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John Patrick Grace: Middle East quandaries challenge our thinking

Sep. 01, 2013 @ 06:54 PM

Taxing: That's what trying to understand the chaos and crises in the Middle East gets to be on the brain. Especially on the American brain.

Here we all are, healing slowly after the blood-letting of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan over more than a decade of brutal desert warfare, focusing, as we must, on rebuilding our own economy post the Great Recession of 2008-09 -- the housing market, jobs, Wall Street and ...

BOOM! Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad deploys chemical weapons to annihilate his own people, women and children very much included, crossing the red line that our own president, Barack Obama, had figuratively drawn in the sand.

Assad does this after 100,000-plus Syrians have already died in a protracted civil war, various rebel groups dueling with government forces, mostly right in cities and towns.

Meanwhile, Egypt unravels after a military coup overthrows that nation's first democratically elected leader, President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Rioting becomes a daily phenomenon between pro- and anti-Morsi factions. Commerce suffers. Tourism declines to near zero.

In the Sinai, jihadist groups constantly attempt to provoke Egyptians and Israelis to resume armed hostilities that most Americans had thought were a headache of the distant past, so well had the peace treaty between Cairo and Tel Aviv held.

Complicating the mix in Syria of late has been the presence of Russian advisers, dispatched, no doubt, by direct orders of President Vladimir Putin. Syria has been for some time Russia's best ally in the region. If Assad were to be overthrown, Putin would lose his only secure foothold on the Mediterranean rim.

Nonetheless, Obama orders U.S. surface ships and submarines into the eastern Med, bristling with cruise missiles.

Though our country has not yet accomplished a scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan, we now find ourselves on a war footing with a Syrian president and army that has Russian backing.

American public opinion resists the thought of plunging our military into another middle eastern conflict. The stock market takes a dive.

Both Democrats and Republicans are split over what to do. Ariz. Sen. John McCain has long militated for a significant American intervention to tip the fight against Assad toward a rebel victory. Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich pronounces himself diametrically opposed to McCain's ideas and advises against joining the fray.

Gingrich's view is echoed by a host of commentators on the left.

The Obama White House, often speaking through Secretary of State John Kerry, has been hoping to thread the needle with a middle course that will involve incapacitating Syrian chemical weapons compounds and deprive Assad of that option. McCain would do more, but neither McCain nor Obama, for the moment, has any notion of putting U.S. boots on the ground in Syria.

In the rear view mirror we can still catch satisfying glimpses of a few U.S. "limited interventions" that worked out quite well: the short land and sea assault August 1990 to February 1991 ordered by President George H.W. Bush to take Kuwait back from the clutches of Iraq's Sadaam Hussein, the 1995 U.S. bombing campaign against the Serbs ordered by President Bill Clinton that, in effect, ended the Bosnia War between Serbs, Croats and Muslims, and the 2011 strikes by U.S. combat aircraft to help defeat Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Khadafi and allow Libyan freedom fighters to forge a democracy.

Might a surgical U.S. intervention in Syria take its place on the list just above?

Or would our engagement lead to a bitter, bloody and drawn-out war, with Russia throwing more and more weapons -- and forces -- into a Mediterranean theater where it desperately wants to remain a player?

John Patrick Grace served as an Associated Press foreign correspondent based in Rome in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He has visited and reported from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel.

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