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Aleppo and American decline

The fall of Aleppo just weeks before Barack Obama leaves office is a fitting stamp on his Middle East policy of retreat and withdrawal. The pitiable pictures from the devastated city showed the true cost of Obama’s abdication. For which he seems to have few regrets, however. In his end-of-year news conference, Obama defended U.S. inaction with his familiar false choice: It was either stand aside or order a massive Iraq-style ground invasion.

This is a transparent fiction designed to stifle debate. At the beginning of the civil war, the popular uprising was ascendant. What kept a rough equilibrium was regime control of the skies. At that point, the United States, at little risk and cost, could have declared Syria a no-fly zone, much as it did Iraqi Kurdistan for a dozen years after the Gulf War of 1991.

The U.S. could easily have destroyed the regime’s planes and helicopters on the ground and so cratered its airfields as to make them unusable. That would have altered the strategic equation for the rest of the war.

And would have deterred the Russians from injecting their own air force — they would have had to challenge ours for air superiority. Facing no U.S. deterrent, Russia stepped in and decisively altered the balance, pounding the rebels in Aleppo to oblivion. The Russians were particularly adept at hitting hospitals and other civilian targets, leaving the rebels with the choice between annihilation and surrender.

They surrendered.

Obama has never appreciated that the role of a superpower in a local conflict is not necessarily to intervene on the ground, but to deter a rival global power from stepping in and altering the course of the war. That’s what we did during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Moscow threatened to send troops to support Egypt and President Nixon countered by raising America’s nuclear alert status to Defcon 3. Russia stood down.

Less dramatically but just as effectively, American threats of retaliation are what kept West Germany, South Korea and Taiwan free and independent through half a century of Cold War.

It’s called deterrence. Yet Obama never had the credibility to deter anything or anyone. In the end, the world’s greatest power was reduced to bitter speeches at the United Nations. “Are you truly incapable of shame?” thundered U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power at the butchers of Aleppo. As if we don’t know the answer. Indeed the shame is on us for terminal naivete, sending our secretary of state chasing the Russians to negotiate one humiliating pretend cease-fire after another.

Even now, however, the Syria debate is not encouraging. The tone is anguished and emotional, portrayed exclusively in moral terms. Much less appreciated is the cold strategic cost.

Assad was never a friend. But today he’s not even a free agent. He’s been effectively restored to his throne, but as the puppet of Iran and Russia. Syria is now a platform, a forward base, from which both these revisionist regimes can project power in the region.

Iran will use Syria to advance its drive to dominate the Arab Middle East. Russia will use its naval and air bases to bully the Sunni Arab states, and to shut out American influence.

It’s already happening. The foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey convened in Moscow this week to begin settling the fate of Syria. Notice who wasn’t there. For the first time in four decades, the United States, the once dominant power in the region, is an irrelevance.

With Aleppo gone and the rebels scattered, we have a long road ahead to rebuild the influence squandered over the past eight years. President-elect Donald Trump is talking about creating safe zones. He should tread carefully. It does no good to try to do now what we should have done five years ago. Conditions are much worse. Russia and Iran rule. Maintaining the safety of safe zones will be expensive and dangerous. It will require extensive ground deployments, and it risks military confrontation with Russia.

And why? Guilty conscience is not a good reason. Interventions that are purely humanitarian — from Somalia to Libya — tend to end badly. We may proclaim a “responsibility to protect,” but when no American interests are at stake, the engagement becomes impossible to sustain. At the first losses, we go home.

In Aleppo, the damage is done, the city destroyed, the inhabitants ethnically cleansed. For us, there is no post-facto option. If we are to regain the honor lost in Aleppo, it will have to be on a very different battlefield.

© 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

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Charles Krauthammer
Charles Krauthammer writes a weekly political column that runs on Fridays. He is also a Fox News commentator and appears nightly on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
  • Ever faithful to war, Krauthammer continues warmongering charade and the public eats it up. What a clown.

    • mikinzla

      At least he’s alive, which you will only enjoy shortly

  • BajaRon

    Perhaps this is the ‘Hopelessness’ of which Michelle Obama speaks. Her husband has certainly expanded her stated emotion to people world wide.

  • scruffyleon

    The reason the US wasn’t there is because of the Foriegn Policies of Obama. He has jumped sides so much in this war, nobody trusts him.

    • Pat Veretto

      I suspect he is too busy trying to find ways to sabotage Trump. Priorities, you know

      • scruffyleon

        Obama is golfing in Hawaii and releasing felons from prison…over 1,000 felons released this past week.

        • MattS123

          Just wait until his last day. That’s when all of his really corrupt buddies will get pardons. At the top of the list will be Hillary. I hope he doesn’t try doing that one though. She needs to be charged for her thousands of crimes.

          • scruffyleon

            Tell us what Hillary has been convicted of. How can Obama pardon someone who is not convicted or even charged? Yes, we all know she is guilty…but let’s get Obama and his magic pen out of the way before we investigate Hillary and her minions..

  • Chanah Robinsky

    what you Charles don’t seem to understand is that assad is the regime and when he were in power guess what Peace in Syria for it’s Citizens especially for the Christians, now that isis and al nusra are in Syria trying to topple assad the Christians are being targeted from isis al nusra and fsa, why should the USA had create a no fly zone for assad was he the 1 started this dirty war, what do you mean Russia will bully the sunni arab stats they are the 1’s stated this mess and now your bemoaning the fact Russia are on the side of assad and the shiat WHO have been with the Christinas killed like sitting ducks man go and educate yourself

  • migtex1234

    Thanks to O.
    He does not like USA
    Glad he is leaving.

  • Mydogrules

    Yes, Obama is an idiot. We all know that. But the fact is, the rebels in Syria are worse than the regime. We should have been helping Assad from the beginning. He is a tyrant, but at least he kept the crazy Islamists in check, and protected the Christians.

    • Jerryb53

      Yes I can remember John McCain going over there to talk with the rebels. He came home and demanded we help them and arm them. The CIA started the rebellion against Assad after they did false flag operations in Syria and blamed it on Assad. Just like in Libya, everything was calm before we covertly intervened.Same action = same result. Aerica needs to stop intevening with sovereign Countries governments. Why isn’t Israel helping us? Think about it. All this shit is happening in their backyard and the goal is to eliminate Israel and they commit no troops or planes to help the Christians. It would be nice if they had skin in the game.

      • unadorned

        Yes, it would be nice if Israel fought their own battles. But why should they when America is always suckered into fighting for them?

        • Jerryb53

          Agree!

        • Wayne Peterkin

          Baloney. Israel has fought their own battles. They were invaded in 1967 and again in the early 1970s and kicked the aggressor’s fannies confiscating large segments of land in the process with no help, including the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip. We have fought none of their battles, not a one, and claims to the contrary are lies.

          • unadorned

            I’ll try a little dialectic, keeping in mind that only 20% of the population can be persuaded by logic.

            First, yes, Israel fought the 6 day war almost 50 years ago without the help of the U.S.

            This does not in any way negate the fact that the U.S. has fought endless wars in the Middle East on behalf of Israel. We have a large, wealthy, and powerful Jewish lobby in Washington.

            * In 1996, in a strategy paper crafted for Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser urged him to “focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power” as an “Israeli strategic objective.” Perle, Feith, Wurmser were all on Bush’s foreign policy team on 9-11.

            * In 1998, eight members of Bush’s future team, including Perle, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, wrote Clinton urging upon him a strategy that “should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein.”

            * On Jan. 1, 2001, nine months before 9-11, Wurmser called for U.S.-Israeli attacks “to broaden the [Middle East] conflict to strike fatally … the regimes of Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli, Teheran and Gaza … to establish the recognition that fighting with either the United States or Israel is suicidal.”

            “Crises can be opportunities,” added Wurmser.

            On Sept. 11, opportunity struck.

            On Sept. 15, according to author Bob Woodward, Paul Wolfowitz spoke up in the War Cabinet to urge that Afghanistan be put on a back burner and an attack be mounted at once on Iraq, though Iraq had had nothing to do with 9-11. Why Iraq? Said Wolfowitz, because it is “doable.”

            On Sept. 20, 40 neoconservatives in an open letter demanded that Bush remove Saddam from power, “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [9-11] attack.” Failure to do so, they warned the president, “would constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”

            All of the above (((neo-cons))) are Jewish.

            To its neocon architects, Iraq was always about empire, hegemony, Pax Americana, global democracy – about getting hold of America’s power to make the Middle East safe for Israel.

            The U.S. has NO vital interest in meddling in the Middle East.
            Krauthammer is, of course, a neo-con always shilling for the U.S. to go to war in the ME.

      • maxx

        Israel is our ears in the middle east. For a very tiny country surrounded by Arab muslims they provide the US with more intel than anybody else in the area. Despite Obama breaking every agreement we have with Israel, Netanyahu still stayed with us. They have all they can handle just defending their own borders. How many tunnels have been discovered that their enemy neighbors have dug under the border trying to infiltrate like the terrorist rats they are?.

        • Jerryb53

          Israel can spare 10,000 special forces I’m sure. When Trump gets in officially, take those 10,000 special forces and combine them with 50,000 American Special forces, 30,000 British special forces, 20,000 German and French Special forces and 20,000 Canadian Special forces. Take a few months training together then go on a world wide mission to shoot to kill on sight any ISIS or Islamic Terrorist and NOT tell the world what they are doing. An open check, what ever they need to do the job. No rules of engagement. Be ruthless so they fear going to bed at night. All of a sudden terror attacks start decreasing. When we eliminate this generation of Terrorists then we leave troops in the areas that were cleaned up just like we did in Korea. Have boots on the ground in the ares so we get real world intelligence from the people living in the area.

      • scruffyleon

        Thanks, Jerry…for showing us that there is someone more stupid than Obama and Hillary in regards to Israel.

      • Wayne Peterkin

        Don’t just blame McCain. Obama and Clinton were very early on the bandwagon to get rid of Assad but didn’t have the guts to actually help Assad’s opposition. McCain may have been wrong, but he was singing from the same warped hymnal as Obama and Clinton.

        • Jerryb53

          Agree, Hillary and Obama led the charge.

    • maxx

      So did Sadam Hussein in Iraq for decades. His only crime was he put a contract out on G.H. Bush’s head. I’m sure old man Bush had something to do with Jr. going after Sadam. It would have been much cheaper all around to buy the belligerent fool off.

      • Wayne Peterkin

        Rewriting history a hobby for you? You ignore Saddam’ gassing of thousands of Kurds not to mention Iranians, his invasion of Kuwait yet say he committed no crimes? Wow! Have another glass of Kool-aid.

  • nokabosh

    Obama really screwed the pooch. We could change the dynamics by arming the Kurds and help them create a nation to offset Iran and Syria. Defeating ISIS will require paid informants for intel while being careful to not being played by double agents.

    • maxx

      Obama has abandoned the Kurds because they are not muslims. His only concerns in the middle east is to expand the muslim caliphate which is directly connected to ISIS. He has never been fighting against ISIS. After all he and Hildabitch are responsible for it’s existence in the first place.

  • nokabosh

    The French wanted to take out Assad’s airforce and airfields with our help but Obama said no.

  • John T Koszalka

    Thank you Dr. Krauthammer as you very carefully explained, Michelle Obama’s hopelessness is in her
    husbands administration. Obama could have done so much for the country, but he choose to nothing for we the people. We the people did notice that he did play golf, go on vacation, and use the perks of Air Force 1.
    That will be his agenda. We Deplorable Patriots will never forget how useless he performed while in office.

  • Michael Noone

    Ruthless dictators are what are required to rule these Arab countries, whose social mores are stuck in the dark ages. We can’t change that.

  • McFerguson

    Krauthammer nails Obama beautifully. The sad thing, however, is that Obama always does what he does to diminish America. Like his mentoring Reverend, the bombastic, loon, Jeremiah Wright, Obama will always damn America rather than praise it, and diminish it rather than uplift it – all the result of internalizing a dangerous political ideology that was not compatible with his being the President of the greatest nation on earth which historians referred to as “exceptional.” Oops, not by Obama’s standards though.

  • mikinzla

    When you see anything and everything thru the lens of “poor me I’ve been discriminated against” your vision is permanently, and arbitrarily distorted.. Only white guilt can enliven it.

  • Amawalk2

    Haven’t you heard? Climate Change is the world’s biggest threat. Who would think of inviting John Kerry to a conference that included Russia, Iran, and Turkey?

  • Wayne Peterkin

    Obama has destroyed America’s respect and influence throughout the world. As others have said, our allies no longer trust us and our enemies no longer fear us. We hope that Trump can begin rebuilding our world status, but it will be a long and difficult process that begins with rebuilding our decimated military not to mention that Trump must be dedicated to the task in spite of the screams from the left. Personally, I would like to see us withdraw from the UN and kick that worthless body of American-haters out of New York. See how long the UN survives without all of our financial support! But back to Obama, he has done more damage to our nation than Jimmy Carter ever did making Obama the worst president in my lifetime by far, and I’m pretty old.

  • Ernest Street

    Hillary does not need to be convicted of anything to receive a pardon. (See Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon.) A Presidential Pardon can be issued for “any crimes or misdemeanors the party may have committed.” The Pardon is very broad and essentially absolute.

  • gwh731

    My I remind my Neo-con friends (I am a conservative) that the United States government cannot simply invade another country unless we are ATTACKED FIRST. This is a matter of the Constitution and settled law. The reason Russia was invited in by Syria is because Russia is not trying to topple the Syrian government, and is specifically attacking ISIS forces at every opportunity. The U.S., on the other hand, has had a stated policy of trying to topple Syria for over 5 years now, so a gas pipeline can be built to provide natural gas to Europe from the Middle East. If you don’t believe me, simply Google “gas pipeline fueling world’s bloodiest conflict.”

    Believe me, I’m no Obama supporter. But meddling in other countries affairs and causing the deaths of untold thousands of innocent people –for oil, IS NOT PART OF THE U.S. CONSTITUTION. Neither is using a proxy army from Saudi Arabia called ISIS to fight your wars for you. These types of clandestine (because they’re illegal) operations invariably lead to Benghazi-type disasters, or worse. I know Krauthammer is not that stupid, but apparently he thinks we are.

  • aspone

    The USA is there supporting ISIS and other terrorist groups like they always do.