Once again, Israel has demonstrated a commendable sense of self-preservation, and shown the way forward on how to deal with the world’s principal current center of violence by its example and professional military execution. It has also highlighted the torpor of much of the rest of the blowzy, sluggish world. Of course this latest massive shipment of missiles from Iran to Syria destined for Hezbollah and for delivery against the civilian population of Israel had to be intercepted. The contemptible farce that has gone on in what were, in a more pretentious but hopeful era, called the chancelleries of the world is a disgrace. The White House and the State Department, at time of writing, are still trying to pretend it didn’t happen, like a thoughtful host after a guest was unable to suppress a digestive or colonic perturbation, but it is not Israel that has embarrassed itself; it is the fraternity of the silent.
The reproachful are beneath contempt. There can have been few more preposterous charades of foreign ministers standing on their presumed dignity in recent years than the deputy foreign minister of Syria solemnly announcing to the nodding and docile CNN interviewer that the Israeli action was a “declaration of war,” and that Israel was assisting terrorists, including al-Qaeda (as if Hezbollah, to whom Syria was shipping the missiles destroyed by Israel, were a Boy Scout Jamboree). Syria has technically been at war with Israel for 65 years, as it has never acknowledged the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, as it was created by the United Nations. Syria has been identified by the United States and other countries as a terror-exporting country for many years. It invaded and occupied much of Lebanon for decades and murdered the democratically elected leader of that country, and has been in a brutal civil war for over two years, in which over 30,000 people have been killed. The latest episode in this cycle has been the use of sarin nerve gas by the Syrian government against dissidents two weeks ago. It does not lie in the mouth of a spokesman for the bloodstained Assad regime to accuse the democratic government of Israel, a society of laws and respecter of individual human rights, of lawlessness.
Syria has for many years been a witless conduit for the apparatus of terror to facilitate Iran’s assault on Israel and its cultivation of the most extreme genocidal anti-Semites and pseudo-Islamic zealots. As the 89 percent of Syrians who are not members of the governing Alawites have progressively abandoned the Assad reign of terror and bribery, the Syrian government’s dependence on Iran has steadily increased. The ghastly wreckage of the Assad regime would implode and be trampled and destroyed and its leaders executed by their countrymen in a trice if Iranian support were removed. The Syrian government exists exclusively as a tottering satrap of the demented Iranian theocracy, which apart from the lunatic reality show in Pyongyang has few rivals as the world’s most uniformly reprehensible functioning government.
As the Syrian drama has unfolded, and degenerated into a struggle between the surrogates of the Iranians and the Saudis, the West has been as impotent as it was during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. No sane person asked for or would recommend the intervention of Western ground forces in Syria. But it has been demeaning to witness the spectacle of the gradual demise of official and unofficial Western deference to the Assads, from Hillary Clinton’s infamous reference to Assad as “a reformer” and the pilgrimages to Damascus of Barbara Walters and the correspondent of Vogue magazine, to the present tongue-tied agonizing about going beyond humanitarian aid to more effective assistance. It is an understandable and a good thing that President Obama does not want to replicate the Libyan fiasco: stating solemnly that Qaddafi must go but declining to lift a finger to assist in the accomplishment of that result (until the British and French did).
The wrong criteria are being applied to these conflicts in countries that seem no longer to revel in the balmy laurels of the Arab Spring. Regimes that have repeatedly violated international law and provoked the righteous wrath of the West and of the civilized international community generally, by traditional and conclusively applied benchmarks of national conduct, should be punished proportionately. And when the opportunity arises, they should be eliminated. The West is not, and should not be, in the business of nation-building. Gravely offensive regimes are our enemies because they have made themselves our enemies, voluntarily and deliberately. When the opportunity presents itself to get rid of such a regime at minimal cost and in accord with international law, we must take it. That is why it was a mistake for the first Bush administration to allow Saddam to survive in office after the Gulf War.
It is not the West’s concern or obligation to ensure that the succeeding regime governs more gently or progressively. We aren’t responsible for the governments of these countries; we are responsible for our own protection and the protection of our allies and interests, as well as for the maintenance of at least a modicum of international law. If the pattern is established of sworn and active and provokingly aggressive enemies of the West coming to swift and nasty ends, the fashion of provoking the West will miraculously go out of style. If we continue to allow ourselves to be dragged into nation-building in places where we have no mandate or national or moral interest to do so, the results will continue to be military success negated and made unacceptably costly by subsequent political failure. This can be easily distinguished from the reconstruction of postwar Europe and Japan, sophisticated countries that well knew how to operate modern economies and knew or were amenable to civilized political systems but had been smashed by war and were being subverted and intimidated by Stalinist Communism and its subversive local agents. It’s also easily distinguishable from the kind of support the West gave relatively primitive countries, such as South Korea and Malaysia, as they resisted totalitarian aggression.
We should respond in scale to violations of international law, whether at our expense or not, and opportunistically move to make an example of such regimes when they so mismanage their affairs as to lose control of their own countries. When these awful governments can be eliminated easily, do it. Instead, we have helped destabilize and bring down the Shah of Iran, President Mubarak of Egypt, and President Musharraf of Pakistan, who were allies, however far removed they may have been from replicating the state of Connecticut or the kingdom of Denmark in their own affairs. And we have given the ayatollahs a pass for a brutally stolen election in Iran and waffled inelegantly for years over Syria. This, of course, summarizes the contrasting errors of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations: Bush stumbled into nation-building and Obama has tried and failed to make deals with Iran and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
The policy I am proposing is not a difficult concept, and should not be difficult to enunciate, back with bipartisan support, and implement in coordination with our genuine allies (most of whom are in a state of increasing mystification about wayward American policy and the elusive current definition of the U.S. national interest).
It is also well past time that the international community agreed on criteria for designation of a failed state and on a protocol to prevent any such state from becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism. Some appropriately broad grouping of countries should agree that when a country is sufficiently ungovernable that its central government can no longer be held practically accountable for all that goes on within its borders, and there is reasonable and objectively probable cause to believe that criminal violence is likely to be exported from a lawless part of that country to another country, the international community must have a right to take preventive action to eliminate the danger at the minimum possible cost in lives and property and with the briefest infringement of that country’s sovereignty. This system should have been set up and should have dealt with Pakistan’s northwest frontier years ago, and simply faced down the fact of Pakistan’s nuclear capacity with the honest assertion that the world was removing a threat to the government of Pakistan, not undermining that government. Where possible and practical, of course, the cooperation of the government of the failed state, or a plausible faction contending for that status, should be secured.
In the current crisis in Syria, the world should commend Israel, as Canada admirably and instantly did (despite the effort of the Arab powers to remove the International Civil Aviation Organization headquarters from Montreal), and the United States and other Western powers should assist the most respectable of the anti-Assad forces in Syria in consigning that dark era to the proverbial dustbin of history.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at email@example.com.