When I worked in Washington, perhaps the dreariest job of all was covering congressional hearings.
It is a task that only the interns end up doing, and then under protest. In fact, in my office, we literally drew straws for the ordeal, with the short straw having to spend a numbing eight hours or so listening to politicians ask questions that are invariably speeches, to witnesses that tended to look at their watches every other minute or so.
However, every once in a while – in spite of the inauspicious setting – the truth comes out. One such moment occurred just weeks ago, as general Lloyd Austin, head of US Central Command, was asked a specific question he simply could not get out of.
When queries were made as to how many “moderate” Syrian rebels were now in the field as a result of the new $500m US training programme, the general gulped, shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and devastatingly answered “four or five.”
That is the pathetic state of the White House’s strategy on Syria.
But worse was yet to come. At about the same time as the general let slip the awful truth on Capitol Hill, more catastrophic news was barrelling down the hill. It seems that fighters with Division 30, a supposedly moderate Syrian rebel force comprising 75 men, formed by the US to take on Isis in Syria, surrendered to Jabhat al-Nusra, the local al-Qaeda affiliate, the moment they returned to the country.
Quick as a flash, the division betrayed their backers and happily handed their American-supplied weapons (and a huge amount of ammunition) over to the perpetrators of 9/11. This was America’s first attempt, using training camps in Turkey, to somehow manufacture moderate Syrian boots on the ground to take the fight to radical Islam.
When asked why he did it, Division 30’s commander Anas Ibrahim Obaid forthrightly said he needed the weapons. How many more such incidents do we need to read the tea leaves in Syria? The bankruptcy of Western policy in Syria reminds me of the time President Truman sent general Marshall off to China, during the height of the civil war there. Marshall was to meet with Mao and Chiang Kai-shek, determining which of them was the moderate, the knight in shining armour that America could wholeheartedly support. The bemused general came back rightly saying no such moderate beast existed, to the perplexity of the White House.
Given the hell that is Syria, the desire to both stop the fighting and halt the endless stream of refugees understandably fleeing the Hades that surrounds them, we are once more fruitlessly looking for “moderates” to champion. Evidently we have found four or five.
More than most, the Obama administration sees the situation correctly, but is cynically going through the motions, half-heartedly advocating a tepid policy it knows has absolutely no chance of success, in order to keep gormless Republican hawks (as well as muscular Democratic do-gooders) off its back.
We are back in the old moral trap: the West wants to feel good about Syria, but it isn’t prepared to make the sacrifices of blood and treasure to do good. Frankly, given the horrendous major players on the ground in Syria – Isis, Assad, and al-Qaeda – no serious military effort of any kind makes sense, as the Russians are about to discover when they commence their second Afghanistan by futilely propping up Assad’s murderous regime.
In the face of the pestilence of war, there is always moral pressure to fall under the influence of the two most dangerous words in the foreign policy lexicon, “do something”. What that “something” is, often is not made very clear. But that is not true morality – having an idealistic goal and being willing to pay the price to see that vision realised – but rather the phoney moralism so characteristic of much of American and European thought in these dreary days.
Even David Cameron wants to get in on the act, salving his conscience by reportedly wishing to get parliamentary approval for bombing someone or other in Syria, as though such a mindless stance will make one jot of difference.
The great American theologian and thinker Reinhold Niebuhr was the author of the Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous; it ought to be required reading for all those western policy-makers so eager to “do something” in Syria: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change/ The courage to change the things I can/ And the wisdom to know the difference.”