Bombing Syria Seems Like A Bad Idea

by John Holbo on August 31, 2013

I don’t suppose US action hinges on my say-so, but no harm in trying. Also, maybe there’s a connection to my previous post. Dropping bombs because someone ‘crossed a red line’, i.e. for the sake of our ‘credibility’ – for our honor, not the welfare of Syrians – is wrong. Maybe it makes sense to kill a 1000 people to probably save 2000 people, but if you don’t even have any calculation like that, forget it.

The fiction here is that we made some consequentialist calcuation when we laid down that red line. So now we are just being good consequentialists. But obviously it was at best a very rough back-of-the-envelope kind of business, and ‘the back of the envelope made me do it’ is pretty weak.

And the situation may have changed. And speaking of that card we got dealt, after we made our first bid: if it really is a poker game – not the worst metaphor – then sometimes the right strategy is bluffing. No poker player is going to say that you can never bluff, because once you do, no one will ever trust you again when you bid high. And sometimes you have to know when to fold ‘em, when your bluff is called. If you aren’t prepared to do that, you shouldn’t sit down at the table.

Is anyone in danger of looking at the last several decades and concluding that the US is reluctant to go to war? If the point of going to war is to win credibility so you don’t have to be constantly going to war, to be credible, when exactly will we have gone to enough wars to be able to sit one out, without sacrificing our credibility?

You might say that really we are maintaining a deterrent posture against use of chemical weapons, anywhere, any time. That’s the least bad argument, I admit. But if we are looking out for US interests, primarily, then bombing, out of US interest, is maintaining a sense of what the US ‘looks like’ to others – are we ‘standing tall’? No one has crunched the numbers and come to the conclusion that our self-interest and global utility happily coincide: unless we look like we are ‘standing tall’, more people are likely to die, long-term, for lack of a global policeman twirling his stick. Or whatever. If we do this for ‘credibility’, we do it for honor; then these are honor killings. I haven’t read Appiah on dueling yet. But I’m pretty sure a system of dueling in which A and B shoot at each other, personally, is better than a system of dueling in which A stands a long way off and shoots and probably kills C and D, missing B, who is lying flat to make sure he doesn’t get hit.

Say what you will about Miley Cyrus: at least she accessorizes with something better than corpses.

{ 290 comments }

1

Guest 08.31.13 at 2:44 am

All we’ve proven to the world over the past 10 years is that we can be goaded into violence by anyone, anywhere, and that we essentially have no power except military power. Jesus. With Bush at least it was clear that he thought what he thought because he was a dolt – who the heck is Obama? A truly frightening dude.

2

John Holbo 08.31.13 at 2:48 am

I’m still hoping this is some kind of rope-a-dope, in which Obama goads all the Republicans into coming out against intervention in Syria, because Obama is for it. So then he can fold and say: I’m glad we have bi-partisan consensus on the need to fold our cards this time.

3

John Quiggin 08.31.13 at 2:51 am

For the pro-case, here’s ever-reliable Will Saletan

The U.N. is a lazy, gutless, corrupt cop that eats doughnuts instead of patrolling the neighborhood. If the Security Council had any backbone, it would have punished Saddam Hussein a decade ago for thwarting U.N. weapons inspectors. Instead, George W. Bush took over the job, turning what should have been a punitive strike into a war of liberation.

Umm, no. The UNSC forced Saddam to admit weapons inspectors under Resolution 1441. When it became clear they weren’t going to find anything, Bush denounced and thwarted them, then launched the invasion he had always wanted.

How does this guy keep his job? (Sorry, rhetorical question).

4

Lee A. Arnold 08.31.13 at 3:13 am

Deterrence on chemical weapons seem to be some sort of U.S. public bottom line. The polls have been strongly against any intervention in Syria until now. But NBC News, tonight: “50 percent support using military force if it were limited to missiles from U.S. naval ships aimed at military and infrastructure used to carry out chemical weapons attacks, while 44 percent oppose this move.”

Right now CNN is running BBC tape footage of the aftermath of a possible Syrian airforce napalm bombing of a school.

5

Layman 08.31.13 at 3:39 am

@4

‘But NBC News, tonight: “50 percent support using military force if it were limited to missiles from U.S. naval ships aimed at military and infrastructure used to carry out chemical weapons attacks, while 44 percent oppose this move.”’

Amazing! But why stop there? Why not add to the question more specificity? Perhaps that the missiles will cure cancer? That they’ll end hunger? That they’ll target child molesters? Surely we can get to 54%!

6

Lee A. Arnold 08.31.13 at 3:52 am

54%? It may be up to 60% in another few days. Polls that change this fast don’t stop at 50. There is also a “rally around the leader” effect, in almost any war.

7

Lee A. Arnold 08.31.13 at 4:07 am

John #2 — Funny. Makes me think this really does put the Tea-House of the August Full-Mooners into a dilemma! It may also have the side effect of pushing their anti-Obamacare campaign onto the back burner, for lack of rhetorical time. Some members of the Republican leadership may secretly hope for some relief from their ongoing nightmare.

8

John Holbo 08.31.13 at 4:16 am

“Some members of the Republican leadership may secretly hope for some relief from their ongoing nightmare.”

Unfortunately, if Obama did say ‘alright, we agree a limited strike is wrong, so let’s do nothing,’ Republicans would stump for a full invasion. So he needs to be very careful to get them all on the record opposing him on the grounds that neither a limited nor a full response is ok, before he conceded the need to not kill innocent people for the sake of honor alone.

9

Omega Centauri 08.31.13 at 4:16 am

“when exactly will we have gone to enough wars to be able to sit one out, without sacrificing our credibility?”
The way we personalize policy around the current president, I’d say once per presidency at least. Obama realizes that his chance to use the big stick will expire soon. Couldn’t let that power go unused.

That poll is worisome. Just when I thought we had a huge pluraility against. But, that was when most thought (foolishly I’d say), that it meant a ground war. Rotate our stock of missiles by “field testing” a few. Generate new defense business replacing them. Generate some exciting video of targets going boom. What’s not to like?

And, well if someone has cancer, and is standing close enough to ground zero. Their cancer will be instantly cured.

10

Lee A. Arnold 08.31.13 at 4:26 am

John #8 LOL

11

David 08.31.13 at 4:29 am

Must resist clicking Miley Cyrus link. That would be crossing a line too far.

12

Ken_L 08.31.13 at 4:37 am

I suppose there’s an argument that Islamist extremists are waging a long campaign with the strategic goal of breaking America’s will to continue its interventionist role in the Middle East, and that they are having modest success. In that respect past willingness to go to war is not necessarily enough to maintain future credibility. But that doesn’t really apply to the Syrian situation, where the strikes (if they help anyone) will actually help Islamist groups.

A problem of the blizzard of information we have these days is that it is impossible to understand how unaccountable executive governments actually make decisions. We know that most of what we read or hear has been carefully crafted to convey a meaning that might bear little resemblance to reality, but we lack the means of evaluating what is reliable and what is propaganda.

For all we know Obama might truly be completely out of his depth and making awful decisions that try to appease lots of conflicting advisers. Then again he might be a brilliant tactician playing a masterful game that we can only guess at. Honesty in government has disappeared – it’s not even expected any more – and we just don’t know. I know lots of Americans venerate their blasted constitution but for my money, the fundamental dangers of having an executive government not accountable to the legislature just become more and more obvious every decade.

13

dr ngo 08.31.13 at 4:47 am

To Ken_L@12: Ah, but would you really want a US government accountable to this legislature? Be careful what you wish for.

14

Brian 08.31.13 at 5:09 am

I’m an Obama supporter. He messed up with the red line statement. And it is true, America’s credibility is on the line, Americans are tired of war, the opposition in Syria is filled with bad people, no clear understanding of what our objective should be and what are we trying to accomplish there if not to oust Assad, the Arab countries need to step up and won’t. And yet it just doesn’t feel right to do nothing. That’s cause it is not. Why in the hell are we appeasing this kind of evil? If not now than when, if not us, than whom. All the people who bring up the above points are right but at the end of the day they are not. The moral thing is to stop this genocide. Human rights is on our side because human rights are God given rights. We stop the evil, we stop the madness. In the long run all of us win. Some where a child in Syria will thank us, A Syrian mother will thank God we stopped it. And petty dictators around the world will know that we will not stand for this.

15

John Holbo 08.31.13 at 5:11 am

Further thoughts on bluffing: Obama can’t say this, if he backs down, but having come as close as we have before backing down – British vote and all; Washington all a-twitter- is actually in itself a deterrence measure. Assad will certainly think twice about using chemical weapons again, if it would look like thumbing his nose at the US.

16

Belle Waring 08.31.13 at 5:14 am

You know what I was thinking we needed? Another land war in Asia.

17

John Holbo 08.31.13 at 5:36 am

Brian, with all due respect, I think the fact that you say he ‘messed up with the red line statement’ shows that you are getting your wires crossed just a little. If what you urge is right, he didn’t mess up with the red line statement. The red line was right. For my part: I say it was a good bet that, unfortunately, has turned out to be something we should treat as a bluff, retrospectively. (I think saying it at the time was probably prudent. But it didn’t work out well.)

If what we are doing is to deter chemical weapons use generally, then there’s no particular reason why a Syrian mother will thank us any more than a Swiss mother. It’s not about helping the Syrians and, in fact, the Syrians may well suffer more from our bombs than from chemical weapons before it’s done. Don’t confuse the question with unlikely calculations of results. A limited strike will not stop the evil, or stop the madness. That is explicitly not the goal.

Go big or stay home. I think those are our options. We have no plan to go big. So we should stay home.

18

John Holbo 08.31.13 at 5:39 am

This is not to say that we have to do nothing. It’s just that firing rockets is not the thing.

19

John Holbo 08.31.13 at 5:53 am

“You might say that really we are maintaining a deterrent posture against use of chemical weapons, anywhere, any time. That’s the least bad argument, I admit. But if we are looking out for US interests”

Here’s a qualification to my post, to clarify that last ‘if’: if the US didn’t say ‘we need to maintain our credibility’ but said instead ‘it’s not about anything we said about a red line, it’s about the need to maintain the credibility of these international norms against chemical weapons’ then I would be a bit more sympathetic. This isn’t because I am insane and think that, so long as you say the magic words, it’s ok. It’s just that – who are we kidding? – the fact that we say ‘we need to maintain our credibility’ reflects what’s really going on, and what everyone sees. If we bomb, the world won’t say ‘yay, a victory for international norms’. It will say: ‘there goes the US, doing what it always does.’ Given that we can’t really make a strong statement for international norms by firing a couple of rockets, given our past behavior, we shouldn’t fire a couple rockets for the sake of international norms. If we want to strengthen international norms, we should find something more likely to do that, and do it.

Putting it another way: we’ve sort of pissed away our moral stock on the international stage. That’s too bad. And it means we should try to get that stock back. Unfortunately, we can only do that by being effective. Merely ‘making a statement’ by otherwise ineffective action won’t cut it. People aren’t going to hear us saying what we want to say (or what we want to want to say, I’m not even sure which it would be). So again we’re back to the point that you shouldn’t kill people if nothing very good is going to come of it, probably.

20

Herschel 08.31.13 at 5:54 am

Be they relatively good or relatively bad, governments put down armed rebellions with violence. I seem to recall a President Abraham something-or-other presiding over one such episode. There was talk at the time of the superpower of the day, the British Empire, coming in on the side of the rebels. Would that have been a good thing? Killing rebels with poison gas is supposed to be particularly heinous, but General Sherman’s Georgia campaign was pretty rough too, using more traditional methods of rapine and slaughter.

As odious as the Assad regime may be, it is largely behaving the way states are expected to behave when confronted with insurrection. I fail to see any national interest of the United States in taking sides in this conflict, especially since I suspect when all is said and done most of us would prefer both sides to lose.

21

Ken_L 08.31.13 at 6:06 am

Dr ngo @ 12 it would depend on how the institutions were set up, and of course none will be perfect. But most parliamentary democracies seem to me to have two great advantages over the American republic.

Firstly, they have inbuilt mechanisms to resolve governmental gridlocks of the kind that have plagued the USA. The parliamentary alternative to the chronic paralysis in Congress (made worse by the US Senate ‘super majority’ requirement) is that significant legislative stalemates get broken by new elections in which everybody’s seat is at risk. In most parliamentary democracies a situation like the one in Congress, where the lower house has a majority that is politically opposed to virtually anything proposed by the government, would be untenable for more than a few weeks.

Secondly, having ministers accountable to parliament imposes discipline on legislators. Ministers introduce legislation and the opposition either supports it or rejects it. There is no scope for the kind of games Congress plays now, in which the government is compelled to spend just as much time negotiating with members of its own party as with the opposition.

In other words it seems to me the American constitution deliberately enforces a power sharing arrangement but it is not the power to get anything done. It is the power to impede government doing anything, which of course many conservatives acknowledge and celebrate. Effective government therefore depends on having the capacity to find ways to get around legislative inertia, and the cumulative damage to democratic principles becomes more and more apparent as the years go by.

22

Tony Lynch 08.31.13 at 6:18 am

“We’ve got to do something! We’ve got to hold someone responsible, even if they are not! Our moral narcissism demands it!”

23

Sebastian H 08.31.13 at 7:03 am

“This is not to say that we have to do nothing. It’s just that firing rockets is not the thing.”

What should we do? It looks to me like the longstanding international norm against using chemical weapons just got shot to hell. It may be that nothing is bringing it back. I certainly don’t know what to do. When the next dictator uses them if nothing happens then the taboo isn’t taboo anymore.

We’re screwed.

24

John Quiggin 08.31.13 at 7:29 am

Saddam used poison gas in the 80s with US Support

25

Bruce Wilder 08.31.13 at 7:45 am

Gee, I wonder if unprovoked, unilateral military attacks by the U.S. violate any “the longstanding international norms”?

No, because they are the international norm!

26

Tink 08.31.13 at 8:02 am

US used white phosphorus as a weapon in Fallujah.

27

Andrew F. 08.31.13 at 8:45 am

Personally, I’m undecided on the question. But I think you’re dismissing both the consequentialist and the credibility (which is just another type of consequentialist argument, of course) argument too easily.

You say that the consequentialist argument (military strike to deter further use of chem weapons in Syria – let’s leave aside the grander “international norm” argument) is “rough back of the envelope” and therefore a weak basis. If you mean “rough back of the envelope” in the sense of being uncertain – I agree that it’s uncertain, but then it’s really a question of how uncertain. To answer that question, you need to look at the analysis and interrogate its claims.

The consequentialist argument is certainly plausible. The use of chem weapons has a certain value to Assad. Show Assad that the cost of using them, due to a US military response, will exceed that value, and he’ll likely refrain from doing so.

There are a huge number of important questions I’d have – not least of which would be the cost to Assad, as Assad perceives it, to his standing with his own supporters if he backed down (possibly none, if they view it as a smart move; possibly significant, if they view it as an indicator that Assad won’t win the war and it may be time for a change of leadership).

Another would be the extent of actual resources the US would need to expend to persuade Assad that the cost of chem weapons will exceed the value. It’s possible that this use of chemical weapons was in part a probing maneuver by Assad – a bet to determine the true nature of US commitment. What would the US need to do to persuade him, at this point? Would the cost of that persuasion be worth it?

But if this is indeed a probe by Assad, then it’s a good indication that Assad will make further use of chem weapons if the US does not match Assad’s bet.

So – I can’t simply dismiss the consequentialist argument. Plausibly, there are some deeply negative consequences to folding here; but importantly, there are a lot of questions that need answering before we can assess the cost of what we must do to avoid those consequences. The US Government would engage in a fairly thorough process in analyzing this type of argument (which doesn’t mean the result of the process will lack uncertainty), but what we’ll learn of it prior to the execution of whatever course of action the USG selects is… uncertain.

As to the credibility argument, I assume we’re talking about credibility outside of the Syria situation. There’s a tendency, imho, for observers of international politics in the mainstream media to place too much emphasis on words as the information governments use to assess threat credibility. Perceived interests and actions matter much more in buttressing the credibility of any given threat. That said, there’s also a large literature about the possible advantage democracies have in communicating credible threats, due to the domestic audience costs a democratic leader incurs when he makes a public threat. Jack Snyder and Erica Borghard published a critical article of that view in the American Political Science Review a couple of years ago, which is probably worth a look.

What gives me pause in dismissing the credibility argument in this particular case though is the explicit and clear nature of the President’s threat – it was unambiguous – and the uncertainty about US commitment given the US “pivot” to the Pacific. Since some nations in the Middle East may now be uncertain as to how the US perceives its own interests in that region – including Iran, with all its multiple forms of proximity to Syria – how the US backs unambiguous threats and promises may carry more weight here than in other circumstances.

That’s probably not very satisfying – whether to use military force is an issue about which we all somehow feel obligated to have an opinion regardless of our level of knowledge – but “I don’t know” is the conclusion I come to at this point. If I absolutely had to choose one way or the other, I’d say that destroying a significant percentage of Assad’s air defense capability (allowing the US to more easily launch far more damaging attacks in the future) and his air power would be sufficient; the US doesn’t need to achieve air supremacy over Syria at this point – it just needs to take a big step towards it, showing Assad that the US could take final steps to air supremacy if Assad persists; and once the US has air supremacy, it can deliver unrelenting punishment on Assad’s regime with reasonably low risk of US casualties.

But there’s too much uncertainty for me to place much confidence in that answer, or any answer, at this point.

28

Chris Bertram 08.31.13 at 8:47 am

Well, no British involvement this time, I’m happy to say. (Mainly because of the depth of Cameron’s political incompetence – since there was a majority there for him in the House of Commons, if only he’d had the nous to secure it.)

29

Andrew F. 08.31.13 at 8:57 am

^ sorry, I know the comment is already quite long for a comment – but let me just add the complicating factor that the US doesn’t want to push Assad’s regime to collapse before there’s a viable and acceptable post-regime alternative ready. That’s something that Assad may believe himself, which may enter into his calculus of the actual cost that the US is willing to inflict on him.

30

Tim Worstall 08.31.13 at 8:59 am

“Deterrence on chemical weapons seem to be some sort of U.S. public bottom line.”

It is. The argument is that there are weapons of mass destruction, WMDs, which are nuclear, chemical and biological. The US claims (ahem) not to have biological or chemical weapons. But it does have nuclear.

Further, that if you’re attacked with WMDs then it’s OK to retaliate with WMDs (the US does indeed claim this right). But this means that if someone starts using chemical weapons against the US then the only WMD the US has is nuclear.

Thus the use of chemical weapons must be seriously discouraged by anyone anywhere.

I will admit that I don’t find it all that persuasive. But this is indeed why chemical weapons are regarded entirely differently from killing the same people at the same time using artillery or machine guns or cleavers.

31

Hidari 08.31.13 at 9:32 am

“But if this is indeed a probe by Assad, then it’s a good indication that Assad will make further use of chem weapons if the US does not match Assad’s bet.”

Assuming, of course, that it was Assad who actually carried out the attack, a claim that has been universally accepted on the basis of almost no evidence whatsoever (at the time of writing. Of course the UN report might change this).

One might note that the logical corollary of the ‘we are doing this for humanitarian reasons and to draw a red line in the sand’ argument is that, if it turned out that it was the rebels who used chemical weapons, the Americans should and would bomb the rebels who they are arming and supporting via proxies.

And yet that argument doesn’t seem to be being made. How strange.

32

soru 08.31.13 at 11:31 am

@31: I think that argument fails the Death Star test: if you know Alderaan was blown up by a battle-station the size of a moon, then you can rule out a small rag-tag band of rebels as the main culprit. Anything the Emperor says doesn’t introduce legitimate doubt, just makes it wise not to speak up.

I suppose theoretically it could have been the Israelis or something..

More details here.

Of course, none of that changes the point that Holbo’s argument here is pretty much spot on. The existence of bad arguments against a proposal really shouldn’t make anyone more likely to support it; that’s just the usual effect.

33

Main Street Muse 08.31.13 at 11:37 am

Miley Cyrus has infiltrated the debate on Syria! Perhaps there is a role for Miley’s bears in all of this?

[With JH on this – hoping for the rope-a-dope. Let’s get all those in opposition to the president to denounce any military action in Syria…]

34

pedant 08.31.13 at 12:30 pm

“But if we don’t bomb Assad, then the next time that a dictator faces the option of being strung up from a lamp-post, there will be no way to deter him from using chemical weapons!”

This gets it all backwards.

There never *was* a way to deter someone in that position. Any dictator in that position is going to choose chemical weapons over the lamp-post for himself and his family. Any dictator will choose chemical weapons plus a chance of being bombed over the lamp-post.

Enforcement of norms requires finding some consequence that a potential violator fears worse than the cost of observing the norms. For a dictator, the cost of observing the norm is the lamp-post. He has no worse option.

This has always been true. It will be true if Obama bombs. It will be true if Obama doesn’t bomb.

The argument from “enforcing the norm” is absurd.

35

Uncle Kvetch 08.31.13 at 12:55 pm

Excellent post, John, and lots of excellent comments. A refreshing blast of sanity as we slip & slide our way down the slope yet again.

Saddam used poison gas in the 80s with US Support

Yes, and it can’t be repeated enough. I brought this up in a thread at LGM, and apparently the fact that it happened 25 years ago, and that Obama isn’t Reagan, was taken to be highly significant. The eternal song of the interventionist: “It’s different this time.” But it’s not different, in the sense that the very strongest “message” that can be sent by a strike on Syria is that “The United States will not except the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone, unless it’s deemed to be in the interest of the United States, in which case we’ll always maintain just enough plausible deniability to continue to preen and strut about our moral superiority.”

As John H says above, “we’ve sort of pissed away our moral stock on the international stage.” (I’d quibble with the qualifying “sort of,” but that’s just me.) And yet the whole case for intervention is based around the premise that “we” still have something important to teach the world about international norms. It would be downright quaint if it weren’t so unspeakably tragic.

36

P O'Neill 08.31.13 at 1:09 pm

Is the premise of the OP (and indeed the thread) that if Obama had never made the red line statement, the Ghouta attack would have passed with just a shrug of the shoulder? That without the red line, it would have been, er, Blurred Lines?

37

John Holbo 08.31.13 at 1:31 pm

“it would have been, er, Blurred Lines?”

Good one!

I am not suggesting that if he had never made the statement, the attack would have been shrugged at. But I think it is a bad sign that the red line statement is thought to be so crucial. I’ve read folks saying ‘it’s not just the red line statement, and our credibility at stake …’ as if that element were the main element. Maintaining our credibility is a value, no doubt. But it’s important to see that making this about us is a bad idea.

38

Belle Waring 08.31.13 at 2:00 pm

But NBC News, tonight: “50 percent support using military force if it were limited to missiles from U.S. naval ships aimed at military and infrastructure used to carry out chemical weapons attacks, while 44 percent oppose this move.”

A further poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre revealed that fully 93% of Americans support using military force if it were limited to missiles from U.S. naval ships aimed at military and infrastructure used to carry out chemical weapons attacks, provided those missiles were guided by fairies–not the sparkly kind with the butterfly wings that they try to gull your six-year-old with, no, the terrifying kind who steal your chubby, smiling child from his crib and leave some decomposing magical simulacrum in his place–who would ensure that the missiles hit their targets, and further that all and only evil people would be hurt by the bombs themselves or attendant shrapnel, and finally that everyone in both America and Syria would get a pony.

39

Layman 08.31.13 at 2:26 pm

@38

Yes, precisely.

40

Bob Duckles 08.31.13 at 2:38 pm

We shouldn’t do nothing. We should invest in the long term future. Lead our allies with a substantial portion of what we could be spending on attacks to provide the best, most complete, memorable , unforgettable response to refugee suffering. Go well beyond food and medical care (the UN says it is funded at around 40% of need right now). Provide education, recreation, human development, relocation. Make a statement against death and destruction in favor of life and construction. The result will not be magic. No lives will be saved short term. In 2040 there may be some people in the middle east who remember who extended a helping hand when they were down. I see nothing positive from other alternatives.

41

lupita 08.31.13 at 3:12 pm

It is chilling to witness Americans using the imperial “we” while debating the pros and cons of yet another military intervention. What do Americans feel when they write “We should bomb” or “We should not bomb”, deciding the fate of populations on the other side of the planet? Is it pleasurably empowering?

Discussing whether the US (“we”) should or should not while ignoring that the US (“we”) does not have a mandate to enforce international agreements, surely reflects a populist imperial political culture, both bread and circus.

The hubris of Americans is breathtaking in its ugliness.

42

bob mcmanus 08.31.13 at 3:57 pm

41: Is it pleasurably empowering?

Of course it is. The delusion that the people in some sense make policy is the necessary condition to prevent the people from making politics.

43

mrearl 08.31.13 at 4:42 pm

Yes, hubris. But if you were using chemical weapons on me and my children and somebody on the other side of the planet could make you stop, I wouldn’t sweat the hubris.

Not that I wouldn’t worry. From the point of view of the potential Syrian victim, the question may be terminally pragmatic: Not just Will This Work? but Will It Make Things Worse?

44

pedant 08.31.13 at 5:04 pm

You know, lupita, I cordially invite you to discuss american foreign policy in the first person plural, too. I’m assuming that you are not a US citizen, but if you would like to talk about what “we” should do and why “we” shouldn’t drop bombs on people, feel free.

The fact is, I am an upstanding US citizen, native born for many generations, taxpayer, voter, etc. etc., and all my noise about what “we” should do has exactly as much effect on the US military as your noise would. Go ahead! Say “we shouldn’t drop bombs on Syria”. I agree with you! And now you can feel exactly how futile and beside the point it feels to be a US citizen right now. We are no more in control than you are; we just pay the bills.

No. there is nothing pleasurable about it at all. Frustrating, and heartbreaking. As a taxpayer, it is revolting. As an occasional reader of the Constitution, it is infuriating.

It’s a sad day when I envy the Brits for their representative democracy.

45

mud man 08.31.13 at 5:24 pm

Does bombing deter? Has it ever? What do we do when there’s another gas attack around Christmastime? At some point we should look over the last hundred years, how we got here. When you’re stuck in a hole, the first thing to do is Stop Digging.

could have been Israelis or someone … moi, I would bet on embedded Iranian advisors. Who don’t necessarily have Assad’s personal best interests at heart.

46

Steven 08.31.13 at 5:24 pm

The problem is that I’ve been to Syria and lived in the Middle East for years and started a family there, so I have a hard time discussing this from the distance of this thread. My question is simple: how do we stop all these little kids in Damascus from getting gassed or set on fire in front of their parents, who are also getting gassed or set on fire? I don’t have a problem with my government killing the people who are doing this to them.

This is not Iraq, don’t equivocate. It doesn’t pass the smell test.

Anyway, carry on with your disengaged, faux concern for innocent human life, the one that never sees a case for the third party rescue of innocent persons in imminent, mortal danger by the use of force. Nobody seems to remember that this type of act is a pre-political moral prerogative of every person, and therefore of their collective associations. It can never be taken away by a governmental process, because it was never given to us by one. It is as close to a natural right as we may have and resides in us all. That our political associations work in a way which obfuscates this prerogative is one of their shortcomings.

47

Christiaan 08.31.13 at 5:26 pm

The credibility argument assumes that doing it one time makes the chance of doing it again higher, or at least the same. However, what we have seen after Iraq is that in fact the main war powers (US and UK) are actually more reluctant to go into war precisely because they did go to war the last time. So the credibility thing in practice seems to be the exact opposite of what the argument requires.

48

Steven 08.31.13 at 5:30 pm

*This* is hubris: “I know what’s best for you. What’s best is to let you suffer and die for the sake of my principles.”

49

pedant 08.31.13 at 5:32 pm

Steven, get a grip.

Has anyone here said that they “never see a case for the third party rescue of innocent persons in imminent, mortal danger by the use of force”? I think you are straw-manning.

If I see a hostage-taker who has threatened innocent lives, and there is no reasonable option but to take him out with a head shot, and the head-shot is feasible and will not kill hostages by mistake, then I am all in favor of shooting the bastard.

But that is not the situation we face here. Assad is clearly a bastard. But advocating that we lob bombs at Syria is not the equivalent of advocating that we kill a hostage-taker with a clean head-shot. It’s more like advocating that we should kill all of the hostages, instead, while the hostage-taker ducks behind effective cover and laughs at us.

“My question is simple: how do we stop all these little kids in Damascus from getting gassed or set on fire in front of their parents, who are also getting gassed or set on fire?”

Yes, that’s an excellent question, and I don’t have an answer for it. Unfortunately, you don’t either. You have no feasible plan for stopping these atrocities. You have no grounds for thinking that Assad is deterrable, or that lobbing some cruise-missiles in his direction will deter him. You have an open-ended question, with no answer, plus some story of personal involvement that allows you to guilt-trip strangers on the internet.

You have nothing. So quit using open-ended questions as an excuse for advocating mindless militarism.

50

Steven 08.31.13 at 5:49 pm

No, I have a plan that I think would work really well:

– Shoot down every Syrian jet that takes to the skies
– Employ counterbattery fire against Syrian artillery
– Destroy every Syrian tank in the open
– Bomb the poop out of Syrian munitions depots, bases, etc.

The US and its allies have one certain military power: to destroy mechanized armies, air forces, and artillery. It’s probably the last thing they do really, really well. Letting what’s happening now go on instead of exercising that option is totally insane. Are we really afraid that we can somehow make things worse than children melting to death in schoolyards and suffocating to death in their basements as we take some high road? The real high road is to be brave enough to do something violent, dangerous and messy, shouldering the risks and burdens that entials, because it is the right thing to do in the name of human dignity. There will never be a perfect head shot scenario in life, and that is not the bar for violence.

I never supported the war in Iraq, and one of the many reasons why is because its inevitable failure would be used as a bad excuse not to act with violence when we actually ought to.

And let’s face it, of the 44% of Americans who don’t want to get involved in Syria, for many of them because they don’t care about Syrians. They’re Arabs and they’re Muslims. A statistic with racism at its root is not a statistic to be proud of, even if it’s convenient.

The guilt trip thing is funny: yes, I want you to feel really, really guilty for letting the killing go on for the wrong reasons. I hope it’s working.

One day, all the dead will be gone from your memory, and their parents and children will grow silent, and you will forget what your inaction led to, and you will know you were right, and you will teach it to your children, who will let others suffer and die for their principles in the way your did.

51

Stuart Harris 08.31.13 at 5:59 pm

Being killed by chemical weapons vs. being blown to bits in an air strike or ripped apart by bullets and shells? Mmmm I reckon dead is dead, however it happens.

52

geo 08.31.13 at 6:05 pm

Bob D@40: Very true and well put. That is how we should have fought the Cold War too, and indeed what American foreign policy should have mainly consisted of since we became a rich country. But … who do you imagine makes American (or any class society’s) foreign policy, and what do imagine their fundamental purposes are? As one or another Kaiser said in response to some idealistic scheme proposed by an adviser: “Yes, that is all very well, but what about dividends?”

53

Bruce Wilder 08.31.13 at 6:06 pm

Stephen: The real high road is to be brave enough to do something violent, dangerous and messy, shouldering the risks and burdens that entails, because it is the right thing to do in the name of human dignity. There will never be a perfect head shot scenario in life, and that is not the bar for violence.

Parody really is dead.

54

adam.smith 08.31.13 at 6:14 pm

@Steven – I have a couple of Syrians (all opposition/pro-revolution) friends and by extension see a fair number of Syrian writing on FB and I don’t get the sense that there is much support for US bombing among those associated with the revolution. That also seemed to be the gist of the NYTs on the ground reporting, though I’m taking that by itself with a big grain of salt.
They are in general much more sanguine about arming the rebels/revolutionaries than I’d be, they’re justifiably angry about the weakness of humanitarian assistance that CB talked about, they’re all upset at the Iraq war analogy, but I see very little support for a US bombing campaign. Which is what we’re discussing, right? Because that’s what is planned.
If the US had plans for a no-fly-zone, for example, I’d be all for that. But I’m not seeing any such plans. I don’t know if that’s because it’s judged ineffective, impossible, or too dangerous. Do you?

55

William Timberman 08.31.13 at 6:28 pm

Lupita is right. The imperial we that so confidently proposes solutions — wise or otherwise — to the problems of others has a mouth, but it doesn’t have any ears.

56

Peter Hovde 08.31.13 at 6:30 pm

Belle Waring 38-Who are the stick in the mud killjoy 7% who could say no to that scenario? Also, I think it’s been far too long since the US matched wits with a Sicilian when death was on the line.

57

Lee A. Arnold 08.31.13 at 6:33 pm

@ geo #51 — News now is that Obama want a Congressional vote, and that sounds like a very smart move. I am fascinated by how much of U.S. foreign policy outcomes are NOT determined by the U.S. power elite, but determined by the U.S. public’s idealism about individualism, self-determination, and democracy. Consider: The U.S. left Vietnam due to street protests and election of anti-war Congresspeople. George W. Bush invades Iraq to install a quisling strongman, is outmaneuvered by Sistani into holding elections (which is, after all, the idealist ideology of the U.S.), and so they elect allies of Iran. Obama insists on democracy in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood wins the run-off election with over 50% of the vote, and then they are thrown out by the Egyptian military with the support of the other half of the population.

If you talk to a normal U.S. citizen about it, they will say something like, “The U.S. should support freedom and democracy, but stay out of foreign affairs of other countries unless it is a vital U.S. security problem.” I am very interested in the U.S. public’s response to this outright use of chemical weapons in an action that doesn’t immediately affect the U.S., because that will add a new wrinkle to the U.S. idealist ideology, one way or the other.

58

nick s 08.31.13 at 6:33 pm

yes, I want you to feel really, really guilty for letting the killing go on for the wrong reasons. I hope it’s working.

Spare us the sanctimony. But since you want to play that game: have you decided which group or groups in Syria (in addition to Assad and his henchmen) deserve to be slaughtered? Because intervening means choosing one way or another. If so, let’s hear it.

59

Nine 08.31.13 at 6:42 pm

Steven@50 is really a brilliant war plan – i’m totally convinced it will work. Not.

What it it with random internet dudes who look in the mirror and see Napoleon staring back at them ?

60

bob mcmanus 08.31.13 at 6:43 pm

Obama seeking authorization from Congress is very bad news. He says he doesn’t need it, so why seek it now when he did not seek it for Libya, which was a larger operation than Syria?

Because he has no allies?

Because he has been told the attack on Syria will generate some kind of significant counter-attack or immediate blowback, and he wants to share the blame and responsibility?

Because he wants to see if he can provoke some kind of pre-emptive or preventive measure from Assad, thereby justifying a ground invasion? This way to Iran?

Because he thinks he can get Assad and rebels to the negotiating table? Not gonna happen, especially after declaring Assad Inc criminals against humanity.

In any case, can we stop talking about chemical weapons and international norms or whatever Obama says as if he could ever speak the truth? He lies, and his lies should not set our agenda.

61

mud man 08.31.13 at 6:43 pm

@ Steven … sorry, my guilt feelings are fully engaged by battered, neglected, and otherwise abused kids right here in the county where I live, which are not hard to find, for which the price of even one of those cruise missiles would make a difference. This is productive guilt that I can do something with. As a Human, I am ashamed about the middle east generally, but there it is. As I said in the other thread, if somebody wants to carpet Syria with MREs and bottled water, I will send a donation.

62

Nine 08.31.13 at 6:46 pm

Oh and one more thing –

Steven@50 – “The guilt trip thing is funny: yes, I want you to feel really, really guilty for letting the killing go on for the wrong reasons. I hope it’s working.”

Nope, it’s not working.

63

Hidari 08.31.13 at 6:53 pm

DFTT

64

Hidari 08.31.13 at 6:56 pm

“He lies, and his lies should not set our agenda.”

Precisely, and David Cameron is lying and John Kerry is lying. The fact that Assad is also lying (as, for that matter, are the ‘rebels’*) does not alter these basic facts.

*In fact the ‘rebels’ are probably lying more than all the other people mentioned above put together.

65

Random Lurker 08.31.13 at 6:56 pm

I don’t understand this “no fly zone” thing. If “we” do it, it is basically anti Assad and pro rebels, right?
At that point, “we” have already chosen sides and can’t let assad win, so we have to sustain the rebels until victory, as it happened in Lybia.
At that point, direct western intervention would likely be less bloody than letting the rebels fight for various months, no?

In the end war is all or nothing .

66

Herschel 08.31.13 at 6:56 pm

Bob McManus @59:

Or is Obama seeking Congressional approval so that he can talk really tough today and then have an excuse for not intervening next week? If so, I’m for it.

67

geo 08.31.13 at 7:37 pm

Lee@56: Perhaps we read the historical record differently. Or perhaps you’d judge differently if you substituted “initatives” for “outcomes.” I can think of very few US foreign policy initiatives, from the Mexican-American War to the present, that were “determined by the U.S. public’s idealism about individualism, self-determination, and democracy.” Of course, many ordinary Americans do indeed have those ideals, and US policy is generally sold to the public as democracy-promoting or welfare-enhancing or liberty-protecting. But as I suspect you’d agree, that’s simply a sales strategy.

When policies don’t immediately succeed but instead come increasingly to be seen by the public as costly or shameful, then the public’s undoubted decency and good sense may begin to make itself felt, as in the case of Vietnam or Nicaragua, and the policy may be modified accordingly. After all, even in a very partial democracy like the US, public opinion is a constraint on policy, which is why the manufacture of consent is such a vast and multi-faceted industry. But the idea that a policy which imposes severe and widespread costs on the “power elite” might be adopted simply because it reflects “the U.S. public’s idealism about individualism, self-determination, and democracy” finds little support in the historical record, as far as I can see.

68

steven johnson 08.31.13 at 7:45 pm

Steven@50 plan is a plan for mass murder. The sentimentality of the justifications are merely a perversion of reason. It’s the sort of thing that gives morality a bad name. It is quite effective at communicating rage. Perhaps there’s an unspoken addendum to the plan, where the evil people here are rounded up, or maybe just shot.

adam.smith@53 claims there is a revolutionary side. As friendly as their friends may be, there is a whole lot of evidence that the rebels are counterrevolutionaries and no evidence that there is any revolution in the insurgency. A commitment to violence and the US does not qualify as revolutionary.

69

Andrew F. 08.31.13 at 7:51 pm

pedant @34 Enforcement of norms requires finding some consequence that a potential violator fears worse than the cost of observing the norms. For a dictator, the cost of observing the norm is the lamp-post. He has no worse option.

There are many points other than the one where the dictator must choose between chemical weapons and the lamp-post. At all those other points, deterrence may be possible. Moreover, if Assad reaches the point where he is faced with (using chem weapons and then being destroyed by Western military intervention) or (not using chem weapons and being destroyed by rebel groups), then the probability of a coup may be much greater.

Kvetch @35 As John H says above, “we’ve sort of pissed away our moral stock on the international stage.” (I’d quibble with the qualifying “sort of,” but that’s just me.) And yet the whole case for intervention is based around the premise that “we” still have something important to teach the world about international norms.

The humanitarian case for intervention is simply that through the use and threat of force we can deter Assad from making further use of chemical weapons. Our “moral stock” is irrelevant.

Holbo @37: I’ve read folks saying ‘it’s not just the red line statement, and our credibility at stake …’ as if that element were the main element. Maintaining our credibility is a value, no doubt. But it’s important to see that making this about us is a bad idea.

As I said in my long comment @27, I think the credibility question is a difficult one – but since we’re talking in part about ordering men and women in our military to risk their lives for whatever the objectives are, it’s not unfair for some to focus in part on the US interest in taking action. That’s not necessarily in contradiction to your point.

lupita @41 Discussing whether the US (“we”) should or should not while ignoring that the US (“we”) does not have a mandate to enforce international agreements, surely reflects a populist imperial political culture, both bread and circus.

The US has the power to intervene, and so must choose whether to do so. That’s just the reality. The lack of any UNSC resolution has zero moral relevance.

If the US can deter further use of chemical weapons with minimal risk to US personnel and with a low number of civilian casualties, and can avoid collapsing Assad’s government while doing so, then I think the scales weigh towards action. Still a big if, and still a lot of questions about how the deterrence mission would be structured and what it would require in resources.

70

adam.smith 08.31.13 at 8:13 pm

@68 – the armed rebellion grew out of initially peaceful demonstrations that were crushed violently by Assad. Revolution/revolutionary is the term preferred by Syrian leftists for what’s happening, which is why I use it. If you think Assad is the true revolutionary, a man of peace&democracy, please do come out and say so, so that other people can treat what you write accordingly.

71

Samir A. 08.31.13 at 8:16 pm

Thanks, guys. I always knew that when the crunch came, we could rely on the Left to do… well, nothing. And make no mistake, there is no discussion here about preventing another 400 children from dying horribly. It’s all “anti-imperialism” and a total distortion of what Obama proposes to do, which is simply to degrade Assad’s ability to cause another 400 (and later maybe 4000 or 40,000) Syrian children to drown in their own bodily fluids. But you’re right, upholding anti-imperialist principles is far more important. I’m convinced.

72

lupita 08.31.13 at 8:42 pm

Steven@46

Nobody seems to remember that this type of act [use of force] is a pre-political moral prerogative of every person, and therefore of their collective associations.

Far from being a pre-political moral prerogative, it is imperialism for a collective association, such as the US, to use military force against another state without the authorization of the UNSC.

The collective associations that have opposed the US’s self-serving and self-proclaimed prerogative to decide unilaterally whether to intervene militarily in Syria are (as far as I know): Mexico, Brazil, the secretary general of the UN, the European Parliament, Russia, China, Lebanon, Nicaragua’s papal nuncio, Iran, Venezuela, Ecuador… that is, practically every collective association on earth except the US and its close allies.

It is imperialist political discourse to debate whether the US should intervene or not without first noting that it would be illegal to do so. The UNSC authorization scheme, imperfect as it is and unfair to smaller, non-nuclear countries (the ones that get invaded), is preferable to all countries using military force whenever they feel like and has the further advantage that all countries have agreed to it (for the time being).

Furthermore, the US congress does not have the authority to authorize the US president to use of military force. That, too, is illegal and imperialism.

73

lupita 08.31.13 at 8:51 pm

Andrew F.@69

The lack of any UNSC resolution has zero moral relevance.

This little imperialist gem is worth re-posting.

74

Ronan(rf) 08.31.13 at 8:56 pm

“the armed rebellion grew out of initially peaceful demonstrations that were crushed violently by Assad”

Yeah. This is something thats gotten lost over the past few years.

http://www.alharak.org/nonviolence_map/en/#

Unfortuantely pundits like As’ad AbuKhalil have everyone convinced its all ‘fanatical Islamists’ everywhere

75

adam.smith 08.31.13 at 8:59 pm

The word “imperialism” is like an exclamation mark. It’s quite useful – indispensable, even – but using it in every sentence makes your writing less, not more convincing.

76

MPAVictoria 08.31.13 at 9:24 pm

Happy to see Obama seeing congressional approval. It is a way for him to back down without losing face.

There is no happy outcome here unfortunately.

77

MPAVictoria 08.31.13 at 9:33 pm

Careful Adam. You don’t want to annoy this one. It isn’t worth it.

78

Hidari 08.31.13 at 10:06 pm

“Unfortunately pundits like As’ad AbuKhalil have everyone convinced its all ‘fanatical Islamists’ everywhere”.

Yeah because he is merely Professor of Political Science at California State, who has published widely on all aspects of the ‘War on Terror’, whereas you are some guy on the internet. So it’s pretty obvious who we ought to be listening to.

79

Ronan(rf) 08.31.13 at 10:09 pm

I never questioned his expertise or the fact that he knows a lot more than me

80

js. 08.31.13 at 11:04 pm

I don’t get the sense that there is much support for US bombing among those associated with the revolution. That also seemed to be the gist of the NYTs on the ground reporting, though I’m taking that by itself with a big grain of salt.

This ought to be decisive. If you’re going to undertake a military intervention, the lowest, most obvious bar to clear is that the people you profess to be helping actually want your help. (The “credibility” argument is too dumb for words—not to mention, morally pernicious.)

81

Bruce Baugh 08.31.13 at 11:14 pm

For Steven and the other guilt-trippers, I drag this in from another thread.

=-=-=-=-=-=

I used to be a lot more in favor of humanitarian intervention than I am now, and this site has a lot to do with the change. :) I’ve become convinced that no quantity of good intentions or actual need on the ground exempts us from having to answer questions like these:

Who are we going to support? Unless we’re proposing at the outset to set up an indefinite occupation, we’ll have to be backing some faction. Who are they? Why should we favor them? What specific reasons do we have for believing that they can govern, and what will we do if they can’t?

Republicans obsess over cutting spending that does needy people any good, and far too many Democrats go along. Every scrap of spending we put into anything intended to help people with real needs will face demands for offsets. Therefore, we have to have a solid figure for the costs of the whole operation and a plan for what we wish to sacrifice here at home and elsewhere in the world to make it possible. What are the likely costs? What are the costs of contingencies covering all the foreseeable escalations and complications? What are we doing with that money now? Is the likely gain worth the likely losses?

(It’s disgusting and immoral that we should have to ask such complications. Blame both the Republicans who go for it and the Democrats who let them. Short of mind control rays, this is a reality we have to take into account.)

Who will lead our part of the show? Since we don’t punish violators of human rights, what reason do we have to believe there won’t be more horror shows of torture and slaughter coming from us? Who will administer the long-term presence we’ll inevitably have there? What reasons do we have to believe they’ll do more good than harm?

82

Suzanne 08.31.13 at 11:24 pm

@70:
“the armed rebellion grew out of initially peaceful demonstrations that were crushed violently by Assad”

Quite right, and in so doing Assad did much to bring his country to its present pass. Unfortunately what began as peaceful protesting has become something very different and it is now a civil war.

” I don’t get the sense that there is much support for US bombing among those associated with the revolution”

I read that some were fearful the U.S. devils would bomb their positions. It would certainly be amusing in a bleak way if Obama were to come into the war on the side of Al Qaeda (although in truth he has already done so indirectly).

83

Hector_St_Clare 08.31.13 at 11:29 pm

Steven’s spouting garbage, of course, as the stupid ‘freedom agenda’ interventionists are wont to do. My native inclinations are, usually, to agree with Lupita. And I don’t have the slightest bit of delusion that the Syrians are going to sit down and have a peaceful hippy-dippy liberal democracy any time in the future. The rebels are at least as savage as Assad- look at that Youtube video of the Cannibal Commander- and if they get into power, there will absolutely be religious massacres.

That having been said….Chemical weapons are a big deal. I sort of fear a line has been crossed here, and we have to intervene, if nothing else, to set a precedent that the line can’t be crossed. We don’t want to live in a future where weapons of mass destruction are routinely used, by anyone. I don’t know if we have any choice but to do something.

84

Hector_St_Clare 08.31.13 at 11:30 pm

Re: Unfortuantely pundits like As’ad AbuKhalil have everyone convinced its all ‘fanatical Islamists’ everywhere

I guess you missed when the rebels started blowing up tombs of Shia saints, naming their brigades after Mu’awiya and his boys, and saying things like ‘Christians to Lebanon, Alawis to hell’.

85

Hector_St_Clare 08.31.13 at 11:32 pm

Re: No, I have a plan that I think would work really well:

Does your plan include paying for all the Shias and Christians in Syria to emigrate? Because if not, you’re delusional.

I sort of think we have to intervene, but I’m substantially less happy about it than your witless cheerleading would seem to indicate you are.

86

Ronan(rf) 08.31.13 at 11:54 pm

@Hector 84

Yeah of course there are fanatics amongst the rebels, but by all accounts its a broad church.
In the end its more than likely going to be resolved by a negotiated settlement and I would say the sooner that happens the better (ie not after a decade long regional proxy war) So ‘OMG wars attract violent ideologues!’ or ‘what are the Zionists up to!’ isnt really here nor there, its just a soundbite to justify giving in to the futility of the situation/or to concoct a policy to ‘kill our enemies over there, so we dont have to here’.
Life is never a choice of perfect outcomes (imo)

87

Anarcissie 08.31.13 at 11:55 pm

@75 — but what is one to do when a discussion is drenched with obvious imperialism, including the imperial we? To say nothing of apparent broad acceptance of a concept of the situation defined by the (imperial) U.S. government and boss media, which have been repeatedly observed to lie whenever it seemed advantageous?

88

roger gathman 09.01.13 at 12:11 am

Steven at 50 is reminiscent of Iraq days, when bloggers would pull their favorite war out of a hat and – not noticing the total divergence between their war and the one on offer – astonishingly use the non-alternative war as a reason to support the war in the offing. I don’t know what to call this logical fallacy. Synaptic collapse? Or perhaps Hitchens syndrome, since it was that late warmongers favorite rhetorical ploy.

89

Ken_L 09.01.13 at 1:11 am

@86 ‘In the end its more than likely going to be resolved by a negotiated settlement …’

I don’t know why anyone would believe this. The Middle East is going through the same kind of nation-building exercise as other parts of the world have done. I seem to recall there was a certain amount of unpleasantness even in the USA that could not be resolved by a negotiated settlement. I wonder what the casualty rate would have been if Lee had chemical weapons at Gettysburg and Grant got the atomic bomb in 1864. And of course it’s less than 100 years since Europeans were merrily gassing each other by the tens of thousands, blinding Adolf Hitler amongst others but sadly, only temporarily.

Steven reminds us how important it is to try to prevent murder, but his ‘plan’ @50 also reminds us how impracticable a goal that often is.

90

Salem 09.01.13 at 1:20 am

Thanks, guys. I always knew that when the crunch came, we could rely on the Left to do… well, nothing.

Same as it ever was. To me, the only question is whether I was too quick to chalk it up to racism; maybe it’s more about Islamophobia. Considering the matter more closely, I remember very many leftists being adamant that nothing be done to prevent Kosovars being butchered. That suggests it’s more Islamophobia. But credit where credit is due, the calls to intervene to protect Bosnian Muslims were mostly from the Left. Did the Left lose all moral compass between 1992 and 1998, perhaps because of evaporative cooling after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Perhaps the real answer is that leftists will simply oppose Western governments’ actions whatever they may be – hence intervention is immoral whenever it takes place (Libya, Kosovo, etc), but is morally required whenever it doesn’t take place (Bosnia, Rwanda, etc). Is wilful contrarianism is the least uncharitable way to explain things?

91

Ronan(rf) 09.01.13 at 1:28 am

@89

The Middle East has nations, and distinct national identities. They might be complicated by a number of factors but they are relatively settled entities. Im not sure this is an existential threat to the Middle East state system

92

Bruce Baugh 09.01.13 at 1:29 am

Salem: Fuck you. Answer any of the questions in #81, or any related set, and then you…still won’t have earned the right to talk about others here that way, but you’ll be at least distinctly less contemptible than you are right now.

Intentions don’t dictate outcomes.

93

Peter K. 09.01.13 at 1:32 am

I’m afraid the fact that Obama is going to Congress means that they could be planning for the contingency that this does develop into a longer drawn-out war. Congress could say no in 8 or so days and Obama could go forward anyway. I don’t know.

I wonder if why World War II is partly thought of as a just war (besides Hitler) is that Germany and Japan were rebuilt and became successful nations again via the Marshall Plan, etc. Part of it was the Cold War of course, but it’s a lot different than Iraq and Afghanistan. I think Americans (and British etc.) believe Syria will end up the same way if there’s a war. There’s no threat like the trumped-up threat of Saddam.

The liberal interventionist in me wants the Syrian regime to be punished and for it to be a warning to other dictators as Obama explained. But the West won’t rebuild Syria in the aftermath. Why did Assad use chemical weapons? Probably his back is against the wall. So Obama launches missiles. What does that accomplish? Does it even send a message? What if Assad uses the weapons again.

It could be that the U.S. shoots missiles and then Assad doesn’t use chemical weapons again and the civil war goes on. Or the U.S. could get dragged into another ground war which is why Obama wants Congressional backing.

94

Layman 09.01.13 at 1:33 am

@71

I guess you can’t count. Pity.

95

Peter K. 09.01.13 at 1:49 am

Another possibility is that Obama was bluffing, Assad called his bluff and now when Congress doesn’t give him the authority he will give them the blame for allowing the red line to be crossed without consequences.

96

nick s 09.01.13 at 1:53 am

To me, the only question is whether I was too quick to chalk it up to racism; maybe it’s more about Islamophobia.

Do fuck off, but before you fuck off, please tell us which Syrian communities you most want to see massacred, because my comment at #58 applies generally.

The War Nerd’s latest talks about the desire for revenge and reprisal, and makes a telling point about how certain kinds of massacres (air bombardment, artillery) are perhaps too easily considered the standard externalities of war these days, while others (door-to-door, chemical attacks) are not.

97

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 1:53 am

Geo #67 “Or perhaps you’d judge differently if you substituted ‘initatives’ for ‘outcomes.'”

Yes, I would judge it differently.

98

Omega Centauri 09.01.13 at 1:56 am

“World War II is partly thought of as a just war (besides Hitler) is that Germany and Japan were rebuilt and became successful nations” …
“it’s a lot different than Iraq and Afghanistan”
I think (most) of those who proposed those later wars thought we could produce similar results for those countries. Clearly they didn’t understand the depth of the intellectual and religious gulf. Nor were they careful about the composition and goals of the occupation team. Another case where intentions bumped up against (predictable) reality and things went tragically wrong.

99

js. 09.01.13 at 1:57 am

Considering the matter more closely, I remember very many leftists being adamant that nothing be done to prevent Kosovars being butchered. That suggests it’s more Islamophobia.

And fuck you too.

100

Belle Waring 09.01.13 at 2:08 am

Being a dumbass who supported the invasion of Iraq in spite of my family’s baffled and cogent objections has helped me out in situations like this. Steven, here’s the problem: bombs are really good at blowing things up, but not particularly good at landing exactly where one plans (Iraq War I: the Awaqening footage of that one missile going down that chimney notwithstanding.) So, if we drop bombs on Syria we, too, are going to kill lots of little children. Loads, even! Right in front of their parent’s eyes. And we don’t know how many it will be!

Surely you must concede that Assad is tenacious even if he lacks any other redeeming qualities. Evil dictators have been known to go to earth and just let their subjects get the motherlovin’ fuck bombed out of them before they bother to surrender or eat a gun or climb up on a lamppost. Let’s just put it like this: is there a huge, unified voice coming out of the rebellion against the Syrian government that is calling for Syria to be bombed? Brave graffiti artists tagging bridges at night asking for Syria to be bombed? Flashmob-style demonstrations, that have to be brief because of the brutally heavy hand of the Assad government, with signs saying “America: please bomb the Syrian government’s military sites!” When we get there maybe I’ll revise my thinking on the issue. Until then, maybe some aid for internally displaced people? Some help for refugees, like taking them en masse into the US and EU nations rather than leaving them stranded in adjacent countries? If high-ranking officers knew they could send their wives and children to the US because we were taking in all refugees, a coup might happen that bridged the gap between the corrupt government and the fighters against it. Are you a nine-year-old boy playing Transformers with his friend? Because otherwise I can’t figure why is it that the only kind of help you people can ever seem to think of giving anyone is bombs?

Peter Hovde @ 56: it’s like I’ve been trying to tell y’all in the racism threads but no one believes me; 7% of the American population would rather the US didn’t win an important moral and military victory, and didn’t save a bunch of people’s lives, and they, themselves didn’t get a pony, just so long as they weren’t helping any Muslims out and giving those kind of people ponies; I read they just eat them over there you know.

101

Hector_St_Clare 09.01.13 at 2:21 am

Since it’s apparently time for the profanities to be broken out, let me join in: Samir, go fuck yourself.

Re: Revolution/revolutionary is the term preferred by Syrian leftists for what’s happening, which is why I use it. If you think Assad is the true revolutionary, a man of peace&democracy, please do come out and say so, so that other people can treat what you write accordingly.

If those ‘Syrian leftists’ had spent more time purging the Sunni madmen, cannibals, Al Qaeda infiltrators, and ethnic cleansing advocates from their ranks, and less time on nattering on about how they want Americans to refer to their movement, perhaps I’d give two sh*ts what they think. As of now, all I want to say is that pretty much all sides in Syria suck, and I have very little respect for any of them.

As I said, I think we should intervene, but I feel quite a bit of disgust about the sort of people we are going to be helping.

102

Anarcissie 09.01.13 at 2:24 am

Salem 09.01.13 at 1:20 am:
‘…. Perhaps the real answer is that leftists will simply oppose Western governments’ actions whatever they may be – hence intervention is immoral whenever it takes place (Libya, Kosovo, etc), but is morally required whenever it doesn’t take place (Bosnia, Rwanda, etc). Is wilful contrarianism is the least uncharitable way to explain things?’

Well, if ‘we’ (your, the U.S.) really want to do some rule-of-law thing, then ‘we’ have to subject ourselves to the same law, and provide for finding judges and enforcers whom ‘we’ can’t control but have to submit to, the same as everyone else. Otherwise, we (both ‘we’ and you and I) are just in the realm of pure empire, and pure power, and what we’re discussing is what we want the Emperor to do. In that case, we don’t need all this stuff about ‘norms’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and ‘democracy’ and all that literary criticism — the Emperor can just smash Assad and anyone who happens to be standing around, because the is no law and he has the power and he feels like it. And leftists, at least some of them, are going to oppose this exercise of empire in the same lawless way, for whatever reasons — since they have no power, they don’t matter to this calculus anyway.

103

Nine 09.01.13 at 2:26 am

Salem@90 – ” To me, the only question is whether I was too quick to chalk it up to racism; maybe it’s more about Islamophobia.”

I don’t want to hurry you since i’m sure you are trolling at the highest pitch struggling to make up your mind on this difficult question but have you come to a conclusion on which it is – is it racism or is it Islamophobia ?
Inquiring minds want to know.

104

Salem 09.01.13 at 2:37 am

So let me get this straight – when people say they want to intervene to protect the Syrian people, it’s OK to say they’re secretly imperialists, neo-colonialists, puppets of military contractors, and all the other insults thrown around in these threads. But when I speculate about the motives of anti-war Leftists, then suddenly the sauce for the goose doesn’t taste so good on the gander?

I already pointed out in the other thread the hypocrisy of the “anti-war”* arguments being advanced. That hypocrisy is in need of explanation, as is the fact that no telling argument has been made against Steven’s excellent posts. I’d like to particularly endorse the final paragraph of post 50.

*By the way, we are all anti-war. The difference is that some of us want to stop wars even when they don’t directly affect the West.

105

5566hh 09.01.13 at 2:51 am

It seems to me that there are numerous diplomatic options that have not been attempted that should surely have been attempted if the real aim of US policy is to punish Assad for using chemical weapons.
For instance, a great many countries still recognise Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria. Why haven’t those countries had their ambassadors summoned for a dressing-down? Why haven’t sanctions been put on Russia and China, or any country that recognises the current Syrian government? Why hasn’t more been done to support refugees or to provide medical aid? Why has there been such great impatience to act and such limited regard for UN inspectors’ reports? There has been astonishing impatience with diplomatic options from America and its allies.
This (as well as the extremely limited media coverage and official discussion of atrocities perpetuated by the rebels) suggests that the real goal is certainly not to protect Syrian children, but rather to secure influence over an area of the world of great strategic importance, and to justify continued investment in military-industrial areas.
Also for another perspective, on intelligence and US/UK goals, see former British ambassador Craig Murray: http://craigmurray.org.uk/

106

Ken_L 09.01.13 at 2:52 am

Ah speculating about motives Salem, what fun eh? So much easier than having to make evidence-based arguments about actual events and behaviours.

The ‘telling argument against Steven’s excellent post’ is that his ‘plan’ is juvenile rubbish that he claims will ‘work’ without bothering to explain what ‘work’ means in this context. He and apparently you favour killing people, just like Assad is killing people. You just think it’s moral to kill your victims but Assad is immoral to kill his, and you assert this without even trying to make a moral argument to support your position.

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Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 2:53 am

Basically the “hypocrisy” argument is nonsense. You shouldn’t try to stop someone else from using poison gas, because that would make you a hypocrite? Hypocrisy is the greatest sin here?

108

pedant 09.01.13 at 2:59 am

My god, this thread fills me with nostalgia for the good old days of 2002 & 2003. Maybe Andrew Sullivan, Norm Geras, and Steven den Beste can get the old band back together again. Too bad Hitchens can’t join them on the reunion tour.

All the greatest hits, playing once again! The sublime contempt for “the left”. The new-found love of beleaguered Middle-easterners (alternating, of course, with periodic flashes of “more rubble less trouble” cries to “cauldronize” the whole middle east and kill all the islamofascists). The charges that anyone who doesn’t want to rush into war must be a racist.

It’s really enough to make you shed a tear over our lost youth. How soon before we can charge liberals with being objectively pro-Sarin?

109

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 3:17 am

Samir and Salem — The main reason not to bomb Syria is that the U.S. has no effective political followup after a missile attack. Cruise missiles are very accurate and I imagine that the U.S. could put quite a dent in Assad’s purely military capabilities without much “collateral damage”. A factor in this case is that there are no good, leading opponents to Assad.

By asking for Congressional approval, Obama may have pulled off a clever thing, along a handful of very different avenues. On the specific issue of Syria, even if congress votes down a cruise missile attack, then they are likely to vote for more material support for the rebels. If then, a group of rebels emerges with leadership capabilities and a distaste for jihadism, Assad will be toast, because he is another murderous thug and he’s got no friends in the U.S.

110

Anarcissie 09.01.13 at 3:41 am

@104 — I don’t see ‘imperialist’ as an insult but a simple statement of fact. The term has been noised about in the boss media for years, often enough with approval, even among fairly wet liberals. If you think the United States, or any other state, should do as its rulers please to or in other states, without any legitimation by higher authority, which is what has been proposed in the case of Syria, then you obviously believe in imperialism. What else would you call it?

111

geo 09.01.13 at 5:01 am

Salem@90: No doubt there are bad arguments against US intervention. “Willful contrarianism” would certainly be a bad one, if it’s an argument at all. You’re entitled, as Hitchens was entitled, to be scornful of any knee-jerk leftists — though I suspect there are only a handful — who would “simply oppose Western governments’ actions whatever they may be.” Willfulness and knee-jerking don’t do any good. (On the other hand, even supporters of US intervention ought to be very skeptical of US govt claims and motives, given its long history of deceit and illegality.)

Many other people in this thread and elsewhere have made plausible arguments that military intervention in Syria would fail on its own terms, ie, would cause more suffering, even in the near-to-medium term, than it would prevent. But there’s also a long-term argument. In the aftermath of World War II, everyone recognized that another global war might well end civilization, and that the best way to prevent it was for all states to give up their sovereign right to use military force except in an emergency, defined as a direct and large-scale attack by another state. In all other cases, the resort to force could only be decided on by an international tribunal, ie, the Security Council. Presumably everyone understood that this was not a magic formula, that the Security Council would sometimes make the wrong decision, and that innocent people would die as a result. But given that international anarchy led twice in the last century to catastrophic global war, international law seemed a better bet for preserving the species than unrestrained national sovereignty over the use of force. It still does, to most of us on the left.

112

js. 09.01.13 at 5:14 am

But when I speculate about the motives of anti-war Leftists, then suddenly the sauce for the goose doesn’t taste so good on the gander?

Go fuck your brainless self once more. And while you’re doing that use your asshole to reconsider the wisdom of throwing self-hater accusations at people who just might be Muslim, or at least come from a Muslim background, and yet oppose a US military intervention.

113

js. 09.01.13 at 5:16 am

Shit, messing up tags on the last was a disaster. 2nd para is me.

Also, BW @100 is indispensable. (Yeah, I pretty much just said that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, but still.)

114

Peter K. 09.01.13 at 5:25 am

@98 It’s interesting that you ellipsised out “Marshall Plan.” And to be honest I don’t remember any anti-war leftists predicting that the U.S., U.N.,etc. wouldn’t do the necessary nation-building afterwards. That would be more imperialism after all. The crimes of the war were enough to oppose it. Were all of the innocent deaths and destroyed lives worth it? If anything there was a prediction that Iraq would become a puppet state, when in fact it has moved into the orbit of Iran (given its majority Shia population) and ironically backs Assad. A missile strike may have the effect of Iraq sending aid and troops to help Assad!

But it was a glaring error of the liberal internationalists to believe that Bush and the Republicans would do a good job at reconstruction or do anything but an abysmal job, if they thought of what came after at all. I think many people naively believed that after Saddam was gone, things would get better. Instead what was needed was Marshall Plan levels of investment and imperialism. And given that Republicans want to cut food stamps they won’t want to nation-build for foreigners and nor will Democrats given unless there was a Soviet Union to fear/fight.

Given that the sequester is cutting military spending and what happened with Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no way there would be a Marshall Plan for Syria after Assad was toppled. It would be done on the cheap as Iraq was. So why bother shooting missiles at Assad’s military? Everything should be done outside of war to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. Russia needs to be pressured somehow to let him go as Putin let Milosevic go. War would kill too many innocents and missile strikes won’t change anything unless it is being used as slippery slope to even more involvement which would be disastrous.

115

bad Jim 09.01.13 at 5:27 am

Is it out of the question that Obama decided to seek congressional approval in order to make it easier to get agreement on things like the debt limit and the budget authorization? It wouldn’t take much combat to render the sequester unacceptable.

116

Samir A. 09.01.13 at 5:37 am

Lee @108,

I too have serious reservations about intervening in the Syrian quagmire. But the dominant theme in this thread appears to have no concern for the utter horror of what Assad is doing (I’m a biochemist and I can tell you a bit about what the body goes through in its slow, excruciatingly slow, succumbing to nerve gas). Instead, it’s all “anti-imperialism” and a persistent distortion of what Obama is proposing, which is to strike at Assad’s ability to use CWs and WMDs, nothing more. (I am beginning to appreciate the frustration that Jews must have had in 1944 when their suggestions that a few Allied planes be diverted to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz went unheeded or were summarily dismissed… not that I am making any comparison in scale or criminality between what is happening in Syria and the Holocaust). This thread makes me ashamed to describe myself as a socialist.

117

js. 09.01.13 at 5:58 am

But the dominant theme in this thread appears to have no concern for the utter horror of what Assad is doing (I’m a biochemist and I can tell you a bit about what the body goes through in its slow, excruciatingly slow, succumbing to nerve gas). Instead, it’s all “anti-imperialism”

Give me quotes. Serious motherfucking quotes. Read all of my comments, several of the other anti-interventionists comments, hell read the goddamn posts, and come back to me with the number of times “imperialism” has been used by more than, say, two people. No, seriously, actually tally the number of uses of “imperialism” in the OPs on this topic. Read adam.smith’s post about how the people we’re supposedly helping don’t seem to want our help, and come back and tell us why their opinions belong in the trash heap. (Obviously, they’re probably not biochemists.) Do all that, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll start to give a fuck about some biochemist’s moral posturing.

118

lupita 09.01.13 at 5:58 am

Instead, it’s all “anti-imperialism” and a persistent distortion of what Obama is proposing,

Is Obama proposing to follow the mandate of the UNSC? If not, there is no distortion regarding his position that the US does not play by the same rules expected of all other states. Forget about the commentators on this thread, it is the Arab League, Latin America, Russia, China, the European Parliament, the Vatican, even the UK Parliament that are demanding that the US desist of its unilateral actions. Many of these actor are not leftists.

119

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 6:03 am

Samir, “Imperialism” is another stupid argument, like “hypocrisy” because the U.S. allowed Saddam to use chem weapons, so nyah nyah, nyah-nyah nyah. It is NOT “imperialist” to want to use military means to stop Syria’s insanity. If anything, I would call that some form of “idealist exceptionalism”, which may or may not be illusory or dangerous itself, as the case may be. It also is not “imperialist” to use military means to stop Syria’s insanity, EVEN IF at some other time you did something “imperialist”. Anyway, the U.S. has rarely qualified recently, since imperialism is the collection of territory for tribute. You could argue that the U.S. is trying to collect territory for the system of private capitalism, I mean it’s an everyday argument on the high-school playground and you are free to make it, except that it is hard to see how penalizing a tyrant for gassing people is not really a separate emotion and intention. In any case “imperialism”, the tortured fact, would have to be tempered in its new definition by the curious conditions set forth by the historically unique U.S. popular ideology, which is that freedom and individual self-determination should reign. I mean go ask anybody who fought in Iraq (I have asked several). They all want the Iraqis to have the right to vote and lead their own lives. Some came away disillusioned about the prospects, but still… As I was trying to point out in #57 above, some of the main U.S. imperial adventures have been hobbled then squelched by its own ideology and its own voters. This is why I find the whole thing fascinating (when it isn’t horrifying).

120

John Quiggin 09.01.13 at 6:30 am

@Lee The point about Saddam’s use of poison gas is that it invalidates the claim that Assad has “shot to hell” what Sebastian H @23 called the ” longstanding international norm against using chemical weapons”.

Unfortunately, the norm has been subject to selective enforcement at least since Saddam’s use, which was tolerated at the time, and punished much later when he had ceased to be “the enemy of the enemy” and become just the enemy.

So, while it would be desirable to punish Assad, and the ICC is presumably preparing indictments, the idea that a vital piece of the world order will be lost if he goes unpunished doesn’t stand up to examination.

121

John Quiggin 09.01.13 at 6:35 am

@Peter K: “And to be honest I don’t remember any anti-war leftists predicting that the U.S., U.N.,etc. wouldn’t do the necessary nation-building afterwards.”

I’ve noticed an awful lot of forgetting on the part of those who supported the war. Before you make such “honest” statements, you might try Google. You might, for example, turn up

http://johnquiggin.com/2002/09/21/the-nation-building-problem/

122

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 7:04 am

John Quiggin #120 — Well I have asked probably three or four times in comments under different posts: Do people feel that a prohibition against chemical weapons ought to be a vital part of the world order? If the U.S. public says, “Who cares? We let Saddam get away with it,” then they may also start to think, “Maybe we ought to target Assad now, before we have to invade Syria like Iraq.” The name “Assad” even LOOKS LIKE “Saddam”… Anyway, Assad isn’t getting invited to any fun parties. Far from it.

123

Ronan(rf) 09.01.13 at 9:51 am

“Why haven’t those countries had their ambassadors summoned for a dressing-down? Why haven’t sanctions been put on Russia and China, or any country that recognises the current Syrian government? “

I think they have to go the other way and actually work with these countries. The US and its allies are going to destroy the international institutions if they keep blustering their way through major power politics. Attack the proxy war diplomatically, cut off arms, weapons and support to both sides, start moving towards a compromise between the regime and oppossition. This should have been started after Libya.
And the Chinese or Russians, even Iranians and Israelis, arent really the problem here, it has been the Gulf states from day one

124

Ronan(rf) 09.01.13 at 9:53 am

125

Ronan(rf) 09.01.13 at 9:59 am

“Do people feel that a prohibition against chemical weapons ought to be a vital part of the world order? “

Its doable and enforceable, in general, so why not go for it? What, 7 countries havent signed up to treaties banning chemical weapons? Why not push for it and try to enforce it (not with a strike here, but in general)?

126

soru 09.01.13 at 10:38 am

It is of course right to argue against a spasmodic strike on the grounds Holbo and others lay out.

But the dog that is not barking is _why is a stupid action the only one on the table?_

Why is it the UN would, if asked, refuse to sanction a realistic process of negotiations? One where one possible outcome, if talks fail, is a peacekeeping operation?

Why is it that the US would not ask? For fear of getting the answer ‘yes’?

Why is is US liberal political activists would not make such demands? For the same reason?

Why is it one video supposedly of a fighter eating a heart is universally believed, and a hundred of the results heavy chemical weaponry scoffed at?

Why is the US funding the Egyptian army now its rule has turned out to be unapologetically massacre-driven? When Egypt doesn’t even have any oil?

Why is the intervention in Libya, which saved lives at a level of cost-effectiveness comparable to or better than distributing mosquito nets to Africa, generally counted as a failure?

Why did that militarily successful and short operation turn US public opinion against similar interventions by a larger numerical margin than Iraq? Is it solely because it didn’t move the oil price index?

Or is it, as Belle suggests@100, that the humanitarian index has a minus sign applied in certain cases?

127

Steve Williams 09.01.13 at 10:47 am

Lee A Arnold@6:03

‘nyah nyah, nyah-nyah nyah’

Yes, that’s a very fair summary of an opposing viewpoint. Why, you easily bested it though! Maybe when your imaginary interlocutor develops language, it’ll be a bit harder.

128

novakant 09.01.13 at 11:02 am

The US has some 700 military bases in 38 countries and its military spending amounts to 42% of the global total and all that with only 4.5% of the world of population. Call it imperialism, call it hegemony – it’s an absurd, immoral and unsustainable situation (just imagine a world where, say, China would be in the position the US is in now). The sooner the US empire falls, the better.

129

Sebastian H 09.01.13 at 11:33 am

“Why not push for it and try to enforce it (not with a strike here, but in general)?”

What does that mean? If someone doesn’t want chemical weapons already that is great, but if they do, then what? If you’re going to rule out force, you have a problem–namely that the very people you least want to have chemical weapons are most likely to need force to keep them from having chemical weapons.

We shouldn’t get involved in Syria, everyone upthread who says we have no good follow through is right. But I haven’t heard a single good explanation of how the chemical weapon taboo gets upheld here and after this. The pro-strike people are right that letting it go is a disaster re: chemical weapons, so they downplay how bad getting involved in Syria would be. But the anti-strike people are right that not letting it go is a disaster for the US by getting it involved in a no win situation in Syria, so they downplay how bad that decision is for the survival of the chemical weapons taboo.

Ugh.

130

Random Lurker 09.01.13 at 11:37 am

@soru
Your link doesn’t work.
I was pro intervention in Lybia, but then the intervention imho caused the war to be longer and bloodyer than I expected, “we” (that in this case includes Italy, a country that just some month before made lots of commercial agreements with Gheddafi, saying that he become a good guy) were obviously on the side of the rebels so that we couldn’t allow Gheddafi to win or to negotiate a compromise , and when at the end the rebels won the first news I read was that the new regime was like Gheddafi’s one, with just different etnicities on top (including lots of ethnic revenge murders).

So if you have a link that can make me change idea, please share.

131

Ronan(rf) 09.01.13 at 11:52 am

Sebastian H

“What does that mean?”

It means you do it in the l/t through treaty obligations and weapons inspections. Most states have signed up to it and abide by it. That doesn’t mean it always works perfectly, but it means that the plan, in the l/t, is to prevent the use of chemical weapons
There are arguments against it, that it expends too much political capital, that its pushed by the major powers b/c these are the weapons which would be used against them, that we should concentrate on something else etc, that’s fine..but the that Saddam used chemical weapons 25 years ago with US knowledge or b/c the worlds not perfect and other weapons will just be used instead aren’t convincing arguments, imo

Imo, should the US attack Syria b/c of the use of chemical weapons? No. But Obama shoulnt have drawn that red line, and there are any number of factors driving the intervention beyond a genuine believe that this will help prevent the use of chemical weapons in the future

132

Samir A. 09.01.13 at 11:56 am

Lee @119 &c,

Just in case it wasn’t clear, I am (largely) agreeing with you. In fact you are one of the few people here who continues to see the moral trees despite the “imperialist” forest that so many here have been assiduously planting. I have no personal — or even political — stake in the Syrian mess (though one of my doctoral students is an Iraqi Kurd with vivid memories of March 15, 1988), but the videos of Ghouta struck my conscience like few images in recent years, save perhaps what has come out of Darfur. Yes, I know, heart-bleedingly selective, but the smug “anti-imperialism” (in scare quotes, because, of course, it is largely just a political masquerade) on display here is something I could not allow to pass without protest.

Thanks for your comments.

133

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 12:00 pm

Steve Williams #127 “Maybe when your imaginary interlocutor develops language, it’ll be a bit harder.”

Until that evolutionary event occurs, I’ll ask you: Why is accusing the U.S. of imperialism, or hypocrisy (because Saddam used chem weapons too), a good argument against action on Syria?

134

soru 09.01.13 at 12:08 pm

@130:

Sorry, maybe this works better?

You can counter that, of course, with any number of links that talk about how it was a bad thing. This seems to be largely because the new government is more dependant on mass popular support, and less reliant on imported heavy weaponry bought by oil exports. The code for this kind of thing is how it is ‘unstable’ due to ‘militias’. They generally hint at bad things that are _about_ to happen. Maybe they will; an endlessly repeated dire warning does have a pretty high chance of eventual accuracy.

These articles never, ever, mention the transition from 10s of thousands being killed per month to a single gunfight being an international news-worthy event.

I guess they know their audience.

135

Random Lurker 09.01.13 at 12:20 pm

@soru
Apparently CT’s evil IA is eating out your links

136

Collin Street 09.01.13 at 12:23 pm

It’s not an argument against, as such, it’s a refutation of the arguments for: that they’re offered in bad faith or at best are framed misleadingly, and thus should be disregarded.

You can still make a case [it’s a refutation of a specific case for, not a disproof of the whole idea: a different case-for would not be affected by a refutation of another case-for], but if you “don’t really know either way” — and if you’ve just had your case-for rejected that’s the best you can hope for — most people would suggest caution, if there’s death involved.

137

Collin Street 09.01.13 at 12:25 pm

That’s in response to Lee Arnold’s, fwiw.

138

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 12:34 pm

Samir, I have a customer with lots of family in Syria. A few of them have been shot. They can’t get anything and the food is running out.

139

soru 09.01.13 at 12:40 pm

140

Tony Lynch 09.01.13 at 12:46 pm

I’m ashamed of us.

141

Random Lurker 09.01.13 at 1:06 pm

@soru
Thanks, however from your link:
“So if you accept the main premise of the above – that life is ~10% better in Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown”
This is really pulling a number from a hat, imho.

I think that Gheddafi was really a bad guy, however there are two things that I think I learned from the Lybian affair:

1) If we meddle in a civil war, then we have to choose sides and to fight until our side wins; this will also happen in Syria, so we should take in account an high number of casualties.
2) I can’t trust any report on the evilness of this or that dictator anymore. Gheddafi was seen as a really bad guy for a certain period here in Italy, but recently (when the italian governmen had to sign pacts with him for economic and political reasons), he was a not so bad guy who was transitioning to the washinghton consensus, slowly and painfully leading Lybia to modernity, until in two weeks he became the super-evil mass murderer mass rapist, who faked a mass support with fake videos of him dancing in Tripoli with the populace who obviously loved him (those videos later proved to be true, as a part of the population loved him and the other part hated him).

142

Hector_St_Clare 09.01.13 at 1:14 pm

Re: In any case “imperialism”, the tortured fact, would have to be tempered in its new definition by the curious conditions set forth by the historically unique U.S. popular ideology, which is that freedom and individual self-determination should reign.

Count me out. I think the example of Egypt in the last two years proves pretty well (as if we needed more proof) that these people are incapable of, and undeserving of, ‘freedom and individual self-determination’, and that you’ll only have civilized societies in that part of the world if you have men with guns and a surveillance state keeping people in line.

Give ‘individual self determinations’ to barbarians, and you get barbarism. If we are going to intervene in Syria, and we probably have to, then we are going to need to make arrangements for who gets to run the place afterwards.

143

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 1:16 pm

Collin, #136, By doing something on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, couldn’t the U.S. be trying to correct the stain of letting Saddam go on with his, thus making a better world order, etc.? Or do you feel that it is the case that all countries, even good ones trying to do better, always end-up bad?

144

Ronan(rf) 09.01.13 at 1:25 pm

The idea of being against chemical weapons bans b/c of US support for Saddam in the 80s makes even less sense than being against nuclear disarmament b/c of Hiroshima
On the other hand being against military intervention as an enforcement strategy makes more sense

145

pedant 09.01.13 at 1:28 pm

“It’s not an argument against, as such, it’s a refutation of the arguments for: that they’re offered in bad faith or at best are framed misleadingly, and thus should be disregarded.”

This, and also it’s an argument against various arguments from “signaling” or “sending a message”.

There is no point in trying to “send a message” if you can predict that your message will be taken in exactly the opposite sense from the sense you intended. There is no point trying to say “good job!” with a thumbs-up gesture, if you know that the person you are directing it to will interpret that gesture as “screw you!” The geste’s prosperity lies in the eye of him that sees it; either find a different gesture that means “good job!” in the recipient’s culture, or resign yourself to saying “screw you!” when that is not what you meant at all.

So when people say “we should bomb Syria because it will send a message that the US is committed to keeping chemical weapons taboo!” then it is entirely relevant to point out that this is not a message that anyone in the rest of the world will hear. They will not get this message at all. What they will hear is, “The US is entirely in favor of our client states using chemical weapons, when it suits our needs, but when a non-client state uses them we will bomb it. If we feel like it.”

So: resign yourself to having your bombs send that message. That’s the only message that US bombs can send right now.

Or, if you really want to send the message that chemical weapons are taboo, you will have to look for different means to convey it.

This is why the charge of hypocrisy is on point: it shows the bankruptcy of the “sending a message” arguments for bombing.

146

steven johnson 09.01.13 at 1:39 pm

adam.smith@70 You’re the one who mentioned the leftist/revolutionary friends. As I say, they may be good friends personally, but no one here has any evidence that the insurgents are revolutionaries, but lots of evidence that they aren’t. If Assad were a leftist, I would advocate support. Normal diplomatic and economic relations are not support, no matter how many US citizens believe they should exercise the right of capital punishment over foreign governments.

If I remember correctly the Romans called that “imperium.” I believe the leftists/revolutionaries are in Egypt. Despite my desire to see them win, I do not advocate bombing Egypt to kill Egyptians to keep Egyptians from being killed. I do advocate supporting the people by terminating diplomatic and economic relations with the generals. That might even help. Your aim is to just kill more Syrians and it is merely pretense to claim otherwise.

Samir A.@71 No, Obama’s plan is a secret. The facts of warfare demonstrate bombing kills people but still can’t achieve the alleged goal. The way you’ve signed on sight unseen is an ugly marvel to behold.

I understand why Obama wants to kill Syrians, which is to get rid of someone who won’t do what the US wants; to help Israel fight Palestinians by cutting off perceived support; to remove an ally of Iran as part of its campaign to overthrow the Iranian government; kill Assad because US presidents like to murder their enemies, and as many of their families as they can too. But why do you want these things too?

What the world needs most is regime change in the US. And Israel’s nukes and its plans for them means it is far higher on the list of threats to the world than Syria and Iran together. I don’t advocate mass bombing them. But why don’t you, given your avowed principles?

lupita@71 The US is an outlaw state. Neither is it a democracy, popular debate is irrelevant. Your point about international law is formally correct but how could it possibly be relevant?

147

Layman 09.01.13 at 1:42 pm

Salem @ 104

I think the problem with your speculation is that intervening to protect the Syrian people isn’t the option on the table. What is on the table is dropping bombs on some Syrian people, as a way of telling some other Syrian people that they may only use conventional weapons to kill Syrian people; while acknowledging that the bombs we’re dropping won’t prevent anything at all except perhaps our own reputation against a charge of fecklessness. One needn’t be a religious bigot to oppose that sort of nonsense.

148

chris 09.01.13 at 1:46 pm

I think the example of Egypt in the last two years proves pretty well (as if we needed more proof) that these people are incapable of, and undeserving of, ‘freedom and individual self-determination’, and that you’ll only have civilized societies in that part of the world if you have men with guns and a surveillance state keeping people in line.

Well, the people who were looking for racism can stop looking.

149

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 1:48 pm

Pedant #145: “This is why the charge of hypocrisy is on point: it shows the bankruptcy of the “sending a message” arguments for bombing.”

Only if the argument is to send a message to the world. What if it is just to send Assad a message, such as “You will have no military assets”? Assad most certainly thinks, ““The US is entirely in favor of its client states using chemical weapons, when it suits U.S. needs, but if I use them, they will bomb me.” Mission accomplished!

150

Jim Demintia 09.01.13 at 1:50 pm

@ Hector 142

What a succinct representation of the nakedly racist paternalism that the state’s disingenuous rhetoric about self-determination can barely disguise these days.

151

Layman 09.01.13 at 1:51 pm

@108 & @116

You two have apparently bought into the myth of ‘surgical’ air strikes which are always targeted at the right things, always strike only those things, and never produce unintended death and suffering. This despite a 70-year history of that claim being made and then almost instantly being falsified by the facts on the ground.

152

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 1:54 pm

Assad is probably thinking, “Those goddamn Americans! They let Saddam get away with it! Why not me? They didn’t invade Iraq until later, then let the Shi’ites string him up! Er…uh…oops!”

153

Layman 09.01.13 at 1:57 pm

Lee @ 143

Isn’t that rank speculation? I’ve certainly not heard anyone in power argue that we’re bombing Syria to correct the stain of supporting Saddam’s earlier use of WMD.

Isn’t the proposition simply that we must kill some Syrian people in order to express our disapproval of Assad, while making it clear that we have no intention of doing any more than that, and leaving Assad in power to do what he will? And isn’t that insane?

154

pedant 09.01.13 at 1:57 pm

Ah–forgive me, Lee. I had thought you cared about chemical weapons, and wanted to reduce their use around the world, as a matter of international policy.

Apparently, you just want to advance the ability of the US to impose its power on random small and medium-sized countries.

If that is your mission, then perhaps you can accomplish it by dropping bombs on Syria. Provided that Assad is taken completely by surprise, and has not had the chance to put his weapons where the civilians were, and his civilians where the weapons were.

Yes, I think you have a splendid plan, now that I understand you don’t actually care about chemical weapons after all.

155

Layman 09.01.13 at 1:59 pm

Lee @ 152

No, he’s thinking “Good thing those Americans learned the limits of military power before they got around to me! Thanks, Saddam! Thanks, George!”

156

The Fool 09.01.13 at 2:01 pm

@Steven

“bomb the poop out of…”

Really? Are you 3 years old, Steven?

There is something really creepy about someone who doesn’t hesitate to advocate violence and war but has qualms about using the word “shit”.

What the fuck? As long as you’re talking about killing people, Steven, go ahead and man up and say “bomb the shit out of”. Weirdo.

157

steven johnson 09.01.13 at 2:04 pm

Rhetorical questions are not arguments.

“…why is a stupid action the only one on the table?” Because it is not stupid if the real goal is not the professed goal.

“Why is it the UN would, if asked, refuse to sanction a realistic process of negotiations? One where one possible outcome, if talks fail, is a peacekeeping operation?”

The UN will take no action not agreed to by the US government.

“Why is it that the US would not ask? For fear of getting the answer ‘yes’?”

The US goal is regime change in Syria. The US government has been and is attempting to get ‘yes’ answers to its plan of attack.

“Why is is US liberal political activists would not make such demands? For the same reason?”

This makes no sense. Demand it of whom? The insurgents funded by oil monarchies and the US? They rejected all efforts at negotiation by Assad et al. because they and their master want a counterrevolution.

“Why is it one video supposedly of a fighter eating a heart is universally believed, and a hundred of the results heavy chemical weaponry scoffed at?”

Not everyone believes the cannibalism video, it is not widely publicized. But everyone does believe hundreds of people were attacked. What they don’t believe is that they know who did the bombing, which is not showed in the video. Lies with question marks are still lies.

“Why is the US funding the Egyptian army now its rule has turned out to be unapologetically massacre-driven? When Egypt doesn’t even have any oil?”

The US allies who do have oil hate and fear the people, just as the US government does. The generals in Egypt have always been paid to suppress the people. And incidentally protect Israel. Most of them will die in the Tribulation, but the ingathering of Israel is a prerequisite of the Rapture and the End Times in general. Christian religious bigotry does play a role. The Roman Empire had its bloody circuses in town. The US empire has them on the nightly news.

“Why is the intervention in Libya, which saved lives at a level of cost-effectiveness comparable to or better than distributing mosquito nets to Africa, generally counted as a failure?”

Putting aside your resentment at giving mosquito nets to Africans, Libya is neither a democracy nor a reliable stooge. The lynching of Qaddafi and the deaths of family members however are counted as positive successes.

“Why did that militarily successful and short operation turn US public opinion against similar interventions by a larger numerical margin than Iraq? Is it solely because it didn’t move the oil price index?”

The leading role in Libya was taken by UK/France/NATO, not the US, which “led from behind,” as they say. If this is even true, lacking the Made in USA brand is why.

“Or is it, as Belle suggests@100, that the humanitarian index has a minus sign applied in certain cases?”

This is true in all conservative opposition to foreign wars. If the wars were sold as the exercise of the white race’s rights, the conservatives would sign on. You are slyly suggesting the rest of us would, but I am equally free to suggest, we wouldn’t.

158

pedant 09.01.13 at 2:04 pm

Layman @ 151–
The first rule of commenting at CT is never to rely on the comment-numbers: they are randomly reassigned a few minutes after your post is published, just to make sure that no one can have a coherent conversation.

That said: are you sure you meant to tag my comment, which is currently numbered 108? It’s just me being snarky about how the right-wing militarists are recycling all of their greatest hits from the run-up to Iraq II.

Probably 108 numbered a different comment, when you referred to it. And may no longer number my comment by the time you read this!

One can only imagine the computing power at the CT central office that is devoted to grinding out the cunning pseudo-random seeds to renumber all of the comments.

159

Layman 09.01.13 at 2:11 pm

Pedant,

I’m sorry. Apparently comment #108 was reassigned as #109 just as I hit submit, while #108 was used to tag your most excellent comment.

160

Peter K. 09.01.13 at 2:23 pm

@121

I greatly admire your economic analysis so am not surprised by your prescience. But again I would wager you were an exception. And it’s really not that much of a criticism. Of course it was legitimate to oppose the war in itself and its consequences like civilian deaths and reflect on what happens afterwards.

I also respect Fallows and he was more right than most. He said what would need to happen – see MacArthur and Germany – not that Bush wouldn’t.

But neither you nor Fallows nor anybody predicted the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, etc.

I wonder if Assad upon seeing Obama unable or unwilling to do anything about Egypt’s military massacring thousands of Egyptians recently, decided to use chemical weapons because his back is against the wall and there is talk of a coup or Russia/Iran is pressuring him.

What Fallows worries about before the Iraq war is my concern about Syria which is more analogous to Iraq than to Libya. It’s the sense that things could easily spin out of control and escalate drawing in neighboring countries. The US, Europe and Japan are not willing to go full Marshall Plan and rebuild Syria after toppling Assad. (Obama says he doesn’t want to take sides but things could escalate after missile strikes.) So “sending a message” to Assad and other dictators isn’t worth it if things could potentially spin out of control and we get another Iraq. Better to punish Assad for using chemical weapons by other means via Russia and Iran who back him.

And I’m not a believer in sanctions. Ten years of sanctions wrecked Iraq

161

Peter K. 09.01.13 at 2:24 pm

@121

I greatly admire your economic analysis so am not surprised by your prescience. But again I would wager you were an exception. And it’s really not that much of a criticism. Of course it was legitimate to oppose the war in itself and its consequences like civilian deaths and reflect on what happens afterwards.

I also respect Fallows and he was more right than most. He said what would need to happen – see MacArthur and Germany – not that Bush wouldn’t.

But neither you nor Fallows nor anybody predicted the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, etc.

I wonder if Assad upon seeing Obama unable or unwilling to do anything about Egypt’s military massacring thousands of Egyptians recently, decided to use chemical weapons because his back is against the wall and there is talk of a coup or Russia/Iran is pressuring him.

What Fallows worries about before the Iraq war is my concern about Syria which is more analogous to Iraq than to Libya. It’s the sense that things could easily spin out of control and escalate drawing in neighboring countries. The US, Europe and Japan are not willing to go full Marshall Plan and rebuild Syria after toppling Assad. (Obama says he doesn’t want to take sides but things could escalate after missile strikes.) So “sending a message” to Assad and other dictators isn’t worth it if things could potentially spin out of control and we get another Iraq. Better to punish Assad for using chemical weapons by other means via Russia and Iran who back him.

And I’m not a believer in sanctions. Ten years of sanctions wrecked Iraq so that the country was in bad shape after the brief war was over.

162

Peter K. 09.01.13 at 2:40 pm

@152

Syria joined Cheney and signed on to the first Gulf War. Mistake. Assad witnessed Saddam being lynched by Iraqi Shiites. Gaddafi was beaten to death by rebel soldiers. Mubarak was placed under house arrest. Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia and a Tunisian court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment.

The trend is not Assad’s friend. Maybe this is why he resorted to chemical weapons.

I am beginning to think Congress won’t go along with Obama. The Republican hawks want more than missile strikes. Other politicians don’t want another Iraq. Maybe you are right and they will send more aid to the rebels. But Obama says he won’t take sides.

163

Consumatopia 09.01.13 at 2:45 pm

from soru’s link:

How much should this count for? When I tried to elicit conditional utility weights from people, I didn’t have anything that exactly corresponded to Libya, but it seems reasonable to say it was better than North Korea but worse than China, so maybe around 0.6? And that though post-Gaddafi Libya is still poor and conflict-ridden, it’s just a little bit better, so perhaps 0.7?

So if you improve the lives of 6 million people by 0.1 QALYs/year x 25 years, that’s another 15 million QALYs gained, for a total of about 16 million.

Am I misunderstanding this, or is Alexander trying to tell me that life got so much better post-Gaddafi that it would have been worth letting 1 in 7 Libyans die, if that were the only cost? Because that sounds kind of crazy.

Crazy or not, Alexander didn’t seem to be arguing what soru claimed, that Libya “saved lives at a level of cost-effectiveness comparable to or better than distributing mosquito nets to Africa”. Alexander claims Libyan intervention surpassed anti-malarial efforts in terms of quality adjusted life-years, and almost all of the gain Alexander sees comes from the quality adjustment, not the additional life-years, where the mosquito nets are still a clear winner.

164

Bruce Wilder 09.01.13 at 2:53 pm

steven johnson:

“…why is a stupid action the only one on the table?” Because it is not stupid if the real goal is not the professed goal.

The stupid action may be the one on the table, because the real goal is not on the table, but the stupid action on the table is still stupid.

Keeping the ‘real goal’ a secret and/or an unknown deprives both the body politic and the various elites of the ability to deliberate sensibly on ends and means, and — this is important — handicaps the ability to negotiate among themselves and with their targets.

Mass disinterest in having involvement or a goal isn’t really an antidote, because that just encourages highly interested elite groups to pursue “secret” goals of their own, and to make up foolish goals as cover stories, and choose those cover story goals for their reliable ability to provoke the mass lizard brain into a predictable reflex response.

165

geo 09.01.13 at 3:00 pm

Lee@133: Why is accusing the U.S. of imperialism, or hypocrisy … a good argument against action on Syria?

It’s not an argument against action on Syria. The argument against unilateral US action on Syria, unsanctioned by the only body with the legal authority to approve military intervention, is that unilateralism — international anarchy — is liable, in the long run, to lead to catastrophic global war, as it has in the past. Accusations of hypocrisy are useful because they remind Americans that their government’s history of deceit and illegality have made other nations, including some other permanent members of the Security Council, extremely skeptical of American claims and wary about American motives, and therefore reluctant to cooperate in enforcing international norms.

In the long run, international trust and cooperation is essential to human survival. Hypocrisy — especially a long history of hypocrisy — undermines that trust and cooperation.

166

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 3:09 pm

Pedant #154 “Ah–forgive me, Lee. I had thought you cared about chemical weapons, and wanted to reduce their use around the world, as a matter of international policy.

Apparently, you just want to advance the ability of the US to impose its power on random small and medium-sized countries.”

–Yes, it is all my clever ruse!

167

Hector_St_Clare 09.01.13 at 3:18 pm

Chris,

Don’t be an idiot. Islam isn’t a race. Nor is Arab culture.

These witless Arab Spring enthusiast never learn, do they?

168

Peter K. 09.01.13 at 3:20 pm

@121

From the Fallows link:

“”It is quite possible that if we went in, took out Saddam Hussein, and then left quickly, the result would be an extremely bloody civil war,” says William Galston, the director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, who was a Marine during the Vietnam War. “That blood would be directly on our hands.” Most people I spoke with, whether in favor of war or not, recognized that military action is a barbed hook: once it goes in, there is no quick release.”

169

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 3:21 pm

Geo #165: “In the long run, international trust and cooperation is essential to human survival.”

But do you think that NOT doing something unilaterally about Assad’s chemical weapons improves the U.S. chances when it gets to the bargaining table for world peace? It gets to the bargaining table with the rest of the countries and says, “Guys, nobody should use chemical weapons.” They all look around at each other and say, “How do we trust the U.S? They let Saddam get away with it for years. Then they let Assad get away with it.”

Geo: “they remind Americans that their government’s history of deceit and illegality have made other nations, including some other permanent members of the Security Council, extremely skeptical of American claims and wary about American motives”

This is true of all citizens in all nations, however. They distrust their own governments, and each nation distrusts the motives of the other nations. What would break the cycle, except a bunch of unilateral, idealist stands on principle? I’m asking — I don’t know.

170

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 3:31 pm

Hector #142: “these people are incapable of, and undeserving of, ‘freedom and individual self-determination’”

Hector, you dunce, that’s what the U.S. blue states said about the red states when George W. bush was elected, and that’s what the red said about the blue when Barack Obama was elected. And now we’re all saying it about you.

171

William Timberman 09.01.13 at 3:34 pm

What gets lost in all this vituperation: if you restrict your argument to only two premises plucked from the sewer of U.S. Middle East policy, it’s possible to dress them in a plausible-sounding rationality, especially if no one listens very closely. One side asserts that dropping bombs on Assad’s military assets to save innocents from being gassed is a noble thing despite its likely ineffectiveness. The other side counters that the U.S. has no interest in saving innocents from being gassed; it’s real interest is in demonstrating once again to everyone involved that it’s the one and only indispensable nation, and in doing so without spending too much money, or getting enough of its own people killed to cause a furor at home.

Unfeeling hypocrite, says the interventionist. Imperialist shill replies the critic of intervention.

Listening to this is tiring, largely because it leaves a lot out. What it most egregiously leaves out is that the horrors plaguing not just Syria, but most of the Middle East these days are, either directly or indirectly, a consequence of European and U.S. policy decisions going all the way back to the end of the Ottoman Empire, and continuing through the Cold War to the present day. And the salient fact about these policy decisions, when all is said and done, is they were not made with much concern for the effect on the peoples of the Middle East, and certainly not in good faith consultation with their legitimate representatives.

If we’re honest about this history, it shouldn’t surprise us that Obama’s latest pronouncements sound both pompous and weak. You reap what your predecessors have sown. Like it or not, that’s as true of us it is of him. Talk about putting other people’s houses in order long enough, and you may actually come to believe that it’s your prerogative to do so. That don’t make it so.

172

Ronan(rf) 09.01.13 at 3:44 pm

I think the framing matters, so if you make military action the response to use of chemical weapons then in the long run you undermine the norm, unless you use force every time someone uses chemical weapons (which isn’t realistic)
If you leave it more ambiguous, ‘sanctions at the international level’ for example, then that gives you more leeway, even if the sanctions end up relatively meaningless some of the time

173

bob mcmanus 09.01.13 at 3:57 pm

Emptywheel …on Obama draft authorization. As might be expected, black check

“this is basically a proxy war between Russia and Saudi Arabia.” …emptywheel

(or Sunni vs Shia in the entire crescent;but mostly about oil revenue)

Al Jazeera

Saudi Arabia backs US strike against Syria

Look, I don’t know what all is going on here, but this is scary. There are big and arrogant powers involved here, and the US is frankly only the hired gun. As we have been since, what, Iran-Iraq War?

see Wilder at 164. It is kinda fascinating the gap between the public discourse and the geo-strategic games. No it is not about chemical weapons, Obama’s credibility, or even the Syrian Civil War. Not at all.

They really do have us controlled.

174

Aundrew 09.01.13 at 3:58 pm

So, the premise of this thread is that the chemical attacks were carried out by Assad? Can someone point me to the evidence they find most convincing of this. I just want to be on the passage seeing as everyone has already accepted this.

175

Ronan(rf) 09.01.13 at 4:05 pm

“So, the premise of this thread is that the chemical attacks were carried out by Assad?”

No, that’s not the premise of this thread. The premise is that this is the case for action being made, at this moment, so its a response to that argument. I don’t think theres conclusive evidence one way or the other. There are reports that Assad (or elements in the regime) have been using chemical weapons throughout the conflict in a ‘limited’ way. Also reports that the rebels have used them. But we do know that Assad hasn’t signed up to anti chemical weapons treaties, and that his regime has chemical weapons, so its not entirely unrealistic that they were used by his regime

176

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 4:06 pm

Aundrew #174. No convincing evidence. UN inspector’s report not due for weeks. Another reason Obama is wise to delay by throwing it to Congress.

177

bob mcmanus 09.01.13 at 4:11 pm

Qatar backing MB and Morsi in Egypt, SA backing the Egyptian military, various factions being backed in Syria, which isn’t really a civil war, there are way too many players. What is the meaning of a battleground with 5-10 externally-supported armies?

Bombs regularly going off in Lebanon and Iraq.

Public discourse absurd and incomprehensible.

“Huns are bayoneting Belgian babies.”

One more year, it would have been a exact century since the last Mad August.

178

Aundrew 09.01.13 at 4:15 pm

@Ronan. I’ll accept that. But it has me thinking, what if the rebels are found to have used chemical weapons in a significant manner? Should the US then bomb the rebels? Or do I digress?
@Lee Arnold. I hear the UN team aren’t mandated to determine who is responsible, only to confirm that chemicals weapons were used. Is this correct? If so, the UN inspectors report doesn’t make much difference.

179

novakant 09.01.13 at 4:15 pm

Kerry just said Obama has the right to attack Syria at any time no matter what Congress decides.

Congratulations, you are living in a dictatorship!

180

Ronan(rf) 09.01.13 at 4:21 pm

Aundrew
Personally Im not in favour of bombing either. I assume there are different procedures/expectations on states and non state actors so I don’t know. If a faction amongst the rebels were know to be stockpiling chemical weapons? I assume the US could use drones or special forces or proxy forces if they saw it as a threat to national security. But its not tied up with undermining anti chemical weapons bans (afaik) to the same extent as when states use them (theoretically)

181

Peter K. 09.01.13 at 4:26 pm

I am starting to believe and hope that Holbo is correct at comment #2. Obama doesn’t want to be drawn into another war. 12 dimensional chess would have been that he knew the British parliament wouldn’t follow Cameron.

But I really don’t know. Could be that Obama will go ahead if Congress says no.

182

geo 09.01.13 at 4:27 pm

Lee@169: If the US obeys international law on this occasion, then the other powers at some bargaining table in the future might say: “The US gladly let Saddam get away with using poison gas because he was a client at the time. But the US reluctantly let Assad get away with using poison gas because it couldn’t convince the Security Council to act and it decided to obey international law rather than act unilaterally.” After many, many such demonstrations of good faith on the part of the US govt — in rough proportion to its reckless disregard of international law on so many other occasions — then the other powers might feel they could trust the US, might listen more sympathetically to its proposals, and might be more disposed to obey international law themselves.

183

Peter K. 09.01.13 at 4:35 pm

@175 I was under the impression Assad was winning the war, so it doesn’t make sense that they would use chemical weapons to provoke Obama who had declared a red line.

On the other hand, maybe they aren’t doing so well and/or Iran and/or Russia are pressuring them or withdrawing support. Maybe Assad saw the lack of reaction to the Egyptian military’s violence against its citizens and he gambled on America’s “war weariness.”

The trumped-up WMD charges against Saddam makes it a high burden of proof.

184

Lee A. Arnold 09.01.13 at 4:39 pm

Geo #182 — You always win. Sounds good to me. Note that Security Council may change its tune after inspectors make report.

185

Aundrew 09.01.13 at 4:40 pm

Ronan.

Foreign policy is impossibly confusing to me. I honestly can’t for the life of me figure out why the US wants to bomb Syria. I don’t favor either side. I’ve listened to the arguments made. I’ve ascribed both the best and the worst intentions, but I just can’t convince myself that bombing Syria is a good idea from the US perspective. There must be some other reason.

186

AJ 09.01.13 at 4:53 pm

Another war for the sake of Israel? I can’t say that I am able to rule out that possibility based on available evidence. Would a strike help Israel? Very possibly, yes. Would a strike help America? Most likely, no.

187

Ronan(rf) 09.01.13 at 4:58 pm

Peter K
Yeah it doesn’t seem to make much sense. I guess ‘elements within the regime’ rather than an order through the chain of command (or whatever the term) is the most likely scenario at the minute?

Aundrew
My own take (generally – but not always) is that there doesn’t need to be, and generally isn’t, a good reason. In this case its just a position Obama has walked himself into (or been nudged by elements within his admin) But that’s only imo

188

pedant 09.01.13 at 5:11 pm

You know, AJ, I can’t even construct a case for why it’s in Israel’s interests for us to bomb Syria (much less the interests of the US, much less the interests of the actual victims of Assad’s atrocities).

How’s it supposed to work? We bomb Assad, he sustains some minimal damage, he laughs, and continues to slaughter his people. Israel benefits how? Or we bomb Assad, his regime is seriously damaged, and Syria is over-run by Islamic extremists of some non-Alawhite stripe. How does Israel benefit from that? Or do you think our magic munitions will only kill the people opposed to a Western-leaning, non-sectarian democracy?

Does Israel have any more reasonable expectation of good coming from this than the US does? Sure, it’s cheaper for them, since we buy the missiles. But free catastrophes are still catastrophes. I’m just not seeing it.

189

AJ 09.01.13 at 5:18 pm

I am not saying that it actually would. Personally, I highly doubt that it would. I also can’t even imagine a scenario where it would.

> How’s it supposed to work?

The Republicans seem to *think* that it is in the interest of Israel for us to bomb the hell of Israel’s “enemies”. We must wait for Sarah Palin to add her two cents to this discussion to understand the rationale.

190

Hector_St_Clare 09.01.13 at 5:23 pm

Re: You know, AJ, I can’t even construct a case for why it’s in Israel’s interests for us to bomb Syria (much less the interests of the US, much less the interests of the actual victims of Assad’s atrocities).

The weaker Syria is, the stronger Israel is. Also, Israel’s enemy, Hezbollah, is a Shia organization that will be hurt if the Sunnis get into power.

This isn’t complicated.

191

AJ 09.01.13 at 5:28 pm

A very short-term surgical strike *might* help Israel in that they would come across as the good guys by way of contrast. In contrast to Syria, that is, who would now have a black mark against them.

192

AJ 09.01.13 at 5:31 pm

> The weaker Syria is, the stronger Israel is.
That is kind of “truthy”. Of course, the weaker Syria is, the stronger Israel is. But: there is a point in the spectrum of “weak” where this statement is no longer true. If there is anarchy in Syria, I doubt anybody thinks that Israel is stronger.

193

Hector_St_Clare 09.01.13 at 5:36 pm

AJ,

There are some Zionists, of the Jewish, Evangelical Christian and secular persuasions, who believe that part of the territory of Syria rightfully belongs to Israel.

194

AJ 09.01.13 at 5:38 pm

> Also, Israel’s enemy, Hezbollah, is a Shia organization that will be hurt if the
> Sunnis get into power.
If Syria becomes like Iraq, Israel’s job becomes much, much more complicated. Statistics on the American public’s support for action in Syria is not a useful statistic, by the way. Belle Waring’s analysis is dead on the mark. You would have to believe that somehow, only the bad guys would die if the U.S. attacks Syria. The American public’s knowledge of world affairs is abysmal.

195

AJ 09.01.13 at 5:40 pm

> There are some Zionists, of the Jewish, Evangelical Christian and secular
> persuasions, who believe that part of the territory of Syria rightfully belongs to Israel.
Yes, we have some serious crazies in these United States.

196

eddie 09.01.13 at 5:52 pm

My, Ft Meade seems to be particularly busy on this one. Seems that everytime someone says something sensible, it’s followed by someone coming on and repeating the nonsense about deterrence: “we need to deter assad from further use of chemical weapons”, neatly eliding any attempt at evidence that assad was responsible. There’s no deterrence of assad possible when the US, through whatever of their proxies, did the crime.

That is indeed the point. When O’Bama mentioned the ‘red line’, it practically guarranteed someone on the neo-con side would set up this attack. Maybe even some guy who’s not content with making an honest profit from oven chips?

And then there’re those commenters speaking of islamic extremism and sectarian massacres. Sure, religion poisons everything, but we need to remember how we got to this point. Imperialists drawing lines on a map, calculated to divide and conquer, had set up the privileged minorities’ apartheid all over the globe. For the disenfranchised masses who suffered for generations under this, it’s right and proper that they have justice.

197

AJ 09.01.13 at 5:56 pm

> Hector is, or claims to be, an Anglican South Asian of Tamil descent.
>
> He has recently started posting as “Hector St.Clare” (I assume it’s the same
> person). Truly a unique snowflake, as Doctor Memory put it. Which is why I am
> with those who find him cute rather than menacing. The terror aroused by the
> usual right-wing bot is the terror aroused by a zombie or an Orc: You know that
> if you see one there are hundreds just over the brow of the hill.
Ah, Hector, Hector. You are “cute rather than menacing”.

198

Hector_St_Clare 09.01.13 at 6:10 pm

Re: Imperialists drawing lines on a map, calculated to divide and conquer, had set up the privileged minorities’ apartheid all over the globe.

Yes, because Sunni and Shias got along perfectly well before the evil white man came along. Are you serious?

The most famous, iconic Shia festival celebrates the martyrdom of their leader *at the hands of Sunnis*, not at the hands of Greeks, Russians, Americans, or any other group of evil, dead white males.

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AJ 09.01.13 at 6:21 pm

> Re: Imperialists drawing lines on a map, calculated to divide and conquer, had set
> up the privileged minorities’ apartheid all over the globe.
>
> Yes, because Sunni and Shias got along perfectly well before the evil white man
> came along. Are you serious?
Yes, the Sunnis and the Shias have been historically violently opposed to each other. We all know that.

The point is that the root of the problem lies in the British empire’s adventures in the Middle East (Israel, Palestine, et cetera) in the 20th century. Actually, they *were* white and men and, in many ways, evil. Historically, there *have* been evil white men.

The question is : what is the right thing to do now? It is precisely because the Sunnis and the Shias are so violently opposed to each other that the probability of a situation of anarchy in Syria is very high.

P.S. I can’t comment on many aspects of Muslim history, but I am quite aware of that aspect of world history. Sorry, it is policy.

200

Shay Begorrah 09.01.13 at 6:33 pm

@pedant

You know, AJ, I can’t even construct a case for why it’s in Israel’s interests for us to bomb Syria (much less the interests of the US, much less the interests of the actual victims of Assad’s atrocities).

It is a delicate act but I think if you view the endgame as having Syria being either too balkanized to act as an ally of Iran or under the (perhaps tenuous) control of a Sunni government allied to Iran’s competitors (the Saudis, Quatar) then it is clear that the US intervening against the current Syrian government is in what Israel sees as its long term interests (maintaining its role as the regional Hegemon, reducing Iranian influence). The US also has long term anti-Iranian plans which this plays into.

Robert Fisk’s latest in the English Independent might be of interest to you:

Iran, not Syria, is the West’s real target

Also, Israel has not forgotten its last encounter with Hezbollah and would prefer that when it next attacks Lebanon that Syria can not provide it with arms. Defeat is not something Israel takes well at all and the Litani river is as attractive a “natural” border as it has ever been.

Now off to get my “Objectively pro-Nerve Gas” tee-shirt.

201

ezra abrams 09.01.13 at 10:47 pm

am i the only one think it is hypocritical for the country that (among many other things) helped saddam hussein in his war against Iran, after he gassed the kurds, that dropped millions of pounds of agent orange on ”nam

etc
to me the obvious think is (a) an abraham lincoln brigade, and (b) support for a national congress of The Syrian People, to be held in, say, Geneva; the Syrians can get together and make the case to the world that they deserve help

202

AJ 09.01.13 at 11:40 pm

> am i the only one think it is hypocritical for the country that (among many other
> things) helped saddam hussein in his war against Iran, after he gassed the kurds,
> that dropped millions of pounds of agent orange on ”nam
Of course not. I am totally with you.

“We are shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here” just about captures it.

203

AJ 09.01.13 at 11:42 pm

> am i the only one think it is hypocritical for the country that (among many other
> things) helped saddam hussein in his war against Iran, after he gassed the kurds,
> that dropped millions of pounds of agent orange on ”nam
There is no logic even. America has used even chemical weapons before. Of the ABC category, it is the only country that has used both A and C. Even if a country were to use biological weapons, it would be hypocritical for America to lecture them.

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between4walls 09.02.13 at 12:07 am

The International Brigades always get brought up in these debates, and I get why, but they’re a very inapt comparison/suggestion.

In that case you had a government under whom foreign volunteers could fight, but which could benefit from extra volunteers because a large part of its own army was in revolt. Also, some though not all of the volunteers had military experience due to conscription (also Spain hadn’t fought in WWI, so there was a plausible reason to think foreigners might have some more relevant experience).

In Syria there’s no shortage of fighters; on the contrary, foreign volunteers (there are definitely foreign jihadists who’ve gone there) are often a burden because what’s needed is supplies and weapons for those already there. No secular groups afaik have asked for foreign volunteers anyway. And there’s no single government on their side.

So unless you have the organization capacity of the Comintern, and a Syrian group that actually wants volunteers, the Spanish Civil War analogy is moot.

205

Chris Warren 09.02.13 at 12:11 am

So why can the rebels develop and use chemical weapons, without Western concerns?

Why when it may appear that the victims have replied in kind, Yankee-land launches so much selective outrage?

Which posters above have even explored instances of rebel chemical weaponry?

206

Suzanne 09.02.13 at 12:36 am

@181: “12 dimensional chess would have been that he knew the British parliament wouldn’t follow Cameron”

All accounts of the Obama Administration’s reaction say that they were caught flatfooted by the rejection of Cameron.

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Andrew F. 09.02.13 at 12:56 am

Just so we’re all clear on what the the ridiculous “from hypocrisy” argument is really saying:

It was wrong of the US to fail to condemn Hussein for using chemical weapons against Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq War. Therefore, the US should CONTINUE to be wrong and to be quiet when Assad uses chemical weapons against civilians. Otherwise, the US would be hypocritical.

It’s utter nonsense. If the US can deter the regime from using chemical weapons in a way that minimizes civilian casualties, that does not lead to a point where greater US involvement is required, that does not worsen the Syrian situation, and with minimal risk to US personnel, then the US should do so. And it should do so regardless of whether it acted appropriately in the 1980s or any other decade or century. The US has plenty of moral black spots in its history, and it has certainly gotten its hands dirty on more than one occasion. But that is not relevant to the question.

And if we’re going to start calling every humanitarian intervention that Russia or China doesn’t like “imperialism,” then let’s not pretend we’re using the word in a way that has any ethical implication whatsoever.

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pedant 09.02.13 at 1:14 am

“to me the obvious think is (a) an abraham lincoln brigade”

Intriguing idea, Ezra. A group of Americans, not part of the regular army, who fight in close cooperation with various insurgent groups, while dressed in civilian clothes.

You think they would last two days without being killed as CIA agents?

You think actual CIA agents are not already working in this capacity?

My best guess (with no inside knowledge whatsoever), is that the US has already attempted to embed “advisors” with whatever groups it thinks might be either less pernicious or more malleable.

And it has probably backed the wrong horses–even with a lot of intelligence-gathering capabilities, it has allied with groups that are both atrocious, and unlikely to survive, much less win.

Without any of those capabilities at your disposal, do you think you’re going to have a *better* shot at finding the right group with which to ally your Abraham Lincoln brigade?

Maybe you’ll just buy some plane-tickets to Syria, and when you get out of the baggage-carousel you can announce that the good guys have arrived to help the good local guys? Al-Fayed, we are here?

209

Ronan(rf) 09.02.13 at 1:21 am

The Abe Lincoln Brigades are already there!

http://www.cjr.org/feature/womans_work.php?page=1

“Because Syria is no longer Syria. It is a nuthouse. There is the Italian guy who was unemployed and joined al-Qaeda, and whose mom is hunting for him around Aleppo to give him a good beating; there is the Japanese tourist who is on the frontlines, because he says he needs two weeks of “thrills”; the Swedish law-school graduate who came to collect evidence of war crimes; the American musicians with bin Laden-style beards who insist this helps them blend in, even though they are blonde and six-feet, five-inches tall. (They brought malaria drugs, even if there’s no malaria here, and want to deliver them while playing violin.) ..”

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Glen Tomkins 09.02.13 at 3:09 am

Limit the Aims

Bombing Syria, if the aims are suitable, and suitably limited, could be a very good thing.

A suitably limited aim would be to get the Assad regime to not use chemical weapons again. This would also be a good aim, in that a civil war is bad enough, no matter who wins, but a civil war fought with chemical weapons, or one side using chems and the other using whatever equivalent means of retaliatory ethnic cleansing it is capable of, is going to be much worse.

If something isn’t done to make the regime pay a price — specifically, a price greater than the benefit to them of using chems — they will use chems again, systematically. That price doesn’t have to be unachievably high, as chems provide only a marginal benefit, compared to high explosives. Now, wars are won or lost on the margins, so yes, they will use chems to clear built up areas of “enemy” civilian populations — if they can get away with using chems — because clearing such areas with chems is easier than without them. Make them pay a price, though, in the form of destroying weaponry or other capabilities that are even more necessary to their side winning than the marginally useful chems, and the calculus shifts and regime will not use chems again. No, there isn’t any such thing as a truly surgical strike, but the regime has plenty of systems it needs more than it needs to use chems, that can be destroyed without much risk to the innocent.

We don’t have to invest any sort of national pride in winning this thing. Their civil war is not something that anyone outside of Syria can possibly win, anyway. But just doing what we can to keep chems out of it, to keep either side from using chems by arranging for the use of chems to be counterproductive, that’s doable. I don’t see any real danger of our side being led down a path of not sticking to limited, doable, ends just from doing something that will destroy enough of Assad’s high-value weaponry to make him stop doing something of only marginal value.

This isn’t Vietnam, and it isn’t Iraq, and it’s not the Iran conflict that hyper-Likudniks want to get us into. All of those started, or people want to start them, based on impossible, magical thinking that identifies some regime or force with an absolute evil that has to be finally and completely defeated in order to save the world. We didn’t gradually get sucked into pursuing maximalist ends, we were combatting Ultimate Evil from the onset, even if, as in Vietnam, we tried to do so at first with minimalist means. We escalated the means gradually in Vietnam, but we were sucked into that escalation by the failure of lesser means to achieve a victory that we imagined had to be achieved to save the world from Communist domination. But if we enter this, not to win it but simply to keep Assad from using chems, what gets us sucked into escalation?

Chems were outlawed after WWI, not because they were Evil, but because they made the horrors of war marginally more horrible, without the rationale of being usable by either side to win a war quickly and with the reduction in death and destruction that ending a war quickly brings over letting a war continue indefinitely. They provided no benefit to either side if both were equipped with them, no means of winning more efficiently — they just added attrition to both sides in proportion. Assad is using chems now entirely because he feels he cannot forego even a marginal advantage, and his opposition’s lack of chems to use to equalize the advantage in clearing built-up areas makes a strategy of using them attractive. We only need to make this strategy unattractive by doing a bit of equalizing. The rebels will find ways to equalize — there are plenty of retail horrors that can be resorted to if you lack WMD — if we don’t do something to equalize.

211

Tabasco 09.02.13 at 4:19 am

As I recall the bombing of Serb positions by NATO in 1994 led directly to them agreeing to negotiate at Dayton which led to the end of Balkans war in which hundreds of thousands of people died.

Them there was the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 which secured the independence of Kosovo and stopped a likely massacre. No question: civilians were killed, but then thousands of French civilians were killed in the pre-D Day bombings of Normandy, not to mention the campaign itself.

It could be of course that Syria is completely not comparable, but it is not always true that bombing is at best useless or more likely counter-productive.

212

AJ 09.02.13 at 4:57 am

>Bombing Syria, if the aims are suitable, and suitably limited, could be a very
> good thing.
Kill thousands of Syrians for the sheer principle of it? Wow! Breathtaking!

This position is, I believe, completely unviable as an option. The only two real options are : one, forcing Assad to come to the negotiation table in Geneva; and two, arming the rebels. Arming the rebels would escalate the situation in Syria but it would not change the balance of power. This is not a matter of principle or ethics. It is a matter of basic practicality. The most practical option is to force Assad to come to Geneva.

If we can’t figure out what in the world the U.S. is doing in Syria, and it has been eight hours since I started following this discussion, that simply prove this : there is absolutely no reason for the U.S. to be in Syria.

It may be a good idea to keep this thread open for a while to see if anybody can scare up a reason. That would be a public service.

213

AJ 09.02.13 at 5:10 am

The existence of an executive with incredibly powerful weaponry with the power to declare war any time it likes in the sole remaining superpower in the world is the only reason why this question even arises. I, for one, am far more cynical than John Holbo. Defense industries give lots of money to U.S. politicians.

I believe that Obama is the sort of person who can, and will, wage war out of sheer political opportunism.

214

Andrew F. 09.02.13 at 5:18 am

AJ, why is it “unviable” to use air strikes to deter Assad from using chemical weapons?

While I have a number of questions, the proposition itself seems quite plausible.

215

John Holbo 09.02.13 at 5:31 am

Depressing bloggingheads interview with Joshua Landis, who is a Syria expert:

http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/21398?in=01:34&out=03:34

Short version. Partition is probably least bad, but we aren’t going to get one any time soon.

His blog, Syria Comment, is here:

http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/

216

Collin Street 09.02.13 at 5:52 am

If something isn’t done to make the regime pay a price — specifically, a price greater than the benefit to them of using chems — they will use chems again, systematically.

Sure I want the syrian government to pay a price for using chemical weapons. But I also want the US government to pay a price for using anti-WMD norms as a tool/pretext for attacking governments they don’t like: my aims are contradictory, and I must chose.

217

Andrew F. 09.02.13 at 6:13 am

The Izzard reference on another thread reminded me of this part of the show, starting at 1:40, for a little while following.

And good point Collin. Because the one time that the apparent presence of WMDs played a role when the US attacked a government (which it simply didn’t “like”, of course – terribly irrational and unjustified from the start), the US didn’t pay any kind of price.

Or maybe it did, and the present question should be less about anti-Americanism and more about which course of action is better from the vantage of saving lives.

218

John Holbo 09.02.13 at 6:56 am

Andrew, that’s my 12-year old daughter’s favorite part of the show. All the history and empire stuff.

219

eddie 09.02.13 at 7:13 am

Re AJ @ 112 “If we can’t figure out what in the world the U.S. is doing in Syria..”

It is, as it has always been, about oil futures and the principle that any regime that goes against the cartel must be seen to be punished.

220

QS 09.02.13 at 7:26 am

“I believe that Obama is the sort of person who can, and will, wage war out of sheer political opportunism.”

But isn’t this precisely not an “opportune” time politically to make a military intervention? The public isn’t exactly rallying behind Obama on this one. 54% of a poll is pretty frail support when it comes to warmaking.

I do think the entire thing smacks of political maneuvering, however. First, Obama draws a line that he thinks is unlikely to be crossed (chem weapons) thus enabling him to delay any decision regarding involvement. Second, the line is crossed, and now Obama wishes to push responsibility for action on another body, the legislature. In both acts, Obama shifted responsibility for action onto others — first Assad, now Congress. He’s astute to know it’s a lose-lose scenario and he doesn’t want to be perceived as the decision-making agent.

The fact that he did #1 I think speaks to the hegemonic role the US seeks to play; the hegemon it sees itself as being must be confirmed through rule-making and rule enforcement. This social role collides with domestic politicking and the realities of the conflict, which do not provide much political fruit for the president. Hence his dilemma.

221

Tim Wilkinson 09.02.13 at 8:52 am

Here we go again with the judicious chinstroking from people who haven’t given a thought about Syria for about a year, but who are now dishing out the indignation about people getting killed in Syria, as if they give a fuck. Funny how this newfound concern about brown babies just happen to be emerging now, and just happens to translate directly into calls for sending in the bombers, again. What’s most disturbing about it is the way people who are parroting barely-coherent talking points actually seem to think they are drawing their own conclusions based on their own research, reasoning and judgement, and that they happen to agree exactly with what the usual crass, strident neo-con style warmongers happen to want them to think.

It’s a simulacrum of a debate – the whole thing is framed in terms that exclude all realistic idea of actually trying to get a peace going (and as we know the US and proxies have been fomenting and sustaining the rebellion from day 1; see, e.g. http://crookedtimber.org/2013/06/15/iraq-2003-looking-back/#comment-471107). We know this tactic, of letting both sides grind each other down, stepping in to keep hostilities going, and being there to step in at the end.

The maddest thing is the really seriously cretinous way a large number of intelligent people seem to be accepting the US administration’s latest bullshit on the topic of chemical weapon attacks, a line that (also since day 1; see, e.g. http://crookedtimber.org/2013/03/18/inspecting-iraq-in-retrospect/#comment-459003) has been prepared and kept ready for deployment. It’s quite amazing how well a basic, unadorned bait-and-switch is working – arguing strenuously that poison gas has been used, while making it clear that the actual probandum is that Assad has ordered its use (though he’s a particularly poor candidate for the author of such a provocation). I suppose a lot of people – including intelligent and normally somewhat thoughtful ones – don’t really listen to the words and just hear the war drums, or something anyway. I don’t know. It’s fucking depressing, anyway.

222

Ronan(rf) 09.02.13 at 8:59 am

“AJ, why is it “unviable” to use air strikes to deter Assad from using chemical weapons?”

B/c if the regime (or elements in it) would use chemical weapons even when knowing about Obamas red line then theres no reason they wont again. So if they set this precedent in the conflict, responding with military force, and the Assad regime (or the rebels) use them again, by the logic of the Obama admin you have to respond a second time. You’re going to get deeper and deeper involved in the conflict in a reactive way.
The only analysis I saw (somewhere, cant remember) that makes some sort of sense is if the Obama admin uses the strikes with diplomacy to push for a ceasefire. But that seems unlikely as his plan, or as an outcome
Then the question is why military force and not just dragging this out diplomatically at an international level? Which would also give the opportunity to start pushing properly for a settlement?

223

Hidari 09.02.13 at 9:22 am

Bravo Tim Wilkinson @221.

I might add that most of the pro-bombing keyboard warriors are arguing on the assumption that the professed aims of the proposed attack on Syria (to save lives, to protect international law) are self-evidently ludicrous, coming from a State that only a few weeks ago gave its backing (some say it went much further than this) to a coup in Egypt against the democratically elected government, which has already led to more deaths than the alleged death toll from the alleged chemical attack in Syria regardless of whoever carried it out (assuming it even happened, or at least, happened the way that the Americans are claiming it did). And which has made its contempt for international law* (except when it is in the US’ interest) perfectly clear.

One can imagine an alternate universe in which questions rather more relevant to our current situation might be being asked (‘Should we be referring Barack Obama to the ICC?’ ‘Should the ‘international community’ be considering pre-emptive military strikes against the United States to show that the actions of ‘rogue states’ will not be tolerated?’). But at the moment all that is being asked is ‘Should the Americans be killing Arabs in Syria? And, assuming the answer is yes, how many? Lots? Or even more than that?’ GIGO. You ask a stupid question, you can’t complain when all you get is stupid answers.

I might add that, in the last 100 years, both the UK and the US have used weapons of mass destruction (chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons) with impunity against civilians when they thought that they would gain financial and/or political benefit from doing so.

*And US domestic law.

224

Ronan(rf) 09.02.13 at 9:54 am

Though from the video Landis’ point about the importance of ‘boots on the ground’ by a foreign power to force a deal onto the various factions is interesting, and cuts against a lot of the talk that force would be counterproductive

225

Hidari 09.02.13 at 9:55 am

Actually since this is an academic website, I thought I would make a rather more pretentious posting which would clarify some issues I have been wanting to state for some time now. Ahem. Throat clearing.

The Conservative philosopher R.G. Collingwood pointed out many years ago that any debate, everywhere, always has what he calls ‘absolute presuppositions’, which are never stated, but which are taken for granted by all parties. (Wittgenstein made a similar point in ‘On Certainty’). And the linguist George Lakoff made a similar point: he pointed out that how we ‘frame’ a debate is almost more important than how we actually carry it out.

Carrying out the rather grim intellectual task of reading the comments above one can see the intellectual presuppositions that it is necessary to accept in order to be taken as a ‘serious’ commentator. It should be noted that these presuppositions are far more powerful for being implicit, as if they were made implicit, it would become clear that almost no one agrees with them.

1: All Western politicians, in all cases, tell the truth. If John Kerry says something…well that proves it. If David Cameron states that Syria used chemical weapons…well then that’s the end of the matter. No further debate, discussion or analysis is necessary. Moreover it is considered to be a sign of incipient insanity to doubt the word of a powerful Westerner (note that in the case of Tony Blair, the Westerner doesn’t even have to be an elected politician).

2: Western motives are always what Western politicians say they are. If an American politician says that the American motive in the former Yugoslavia was to save lives, then it was. Moreover whereas ‘foreigners’ have multiples motives, ‘Western’ politicians always have one. If a white, male, Western politicians states that the cause of the invasion of Iraq was to restore democracy then it was. And that was the only sole cause. No other motive or reason is conceptually possible. It is reasonable, under this schema, to ask what Russia’s self-interest is in backing Assad. It is not reasonable to ask what is the US’ self-interest in wanting Assad overthrown. And even if it is, it is presupposed that the US’ self-interest and those of the rest of the world are synonymous. The US represents the world, but Russia only represents Russia.

3: All actions by the United States are always reasonable, plausible and acceptable. The US should have the right to do anything, anywhere, to anyone on planet Earth. The only feasible question is pragmatic, should the US do this? Asking whether or not the US is in breach of international law (or, if it is, whether anything should be done about this) is a contradiction in terms.

For example, asking whether the US should overthrow Assad is a reasonable question. Asking whether Assad should overthrow Barack Obama is the sort of question that can only be asked (or thought) by a lunatic. Asking whether Obama should bomb Syria is a reasonable question. Asking whether Syria should bomb the United States for covertly funding a jihadist insurgency is, again, the sort of question that can only be asked by the mentally ill. And so on.

226

ajay 09.02.13 at 10:37 am

in the last 100 years, both the UK and the US have used weapons of mass destruction (chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons) with impunity against civilians

Really? When, in the UK case? (Or are you counting Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a joint effort, in which case fair enough)

227

Hidari 09.02.13 at 10:37 am

“It should be noted that these presuppositions are far more powerful for being implicit, as if they were made implicit, it would become clear that almost no one agrees with them.”

Should of course read

“It should be noted that these presuppositions are far more powerful for being implicit, as if they were made explicit, it would become clear that almost no one agrees with them.”

228

ajay 09.02.13 at 10:39 am

. If a white, male, Western politicians states that the cause of the invasion of Iraq was to restore democracy then it was.

I don’t believe a word Condoleezza Rice says either, but for slightly different reasons.

229

Ronan(rf) 09.02.13 at 10:41 am

Did the British not use chemical weapons during the mandate in Iraq? Thats a genuine question as I remember it being said, but dont know if its accurate

230

Hidari 09.02.13 at 10:53 am

@229

And the Russians.

“Secrecy was paramount. Britain’s imperial general staff knew there would be outrage if it became known that the government was intending to use its secret stockpile of chemical weapons. But Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war, brushed aside their concerns. As a long-term advocate of chemical warfare, he was determined to use them against the Russian Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1919, 94 years before the devastating strike in Syria, Churchill planned and executed a sustained chemical attack on northern Russia.

The British were no strangers to the use of chemical weapons. During the third battle of Gaza in 1917, General Edmund Allenby had fired 10,000 cans of asphyxiating gas at enemy positions, to limited effect. But in the final months of the first world war, scientists at the governmental laboratories at Porton in Wiltshire developed a far more devastating weapon: the top secret “M Device”, an exploding shell containing a highly toxic gas called diphenylaminechloroarsine. The man in charge of developing it, Major General Charles Foulkes, called it “the most effective chemical weapon ever devised”.”

http://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/sep/01/winston-churchill-shocking-use-chemical-weapons

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Andrew F. 09.02.13 at 1:02 pm

John @218 – That’s really great, and it sounds like your daughter will know more about the world by the time she leaves for college than most Americans will know about the world by the time they graduate college.

Tim @221 writes …but who are now dishing out the indignation about people getting killed in Syria, as if they give a fuck. Funny how this newfound concern about brown babies just happen to be emerging now, and just happens to translate directly into calls for sending in the bombers, again.

It’s almost as though a major figure in American government had said something about the use of chemical weapons crossing a red line a year ago, and then just recently there were a use of chemical weapons that sent a few thousand people to the hospital and killed nearly 1500. Very funny that military strikes on Syria suddenly became a topic of discussion given those events.

Ronan @222: B/c if the regime (or elements in it) would use chemical weapons even when knowing about Obamas red line then theres no reason they wont again.

You’re assuming that the President’s statement a year ago carries the same credibility as an actual deployment of military force that will inflict punishment on the regime. I don’t think that’s the case. Verbal threats to use force when the threatening party’s interest in using force is questionable tend to be discounted.

As I said back @29, the thorny problem for a deterrence strategy is that the US doesn’t want to Assad’s regime to collapse at this point. I largely agree with Landis’s analysis that Holbo posted @215.

Hidari @223 the professed aims of the proposed attack on Syria (to save lives, to protect international law) are self-evidently ludicrous, coming from a State that only a few weeks ago gave its backing (some say it went much further than this) to a coup in Egypt against the democratically elected government,

Sure, it’s self-evident that if the US did not immediately shut off military aid to Egypt, then the US could not possibly have any humanitarian concerns elsewhere. That’s right after cogito ergo sum I believe, but before the ontological proof of God’s existence.

Just to play devil’s advocate Hidari, perhaps the world, and the US, are a little too complicated to infer US intentions in Syria from its maintenance of aid in Egypt?

232

soru 09.02.13 at 1:12 pm

@230: nothing in your link claims that the british used gas in Iraq/Mesopotamia; obviously they used it in other places, most obviously in WWI.

The historical picture seems to be that it was considered for use, and argued for by Churchill in a famous quote. But circumstances and/or cooler heads prevailed.

233

Ronan(rf) 09.02.13 at 1:19 pm

“You’re assuming that the President’s statement a year ago carries the same credibility as an actual deployment of military force that will inflict punishment on the regime. I don’t think that’s the case. “

Yes of course Im assuming that! And you’re assuming the opposite!
But look at what the options for what happened are (1) Assad didnt believe the red line rhetoric and he or someone close to him ordered the attack (though youd have to account for why they wanted to risk it – so bombing might prevent him doing it again) (2) It came from outside the chain of command which implies the military has become undisciplined, so why wont it happen again? (I guess you might argue this will incentivise the regime to discipline rogue groups) (3) It was the rebels trying to bring the US into the war (4) It was the rebels (so attack is unjustified)

What are other possibilities? And looking at those options, why assume they wont be used again? Why not err on the side of caution?

234

ajay 09.02.13 at 1:19 pm

230: that article describes the use of non-lethal agents (adamsite) against Bolshevik soldiers. Your original claim was that weapons of mass destruction had been used against civilians.

235

Ronan(rf) 09.02.13 at 1:25 pm

..surely a statistician could work out the probability of it happening again, so we dont have to assume?

236

Barry 09.02.13 at 1:28 pm

Andrew F: “Sure, it’s self-evident that if the US did not immediately shut off military aid to Egypt, then the US could not possibly have any humanitarian concerns elsewhere. That’s right after cogito ergo sum I believe, but before the ontological proof of God’s existence.”

No, it’s pointing out that we’re seeing the same fraudulently pious invocation of morality and human rights by people who happily support every politically convenient mass murderer.

It’s saying that when somebody will not even refrain from giving mass murderers free money, we should consider them to be liars.

237

Ronan(rf) 09.02.13 at 2:10 pm

“..surely a statistician could work out the probability of it happening again, so we dont have to assume?”

Actually, Ive been informed this isnt the panacea I assumed it would be

238

Hidari 09.02.13 at 3:28 pm

“Sure, it’s self-evident that if the US did not immediately shut off military aid to Egypt, then the US could not possibly have any humanitarian concerns elsewhere. “

No my point is that the main (and indeed only) reason to think that the US is motivated by humanitarian concerns, anywhere, is that they say they are. You couldn’t possibly infer that from their actions.

239

steven johnson 09.02.13 at 3:35 pm

In the video, Joshua Landis asks Robert Wright what strategic goal the chemical weapons attack was supposed to accomplish. Wright can’t answer sensibly. Quite aside from the question of why Robert Wright is even there, much less talking as an equal on this subject, Landis didn’t bother to follow up. Apparently his views are not going to be affected by facts.

I don’t know much about Wright other than some crappy pop science too heavily influenced by evolutionary psychology (aka pseudoscience.) Is he some sort of big shot at New Republic? If so, he’s there because he’s politically reliable in a New Republic way.

240

mab 09.02.13 at 4:11 pm

Reply to various suggestions to push Russia to lean on Syria:

The US and Europe has been trying to do convince Russia to do this, but Russia doesn’t want to, and Russia doesn’t do what it doesn’t want to do. It’s possible that they don’t have much leverage over Assad, or don’t trust him (a couple of years they got North Korea to promise not to do a missile test, and the next day they did it anyway, which made the Russians look bad; they don’t usually make the same kind of losing face mistake twice). We don’t have any leverage over Russia to “make them.” Why they support Assad would require a longer post than any of you probably want to read, so I’ll just say that right now, the status quo is okay with Russia. They are making money selling weapons to Syria and no one is giving them much of a hard time about it. They get lots of mileage slamming the West for intervention. And they just trot out Lavrov to gravely call for “a peacefully negotiated agreement” every so often to make it look like they are sitting on the sidelines.

The thing is, Russia is really aiding and abetting. A while back the Washington Post had the Syrian arms request, and it’s everything from night goggles to AKs to artillery, flak jackets and bullets. All that killing of civilians is being done with Russian weaponry.
With the Chinese, they just eviscerated the UN call for an investigation into the chemical attacks.

Russian journalists are, of course, not covering this (because they can’t or would get punished if they tried). There is no discussion of Russia’s role in supporting Assad in the press. None. Zilch. Most people I know here in Moscow don’t even know Russia sells arms to Syria.

Western journalists seem to cover incidents/news about Russia and Syria as they come up, but are understandably more interested in the story of what their countries are doing or thinking of doing.

Diplomatic pressure isn’t going to work. The only thing that would change the equation is if there were the kind of mass international outrage expressed about the “anti-gay law” recently passed in Russia. That would change the status quo, and Russia could no longer get away with appearing to sit off to the side, clucking about the horrors of arming combatants. They’d look bad, and they might want to do something to look – well, if not good – at least not so bad.

241

Chris Williams 09.02.13 at 5:38 pm

UK used lethal chemical weapons in WW1. RM Douglas has recently proved that they weren’t used in Iraq, thus scotching a long-lived rumour which I think can ultimately be traced to an error in Gen Haldane’s memoirs.

I’m not aware of the UK using biological weapons ever, though of course this capacity was developed, allegedly purely in order to develop counter-measures.

It’s credible to assign some responsibility for Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the UK: the US bomb project would probably have been a little slower without UK support (key scientists including the Bohrs, Penney, and the results from MAUD/Tube Alloys), hence there’s a significant chance that Japan would have surrendered anyway before the bombs were ready.

242

AJ 09.02.13 at 5:46 pm

> It is, as it has always been, about oil futures and the principle that any regime that
> goes against the cartel must be seen to be punished
Very possibly. There is no honorable reason to be in Syria. Weaselly reasons exist, of course.

243

Katherine 09.02.13 at 6:22 pm

One can imagine an alternate universe in which questions rather more relevant to our current situation might be being asked (‘Should we be referring Barack Obama to the ICC?’…

This alternate universe would be a place for asking stupid questions rather than relevant ones. The US is not a party to the ICC, so Obama’s actions are not under its jurisdiction. The Security Council can refer situations to the ICC even where a country is not party to the treaty, but the US is of course a permanent member with veto power.

Basically, stop talking about referring any US political player to the ICC because it’s ignorant grandstanding.

244

Layman 09.02.13 at 6:37 pm

Katherine @ 124

I believe the ICC has jurisdiction if the alleged crimes are committed within the territory of a state party. I also believe Afghanistan is a state party. So, while referrals to the ICC of US officials is unlikely, it is certainly not impossible.

245

Layman 09.02.13 at 6:39 pm

Um.

s^124^242.

These number thingies are hard.

246

Hector_St_Clare 09.02.13 at 7:01 pm

Re: I don’t know much about Wright other than some crappy pop science too heavily influenced by evolutionary psychology (aka pseudoscience.) Is he some sort of big shot at New Republic?

Every time I see Wright on Bloggingheads, he has this befuddled deer-in-the-headlights look that makes me think he dropped acid way too many times at some New Republic retreats.

Re: the professed aims of the proposed attack on Syria (to save lives, to protect international law) are self-evidently ludicrous, coming from a State that only a few weeks ago gave its backing (some say it went much further than this) to a coup in Egypt against the democratically elected government,

Uh, whatever your feelings about coups in general, they aren’t *inherently* always a bad thing, in the same sense as using chemical weapons is. EVen if you feel they are always a bad thing, they aren’t bad *to the same degree* as chemical weapons are.

I was pretty strongly against intervening before the chemical weapons attack, and in general I couldn’t give two sh*ts about the Arab Spring one way or the other, except to say that I hope the jihadists, the Israelis, and the liberal freedom-agenda nitwits all come out of it weaker, but the use of weapons of mass destruction is a line that can’t be crossed with impunity.

And yes, I would have been against Hiroshima & Nagasaki too.

247

Ronan(rf) 09.02.13 at 7:08 pm

“I hope the jihadists, the Israelis, and the liberal freedom-agenda nitwits all come out of it weaker”

So who do you want to come out of it stronger? Secular dictators?

248

Heteromeles 09.02.13 at 7:30 pm

Since I’ve been right up til now (see comments on Charlie Stross’ blog), I’ll offer up a thought:

Obama doesn’t particularly want to do anything with Syria, but he since he made that red line comment and Assad called his bluff on it (15 times, actually), he’s kind of stuck with escalate or get out and look like an idiot.

Or choice three.

There is one good reason to bomb Syrian chemical weapons launchers: we don’t want it to become too much of a habit. Chemical weapons are crappy warfighting weapons, but they’re very good at killing massive numbers of civilians. They’re also cheap to make, since many of them are basically pesticides that are too good at killing humans to be used for killing pests. A world where dictators clean out ghettos by dropping chemical shells would be a very unsafe an unpleasant world, and so far, this is about the only good reason I’ve heard for striking Syria.

That said, I don’t think Obama wanted to do it. What he seems to have done is a cross between a head fake and the old trick of threatening to start some major ass-whoppin’, knowing that your friends will hold you back so that you won’t actually have to get into the fight. The head fake was that he threatened Syria that there was a slam dunk heading their way, then said, “well, I can deliver it anytime I want in the next month or more, here’s the ball, Congress.” That was the head fake.

Now, this does something interesting. It actually gives the President back the initiative. Before, as he threatened Syria, they scattered their army, put their launchers in schools and similar public buildings, and tried to maximize the collateral damage from any US attack. Now, if they want to launch another attack, they’ve got to spend days regrouping under the watchful eyes of US recon drones and SIGINT listening in on everything they say. Not a good place to launch an attack from, is it? If Assad decides to call Obama’s bluff and launch a major chemical attack in the next week, that launcher may get blown away, followed by Obama apologizing to Congress for jumping their prerogative, but saying he did it for the children.

So the Syrian war may stall for a week. That’s not bad. After that, Congress should hopefully follow Obama’s script of holding him back from kicking some major Syrian Army ass, except perhaps in tightly controlled circumstances. The destroyers sit off the Syrian coast for a while, annoy the Russian ships based there, and hopefully the war will resume with fewer or no WMDs.

As for the long run, I’m one of the people who thinks the Syrian civil war was caused by a water shortage exacerbated by the inability of the Syrian government to deal with it. (http://www.timesofisrael.com/lack-of-water-sparked-syrias-conflict-and-it-will-make-egypt-more-militant-too/). The solution may be to get Turkey to release some water from the dams it put in upstream of Syria, coupled with some desalination plants on the coast. While I think this has a chance in hell of getting anywhere in our curent science-blind world, I’d love to see a multinational coalition get together and try to rewater the country somewhat.

In fact, if we want to keep the peace in the Middle East and north Africa, investing in regional desalination plants is far from stupid. Each plant will cost less than a single day of full-scale war, US style, and there are a lot of increasingly thirsty countries with inept governments in the region. I’m all for cheap investments in peace, right about now.

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Ronan(rf) 09.02.13 at 8:03 pm

Yeah it definitely seems inflated food prices (and the droughts in Syria) helped cause it

http://dartthrowingchimp.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/some-thoughts-on-the-causes-of-mass-protest/

Though I think that means you’re also dealing with larger problems built into the international system (so to speak)

If you havent seen it, this was also interesting on the role climate change played

http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/report/2013/02/28/54579/the-arab-spring-and-climate-change/

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Andrew F. 09.02.13 at 8:05 pm

Ronan @233: Yes of course Im assuming that! And you’re assuming the opposite!
But look at what the options for what happened are…

Well, there’s plenty of literature about threats, commitment, and “cheap talk” in international relations. Fearon had an influential article from the early 90s that argued democracies may have an advantage in using “talk” to signal commitment because a democratic leader can incur domestic audience costs by backing out of such a commitment. This would be in contrast to leaders of other regimes, who can pay less attention to the opinions of their domestic audiences – or the argument goes, anyway.

Flip your question around, and ask why Assad would doubt Obama’s “red line.”

1 – Obama’s not up for re-election, so his domestic audience costs are minimal regardless.
2 – The US military doesn’t want to get involved, given the constraints of sequestration; they’re scrambling to find money for the important projects.
3 – The US population is wary of getting involved in yet another conflict in the Middle East.
4 – Since the red line statement, reports of smaller CW attacks have surfaced, and the US has not acted to launch any punitive strikes. It now looks quite uncertain that the US will launch any attack for the more recent CW use.

An actual military strike at the least removes some of those reasons for doubt. Unless there were some reason for supposing it would not happen again – the strike goes poorly, or Congress narrowly authorizes a strike in this case, etc. – then Assad will have no reason to doubt that the US would continue to exact a price from the regime for continued use of CW (up to the point of collapsing the regime).

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Ronan(rf) 09.02.13 at 8:12 pm

“Well, there’s plenty of literature about threats, commitment, and “cheap talk” in international relations. Fearon had an influential article .. “

One source does not make a literature! Though I agree with you that theres a lot of research on this, but I dont know what the consensus (if there is one) says. So Im speculating. But neither do you know, I assume.. : )

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Andrew F. 09.02.13 at 8:13 pm

Hidari @238: No my point is that the main (and indeed only) reason to think that the US is motivated by humanitarian concerns, anywhere, is that they say they are. You couldn’t possibly infer that from their actions.

No, we can infer US intentions from US statements, AND US interests, AND US actions. In this case the US has an interest in NOT toppling Assad (for the moment); the US interest is in keeping any military action in Syria to a minimum; the US has spoken exclusively in terms of limited air strikes; the US has not taken the kind of preparation that would precede a major ground operation; the US has been extremely limited in the aid it has provided to rebel groups; the US has provided substantial humanitarian aid; US allies (esp. Jordan) have expressed concern as to the number of refugees fleeing Syria; the US has repeatedly and pointedly singled out the use of CW – not an Assad victory – as the red line for involvement.

The only non-humanitarian argument for the US to intervene is this: if Assad could win the civil war by using CW, and does so, then this would be to the disadvantage to the US, as it would strengthen Assad’s position (obviously), Iran’s position, and that of non-state actors close to Iran and Syria, in the region. But that’s a questionable argument in many ways, and one not adopted by the US as a policy.

The humanitarian argument has been stated at length above by many people.

Given the weak non-humanitarian argument for limited air strikes against Assad’s regime, and the fact that it simply isn’t reflected in US policy or statements at this point, this seems an unlikely rationale for limited air strikes which would be triggered only by CW usage.

By contrast, the humanitarian rationale fits quite well with US statements and debate, with the actual policy being proposed by the US, and with actual US behavior towards the Syrian civil war to date.

253

Ronan(rf) 09.02.13 at 8:15 pm

..though, sorry, I’m rushing out so will read the comment properly and get back to you in a bit

254

eddie 09.02.13 at 10:09 pm

How can we deter the us regime from again using chemical warfare to murder it’s own citizens?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonus_Army

Right now there’s as much concrete evidence that a sarin attack in syria was conducted by Andrew F as by the assad government. The americans have prior.

255

eddie 09.02.13 at 10:18 pm

“What white, male, western, historians have established that the british gassed civilians in iraq? That pile of dead iraqi civilians doesn’t count.”

256

Consumatopia 09.02.13 at 11:53 pm

There’s a very simple and already-discussed non-humanitarian argument for Syrian airstrikes: credibility. Obama looks like a chump, domestically and internationally, when his “red line” is crossed. That’s not much, but the stakes for the U.S. in this situation simply aren’t very high, so it doesn’t take much.

The purity of Obama’s motives has little to do with whether his airstrikes will do more good or more harm, but lets not pretend its hard to find other motives here.

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Ronan(rf) 09.03.13 at 12:05 am

Andrew @249

I really dont have any objection to what youre saying, tbh, it seems entirely plausible. I guess it boils down to a personal preference. I dont see the risks as worth it. The possible loss of human life; what it might do to escalate the conflict; that it wont discourage the regime and will slowly pull the US into the conflict; and importantly, imo, that it will set back any possible diplomatic push
I think Obama has walked into this and doesnt really want it, which is less than ideal. That he feels pressured into ‘doing something’. I think you should err on the side of caution, and that these primarily unilateral (ie without the support of the other major powers) interventions undermine international institutions with no real payoff. But thats a political position and there are arguments either way
I do agree that these questions dont have easy answers

258

Andrew F. 09.03.13 at 1:55 am

Consum @255: There’s a very simple and already-discussed non-humanitarian argument for Syrian airstrikes: credibility. Obama looks like a chump, domestically and internationally, when his “red line” is crossed. That’s not much, but the stakes for the U.S. in this situation simply aren’t very high, so it doesn’t take much.

There is that argument. But it’s a very weak argument just on its merits. The Iranian nuclear issue and the Syrian chemical weapons issue are very different.

The latter has, in itself, little importance to regional stability; the existence of Syrian chemical weapons have long been an accepted fact. By contrast, the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapon would have great consequences for regional stability; Saudi Arabia, and other states, would seek their own deterrent; Iran could well seek to become more aggressive through its own services and through non-state actors under its influence.

In the Syrian case, the immediate issue is not necessarily the possession of CW by the regime, but rather its use of CW in its civil war – the effects of which are horrible, but which do not threaten the security of other states. In the Iranian case, the issue IS the mere possession of nuclear weapons, and that mere possession DOES threaten the security of other states.

So the level of US interest in the Syrian case and the Iranian case is quite different, as is the level of interest of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others.

The history of the two issues is very different as well, and US “signals” on the Iranian issue include the admitted use of sabotage to undermine the Iranian program, the leaked details of new munitions designed to penetrate Iranian fortifications, and progressively more punitive sanctions. Moreover, the Iranian experience of the US generally is not one in which the US is reluctant to use force. The mortality rate of regimes and groups that bet upon US reluctance to use force is not promising.

Finally, there is Israel, the policy of which is quite clear on the Iranian issue, and subdued on the Syrian issue. In the Iranian case, Israeli policy could force the US hand, even if the US were otherwise reluctant.

So – I believe the US decision on Syria does not portend much with respect to Iran.

I also think that US behavior on the Syrian issue reflects, fully, the stark differences between the issues, and that the US views the danger of Iran drawing the “wrong lesson” as minimal. If credibility with Iran were a motivating concern here, the first target sets in Syria would have been destroyed over a week ago – if not months ago.

Ronan @256 – I’m not persuaded yet either. I was opposed to the intervention in Libya, incidentally – though once it commenced I thought that the focus should be the destruction of Gaddafi’s regime, as the logic of the situation practically compelled it.

259

Suzanne 09.03.13 at 6:20 am

@240: “Why they support Assad would require a longer post than any of you probably want to read..”

I can’t imagine why Russia would wish to make a stand and support a longtime client state with Russia’s Mediterranean naval base, particularly after NATO pulled a fast one with the overthrow of Gaddafi.

The US has been “aiding and abetting” the rebels for some time now while offering Assad terms amounting to surrender, mainly because of miscalculations regarding the regime’s staying power. Diplomacy has hardly been exhausted and eventually there will have to be a return to it even if Obama does drop his bombs in “limited” and “tailored” fashion but there has been little good faith on the part of those outside forces on both sides who are financing and arming the combatants in the Syrian civil war.

260

mab 09.03.13 at 7:29 am

Yes, Suzanne, that’s one reason, but not the only one.
But very odd, you know, not to hear any outrage about the Russians arming Syria (and lying about it; they maintained – until they were caught – that they were only providing defensive weaponry), but just one “outside forces on both sides who are financing and arming the combatants.” Client state, military base, support for a dictator, weapons used to kill civilians in a civil war, lying – that usually provokes outrage when it’s on the Western side. Not so much when it’s on the other side.

261

Hidari 09.03.13 at 9:25 am

@ 260
Yes very odd not to hear any condemnation except from all ‘Western’ leaders who have gone out of the way to condemn Russia from standing in the way of ‘our’ right to overthrown the dictators we armed (with chemical weapons) after we got bored with them.

Of course the real silence here is from those proposing the view that Russia is acting for humanitarian reasons, that its aid (20 tonnes of it this week alone) is sincerely meant to alleviate distress and that its support for Assad is genuinely to help a secular leader against a jihadist/Al-Qaeda attack.

But as I said above, it is an absolute presupposition of ‘serious’ political debate that only the United States is capable of humanitarian actions. All other States (except those aligned with the US) are acting for base, cynical, self-interested reasons. ‘We’ are the only exceptions.

262

ajay 09.03.13 at 10:13 am

Hey, Hidari, it’s been a few days now since you made some fairly serious accusations in 226. Any thoughts?

263

Ronan(rf) 09.03.13 at 10:21 am

Hidari – very few people , if any one, argues that ‘the West’ only (or even primarily) intervenes on humanitarian grounds, but they do at times. (Both historically and especially since the end of the Cold War when an explicit doctrine surrounding humanitarian interventions has been built up) There are a lot of arguments against it, but it exists
Countries, *all* countries not just Western ones, intervene for a complex mix of motives highly dependant on context

mab – The idea that no one has pointed out Russian support for Syria is almost as ludicrous as As’ad AbuKhalil’s contention that the western press are ‘ignoring’ jihadist elements among the rebels

Imo, I dont see why this becomes (again – as always) another opportunity for people to pose in oppossition to X or whine about Y. All sides have done their best to destabilise Syria, all sides should be condemned

264

Emma in Sydney 09.03.13 at 10:37 am

Ajay, you might want to read section 7 of this on the Atlantic:

After the war, the British, strongly urged by Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, used combinations of mustard gas, chlorine and other gases against tribesmen in Iraq in the 1920s. As he said, “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.” In the same spirit, the Spaniards used gas against the Moroccan Rif Berbers in the late 1920s; the Italians used it against Ethiopians in the 1930s; and the Japanese used it against the Chinese in the 1940s. Churchill again: during the Second World War, he wrote that if the Blitz threatened to work against England, he “may certainly have to ask you [his senior military staff] to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany…” More recently in 1962, I was told by the then chief of the CIA’s Middle Eastern covert action office, James Critichfield that the Egyptians had used lethal concentrations of tear gas in their campaign against royalist guerrillas in Yemen.

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mab 09.03.13 at 10:38 am

@263
Agree that this is subjective, but in over 200 posts about Syria only two, I think, mentioned Russia, and then it was to ask why they couldn’t be persuaded to lean on Assad.

266

Ronan(rf) 09.03.13 at 10:41 am

@265

But everything online is always about the US! Its just another example of having American politics shoved down out throats : )

267

bob mcmanus 09.03.13 at 10:44 am

Another War for Virtue Henry Allen, WaPo, 9/1, h/t Pat Lang

As John Updike wrote: “America is beyond power, it acts as in a dream, as a face of God. Wherever America is, there is freedom, and wherever America is not, madness rules with chains, darkness strangles millions. Beneath her patient bombers, paradise is possible.”

The United States doesn’t fight for land, resources, hatred, revenge, tribute, religious conversion — the usual stuff. Along with the occasional barrel of oil, we fight for virtue.

My country is stark raving bonkers.

I am still trying to connect enduring US militarism to liberalism, the idea of nation as constructed virtuous project rather than contingent ethnographic locality.

William R Polk is long and good. Atlantic, via James Fallows

Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011. Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well. But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.

In some areas, all agriculture ceased. In others crop failures reached 75%. And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger. Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies. Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3 million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”

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Phil 09.03.13 at 11:17 am

Emma – see Chris’s comment @241. Churchill advocated quite a lot of things, some of them potentially criminal, some potentially disastrous; most of them never happened.

I don’t think the charge of the UK using WMD against civilians with impunity stands up.

269

Hidari 09.03.13 at 11:54 am

Isn’t it interesting that it’s my claims about the UK and the US’ use of WMD’s that are causing all the controversy, and not, say, the US’ claims that the Syrians are using WMDs? That seems to have passed more or less without comment.

If anyone cares, by definition, gas attacks in WW1 affected civilians as well as combatants. ‘Official’ estimates put the civilian death toll at 5200 but the real numbers were unquestionably higher than this. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2376985/).

The British also gassed their own soldiers (who were soldiers of conquered territory of the British Empire and who might, therefore, be considered to be de facto civilians).

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rawalpindi_experiments)

The Americans of course used Agent Orange extensively throughout their invasion of Vietnam, and of course Nagasaki, Hiroshima.

Also:

“Radioactive fall-out from the world’s nuclear weapons tests during the Cold War has killed 11,000 Americans with cancer, according to a new report by US scientists. Experts say that many thousands more are likely to have died in other countries.

The report, prepared by the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS) for Congress, is the first attempt to estimate the total number of cancers caused by the atmospheric testing programme. Between 1951 and 1963, 390 nuclear bombs were exploded above the ground, 205 by the US, 160 by the former Soviet Union, 21 by Britain and four by France.

The fall-out from these explosions circulated the globe and exposed the world’s population to radioactivity. Scientists have long assumed that this would result in extra cancers, but until now no government has tried to estimate how many.

The new report concludes that the number of fatal cancers attributable to global fall-out amongst Americans alive between 1951 and 2000 is 11,000. This includes deaths from leukaemia caused by exposure to strontium 90 and from a host of other cancers triggered by other isotopes.”

Although of course only some of these deaths were from US/UK nuclear weapons.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn1993-nuclear-test-fallout-killed-thousands-in-us.html#.UiXNaug7WAg

The US also poisoned 10,000 (probably) of its own citizens during prohibition.

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2010/02/the_chemists_war.html

I could go on and on and on and on and on.

270

ajay 09.03.13 at 12:13 pm

Emma, here’s that quote in context rather than out of context. He is quite clearly talking about the use of tear gas (perhaps adamsite, as the British had used the year before in Russia) rather than blister or choking agents.

“It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.”

And, as Phil rightly points out, a memo in which Churchill (or anyone) suggests doing X is not evidence that X actually happened.

The article you link to is flawed in another way. It says “I was told by the then chief of the CIA’s Middle Eastern covert action office, James Critichfield that the Egyptians had used lethal concentrations of tear gas in their campaign against royalist guerrillas in Yemen”. This is the CIA getting things wrong yet again. The Egyptians may have used tear gas, but they also used mustard and choking agents (probably phosgene). Hundreds of people were killed.

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Bruce Baugh 09.03.13 at 1:51 pm

Ronan(tf) and Bob, thanks very much for the links to articles on the environmental issues. They make a great deal of sense and I’m glad to have read them.

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LFC 09.03.13 at 2:10 pm

geo @111:

In the aftermath of World War II, everyone recognized that another global war might well end civilization, and that the best way to prevent it was for all states to give up their sovereign right to use military force except in an emergency, defined as a direct and large-scale attack by another state. In all other cases, the resort to force could only be decided on by an international tribunal, ie, the Security Council. Presumably everyone understood that this was not a magic formula, that the Security Council would sometimes make the wrong decision, and that innocent people would die as a result. But given that international anarchy led twice in the last century to catastrophic global war, international law seemed a better bet for preserving the species than unrestrained national sovereignty over the use of force. It still does, to most of us on the left.

The threats to the species today do not come from the prospect of another global great-power war, the likelihood of which is minimal. Great-power war is virtually extinct — there hasn’t been one since either 1945 or 1953, depending on one’s definitions — and the reason, in my view, is not the Security Council or an abstract commitment to intl law but a combination of normative ‘evolution’, for lack of a better word, and some other things (including the destructive capacity of modern weapons and the deterrent effects thereof).

For most of the Cold War, the Security Council was basically impotent. That began to change in the late 1980s, when UN peacekeeping and peace ‘enforcement’ ops authorized by the Sec. Council started to increase. In the Syrian situation, the Security Council is back in an impotent mode, since of the 5 permanent members, Russia (and China to some extent) are backing Assad, and the US, France and Britain aren’t. So invoking the Security Council in this situation makes no sense at all, regardless of one’s position on the issue of intervention. Invoking the Sec Council amounts to an elevation of form over substance, something international lawyers used to be accused of w some regularity. Intl law is important, but using it as a formulaic/talismanic means of closing the discussion doesn’t work. For one thing, there are issues here involving customary intl law when it comes to the use of certain kinds of weapons and the longstanding debate over ‘humanitarian intervention’. When the Sec Council was given control over the use of force by the UN Charter, I do not think that meant that the notion/tradition of customary intl law was wiped out. Which is why, even from a strictly legal standpoint, the issue is, I think, a bit more complicated than geo suggests.

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LFC 09.03.13 at 2:12 pm

p.s. in the above comment, the dates ’45 and ’53 mentioned b.c they mark the ends of WW2 and Korean War, respectively

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Consumatopia 09.03.13 at 2:22 pm

@Andrew, 258, I certainly agree that there are major differences between Iran and Syria w.r.t. “red lines”. When I say “credibility”, I don’t think it’s so much the credibility of the United States internationally, as the credibility of Obama himself (the guy who drew the line), and probably more in the eyes of other Americans than foreign governments. As I said, this isn’t much, but it’s not nothing given how often American domestic politics has involved brinkmanship lately.

Whatever motivation ultimately lies in the Administration’s heart here, the one thing we can reliably infer is that it’s not a very strong motivation–it’s planning strikes not intended to destabilize the current regime, and it’s apparently willing to leave it up to Congress whether we carry them out or not, even though it has previously launched attacks without Congressional approval.

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Ronan(rf) 09.03.13 at 2:24 pm

LFC
What role do you think the structural qualities of the international system (also for want of a better term) such as bipolarity and then US unipolarity have had in preventing great power war ? Do you think that will change once US dominance becomes more contested?

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Trader Joe 09.03.13 at 2:52 pm

“Whatever motivation ultimately lies in the Administration’s heart here, the one thing we can reliably infer is that it’s not a very strong motivation”

What its indicative of is an administration that is long on oration and short on execution. Syria is just an international example.

‘affordable healthcare for all’ – became the ACA

‘the banks pay for their failures’ – we become, maybe, eventually, a working Dodd-Frank and no punishments whatsoever for the banks

‘a strong economy, we will create jobs’ – we get, well, we know what we’ve got.

‘here’s our red line don’t cross it’ – becomes ?TBD?

Strong talk followed by a deeply compromised execution has been the script throughout. IMO, Obama’s advisors wisely talked him into going to congress so he can yet again blame congress for any shortcomings…”Congress wouldn’t authorize an invasion” etc.

Perhaps this time Congress will at least provide the excuse for doing the right thing – which in this case is “Nothing.”

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LFC 09.03.13 at 4:30 pm

Ronan @274
I don’t think bipolarity/unipolarity/etc. have all that much to do w this particular question. The distribution of capabilities usually doesn’t tell a whole lot, in my view, unless one also considers the distribution of ideas (in Wendt’s phrase) and the normative context. I’ve discussed this (and/or related issues) in a few places, for example here.

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lupita 09.03.13 at 6:36 pm

bob mcmanus@267

I am still trying to connect enduring US militarism to liberalism, the idea of nation as constructed virtuous project rather than contingent ethnographic locality.

I think the connection starts with the notion of the royal we which the Queen uses in reference to her person plus the state, a duality that all her subjects must also believe in order for the monarchy to endure. In 18th century American democracy, the royal we was used as the basis for a democratic we, as in “We the people” and the notion that sovereignty resides, not in the sovereign, but in the people. The democratic we reflects the belief that each citizen is a monarch and, hence, an embodiment of the state, not by virtue of birth or divine right, but through a sincere and deeply felt adherence to the Enlightenment values of US constitution. Somewhere during the 20th century, and inspired by the logic of self help books in which the first step is to firmly believe in one’s powers in order for one’s wishes and dreams to become reality, the democratic we mutated into a magical we. Maybe it is a desperate we. In any case, from there, it is just one step to the imperial we, which can be used by a family in Kansas during their discussions around the kitchen table as to whether “we should bomb” or “we should not bomb” Syria.

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Suzanne 09.03.13 at 7:20 pm

@260:
Well, I gave two reasons, but let it pass. I’m seeing plenty of “outrage” against the lyin’ cheatin’ Russkies in the US media and from Western leaders generally. It would seem to me the Russians actually have a slight edge here since their reasons for interfering are at least practical and immediate expressions of their national interest, while the US seems deeply muddled – Assad proved to have more staying power than Obama calculated a couple of years ago, even though it was evident to many observers at the time that the regime was unlikely to go anywhere soon….

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ezra abrams 09.03.13 at 8:37 pm

andrew @207
what i was trying to say, not anything about should we or shouldn’t we, but about our taking a high moral stance, which I think is diff from your criticism

In any event, I think you are falling into the trap that underlays this entire discussion, and, indeed, the discussion in our country
aside from the lack of evidence (you do remember WMDS ?) we shouldn’t let obama define the playing field
The question is really, can the USA, with its immense wealth, political influence and military, do something to help the lives of people in other countrys ?
If you think of it that way, maybe Syria falls down the list, maybe not

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geo 09.03.13 at 9:48 pm

LFC@271: the issue is, I think, a bit more complicated than geo suggests

Agreed; every issue is always more complicated than everyone suggests. The principle of collective decision-making about international security was accepted by those nations that signed the UN Charter, in 1948 and since. Of course it has not worked out very well in practice. Why? Because the great powers, especially the superpowers, have consistently disregarded the principle and asserted their “national interest,” and the other powers could not or would not bring them to heel.

Your suggestion seems to be that we should abandon the principle and hope that self-interest and “normative evolution” will prevent future global war. It’s possible. But I don’t see why the “normative evolution” you refer to — which I agree is the only thing that can lead to lasting peace — shouldn’t take the form of the great powers actually fulfilling the commitments they once made. After all, what we hope for from normative evolution is international cooperation. Cooperation requires trust, and trust is furthered by explicit, formal commitments to obey certain norms and a history of fulfilling those commitments. The norms are well expressed, I would say, in the UN Charter. The history of compliance is lacking. It will take a very long time to reverse the effects of superpower lawlessness. Why not start now?

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Tangurena 09.03.13 at 10:27 pm

I think what is going on here is the rationalization for why we don’t trust the US government anymore. We have several years of increasing lies by the government to its own citizens and now the citizens are expected to approve and applaud some new wargasm.

11 years ago, Colin Powell made a long presentation to the UN with charts and pictures and maps, claiming that Saddam Hussein was doing all these wicked things. Things that turned out to be falsehoods. Kerry isn’t even trying as hard – he waved no maps, no grainy satellite pictures and no charts.

In the past year, Obama claimed that the US was not spying on its citizens, yet Snowden proved Obama’s claims to be falsehoods.

There are claims that Sarin was used in Syria. And plenty of evidence that it was used by rebels – not the government. When rebels tried to set off Sarin bombs in Turkey, the authorities stopped it in time. What I think happened is that the NSA is listening to everything and only stopped the Sarin deployment in Turkey because we like Turkey and let the Sarin get deployed in Syria because it was politically convenient.

It is a sad thing, but I, and many people I know in real life, believe Assad more than we believe Obama. Obama has lied to us. Assad hasn’t. I don’t think Obama gets it.

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lupita 09.03.13 at 11:20 pm

To the WMD and NSA events, I would add the 2008 near-death financial experience. These three events together – lying, spying, and fraud – have undermined the US’s “credibility”, as Obama would put it.

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mab 09.04.13 at 8:29 am

@279
“It would seem to me the Russians actually have a slight edge here since their reasons for interfering are at least practical and immediate expressions of their national interest”

What national interest? Surely you don’t mean their base in Syria and arms sales? If you wrote that about the US, half the list would be on you like white on rice.

Yes, there are lots of articles about Russia’s obstructionism – or rather, lots of articles that mention it. There aren’t lots of articles about exactly what arms are being providing, how they are being used, etc. But as someone pointed out, how much is enough in the media is subjective. I was also refering to this discussion, where a couple of people asked about leaning on Russia, not “getting Russia to stop arming one side in the civil war.”

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Ronan(rf) 09.04.13 at 10:55 am

If this was actually the strategy

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114589/senate-hearing-syrian-war-hints-obamas-true-intentions

It might be more supportable (This was more or less what was done in Bosnia, right)

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Ronan(rf) 09.04.13 at 11:42 am

Bruce Baugh @271

If you havent already, you should check out Christian Parenti’s articles on this topic (the effect climate change s already having globally), theyre quite interesting journalistic accounts (and his new book Tropic of Chaos, whoch I actually havent read yet)

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chad 09.04.13 at 5:37 pm

“I am beginning to appreciate the frustration that Jews must have had in 1944 when their suggestions that a few Allied planes be diverted to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz went unheeded or were summarily dismissed”

It would have been counterproductive. Rail lines are repairable within hours. They are not worth the cost of bombing them, which is why the Allies stopped bombing them in WW2 (they did bomb marshalling yards and bridges, but that is a different target). The bombers used up in such a mission would not have been available for other, more productive missions.

The best way to save the jews was to win the war quickly.

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Roy Belmont 09.04.13 at 8:13 pm

The red line has no terminal points because it is the arc of a circle. We’re all inside.

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Andrew F. 09.04.13 at 10:55 pm

ezra @280: we shouldn’t let obama define the playing field
The question is really, can the USA, with its immense wealth, political influence and military, do something to help the lives of people in other countrys ?
If you think of it that way, maybe Syria falls down the list, maybe not

That’s a fair point, and one consonant with the point Quiggin raised in a recent post. If the question before us is a humanitarian question, then we should consider more than the option of limited air strikes in Syria. Why not use those resources on projects that might save even more lives? The logic is unassailable, if one grants the assumptions inherent in the question.

But such a grand array of choices is not truly before, even if as a matter of logical possibility it is. Nor will US action on Syrian chemical weapons, nor will US inaction, have much effect on alternative courses in other areas of the world. I understand that the focus on this question may seem bizarre, considered against the constellation of good projects that lack attention. Yet, for reasons we surely could discuss for many lifetimes, this is the question that we have.

Consum @274: When I say “credibility”, I don’t think it’s so much the credibility of the United States internationally, as the credibility of Obama himself (the guy who drew the line), and probably more in the eyes of other Americans than foreign governments. As I said, this isn’t much, but it’s not nothing given how often American domestic politics has involved brinkmanship lately.

On what issue in domestic politics will the President lose credibility if he were to not attack in Syria? “Sure sure Mr. President, you say our budget is unacceptable, but your decision to not launch an attack in Syria makes us doubt that you mean what you say here.” Seriously, this isn’t all that shy from another scenario: “Sure, you say you think I look good in this dress Barry, but how I can believe you after you didn’t launch cruise missiles into Syria?”

I don’t see much of a link – I definitely don’t see a plausible motivation for launching a military strike.

Look at this from another vantage. Why would the President make a “red line” statement if the concern now were simply credibility? There wasn’t any “threatening enough military force” gap for the President to close at the time. He certainly knew the consequences of making the statement when he did.

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Donald Johnson 09.05.13 at 12:09 am

“He certainly knew the consequences of making the statement when he did.”

Really? He knew what was going to happen? I don’t think so. I think he was just posturing, trying to stay out of Syria while looking tough by drawing a line he didn’t expect Assad to cross in such a brazen way (assuming Assad did it). Presidents like to look tough, for whatever reason.

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