No shortage of pundits willing to lecture presidential administrations on how best to wage war exist in United States media. But few of them come off as pompous and zealous as New York Times columnist Bret Stephens does in his latest op-ed on Syria.
Stephens’ couches his warmongering in a story about a family trip to Israel, where he took his kids to “have a closer look at Syria.” It is positively colonial.
“This was on the Golan Heights, from a roadside promontory overlooking the abandoned Syrian town of Quneitra. The border is very green at this time of year, a serene patchwork of orchards and grassland, and it was hard to impress on our kids that hell on earth was visible in the quiet distance,” Stephens writes. “But I wanted them to see it—to know that Syria is a place, not an abstraction; that the agonies of its people are near, not far; that we should not look away.”
Stephens celebrates the fact that Israel “did not bargain the Heights away during the ill-fated peace processes of the 1990s: Had it done so, ISIS, Hezbollah, or Iran might in time have trained their guns on Israeli towns below.”
When Ronald Reagan was president, the United States, as the Times reported on December 14, 1981, opposed Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Reagan’s administration viewed the seizing of land as “inconsistent with the Camp David accords.” The U.S., and most of the world, still views the Heights as occupied territory, even as Israel expands settlements to make it harder for Damascus to claim.
After channeling Winston Churchill to argue, “[Donald] Trump’s approach to Syria is an impulse wrapped in indifference inside an incoherence,” he reminds readers that he still favors targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his “senior lieutenants directly in a decapitation strike, just as the U.S. attempted in Iraq in 2003, and against Osama bin Laden in 2011.”
“Decapitation strike” is Stephens’ euphemism for assassination. He would like the U.S. to carry out the assassination of Assad and his “senior lieutenants” (whomever that may include) and destroy the secular government in Syria, which would effectively create a power vacuum that could be filled by Islamic extremist militias.
This notion of a “decapitation strike” goes beyond regime change. What Stephens is embracing is murder, and regardless of whether the CIA would be carrying out the operations or not, assassinations were supposedly banned by President Gerald Ford in the 1970s.
Stephens also holds up Iraq as an example, even though wiping out leaders of Saddam Hussein’s regime solidified the destabilization of a country, created a failed state for the Islamic State to flourish (several of the leading fighters were detained at Camp Bucca), and ensured at least 1 million Iraqis would be killed.
Worse, Stephens sees Syria as a viable battlefield for fighting Iran. He lusts for an “extended U.S. air campaign to destroy Tehran’s military assets in the country” to show the U.S. will not tolerate Iran’s colonization of Syria. “It could also help avert the looming war on Israel’s north and persuade Russia that its adventure in Syria won’t pay long-term results, especially if Assad is gone.”
He shows no wariness about the possibility of military action provoking a greater conflict with Russia that may even lead to the launch of nuclear weapons by either the U.S. or Russia.
Essentially, although Syrians attacked by chemical weapons are the pretext for his proposed war plan, Stephens has little concern for what U.S. action would do for the future of Syria. It is but a mere playground for the U.S. to project strength.
“None of this will solve Syria’s problems. But it can begin to solve the problems Syria has caused for us—as a violator of moral norms, a threat to our regional allies, and an opportunity for our most dedicated enemies.”
“There’s a new national security adviser in the White House,” Stephens adds, expressing optimism over Trump’s new hawk, John Bolton, who shares an affinity for bombing Iran with Stephens. This is one “final chance for American initiative in this devastated land.”
Visions of Tomahawk missiles and Apache attack helicopters landing blows against Iran so cloud his mind that he does not bother to assess any of the history of U.S. military involvement in Syria thus far.
The New York Times reported in June 2016, “Weapons shipped into Jordan by the Central Intelligence Agency and Saudi Arabia intended for Syrian rebels” were “systematically stolen by Jordanian intelligence operatives and sold to arms merchants on the black market.”
Militias armed by the Pentagon have fought brigades armed by the CIA. A report from Amnesty International released in 2015 showed a lot of the Islamic State’s equipment and weapons came from stockpiles that the group captured from the Iraqi military and Syrian opposition forces.
But in the name of saving Syrian children from chemical weapons, the U.S. should take advantage and assassinate the leadership of an entire government while at the same time bombing Iranian assets. The tinderbox that is the Middle East is not already hot enough for Stephens.
When Stephens was hired by the New York Times, there was an uproar from many readers of the newspaper because he is a neoconservative, who has a record of denying the threat of climate change.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the Times, defended the hiring of Stephens because he and editorial page editor James Bennet believe Stephens is someone who can foster debate that challenges assumptions and forces Americans to think harder about their positions. He maintained Stephens was a part of enriching the “quality of debate with honest and intelligent voices.”
Given that, Stephens may be “honest” but his prescription for Syria does not demonstrate a capacity for intelligence. It is only slightly less reckless than having U.S. forces parachute into Syria to seize Damascus after dismantling Syria’s air defense systems.
But this is the spectrum of debate the New York Times editorial board will allow for its readers. Anyone can spin whatever yarn they would like on how to pursue war, yet as far as the perils of escalating intervention, especially with Trump at the helm, the Times editorial board steers clear.