As the Monica Lewinsky scandal was peaking in the summer of 1998 president Clinton ordered strikes in retaliation for the Africa embassy bombings that included the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant, the justification of which was based on now mostly discredited evidence that should have been seen as weak – even then. This prompted “wag-the-dog” accusations that Clinton needed to “look presidential for a day,” and was using foreign military operations to resuscitate his lagging domestic credibility. Vladimir Putin’s credibility has been experiencing extraordinary struggles both domestically and internationally, and as Putin-The-Peacemaker emerged I couldn’t help but wonder what might really be going on. This op-ed gets right to the point. But what it doesn’t address is the neatness of the seemingly incremental chemical attacks in Syria and the coordinated response of Putin and Assad, suggesting that we’re actually watching a staged-play.
For anyone unfamiliar with Putin’s questionable actions, here’s a brief list:
- a dubious stance on an anti-Iranian missile defense system for Europe
- a surprising, disproportionate invasion of Georgia in 2008
- extraordinary rights violations against political dissidents and ex-patriots, including the radiation poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London (itself a retaliation of several other political murders)
- irregularities in the 2012 presidential elections and violent suppression of demonstrators that feel the election was rigged, that every level of the Russian government has become silently occupied by Putin clients, and that the elimination of independent media has silenced any possibility of anti-establishment critique
- Russia’s isolating position on Iran’s nuclear reactor and fuel-enrichment program
- Russia’s use of U.N. veto to effectively block any Security Council resolutions that are critical of Russian stances
One could go on a lot longer listing disconcerting (to say the least) actions by and obstructed investigations of Putin and his regime. It isn’t a stretch to say that as of about a year ago Putin’s international credibility as a legitimate authority on anything other than thuggish, nationalistic, pseudo-democratic leadership was essentially zero.
I read Putin’s NY Times op-ed after hearing it praised reluctantly by liberal friends. I’m only in favor of strikes if we have intelligence that would allow us to surgically strike stored chemical weapons or the means for using them without significant collateral damage. But I agree with Putin that the Syrian conflict is not really one of democracy vs dictator, especially after reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which presents a strong case that, among other things, democracy is probably only truly as effective as we hope it to be when a critical mass of the citizens are literate – beyond merely religious texts. So when I began reading Putin’s op-ed I was open-minded but also cautiously skeptical. That quickly changed to strong disagreement as paragraph after paragraph presented invalid, duplicitous, and even internally inconsistent arguments. So I’ve been surprised so many sources have praised his op-ed or called it a “strong case.” I don’t think they really read the piece very carefully. But the more I thought about it, the more plausible a very Machiavellian scheme seemed to best explain what has been going on.
Let me first say that most of the time I’m not one to subscribe to conspiracy theories. I believe one of the best critiques of the 9-11-Truthers is the Myth of the Hyper-competent Government meme. Its not that government is more incompetent than businesses or randomly selected individuals, but rather that they all have a great deal of problems successfully implementing any plan, and the more people are involved, the more a social manifestation of quantum non-determinism makes particular strategic outcomes increasingly unpredictable. Or put in every day terms, when I was 10 years old playing football on the playground I would reply to the occasional huddle-and-finger-drawing-in-dirt with, “Plays don’t work!” Most of the time the outcome of these plays looked nothing like the diagram. And when they did work, it was almost always either due to:
- accident, or
- simplicity and brevity (the “play” involved an immediate set of actions with no dependencies or time lags).
Most of the time, government programs, corporate initiatives, individual goals, and most conspiracies (even vast conspiricies, like the NSA’s) do not achieve unqualified or lasting success, except to the degree that they are continually (tactically) refined and redirected – simply because humans are bad at (that is, have poor faculties for) accurate prediction of the future – at least over months and years, or involving many independent agents. This is why small teams (of 5-10 people) are more effective than large teams, simple plans with modest gains are more effective than complex plans with vast payoffs, and iterative project management that focuses on 7-30 day “sprints” are more effective than project management schemes that try to schedule detailed plans 18-24 months (or more) into the future.
With that caveat, ask why would Assad perform a tiny, inconsequential chemical strike in March, only to follow it up with a much larger strike in August? Does it really make sense that the March strike was just a “feeler” to see what the US and international community would do? Not really. Because if the only endgame that makes sense there is if Assad thought he could use chemical weapons to make a big impact on the war. But even a deranged moron knows that if he used chemical weapons in any big way, he’d get bombed to oblivion by the U.S. This is why it continues to make no sense for anyone to even start using chemical weapons (or nuclear weapons) because there’s no benefit from a “feeler,” and there’s no net benefit from small, incremental usage. Its actually counterproductive, if your goal is to simply win an armed conflict.
Okay then… Does it make sense for the Opposition forces to have used the chemical weapons?
If the Opposition forces did it, why would they use them on civilians, rather than Assad’s forces?
Answer: It only makes sense if they were trying to get Assad blamed for their usage. But if that was their goal, the best way to get Assad blamed would have been to launch them at some of the armed Opposition combatants – not civilians! And the Opposition is a heterogeneous bunch – one clan could have easily used the weapons on a rival clan, then blamed Assad. Had they done this, the case would have been very difficult to prove that it was rival clans, not Assad, that is responsible. This scenario is so obvious that I feel pretty confident predicting that the Opposition can’t have been responsible for the current attacks.
It only makes sense for Assad to have done it – but only in the sense that he wanted to keep the blame for who was actually responsible ambiguous (hence, use them on civilians). Because by the same token, if Assad really wanted to get blame assigned to the Opposition, he should have launched the chemical weapons on his own troops – or at least one of their positions. For all the same reasons, this would have been far more effective at assigning blame on the Opposition. But that’s not what happened.
This leads to the strange conclusion that whoever used the chemical weapons wanted their use to not be clearly attributable to either side, and was not particularly interested in using them in a way that was tactically beneficial to either side.
Who would want that?
Assad and Putin.
Imagine that after winning election in the fall of 2012, Putin’s administration told their long-time ally, Assad, that they would like to help him while simultaneously bolstering Putin’s credibility and power, both domestically and internationally. They tell Assad that they will send him conventional warheads, and instruct him to execute a small chemical strike that could be blamed on either Assad’s or the Opposition’s forces. As Obama defends his election promise of a “red line” if chemical weapons are used, Putin will step in, block any security council resolutions, arguing that blame for the strike is unclear (including op-ed’s in US media). As the matter comes to a head, Russia will propose (if no one else does – but, of course, surely someone else would propose this – Kerry to the rescue….) that Syria give up it’s chemical weapons, and Putin can be seen as the great peacemaker, while Obama and the U.S. will continue to be seen as trigger-happy aggressor, all too eager to launch missiles than to consider peaceful solutions.
After all, Putin’s ambassadors would have told Assad, those chemical weapons you have aren’t doing you any good – you can’t use them, and you have to expend resources keeping them safe from the rebels. Imagine if the rebels got a hold on some? How about getting rid of them in return for plenty of much more useful conventional weapons, while helping both Assad and Putin, and damaging the US?
If this is really what went down, then Syria should have eagerly accepted the disarmament proposal – which they did. Because it was already scripted – but also so as to give the international community the appearance of happy compliance. It is important to “the plan” to get well into the disarmament before stagnating it.
Is this really what happened? I don’t know. I give it 50%. But here’s the thing – if this really is what happened, then Obama probably knows this was Putin and Assad’s plan. Which might explain why Obama did nothing after the first attack – refuse to play into their hands. But after the larger second attack, Obama’s hand is forced.
The U.S. has plenty of strategy people working on this. They probably would be seeing 10-20 moves ahead of me. But it’s an interesting predicament, if true. Obama has to play along, but it continues to be a strong play to get the hard evidence that Assad was absolutely, positively responsible, if possible. But even better would be if evidence of The Russian Connection can be found.
Still, is this beyond comprehension? Sadly, no. And the more I think about the fact that someone used chemical weapons on civilians for no other better (apparent) reason, the more it seems that this is the only sensible reason there could be. And – if so – that means about 800 people died a horrible death for Putin’s popularity play.
Or maybe I’ve been watching too much House of Cards.