It’s all very well for Hillary Clinton to find President Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of thousands in Syria “disgusting” and to declare that “Assad will have to go.” The United States has always been expertly vocal in its condemnations of nations and their leaders. Not so fabulous, however, at figuring out what to do with those disgusting leaders or, least of all, at nation-building (cf: Afghanistan). Not so good, either, at charting—or even imagining—what might happen after a country’s leader is ousted from office.
This has been almost invariably the case in US history. Right or wrong, the United States’ plans abroad have often backfired because Washington didn’t know quite what it was doing. Or why.
Back in 1953, for example, at the behest of the British (who were infuriated by Iran’s decision to nationalize the so-called British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which was much more profitable for the Anglos than the Iranians), the US, with the help of the CIA, decided to restructure Iran. Out went Muhammad Mossadeq, Iran’s deft, anti-imperialist prime minister (whom Winston Churchill called, incorrectly, a Communist). Mossadeq was to die while under house arrest; his followers tortured and killed. In, thanks again to the Anglo-alliance, went Mohammad Reza Shah, for around a quarter of an unhappy century—unhappy, at least, for many Iranians. His ouster would be followed by a series of vicious ayatollahs; a fool of a president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is alternately perceived as either in control or out of control; and the very-near-nuclear theocracy the world has come to know and fear.
What are we to make of this messy history of which the Iranian debacle is just one example? For one thing, the US and its Western allies are simply no good at interfering—at least not overtly—in the destinies of Muslim nations. Over the weekend, for example, the fairly hopeless Kofi Annan, the UN’s former secretary general and now its maladroit mediator, rounded up something called an “Action Group” to determine Syria’s future, which, translated, means a group that will likely yield no action for that nation.
Indeed, at the very moment that Hillary was predicting or at least advocating Assad’s imminent departure, more than 100 Syrians were killed, most of them civilians: a car bomb exploded; 400,000 residents of Douma fled the government’s shelling; in the northern city of Aleppo, the Finance Ministry was bombed—just about every travesty possible, in other words, was occurring while the US was bargaining, in vain, with the other four permanent Security Council members and four Middle East countries.
Russia was obdurate: why deploy language specifically forcing Assad to leave when Syria is Russia’s last best hope in the middle east, and Assad a fine Russian ally? As Russian foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov put it, “There is no attempt to impose any kind of transition process … No prior conditions to the transfer process and no attempt to exclude any group from the process.”
The Russian stance doesn’t, of course, mean that Assad is going to stay in power forever. But it does mean that thrashing things out with the Russians, being mediated by a wimp in Geneva, babbling, sniveling, and whining—all these are no way to get a mass murderer to leave town.
If the US and its allies want a regime change, they need to draft a totally different screenplay, either by acquiring or inventing a Syrian Gary Cooper. Some local sheriff, in other words, who can walk into Damascus and say, as Gary once did, “I think I’m gonna stay.”