Stay out of Syria

We don't need another war; we need to improve our economy

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Smoke signals emanating from Washington indicate that an unresolved debate may still be underway inside the government between interventionists and non-interventionists over what the United States should do next about Syria.

President Barack Obama apparently has not yet settled the argument between the war chiefs and those advocating a diplomatic approach. In the meantime, those who favor military action continue to train and equip allegedly "good" Syrian opposition figures in Jordan and Turkey while trying to keep assistance out of the hands of "bad" -- al-Qaida-oriented, Islamist -- oppositionists.

If the president has yet to make a decision, support to the Syrian opposition should be on "hold." It is a sign of the apparent disarray inside the Obama administration and the disregard with which its members sometimes hold the president's opinion that support for some opposition Syrians continues.

If the administration's concern is that not providing aid to the opposition will make it more difficult to get them to the negotiating table in Geneva next month, an argument can be made that the opposite is true. Suspending aid would be a clear signal of what their situation would be if they refused to at least talk to representatives of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad about ending the war and sharing power.

The other argument against using this tactic is that anything we deny the opposition Saudi Arabia and some of the Persian Gulf states, such as Qatar, will more than make up. That may be true in terms of money, but it is not true in terms of arms or training. Those countries can write big checks, but they themselves have their hands full assuring their own security and in no small part continue to depend on the United States themselves to keep their various kings, princes, emirs and sheiks in power.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, presumably under the direction of Mr. Obama, has managed, including through working with the Russians, to put into place a process that could bring a reasonable end to the Syrian conflict, now into its third year. The U.S. military, the CIA and other pro-interventionist elements should not be in a position to torpedo that effort through a desire to see the United States engaged in yet another Middle Eastern war, for whatever reason.

The process starts with the removal of the Syrian government's chemical weapons capacity. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' team is in Syria, has inspected most of the 23 chemical weapons sites the Syrian government has declared and has verified that the inventory of precursor chemicals, chemical weapons and mixing and loading equipment the Assad government has declared is complete. The target is the removal and destruction of all of Syria's chemical weapons and capacity by mid-2014.

The second stage of the Syria peace process is a conference scheduled for Geneva next month which would include representatives of the Syrian government and of as broad a representation of the Syrian opposition as can be mustered. At this point even some of the moderate opposition members are balking at attending, putting forward preconditions for participation that the Assad government clearly will not accept, seeking by that means to sabotage the meeting.

The third stage, if the Syrians and the world get past the second stage, would be the bringing about a ceasefire, some sort of all-party participatory government and early elections.

Whatever exactly can be achieved, the world would be steps closer to putting the Syria issue in a global context appropriate to the country's size, importance and location, as well as improving the lot of its people.

Among those striving to prevail in U.S. policy toward Syria are interventionists, non-interventionists and some in the middle, including possibly Mr. Obama.

Chief hawk is apparently the ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, seeking to burnish her credentials as a militant at the expense of the Syrians to erase her background as a human-rights advocate. She no doubt aspires to follow in the tracks of Madeleine Albright from U.N. ambassador to secretary of state or those of Susan Rice from the United Nations to national security adviser. Other interventionists reportedly include former Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former CIA Director David Petraeus and Bobbsey Twins war-promoters Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. U.S. allies Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia very much want to see the United States attack Syria -- their enemy, not ours.

The attempt by Mr. Kerry, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and White House Chief of Staff Denis R. McDonough to keep the United States out of a war in Syria, if successful, would provide the second Obama administration over the next three years much more maneuvering room in determining overall U.S. foreign policy. During his first administration and to this day, Mr. Obama has been seriously constrained by the intense focus of U.S. policy on the Middle East and South Asia, wrapping up the Iraq war in 2011 and striving to end the Afghanistan war at the end of next year.

In terms of America's economic interests abroad, Mr. Obama's attempted pivot to Asia is entirely correct. America clearly needs to pull its troops out of the Middle East and South Asia, keep them out of Africa and reduce their numbers as much as possible in the old battlegrounds of Germany, Japan and South Korea.

It is perfectly obvious that our troops are tired. We also need to focus our limited financial resources on rebuilding America.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).

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