tactic for those seeking to sway the U.S. towards military action abroad. It’s often effective because it evokes both the shameful guilt of Western cowardice in the face of naked aggression and our revulsion for Nazi tyranny – which might have been nipped in the bud if the West had stood up to Hitler in 1938.
Munich is thus more than a mere place name; it brings to mind the shameful policy of appeasement wherein Western leaders, eager to avoid conflict with a militant Nazi Germany, gave in to one Nazi demand after another. This, in turn, compounded the original sin of weakness in the face of evil with the expectation that the West would never actually fight, thus ensuring more aggressive bullying in the future.
Crimes against history
Taking to heart the lesson that bullies must always be stood up to, hawks in the United States ever since have framed nearly every encounter with a hostile nation as another potential Munich moment, and from Vietnam to Iraq, the legacy of appeasement has repeatedly risen, like Banquo’s ghost in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” to shame otherwise peace-minded politicians into supporting ill-conceived military action abroad.
That these adventures often turn out to be expensive, bloody fiascos is of no consequence to the political men of action and daring-do. In their minds, it’s better to be safely militant than cowardly pacific.
But the confabulation of atrocities in a messy, multi-sided civil war with the real Munich is the rhetorical equivalent of a crime against history. Bashar al-Assad, no matter how thuggish, is no Adolf Hitler. Indeed, Secretary Kerry admitted as much by belittling him.
It feels like only yesterday, for instance, when Assad and his glamorous wife were featured prominently in Vogue; while Hitler may have been Time magazine’s 1938 ‘Man of the Year,’ even he didn’t make the pages of America’s most prominent fashion magazine. It is hard, therefore, to understand how a man who once appeared alongside money shots of haute couture poses as big a threat as the German Führer – especially when Assad has made little in the way of territorial claims on neighboring states beyond the pro forma dispute with Israel over the Golan. Not every dictator is Hitler, and asserting so amounts to Hitler accipiatur reductio ad absurdum.
Second, Syria is far from being the military equivalent of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, let along Nazi Germany. In 2012, for example, the country’s GDP clocked in at a measly $107.8 billion, with a military budget standing at $1.8 billion, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ estimates. In the U.S. we have many non-military procurement programs that — by themselves — spend more than that. One Areleigh-Burke-class destroyer alone costs as much as Syria spends on its entire military in a given year, and there are at least four such ships ready to rain down missiles upon Assad’s troops. Syrian military power is so miniscule that only tiny Jordan – which is protected by the United States – and a disarmed, chaotic Iraq could conceivably be threatened by Syria.
As a point of fact, Syria’s armed forces are relatively small – coming in at some 400,000 personnel – while its equipment is universally old, shoddy and the least advanced of all its neighbors. Furthermore, the loyalty of large numbers of the regular Syrian military cannot be guaranteed as most of the rank-and-file is comprised of Sunni Arabs whereas the regime and most of the officer corps is Alawite. Sunni-majority units, the vast majority of troops, serve essentially as cannon fodder to be used only in the event of an Israeli invasion. As such, they are generally kept under-manned, under-equipped, under-supplied and under strict tabs by the Syrian secret police.
Indeed, the number of high-quality units that Assad can actually count on is pitifully small – perhaps some 50,000 men split between a single Republican Guard armored division and a single infantry division commanded by Bashar al-Assad’s brother. This is why, despite its brutality, the regime has had such trouble with the current rebellion. There simply are not enough loyal, competent troops available to the regime to put out every fire and hold territory so as to ensure rebels don’t retake it – which is why Hezbollah troops from neighboring Lebanon have been called in to support their Syrian ally.
This in turn leads to the third point against using Munich to describe the situation in Syria. The war there, despicable and horrible as it is, is an internal one. It is, moreover, one in which there are multiple sides. The opposition is not even nominally unified, with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army competing for arms, influence, and territory with Saudi and Qatari-sponsored ideology-driven fighters – many of which espouse radical Salafist views little different from the line pushed by the al-Qaida types that the U.S. government has been hunting from Marrakesh to the Hindu Kush.
Dire outcomes — on whose part?
The rebels, too, are not blushing virgins when it comes to committing atrocities. Videos of rebels beheading fallen regime troops and much worse have made the rounds on the internet, while accounts of executions for blasphemy continue to trickle out of rebel-held Syria. There very well may be a humane, democratically-minded, secular and tolerant group on the rebel side, but so far, by all accounts it is the radicals who are the best organized and best equipped of all the rebel forces, and it is they who are scoring the most victories against regime forces.
What we are facing is no Munich moment, then, but a bloody internal conflict that has no easy solutions and which will not be solved by a one-off bombing campaign, especially since the U.S. is very likely already fighting a covert war against Assad inside Syria itself. Meanwhile, the details of the reported chemical weapons attack are far from clear; indeed, even the parties responsible remain subject of debate.
Thus, despite what Mr. Kerry and all the other American militarists before him would have us believe, we are not on the cusp of another Munich and it is worse than disingenuous to suggest so. Misusing history to score rhetorical points is a dangerous business that can lead to dire, unpredictable outcomes – something President Obama and Secretary Kerry, both of whom vociferously opposed similar tactics by the late Bush administration in regards to the Iraq fiasco – would do well to remember.
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