People react not to reality directly, but to how reality relates to their expectations. Thus the expectations are important. And expectations are shaped by stories, by what an older generation of classically-educated Brits would have termed “myths.” The term frequently carries a pejorative connotation of falsehood and fabrication, although some old-timers might insist that it can be used in a neutral sense.
One myth, long fostered by US foreign policy but which has now come back to bite US interests in Syria, is the myth of American omnipotence. That the US government, having the world’s deadliest military at its disposal, can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, to whomever it wants.
“No one should blame us for joining al-Nusra. Blame the west if Syria is going to become a haven for al-Qaida and extremists. The west left Assad’s gangs to slaughter us. They never bothered to support the FSA. They disappointed ordinary Syrian protesters who just wanted their freedom and to have Syria for all Syrians.”
And an insightful commentary provided by John Kampfner, which termed the Syrian Civil War the “first post-superpower conflict,” also criticized President Obama particularly and the US in general for “not know[ing] what it wants.” The failure to assume leadership in the crisis and take more direct action is due, according to Kampfner, to not having a plan and a desired end-goal.
I very much appreciated Kampfner’s take on international politics, on many levels, but the characterization of the Obama administration as not knowing what it wants struck me as a little strange, and strange in a way similar to the two Syrian viewpoints quoted before it. The US government knows what it wants: the departure of Bashar al-Assad and a stable, secular, non-sectarian, multi-party democracy in Syria which is not allied with Iran and does not support Hezbollah or other groups designated “terrorist organizations” by the US government, but which is allied with the US and allows Western tourists. Basically the US government wants Syria to look a lot like Maine.
But there is a big difference between knowing what you want and knowing how to get it. Stable democracy can never be achieved by military might alone (although secularism can be, and perhaps non-sectarianism). Ousting Bashar al-Assad is possible through military might alone, but at what cost? How would a US invasion of Syria, along the lines of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, affect US relations with other countries that it is rather more worried about? After all, even if Syria does become “a haven for al-Qaida,” to quote the ex-FSA commander, that would replace one government accused by the US of supporting terrorists with another. The US hasn’t allowed direct flights from Syria to the US for many years. Doing anything in Syria is difficult and risks making additional enemies abroad.
Unfortunately, the myth of American omnipotence is also making additional enemies of the US abroad, and causing difficulties more severe than Kampfner’s criticism. The expectation that the US would “of course” intervene against Bashar al-Assad by providing arms to the Free Syrian Army (especially after Secretary of State Clinton unambiguously told Assad he must go) has created bitterness and disappointment when foreign support failed to materialize, or when it was limited to non-lethal military equipment. As the ex-FSA commander remarked, it has led to greater openness to Jabhat al-Nusra among soldiers who want ammunition. It probably continues to feature in al-Qa’ida recruitment, perhaps reasoning along the lines that if the US is omnipotent and not helping you, then it must just be serving itself by injuring or exploiting you. Many people in the Middle East might find this reasoning persuasive.
Paradoxically, the truth of US non-omnipotence may be best understood by Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Iran and Russia.