In the middle of 2013, the United States began supporting moderate rebels in Syria. We gave them just enough support to betray them.
As Adam Entous reported in The Wall Street Journal last week, we promised the fighters support but then never had the will to follow through. The CIA gave the rebels just 5 to 20 percent of the arms they requested. One trusted commander asked for more than a thousand rifles and received fewer than 36. One commander got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter. The rebels captured dozens of tanks, but the CIA wouldn’t provide cash for fuel or shells so the tanks just sat there.
The rebels asked the CIA for ammunition to take advantage of temporary opportunities, but the CIA sometimes took two weeks to decide. The U.S. gave the rebels money to pay their troops, but they only gave them $100 to $150 for each fighter per month. The Islamic State paid its fighters twice that.
The CIA was terrified that the arms it supplied would fall into enemy hands so it maintained paralyzingly tight controls on sophisticated weaponry. Trusted commanders had to film their use of anti-tank missiles. They had to hand over spent missile launchers at a spot along the border to qualify for resupply.
“We walk around Syria with a huge American flag planted on our backs, but we don’t have enough AK-47s in our hands to protect ourselves,” one fighter told American lawmakers.
“Why did you give us hope if you were not going to do anything about it?” another asked.
“We thought going with the Americans was going with the big guns,” another leader declared at a meeting. “It was a losing bet.”
The whole Wall Street Journal report gives the impression that the Islamic State not only has more resolve than the U.S. and its intelligence agencies, it has faster and more competent leadership.
The betrayal of the rebels in 2013 and 2014 is only a small betrayal, compared with the betrayal of values that might be unintentionally happening now. It appears as though the U.S. is backing off in its opposition to Bashar Assad, the mass murderer whose barbaric regime is a prime cause of instability in that part of the world. In our effort to stop the Islamic State, in the hopes of smoothing the Iranian nuclear talks, we may have entered a de facto alliance with Assad.
Now, Syria is obviously a viper’s pit in a region where the choices normally range from the appalling to the horrendous. But there are ways to approach problems in this region, and there are ways not to.
The way not to approach the Middle East is as a chessboard on which the grandmasters of U.S. foreign policy can impose their designs. This is the sort of overconfident thinking that leads policymakers to squander moral authority by vowing to destroy Assad one month and then effectively buttressing him the next. This is the sort of overconfident thinking that leads to too-clever calibration of our support for the moderate rebels — giving them enough support to give the illusion of doing something real, while not actually giving enough to do any good.
The Middle East is not a chessboard we have the power to manipulate. It is a generational drama in which we can only play our role. It is a drama over ideas, a contest between the forces of jihadism and the forces of pluralism. We can’t know how this drama will play out, and we can’t direct it. We can only promote pluralism — steadily, consistently, simply.
Sticking to our values means maintaining a simple posture of support for people who share them and a simple posture of opposition to those who oppose them. It means offering at least some reliable financial support to moderate fighters and activists even when their prospects look dim. It means avoiding cynical alliances, at least as much as possible. It means using bombing campaigns to try to prevent mass slaughter.
If we do that then we will fortify people we don’t know in ways we can’t imagine. Over the long term, we'll make the Middle East slightly more fertile for moderation, which is the only influence we realistically have. Ideas drive history.
Right now there is bipartisan inconsistency over the effectiveness of government. Republicans think government is a bumbling tool at home but a magnificent instrument abroad. Democrats think government is a magnificent instrument at home but a bumbling tool abroad. In reality, government is best when it chooses the steady simple thing over the complex clever thing. When you don’t know the future and can’t control events, bet on people. Support the good, oppose the bad.
Realist half-commitments that undermine our allies and too-clever games that buttress our foes will only backfire — and lead to betrayals that make us feel ashamed.