Blowing stuff up

by John Quiggin on April 15, 2018

A while ago, I had a multi-topic post covering some things I hoped to expand on. One of them was this

Blowing things and people up is seen as a demonstration of clarity and resolve, unless someone is doing it to us, in which case it’s correctly recognised as cowardly and evil. The most striking recent example (on “our” side) was the instant and near-universal approval of Trump’s bombing of an airfield in Syria, which had no effect at all on events there.

We’ve now had another round of bombing from Trump, and yet more instant applause. As I reread the para above, and looked at evidence on the general ineffectiveness of airstrikes, it struck me that there is a big asymmetry. The satisfaction we get when our side blows something or someone up is trivial in comparison to the hatred generated when we are on the receiving end. In most cases, the people and resources mobilised against the bomber far outweigh the physical destruction the bomber can inflict. Here’s a study (paywalled, but the abstract is clear) making that point about Vietnam; it seems to be entirely general.

I’ve talked here about large-scale aerial bombing, but all of these points apply with equal force to bombing campaigns undertaken on the ground by non-state actors, going back to the “propaganda of the deed” in the 19th century. Experience has shown that deeds like bombings and assassinations make great propaganda, but not for the side that carries them out.

{ 120 comments… read them below or add one }

1

J-D 04.15.18 at 11:05 am

I remember a short story, set during the Vietnam War, in which a few US anti-war activists help a North Vietnamese soldier to get into the US, having carefully arranged for him a suitable plane, bombs, and a military uniform. The uniform is important because the idea is that his mission is a military one; if he weren’t in uniform, it would constitute a breach of the rules of war. As he is in uniform, what’s supposed to follow (in his mind, and presumably in the minds of his superiors who planned the mission) after he’s carried out his bombing run, landed his plane, and surrendered, is being taken into custody as a POW, subject to the rules that apply to that status. The actions of the local US citizens who arrive on the scene where the plane has landed after the bombs have gone off indicate, as you may imagine, no knowledge of the relevant rules; rather, they reflect the asymmetry of emotions described above.

2

Peter T 04.15.18 at 11:13 am

All true enough. I have noted that the reception of this latest spot of launches has been more mixed than previously.

3

Nia Psaka 04.15.18 at 11:37 am

As I understand it, it has long been the case that serious military theorists consider air power to be a useful adjunct to ground forces but insufficient in itself to hold territory.

Remotely piloted drones hold out the hope (and threat) that this can change—that a cheap means of global domination through air terrorism can finally be available, and thus effectively an imperial air force can ‘rule’ the world. Such a world would be terrifying to live in; all would be terrorised, all the time, not by soldiers and policemen, but by high-flying death drones. Instead of building so many vehicles to move soldiers, a great power can build drones, keep them in fuel and explosives, and bully everyone.

Short of that, though, dropped bombs can not in themselves be relied on to achieve any lasting military objective. They are a weapon of terror, little more.

A few politicians may understand this field, a little, but between the ones who filter such understanding through by-jingo nationalism and the ones who are simply more interested in other subjects, the effective level of institutional understanding in a congress or parliament, or even a president’s administration, may be too low to oversee this matter with realistic expectations.

In the USA, where politicians fear (when they do not explicitly serve) civilian ‘donor’ clients who can end a career with an October ad buy, the material understanding is that of the donors. For decades, the question has been what the heads of Chevron, Amoco/BP, Koch Industries, and so forth believe the US military is technically capable of. For all this time the US government and the military-industrial complex have indicated to them that that is a lot, for reasons that have less to do with an honest assessment of the efficacy of any military technology or practice than with an internal political interest. A government that looks powerful might hold corporations to something a little like loyalty, perhaps it can keep them afraid enough to pay some significant fraction of their taxes. But of course business cabals repeatedly take over this machinery and expect it to make the world do what they want, to kneel and to give them its wealth. That is, after all, what the US war department appears to be for.

Myself, I think aerial bombing is too terroristic to be used as a ‘normal’ weapon of war. A bit like nuclear weapons, it should be held in reserve for desperate circumstances; not used as the common USA answer to anything someone back in New York decides the West must unify as a civilisation to dislike.

4

Nia Psaka 04.15.18 at 11:50 am

I’m sorry, my first attempt at a comment was a bit rambling.

I don’t think the folks making these decisions understand what bombing even is nor what it can’t do. I don’t think their voters, their donors, or their taxpayers can be expected as a class to understand. So as a congress, and as a democracy, the USA both state and people send bombers out without understanding that they are merely terrorists, not military conquerors.

5

ph 04.15.18 at 12:52 pm

Hi John, thanks for this. It’s frankly uncanny how this worked. I’ll be seeing American colleagues this week who are generally anti-Trump, but are sure to be supportive of the latest round of blood-letting.

Yet, as much as I agree with the general tenor of your post, I feel you’re failing to make a critical distinction between the satisfaction derived when blowing people up, versus blowing things up. The latter provides little, the former is positively orgasmic for advocates of violence. So, yes, if you agree, I’d recommend making that point much more strongly.

People have to die and be maimed – innocent and ‘guilty’ alike to make the disgraceful exercise truly worthwhile. My ‘favorite’ bombings were from the Iraq wars – remember little limbless Ali, our favorite survivor of errant, but ‘necessary’ strikes?

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/chilcot-report-iraq-war-orphan-ali-tony-blair-what-the-orphan-who-became-a-symbol-of-the-iraq-war-a7120506.html

6

P O'Neill 04.15.18 at 1:03 pm

Note that the “blowing stuff up” description here is literal. The reported number of casualties from these strikes is … zero.

7

Hidari 04.15.18 at 1:22 pm

@2
Maybe in the ‘States. In the UK, The Usual Suspects have been as hysterically gung ho as ever, desperately calling for bombs to be dropped at random on the heads of brown people in order that ‘we’ be seen to be ‘doing something’. Naturally, when nothing happens as a result of these air strikes, they will shut up, until the next time their services are called upon by their corporate masters.

8

Eamonn 04.15.18 at 1:31 pm

Then I wonder what it was that stopped the Kurds in Syria from being overwhelmed when ISIS had its tail up, just to give one possible example

9

bruce wilder 04.15.18 at 1:33 pm

Experience has shown that deeds like bombings and assassinations make great propaganda, but not for the side that carries them out.

I am not sure I understand how this summary statement follows from the consideration of the phenomenon you have outlined in your post.

Apparently Trump’s bombing of Syria does generate great propaganda for “our” side, at least in the very short term. You have said as much: “more instant applause.”

The asymmetric response can be a means to an end though, for the “weak” side that provokes it. Did not work out for the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, but Gavrilo Princep and Osama bin Laden accomplished their objectives more or less.

It is the logic of a self-righteous bully to try to persuade by inflicting pain and destruction on people or people’s who are thought to be unable respond in kind and proportion because they lack the necessary resources (or because destructive force itself systematically deprives the other side of resources to respond in any way but surrender). But, if you lack the resources to play the bully on your chosen playground, then the logic of the bully becomes the logic of the terrorist.

For politics, I suppose the problem of the propagandist is figuring out how to stage the violence dramatically to provoke the desired response from the human lizard brain. And for the small d democrat, how to overcome the stupid that follows from effective propaganda by violence so that kindness, cooperation and proportion have a chance to motivate a more sophisticated calculus of how we can set general principles for getting along together.

On the whole, I feel like the stupid has had the upper hand for a long time. I expressed my exasperation about the excuses given for the Syrian bombing — unproven allegations from institutional sources with a notoriously bad recent and not so recent record of lying — to a friend with conventional liberal Democratic views, and was met with bafflement at my anger and radicalism. It didn’t encourage me to think experience matters much.

10

Omega Centauri 04.15.18 at 2:08 pm

I have to partially disagree, at least in the military sense, as it has been applied to the middle east in recent years. Clearing an urban area of an occupying force of dugin irregulars, lots of aerial (and artillery) bombardment has been shown to work, in the sense that the casualties of the forces of “liberation” have been small, and the occupiers have indeed driven out. There is of course a huge cost to civilians and civilian infrastructure, as we’ve seen in places like Mosul, and Raqqa, and various cities and neighborhoods retaken by government forces in Syria. A descriptive use of “we had to destroy the city in order to save it” seems to apply. So if I apply this argument to what Assad is doing, I’d have to say it has achieved its military/political objective -regaining control of neighborhoods that were in insurgent hands.

Now, what we are doing instead, is trying to establish that certain actions of a state actor will not go unpunished, so these last two raids have tried to do that. How much deterrent effect this has is debatable, perhaps the calculus of an actor like Assad is changed somewhat? I don’t know whether to applaud these actions, or be horrified by them.

On another measure of efficiency, the cost of an operation, versus the amount of damage inflicted, I’d have to say these have been exceedingly inefficient. Yesterday’s raid -best described as “reality TV violence” must have cost at least $200 million, to destroy three unoccupied building, so the cost to damage ratio must be at least ten. But, then the objective was really domestic politics, any change in the on the ground situation in Syria is incidental. Of course important defense industry players will also be highly rewarded, as orders for ordinance replacement should be forthcoming.

11

steven t johnson 04.15.18 at 2:16 pm

There are three kinds of bombing, at least, I think. One is terrorism, drone warfare being the technical summit of this kind. There isn’t the slightest indication that this is anything but counter-productive in the strict military sense. But if the real strategy is to continue endless war, this is reasonably effective in keeping the pot boiling without boiling over.

A second is destruction of industrial infrastructure. This is the kind of thing that was attempted against Germany and Japan in WWII, and against Korea. This is extremely costly (in money and lives,) very slow and never decisive in its own right. It is also obviously general war, not a police action. Therefore it tends not to be used. Economic warfare aimed at starving a country, as aimed at Korea, Iraq, Zimbabwe and Venezuela aims at the same results. Like strategic bombing, it is very slow and never decisive in its own right. But unlike strategic bombing, it is relatively inexpensive to the besiegers.

Third, there is tactical bombing against targets in a built-up urban environment. The tactical advantages to a defense even by a relatively small minority there is so great that barring an enormous superiority in manpower, the only way to really defeat a determined and disciplined force in that terrain is to destroy large parts of the terrain. If the bombing force is itself a minority, in the end this will act like terror bombing, and almost certainly fail, as I think you should admit it did in Iraq. If, as seems to be the case in Syria, the bombing agency has the support of the overall majority, then eventually peace can be made.

A thought on the most recent bombing: If a chemical weapons dump had been blown up, the poison cloud released would have spread uncontrollably. It is hard to imagine how this caused no casualties. My tentative conclusion is that there were no chemical weapons dumps. But then, I was amazed when I saw the recent pictures of men being doused with water to decontaminate them. Personally I would have stripped off contaminated clothing first. Then I wondered how the gas knew to avoid women (as I didn’t see any in the pictures provided.) It’s almost as if the actors weren’t willing to do nude scenes.

It seems to me that this is sitzkrieg. Like the democratic allies in the opening stages of WWII, the US wants its opponent to accept its place in the world, rather than seeking to revise the verdicts of the previous war. But it doesn’t truly want to fight an all out struggle, because it’s not yet an existential crusade. Likely people will disagree. I thought the movie Dunkirk thoroughly falsified the war by ignoring that the real drama was in the choice to actually fight the fascists, which the UK and France hadn’t chosen to do. Petain made France’s choice plain. Churchill, safer on an island, chose differently. I thought Darkest Hour was in many ways much superior for showing explicitly how little interest there was in fighting fascism on the part of the rulers. It would have been too much to expect a character to observe the British Empire was a hideous tyranny too, of course. But Dunkirk’s quasi-pacifist war is hell mood is ersatz in every sense as far as I’m concerned.

12

nastywoman 04.15.18 at 2:51 pm

– there is this (economical) theory – and Warning! – it is a pretty ”evil” (economical) theory – that we just have to get rid of all the bombs we produce – as it is pretty much the main ”thing” we still manufacture – and one can keep old cars -(”Oldtimers”!) how do you get rid of old bombs?

Especially if one has as many as we have?

And so the only (stimulus?) way is to drop them on some… no please not people – BUT ask some other here mentioned on ”some stuff” – in order to stimulate US economy – BE-cause if all the old bombs have been dropped we have to manufacture new ones…

13

Glen Tomkins 04.15.18 at 3:18 pm

The great nations of the earth don’t believe in strategic bombing because it works. The Strategic Bombing Survey after WWII looked at that question and concluded that the entire Allied strategic bombing effort in that war was a massive waste of scarce resources.

But those sound conclusions could not be accepted, because accepting them would involve an admission of guilt for Dresden and Hiroshima and all the rest. Strategic bombing has to be an effective means of winning wars to make our side the tragic hero who chose to do terrible things to the civilians of Dresden and Hiroshima because that was the only way to win the war and prevent even more terrible things. That story is a sham and has always been a sham. The Allies engaged in killing enemy civilians en masse out of stupidity and fear and, as proven by the difference between the campaigns against German vs Japanese cities, out of racism.

Germany and Japan have admitted their war guilt because they had the good fortune to lose that war. No such luck for the victors of that war, so they continue to wallow in the ignorance and the guilt that requires this particular flavor of ignorance. These former allied powers are now the great powers of the earth, so of course lesser powers emulate them.

14

Heliopause 04.15.18 at 4:12 pm

If isolated bombings tend not to achieve cognizable military goals, and Presidential military advisors are educated people who surely understand this, then the logical conclusion is that these bombings are undertaken for reasons other than the stated ones.

15

Gabriel 04.15.18 at 5:16 pm

Are we really gonna do this this time? I have a pretty tidy list in my head, and surgically bombing the chemical weapon facilities of a dictator currently using them against his own people: pretty OK by me, even if Trump did it. Hell, even if Henry Kissinger collaborated on the deed with Osama Bin Laden. To generically lump this in with targeted assassination programs or carpet bombing in lieu of an invasion etc seems a bit daft to me in a ‘just waiting for an excuse to make the same speech’ kinda way.

16

PatinIowa 04.15.18 at 5:42 pm

P. O’Neill @6

Apparently, given a week’s warning, you can get your soldiers and chemists out of the way. Who could have predicted?

A really cynical person might wonder if the US told the Russians more directly when the strikes were coming.

17

LFC 04.15.18 at 6:56 pm

Istm that, following a chemical weapons attack of this kind, a multilateral (US/UK/France) targeted response aimed at chemical weapons facilities (and causing, as far as reports have it, no civilian casualties) is justified under int’l norms and arguably also under customary international law (although int’l lawyers will be found on both sides of that question, I’m sure, and a long post by an int’l law prof at Opinio Juris argues the strikes are not legal based, istm, on an overly narrow reading of the UN Charter and other relevant law). Whether the strikes will actually accomplish much of anything is a separate question and I tend to doubt that they will, but in terms of justification, I think they are justified.

On a pt of terminology: the OP refers to “large-scale aerial bombing.” Aerial bombing means the dropping of bombs from airplanes. These were cruise missile strikes, w the missiles fired from, as I understand it, a mixture of sea and air platforms (though I wd have to check the details). Anyway, “large-scale aerial bombing” is not a v. good description for these kinds of strikes.

18

LFC 04.15.18 at 7:06 pm

P.s. This kind of strike bears no resemblance to the large-scale aerial bombing campaigns of e.g. the Vietnam War, the subject of the journal article linked in the OP. Operation Rolling Thunder, for example, was indeed large-scale (albeit “graduated”), and often none too precise, aerial bombing, memorably described (if w a bit of exaggeration) by an interviewee in the Burns/Novick Vietnam documentary as “the dumbest campaign ever devised by a human being.”

19

Stephen 04.15.18 at 8:09 pm

Very eloquent, very convincing. Absolutely agreed. Pity some progressives did not manage, perhaps did not try to persuade the IRA of the futility of their bombing campaign over so many decades, or to persuade Islamists now; JQ does of course acknowledge the parallel.

With regard to JQ’s wise statement that “The satisfaction we get when our side blows something or someone up is trivial in comparison to the hatred generated when we are on the receiving end”; after IRA or Islamist bombs, a major concern in progressive quarters has been to minimise, if possible prevent the dreaded “backlash” among the victim population against the perpetrators. Does this mean that those who try to minimise backlash are perhaps unwittingly strengthening the bombers?

20

dilbert dogbert 04.15.18 at 10:38 pm

21

PatinIowa 04.16.18 at 12:18 am

A really cynical person would be unsurprised:

In fact, it seems that Russia had some idea of what to expect ahead of time. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that, although the U.S. military did not coördinate targets with Russia ahead of time, it used the “deconfliction” line between the two countries to warn where Western forces would be operating. However, a report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant on Saturday morning said that French military officials had in fact warned their Russian counterparts of the impending strikes. (A columnist in Kommersant dubbed the whole episode “war by agreement.”) In turn, an official close to the Assad regime told Reuters, “We had an early warning of the strike from the Russians.”

https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/russias-madman-routine-in-syria-may-have-averted-direct-confrontation-with-the-us-for-now-putin-trump

22

floopmeister 04.16.18 at 12:28 am

There are clear advantages to the use of airpower which have nothing to do with strategic effectiveness:

One overarching trend in the development of military technology has been the ongoing search for distance, whether tactical or strategic. This drive has led from the spear and the sling to the bow and then the crossbow; from the introduction of firearms through artillery to the machine gun; from the invention and militarisation of flight to the aircraft carrier and then the drone; from the atomic bomb through the ICBM to the eventual militarisation of space. This growing complexity of military technology in the search for tactical and then strategic distance has both driven, and been driven by, developments in the wider societies which have embraced such technological developments. At the same time it is merely another facet of the increasing reliance of developed societies on technological solutions to the problems they face.

There is a concern among industrialised nations and militaries with force protection… above all, a focus on ever more complex technology to allow for the effective projection of force at a distance without the danger of ‘collateral damage’, it is however well understood that the lives of one’s own soldiers or airmen are privileged over any possible civilian casualties. Thus there has been the clear media fixation on the use of ‘smart’ weaponry such as missiles and bombs which can be launched from planes or even ships many hundreds of miles from the target. While the stated goal of such weaponry is to avoid civilian casualties, when they inevitably occur it is apparently either because of intelligence deficiencies (whether on the part of such weapons or those firing them) or the lamentable tendency of urban civilians to fraternise with those designated as military targets.

This trajectory of technological and strategic development eventually led the WWII policy of strategic bombing to its grimly logical conclusion with the infernos of Dresden and Tokyo, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The experience of the massed bombing campaigns of WWII has only enabled and reinforced the contemporary fetishisation of airpower as a tool of statecraft on the part of the former WWII Allies the US and the UK. The ‘smart’ missiles of the 1990’s and then the current generation of drones have only accelerated this trajectory with the strategic distance of airpower now matched by a similar tactical distance; instead of the possible danger to aircrews the ‘pilot’ of such drones may be sitting at a monitor on the other side of the world. Such technologies – and proposed developments such as space-based weapons – thus take the perceived strategic and tactical advantages of the aircraft to its logical extreme. This is the ‘vision’ of surgical warfare, in which political objectives can be achieved through the application of technically superior (above all accurate) air power with minimal (friendly) or civilian casualties

Quote from me (personal research), actually…

23

Chet Murthy 04.16.18 at 1:05 am

@dilbert dogbert:

TL;DR The idea that “strategic bombing” can be applied against non-peer adversaries is itself strategically unsound.

While I’m no fan of our nation’s military adventurism, at least in the case of WWII and Germany, I recently read Adam Tooze’s _Wages of Destruction_, wherein (using economic documents) he makes a pretty strong case that the “strategic” bombing of Ruhr industrial plants -did- have a significant role in diminishing Nazi war-making capacity. That is, he shows that while in the short-term the Nazis were able to use steel stocks and such to keep producing armaments, the breakdown of the feeder industries meant that the Nazis knew this was a last-gasp effort: that once the existing steel was used, they’d be *done*. Tooze’s point seems to be limited, in that it’s about the -factories- (and even moreso the really large ones producing feedstock materials), and not about bombing populations.

But none of this matters: strategic bombing of peer competitors might work by destroying their industrial plants. But against non-peer competitors, it isn’t strategic bombing It’s a strategic mistake

(1) Given that these days arms factories reside in non-combatant countries, his arguments don’t hold: Iran and Russia can supply Syria forever. And even Tooze noted the speed with which basic services could be brought back online after a bombing raid (obvs. not a raid that destroyed an entire city center).

(2) Mass bombing of non-peer (lesser) adversaries can only cause them to resort to asymmetric warfare, against which we have no defense other than to ourselves resort to totalitarianism (to hunt down and kill all insurgents). It’s been widely reported over the years that Iran is prepared with sleeper cells all over the world, to wreak havoc on our country and allies, if we attack them. And it doesn’t take much havoc to cost us enormously. Then there’s the longer-term blowback: long ago Bin Laden’s writings about being in Beirut at the time the Israelis were collapsing the apartment blocks there with F-16 bombing sorties, and his desire to return the favor to the makers of those jets, is pretty clearly an example of such blowback. You can recognize Bin Laden as an enemy, and still also recognize that -strategically- having created him and armies like him, was a stupid, stupid action.

Tom “suck on this” Friedman didn’t realize that he was creating the conditions for ISIS. He should have: that’s what he’s *paid* to do. Many did realize this, and they were ignored. That was a mistake of -strategy-, and you don’t need to be a peacenik to realize it. Foreign policy realism should tell you that unless you’re prepared for a war of genocidal extermination (and the international isolation that would engender), you don’t employ state-decapitation and all the other effects of “mass bombing” against non-peer adversaries.

24

Chet Murthy 04.16.18 at 1:11 am

In my preceding comment, I should have made it clear that I’m not suggesting that “a war of genocidal extermination” is a viable option. Of course (a) it’s not morally tenable, but (b) even if it were, if America tried it, we’d be shunned by the world, and within short order, given global supply chains, we’d be done for. Here again, Tooze’s work is really illuminating: his focus on the lengths to which the Nazis went, to get access to raw materials (petroleum, food, various oils, etc) makes it clear how much of a close-run thing the Nazi’s plan was: Hitler knew even beforehand, that all the dice had to roll his way, in order to sustain his war, b/c Germany basically couldn’t feed itself, and he knew that the war would make imports harder and harder to obtain.

25

faustusnotes 04.16.18 at 2:07 am

Frederick Taylor also argues in his book Dresden that the strategic bombing was an important contribution to ww2, at least in Europe. He defends Dresden specifically, arguing that it was a crucial interchange for moving soldiers from west to east, that it had a very large precision engineering industry for e.g. bomb and artillery sights, and that it was a legitimate military target. He also observes that the Soviet Union were pleading with the west to do something to reduce the defenses on the eastern front, which were making the Russian advance very costly, and points out that by the end of the war a sizable portion of the German armaments industry was devoted to defending cities from air attack, which meant that a sizable proportion of the armaments industry was not devoted to slaughtering Russians. I was convinced by his case when he read it, though he doesn’t weigh the damage against the civilian cost directly, and I’m sure that in the case of Japan the mass bombings were at least partly driven by the exterminationist racism prevalent among military planners in the USA at that time.

None of this has any bearing on what happened this weekend of course, which was just a stupid joke.

26

LFC 04.16.18 at 3:21 am

There are two separate questions: 1) what kinds of air power are or are not effective under what conditions; 2) what kinds of air power are or are not justifiable, legally or morally, under what conditions. On the first question I recommend Robert Pape’s 1996 book with the somewhat misleading title Bombing to Win.

I agree w some of what has been said above about so-called strategic bombing, but this kind of strike is not that. It shd be debated wrt what it was, as best as can be determined, and not compared to, say, the fire bombing of Tokyo. This comes down to the capacity to make some basic distinctions.

27

Collin Street 04.16.18 at 5:23 am

Everybody on the hard right of politics has cognitive impairments that inter alia impede their ability to comprehend the thinking processes of others and thus predict the conclusions they will come to: this means they only see the first-order outcomes of their actions

“Austerity” [cut outgoings, not realising that this will lead to those whose outgoings you cut will cut your incomings] and “long-range bombing” [reduce the number of those angry with you, not realising that more people will be made angry by having their friends and relatives reduced] are entirely of a piece, the same mistake in different context.

[why do you think they spy so much? because they can’t work out what people will do based on extrapolating from their circumstances. It’s also why they don’t know how to apologise.]

28

Peter T 04.16.18 at 5:37 am

LFC

Agreed. But what was this strike? It did not kill anyone. At least one of the buildings is reported to have been previously inspected and cleared by international inspectors. It did not alter the military balance. It took place while inspectors were on the ground trying to verify the use of chemical weapons. It has not been firmly established that chemical weapons were used and, if so, by whom.

In short, there does not appear to be any political or military rationale behind this at all. It appears more to be an act of petulant spite, coupled with some felt need to demonstrate power (in the latter it failed – it demonstrated the stringent limits of US power in Syria).

So there’s not much point in parsing it as a rational act. It’s more an irritable physical gesture.

29

Brett 04.16.18 at 5:48 am

I don’t think it’s useful to look at the effectiveness of strategic bombing in WW2 and the Korean War, and use that for any guide on its effectiveness. Warfare in general and bombing in particular is just very different from what it was as recent as 40 years ago – bombing back in WW2 was incredibly inaccurate by comparison.

30

MFB 04.16.18 at 7:13 am

It seems clear that this attack was not intended to make any change in either the behaviour of the Syrian government or on any of its allies. For one thing, if you wanted to change their behaviour, you would have to back up any such attack with diplomatic action, and as far as I know no such diplomatic action was undertaken or is indeed possible, given that neither Syria nor Russia nor Iran nor Hizbollah has any reason to trust any promises or undertakings made by the United States or its satellites. (That might be changed, but certainly not in the near future.)

In that case, what was the point of the attack? It clearly has nothing to do with strategic bombing, nor tactical bombing, so it is some kind of political agenda which is being served here.

But is it to appease a “domestic constituency”? I really doubt that the British or French publics care at all about blowing up some abandoned ammunition dumps somewhere in the Levant. To the extent to which those publics care, they care because they have been encouraged to care by the pro-government, pro-bombing media. So someone who told the media to be pro-bombing must be responsible, not an actual “constituency”.

But that must mean that someone very rich and powerful wanted the attack. Why? Was it Gulf states trying vainly to get the United States to do what they have failed to do with their Wahhabi gunmen? Was it Russophobes trying to ramp up conflict with Russia to no obvious purpose? But both of these projects seem to serve no obvious plutocratic objective and do not really benefit the United States or its satellites in the long run.

I’m worried that perhaps there is no good reason; that the West’s internal dynamics have become so chaotic that it acts without consideration, like the “spasm” which used to be associated with the last phase of nuclear war.

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Collin Street 04.16.18 at 7:48 am

But ultimately the more selective and less indiscriminate you want to be, the more you need to discriminate in your target selection and the more information you need to make those discriminations.

And for personalised killing — really, anything smaller than a small factory or a railway station — the amount and currency of the information you need is basically unobtainable without somebody on the ground. No dictator would replace their death squads with an artillery battery on every police station, because… probably they never thought of it. But if they did it wouldn’t work.

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Ben Philliskirk 04.16.18 at 9:57 am

MFB @ 30

“In that case, what was the point of the attack? It clearly has nothing to do with strategic bombing, nor tactical bombing, so it is some kind of political agenda which is being served here.”

I think the motivation is that of credibility. While I suspect that they are rightly convinced that their actions can achieve little or nothing in Syria, the US and the ‘dead empires’ (UK & France) fear that to let the conflict pass without any intervention on their part will reduce their status both globally and with important domestic opinion groups. This is accentuated by the fact that the Middle East has traditionally been a area of great-power interest, and many other local powers have been heavily involved.

As such, this type of action is utterly cynical. By seizing on reports of atrocities they can grasp the moral high ground and effectively excuse what is a pointless gesture from any real humanitarian, military or diplomatic point of view, but one which reminds everyone that ‘the West’ is still there and should not be ignored.

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Peter T 04.16.18 at 10:39 am

UK opinion polls do not suggest full-throated support for the military action. See

http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/

34

MisterMr 04.16.18 at 11:17 am

Did some independent source actually certify that Assad used said chemical weapons?

Last things I read is that it’s just the bombing governments claiming that they have proof, and I’m sorry to say that after the Iraq war I don’t believe them just on their word.

35

LFC 04.16.18 at 12:37 pm

@Peter T
Not doing this at proper keyboard so must be brief. First, I think it’s fairly clear that chemical weapons were used — see the accounts of rescuers in apt blocks finding dead persons foaming at the mouth. I also think it’s pretty clear who is responsible.

Second, on the rationale for the strike, I would see it as political: i.e. the use of chemical weapons is an esp egregious violation of international norms that requires some response, esp since this is not an isolated use but has been done by the same actor before. Whether this was the best kind of response is open to v serious doubt, but I see it as, if you want to use the language of gestures, a symbolic gesture rather than an act of petulance or petty, selfish, irrational, groundless anger.

There are not two categories: instrumentally rational action and irrational gestures and nothing else. There’s also a category of symbolic action which is what I would tend to see this as.

36

RichT 04.16.18 at 1:14 pm

On the assumption that an echo chamber is unhealthy, I’m going to do you all a favour by suggesting some alternative views. :)

OP: “The satisfaction we get when our side blows something or someone up is trivial in comparison to the hatred generated when we are on the receiving end.”

Doesn’t surprise at this fact suggest a belief in some sort of moral equivalence between, say, killing some teenage girls at a pop concert, and destroying the chemical weapon facilities of a dictator? Or does it suggest a moral equivalence in the objectives and intent of those carrying out such acts (that is, punishing teenage girls for immodesty, or punishing a dictator for using chemical weapons against civilians)? In the absence of any such moral equivalence, isn’t the assymetry both unsurprising and indeed fully justified?

There have been some very ill-informed opinions expressed about the effectiveness of air power. Second World War application of air power and studies thereof are clearly not directly applicable here. To say that air power is totally ineffective is clearly and demonstrably false. Of course, whether it will or can achieve the desired objectives in this particular case is another matter – perhaps not, but that is a different discussion.

As to what those objectives may be – well, speculation about oil interests, evil capitalist string-pullers, munitions manufacturers etc, are I’m sure meant at least partly tongue in cheek. In this case I expect there are, as in many cases, many different and intertwined objectives, and I expect that appealing to a domestic audience by looking strong and decisive, and seeming to be ‘doing something’ (where what the something actually is doesn’t matter enormously) are probably in the mix somewhere. But the primary objective and motivation is surely that expressed, and I see no reason not to take it at face value – that is, the desire to discourage the normalisation of the use of chemical weapons and to signal that Western powers are ready and willing to take military action in support of this desire. Given recent use of chemical weapons by Russia against Britain, and by Syria against its own citizens (repeatedly), it seems not unreasonable to suppose that there is a real danger of such normalisation. Signalling by limited and targeted use of military force (destroying in this case, by the sound of it, three empty buildings, with zero casualties) may prove ineffective, but given the limited tools available, it seems worth trying rather than, say, doing nothing at all, or making a much larger and more violent military intervention (blowing a lot more stuff up – which presumably posters here would not be in favour of either).

Personally I’m all for using other methods too – in particular economic sanctions against Russia (not that these are without great risk for all sides, and can hardly be applied directly to Syria) but the fact that other methods might be under-utilised doesn’t undermine the value of targeted use of military force. Which may yet prove ineffective, but as I say, that is another discussion.

(Or TL;DR – I agree with LFC @35)

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Glen Tomkins 04.16.18 at 1:36 pm

Brett, @29

The inaccuracy of bombing in WWII was the reason it had to be directed at cities, which were big and obvious enough for it to hit, while an infantry battalion wasn’t. Yes, bombing is more accurate now, which means that the excuse that it can only target something as big and unconcealable as a suburb is no longer valid. If you’re trying to win a war in 2018, as opposed to committing genocide, you target the infantry or tank battalion, or artillery battery.

38

Dipper 04.16.18 at 1:55 pm

From a UK perspective this is a choice between two unpleasant options. Bombing isn’t great, but not-bombing isn’t a great choice either. The UK has the added issue that we have just requested and received support from our allies over the Salisbury poisonings, so when we get a call from Macron to support the French bombing of Syria then unless we have a compelling reason not to, we should go along with it.

And as all roads lead to Brexit, it is worth noting that until recently various continental politicians were saying how Ireland was their ally now and not the UK. So it is helpful to have issues and events that remind member states in the EU that in troubled times a country of 60 million plus with an extensive array of military hardware is a better ally than a nation of 3 million who specialise in peacekeeping. So that’s another reason for helping out.

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steven t johnson 04.16.18 at 2:08 pm

RichT claims to take the government case at face value, while ignoring the government claim it wasn’t making a symbolic gesture to stop chemical weapons use, but actually stopping chemical weapon use by Syria by destroying stockpiles and manufacturing. (By the way, at least two comments specifically said bombing works in some instances.)

LFC seems to think the symbolism of bombing empty buildings while claiming to be bombing chemical warfare materiel can only be what the government says it is. I think that if any foreign government should be so unAmerican as to not instantly accept US government statements as fact it might not be so obvious. Were anyone to look at what they do rather than listen to what they say, bombing empty buildings symbolizes not planning on doing any real fighting. Sitzkrieg, not blitzkrieg.

I will note that in all this discussion of government lies, Russia claimed to have shot down a large proportion of the cruise missiles. My guess this is blowhard rant, completely parallel to Putin’s recent proclamations about their amazing new weapons systems. It seems to me to symbolize Putin’s terror, trying to avert doom by threatening apocalypse. Modeled on Saddam Hussein’s mother of all battles?

40

NomadUK 04.16.18 at 3:04 pm

Craig Murray:-

‘But the evidence that Assad used chemical weapons against Douma is non-existent, and the OPCW did not conclude that the Assad government was responsible for the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. There is no evidence whatsoever that military action was urgently required to avert another such “immediate” attack. Nor is it true that the UK’s analysis of the situation is “generally accepted” by the international community, as witness China and Russia voting together in the Security Council yesterday to condemn the attack.’

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dax 04.16.18 at 3:38 pm

” I really doubt that the British or French publics care at all about blowing up some abandoned ammunition dumps somewhere in the Levant. “

The French public expected something to be blown up. When Macron met Putin at Versailles, he drew a red line for the use of chemical weapons. Blowing up a building or two (claimed to be involved in the production of chemical weapons) without any civilian casualties seems to be a win for everyone.

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casmilus 04.16.18 at 4:10 pm

@29

Edward Luttwak reviewed the evidence on strategic and tactical bombing some years ago, and it turns out the results vary a great deal such that there are simple conclusions about whether bombing “works” or not.

As I remember:

1. Bombing soldiers can be very effective at stunning them and knocking morale, but it has to be followed up by a ground attack within a day or two to exploit the effect (eg. Sedan in 1940). Otherwise any competent officers will restore discipline quickly. Whenever the Germans dithered the Allies were able to pull their defence back together quickly; Blitzkrieg relied as much on keeping the tanks rolling as the bombers flying.

2. Area/carpet bombing was not very good at breaking down the supply networks of the Reich until the last months, when the fronts were collapsing anyway, even though the Fuhrer could still contact the commanders for haranguing. However the 1991 air campaign against Iraq paralysed the communications and ammunition trains with (comparatively) little damage on civilian targets, such that Saddam Hussein would have struggled to issue orders and mobilise a response if the invading forces had carried on past Kuwait. As was indicated by John Major in a speech shortly afterwards, the air campaign was greatly assisted by special forces parachuted into enemy territory to mark out targets.

3. Air strikes against shipping are the forgotten theatre in this discussion but it would be very important in this globalised world where the West needs lots of imports. Apparently the 1980 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was regarded by some Pentagon analysts as a move to put bombers in range of the shipping routes out of the Persian Gulf.

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roger gathmann 04.16.18 at 4:11 pm

I do think it should be mentioned, here, that in terms of casualties, Trump is a piker compared to Obama. Nobody really cares, save the families of the victims, or the injured victims, but the U.S. led air strikes against Syria have resulted in 11,100 people – many times more than, say, ISIS. There’s been little protest. With Trump, I imagine the people who have been engineering the comfortable slaughter of Syrians will keep congratulating each other that they are preventing the slaughter of Syrians, without looking behind them at the bloody trail of corpses that follows them. Cause fundamentally they are morally inert. Bad people. This isn’t a partisan issue – they are bi-partisanly bad.
I wish Crooked Timber would put up a link to Fellow Travellers, a leftist foreign policy site that is in you all’s area of interest. https://fellowtravelersblog.com/

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casmilus 04.16.18 at 4:12 pm

should be “there are NO simple conclusions”

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bruce wilder 04.16.18 at 4:13 pm

RichT: the primary objective and motivation is surely that expressed, and I see no reason not to take it at face value

wow

Collin Street, can you help me out here?

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LFC 04.16.18 at 4:27 pm

Harold Koh, former State Dept legal adviser, on the US govt’s failure to offer an explicit legal justification for this kind of action:

https://www.justsecurity.org/54952/real-red-linebehind-trumps-april-2018-syria-strikes/

n.b. He’s not concluding the strike was nec. unlawful but rather making the pt that the intervenors have to offer an explicit and detailed legal rationale, one that incorporates the likely effectiveness or lack thereof in both deterring future chemical weapons use and improving the overall humanitarian situation.

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Hidari 04.16.18 at 4:29 pm

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Hidari 04.16.18 at 4:40 pm

@38

Are you a mind reader? ‘Bombing isn’t great, but not-bombing isn’t a great choice either.’ That’s exactly what I said to the judge at my trial!

As I explained to him, it was just a choice I felt I had to make between two unpleasant options. It was also complicated in that Sammy ‘the Rat’ Vicento had just requested ‘support’ over the Brixton poisonings, so when Bill ‘Slasher’ DiMario asked for help, unless I had a compelling reason not to (which I didn’t) I felt I should go along with it.

Hidari
HMP Belmarsh
Thamesmead

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LFC 04.16.18 at 4:47 pm

steven t johnson @39
LFC seems to think the symbolism of bombing empty buildings while claiming to be bombing chemical warfare materiel can only be what the government says it is.

Actually I made no reference whatsoever to official govt statements. Those statements portray the action as aimed, inter alia, at deterring chemical weapons use. I was, rather, describing the action as I think it wd appear to at least many outside observers.

p.s. The US govt approach to the Syria conflict has been very deficient. At a minimum the US govt shd be accepting more Syrian refugees and, as Koh mentions, exempting Syrian refugees from any travel bans or other obstacles that tend to make it more difficult for them to get asylum/refugee status. This criticism stands irrespective of what one thinks of the response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

On the latter question, there are no esp. good options, istm. If one jumps through all of Koh’s suggested legal hoops, it’s not clear what the practical outcome wd be. Perhaps the strongest case against this kind of (what I termed) symbolic strike wd be a showing that it will worsen the overall humanitarian situation, either by encouraging Assad to intensify his genocidal actions or in other ways. If I were persuaded that it will worsen the overall situation, then I wd likely oppose it. Unfortunately these are matters difficult to predict, and in the meantime decision-makers are faced w the immediate question of what to do about repeated chemical weapons use. Under the circumstances, a limited, ‘symbolic’ use of force, accompanied (as this was not) by an explicit legal and normative justification, might be the least bad of a range of bad options. I emphasize “might” b/c I don’t think anyone can really know this for sure.

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Ogden Wernstrom 04.16.18 at 4:54 pm

faustusnotes 04.16.18 at 2:07 am:

None of this [discussion of the effects of “strategic bombing” on production of military armaments] has any bearing on what happened this weekend of course, which was just a stupid joke.

I’m sure it will become part of Trump’s stand-up routine, and his target audience will love it.

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Cian 04.16.18 at 5:51 pm

I’m always amazed during these ‘Wag the Dog’ moments at how many western liberals take government propoganda at face value.

This was an entirely symbolic bombing for western consumption. $200+ million spent on PR. The likelihood that the lab which was bombed had anything to do with chemical weapons is extremely low – but it was high enough that they apparently thought it would convince the rubes. It seems they were correct in this belief.

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Cian 04.16.18 at 6:17 pm

RichT: To say that air power is totally ineffective is clearly and demonstrably false.

It’s totally ineffective if your enemy is based in cities and you don’t have sufficient ground forces. Unless your aim is to kill large numbers of civillians, in which case it can be pretty effective.

It is impossible to have a war that involves taking cities without large scale destruction and civilian casualties. People who argue otherwise are either lying, or ignorant. If you think that a war of this kind is worth the death of large numbers of civilians (including children) then make the case. I actually think the war against ISIS/Al-Quaeda is one of those wars, just as the war against the Nazis was – while I might argue over some of the tactics/priorities I think Mosul was justified.

In Syria the choice is between a vicious genocidal rebel army and a brutal dictatorship that will do anything necessary to preserve it’s power. The third option is endless war. Out of three bad choices Assad winning seems vastly preferable. I’m not a fan of genocide personally, and we’ve seen what endless warfare looks like.

If the west really wanted to improve things for the Syrian people it would get seriouly involved in the peace talks and push for something that resulted in a more ‘democratic’ Syria, which is certainly a possible outcome.

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Cian 04.16.18 at 6:24 pm

MFB:
But is it to appease a “domestic constituency”? I really doubt that the British or French publics care at all about blowing up some abandoned ammunition dumps somewhere in the Levant. To the extent to which those publics care, they care because they have been encouraged to care by the pro-government, pro-bombing media. So someone who told the media to be pro-bombing must be responsible, not an actual “constituency”

In the US that constituency is the foreign policy elite/commentariat. Public opinion is mostly irrelivant to these things. In the UK it’s about trying to preserve the ‘special relationship’ by being the US poodle. A relationship that only the government/political elite care about. Public support for the ‘special relationship’ was mostly destroyed by the Iraq War Blair/Bush.

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Brian 04.16.18 at 7:11 pm

2 years ago Foreign Policy discussed a Saudi cable requesting the overthrow of Assad. https://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2016/02/26/newly-translated-wikileaks-saudi-cable-overthrow-the-syrian-regime-but-play-nice-with-russia/ How soon forgotten.

The Saudis are masters of the after-the-fact “legal bribe”. They gift after people leave office, in one case over $100 million to a former secdef. Syria is Middle East nation with a homegrown functioning quasi-democracy that is inclusive and multi-cultural. Syria shows that it is possible for Sunni, Shia, Christians, Druze, etc. to live and function together. They aren’t perfect by any means. But Syria is a huge threat to the tinpot potentates sitting on piles of oil money that are Sunni extremist dictatorships. Syria shows the Arab world that those “royals” are not necessary. Assad has also been a thorn in Israel’s side, and that makes for the strange bedfellows of Likud and the House of Saud allying to get rid of those pesky Syrians.

These rather ham-handed false flag chemical attacks have happened, each time, when the ISIS/rebel faction wants to try to pull the USA and Europe into the fight. Assad has never had a motive to use chemical weapons. It would be ridiculous to do so in the last day of a battle that his side won.

That said, these rocket attacks do a couple of things. They allow people like Pompeo to go to the Saudis and Israelis and say, “Hey, we tried.” Replacing those armaments is $103 million order to the missile manufacturers. On the Russian side, they allow live-fire testing in the real world of anti-missile systems. Such data is worth more than a rather large heap of gold to Russia’s weapons designers.

Russia found out in the USA’s Iraq war that its weapons systems were junk. The kill ratio between American troops and weapons and Iraqi troops with Russian weapons and training was over 100:1. To put that in perspective, that is 5 times worse than the kill ratio between the English in South Africa with gatling guns, rifles, cannon and bayonets, and the forces of Shaka Zulu armed with spears, slingshots and rawhide shields.

The greatest significance of this is that in the end, this exercise is an admission of impotence, a kind of national paper-tiger tantrum by a fading empire. Far from scaring anyone, China has moved in troops to ally with Russia and Syria there.

For China, this move serves multiple purposes. First, it is pushback against the US empire that is overextended. This sets up a confrontation in the Middle East that I believe China sees the USA and Europe losing in the long run. That furthers China’s grip on the South China Sea as well.

Second, it applies the principle of upping the ante. Adding Chinese troops ups the ante in Syria by raising the possibility of Chinese casualties.

Third, Chinese troops in Syria give China yet another option to deal with a rather stupid and truculent US administration. The White House is relatively incapable of dealing with more than one crisis at a time. The more troops and weapons it has in Syria, the more capable it is of creating a military confrontation there. North Korea’s nuclear weapons posturing has done that for China in both the Obama administration (South China Sea) and trade saber-rattling by the early Trump admin. But China needs to cool that off. They don’t really want to see North Korea touch off a nuclear war on their border, not unless things are much more dire. So, if China can set up in Syria and create a military presence in the Middle East, then China will have the ability to spin things up there. If things go nuclear in the Middle East, that’s a long ways from China.

Fourth, just like Russia, China could use a test site for their weapons and tactics against US equipment. Real live fire in the field is invaluable.

So, for both Russia and China, Syria is a win-win. If Syria wins and is pacified, then both Russia and China can say they won. Good for them. If things stay hot there, then Russia and China get to test their weapons and equipment. For China more than Russia, the opportunity to have a beachhead from which to launch major distractions to manipulate the White House is also extremely important.

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Life Is beautiful 04.16.18 at 8:06 pm

should be “there are NO simple conclusions”

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Cian 04.16.18 at 8:39 pm

Dipper @38: And as all roads lead to Brexit, it is worth noting that until recently various continental politicians were saying how Ireland was their ally now and not the UK. So it is helpful to have issues and events that remind member states in the EU that in troubled times a country of 60 million plus with an extensive array of military hardware is a better ally than a nation of 3 million who specialise in peacekeeping. So that’s another reason for helping out.

What did the UK provide other than airbases? ‘Extensive array of military hardware’ is pretty funny for anyone who’s been following the austerity cuts to the military though.

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novakant 04.16.18 at 9:04 pm

Frederick Taylor also says this:

I personally find the attack on Dresden horrific. It was overdone, it was excessive and is to be regretted enormously.

There is something inherently fascistoid in air warfare — you don’t see the person you are bombing and killing or injuring and you have this sort of psychopathic gaze from above.

This was, in fact, a clear-cut case where maximum destruction was the central aim of the attack. There can be no question that the presence of many refugees was factored into the Allies’ calculations.

http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel-interview-dresden-bombing-is-to-be-regretted-enormously-a-341239.html

http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/post-war-myths-the-logic-behind-the-destruction-of-dresden-a-607524.html

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Cian 04.16.18 at 9:04 pm

Perhaps the strongest case against this kind of (what I termed) symbolic strike wd be a showing that it will worsen the overall humanitarian situation, either by encouraging Assad to intensify his genocidal actions or in other ways.

Two parties in this war have acted genocidally. The non-moderate rebels (which seems to be most of them) and the Turks. The Syrian government may be brutal against it’s enemies (though this has been exaggerated), but there’s no evidence that it has tried to wipe out minorities for their race/religion. There’s also plenty of evidence that minorities in Syria seem the Syrian government as their best hope for survival.

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willf 04.16.18 at 9:14 pm

Cian @52 writes:

“If you think that a war of this kind is worth the death of large numbers of civilians (including children) then make the case. I actually think the war against ISIS/Al-Quaeda is one of those wars, just as the war against the Nazis was.”

Seeing as how the US is now working with Al Qaeda in Syria, in the form of Al Nusra, and supported neo-nazis in the Ukraine, in the form of the Azov battalion, I’m curious about which country he thinks should be next to suffer “the death of large numbers of civilians”.

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Cian 04.16.18 at 9:16 pm

I will note that in all this discussion of government lies, Russia claimed to have shot down a large proportion of the cruise missiles. My guess this is blowhard rant, completely parallel to Putin’s recent proclamations about their amazing new weapons systems.

Actually this is one of their older systems. There is a newer anti-missile system that so far they have refused to sell to Syria/Iran.

Most observers seem to think that around 75% of missiles were shot down. If this is true (these things are hard to judge) that’s a very impressive performance. The west has nothing comparable.

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Mario 04.16.18 at 9:25 pm

What seems to me somewhat remarkable is the low quality of the propaganda work on behalf of the west. It seems as if they almost do not really care what we think. As a citizen, I feel insulted.

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LFC 04.16.18 at 9:49 pm

Contra Brian @54, Syria is not a “quasi-democracy.” Many absurd things have been said in this thread, many groundless assertions made w/o any supporting evidence. Of these, the notion that Syria under Assad is a “quasi-democracy” is one of the more delusional. And yes, Assad does have a motive/reason to use chemical weapons.

Cian @51 seems unaware that a not inconsiderable amount of int’l politics consists of actions that are, to one extent or another, symbolic. That this might have been partly symbolic does not therefore mean it was solely “for western consumption.”

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Peter T 04.16.18 at 10:23 pm

Re the “genocidal” Assad regime, against whom is it committing genocide? Roughly 65 per cent of the population live under its control, all of Syria’s groups except extreme Sunnis have stuck with it, when areas return to government control most people remain rather than take the bus to rebel areas and there is a steady trickle of people from rebel areas back to government areas.

This is not to say it is a nice government, or does not share some of the blame for the civil war. Yet is is an odd use of words when the major rebel groups are explicitly and openly genocidal in their aims (“Christians to Lebanon, Alawis to hell” is one common slogan).

The rebels have used chemical weapons on several occasions. Oddly enough, that did not end western support or result in reprisals.

Military force is effective only when coupled with a detailed understanding of one’s adversary and the means guided by that understanding. Iraq and Syria are both good illustrations of what happens when it is wielded in ignorance (adding to depressingly large pile of similar illustrations).

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Collin Street 04.16.18 at 10:31 pm

the use of chemical weapons is an esp egregious violation of international norms that requires some response

Have to break those international norms in order to save them.

@bruce wilder: I’m struck by some thoughts but it’s not a good time; short form is people present arguments that they honestly believe to be convincing, and the real problem is [subconsciously?] selective application of guiding principles… which is an epistemological problem that’s not really susceptible to simple pointing-out to those afflicted.

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LFC 04.16.18 at 10:52 pm

Peter T @63
Yes, I think I should not have used the adjective “genocidal” upthread and retract it.

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LFC 04.16.18 at 11:00 pm

p.s. Worth pointing out that Western support for the rebel groups has been, or so I gather, half-hearted and inconsistent. The Saudis and maybe other Gulf states have I believe provided most of that support. Most of the U.S. effort in Syria, again as I gather, has been directed vs ISIS, one of Assad’s opponents. (There has also been some U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds of course.) The internal situation is highly complicated, needless to say, which is why I have in general refrained from commenting on it b/c I don’t feel competent to do so. (I note that some other commenters, e.g. Brian @54, have not taken the same decision.)

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steven t johnson 04.16.18 at 11:08 pm

Cian@60 speaks of the existing systems used in Syria. I was referring to the new systems claimed by Putin. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/putin-claims-russia-has-nuclear-arsenal-capable-of-avoiding-missile-defenses/2018/03/01/d2dcf522-1d3b-11e8-b2d9-08e748f892c0_story.html?utm_term=.fb10db4a4dcb

I’m afraid I think most observers are directly or indirectly committed to selling anti-missile weaponry. I don’t believe all those missiles were shot down.

I also believe PeterT@63 is completely right about the genocidal intent of the real rebels. Democratic rebels are purely symbolic and have been for years, disappearing within mere weeks as near as I could tell. However, although it is pretty certain that the US government political leadership really thought they could conquer an entire country with bombs, dissolve the old government and collect tribute to pay for the war, it seems to me that regime change of a different sort was intended for Syria.

And de facto partition was planned from the very beginning. The fallback position is only now being threatened by the prospect of a Syrian government victory, so it’s not at all clear that ignorance is leading to failure. De facto partition is quite healthy and there isn’t the slightest indication Putin has an end game. Or that Putin can bring enough to the table to win Turkey’s active cooperation, no matter how difficult its relations with the US get. Al Qaeda, Islamic State et al. have always been both supported by and attacked by the US, which plays both sides.

I haven’t found a cheap enough copy of Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire but it seems like he and Gene Sharp have been key technical advisors for the masters for quite some time.

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Donald Johnson 04.16.18 at 11:58 pm

I think those of us on the antiwar side should be cautious about relying on heavily on the notion that Assad didn’t use chemical weapons in Douma. I don’t think it is clear either way. The motive argument is weak, imo. I don’t always know why we do some of the barbaric things we do. I am not saying the official story shouldn’t be questioned, but it might turn out to be right and if so, it would be better if our primary emphasis had been on the fact that we have no right to intervene.

In Syria, the main point should be that we had been arming so called moderates with billions of dollars worth of weapons and no sane altruist would do that. Clearly we wanted to topple Assad because he was their dictator and not ours or failing that, we wanted to give Iran and Russia their Vietnam. The rebels have reportedly managed to kill about 100,000 armed Syrian soldiers and militia ( though I bet some of these were unarmed men of the wrong ethnicity reported as soldiers by their killers). What government in the Middle East would fight cleanly facing an enemy that nearly beat it? My favorite analogy— how would Israel react if some foreign countries gave enough weapons to Hamas and Islamic Jihad so they could kill 100,000 IDF soldiers and captured suburbs of Tel Aviv? What would we say about a country which provided the arms? The US would probably back Israel as they pounded Gaza into rubble and I suspect the US would do the bombing if Israel needed the help.

People in Yemen and Mosul and Raqqa might wonder if the Americans outraged about East Ghouta are the same ones that either bombed them or help others do it.

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Donald Johnson 04.17.18 at 12:04 am

“What government in the Middle East would fight cleanly facing an enemy that nearly beat it? ”

Correction. What government anywhere would fight a clean war against rebels and outside terrorists armed by other governments, if those rebels came close to winning and inflicted very heavy casualties on government forces? Clearly the Assad government was a human rights violator before the war. You wouldn’t expect a war to improve their record.

And one final point—obviously the fact that so many Syrian soldiers have died shows that a great many Syrians fear a rebel victory more than Assad.

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LFC 04.17.18 at 12:12 am

Cian @58
I retracted “genocidal”. See comment above.

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Heliopause 04.17.18 at 1:09 am

@68
“I think those of us on the antiwar side should be cautious about relying on heavily on the notion that Assad didn’t use chemical weapons in Douma.”

Important point. The next step after a finding of CW use is a referral to the UN. At that point, decent human beings devise a course of action that will improve the situation rather than exacerbate it. The leaders of the US, UK, and France are lawless sadists, however, concerned only with projection of power and domestic politics.

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LFC 04.17.18 at 1:28 am

@steven t johnson

I haven’t found a cheap enough copy of Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire but it seems like he and Gene Sharp have been key technical advisors for the masters for quite some time.

The late Gene Sharp was the exact opposite of a “technical advisor for the masters”:

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

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faustusnotes 04.17.18 at 1:36 am

Thanks for that extra information Novakant. I couldn’t remember Taylor’s position on the moral balance of the situation from my reading of the book.

I don’t understand this claim that Assad has no motive for the gas attacks. He’s been committing atrocities against his own people for years – barrel bombs, snipers, indiscriminate bombing. He has used starvation as a weapon and he and the Russians have been attacking hospitals with, if anything, even more zeal than America does. Why would he not use chemical weapons, if they were the better tactical choice? Especially when he knows that Russia will stymie any coordinated international action. It’s clear that the last American attack didn’t have any serious impact on his military power, and now that he has Russians spread all through his bases he can be confident that America won’t do a generalized attack that would significantly degrade his military power now. That horse has bolted. So why would he not have motive? He needs to kill rebels in a densely populated and complex area and gas reaches the places other weapons don’t, so why wouldn’t he? I’m all for realistic tactical assessments, but attempting to pretend it must have been a false flag because Assad has no motive is just silly. The dude bombs hospitals. What motive does he lack?

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David Godden 04.17.18 at 2:06 am

AC Grayling’s “Among the Dead Cities” bears re-reading

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Omega Centauri 04.17.18 at 3:18 am

“relying on heavily on the notion that Assad didn’t use chemical weapons in Douma. I don’t think it is clear either way. The motive argument is weak, imo. I don’t always know why we do some of the barbaric things we do”

I would say that based on the timeline, that this use of CW seems to have accomplished its military goal -getting government control over Douma. It was roughly a week between the “attack”, and the rebel evacuation. Of course small sample sizes can lead to incorrect conclusions, but I don’t expect that caution to have much effect of the conclusions that Assad draws. What we know about CW, is they are not very effective against a well prepared army, but an irregular force, -especially one that cares somewhat about the civilians, many of whom are family members, might be convinced to accept an evacuation over staying on and suffering from further strikes.

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heckblazer 04.17.18 at 3:52 am

NomadUK @ 40:
There are eyewitness reports that government helicopter were in the area during the attacks and the White Helmets found a gas cylinder had fallen through the roof in the same top floor room where they found gas victims. That may not be conclusive evidence but it surely counts as evidence. As for Khan Shaykhun, the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission did not conclude the government was responsible for the simple reason, quoting from its website, “The FFM’s mandate is to determine whether chemical weapons or toxic chemicals as weapons have been used in Syria; it does not include identifying who is responsible for alleged attacks.” It did forward its findings to the UN Joint Investigative Mechanism, which after its investigations said in its report to the Security Council, “[T]he Leadership Panel is confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.” I don’t think Craig Murray is arguing in good faith here.

Heliopause @ 68:
Russia will block any action at the UN, so waiting for a referral to play out is effectively electing to do nothing. And that may be the correct course of action! We shouldn’t kid ourselves about that, though.

And on a general note, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic attributes over a dozen chemical attacks in 2017 to the Syrian Arab Republic.

As for the original question about the utility of airstrikes, I’d say it depends. The Israeli strike on the nuclear reactor under construction at Al Kibar back in 2007 looks like it was pretty darn successful. OTOH, for something like counterinsurgency, naked airpower doesn’t seem to have been terribly effective.
In the case of the recent Syria attack, militarily destroying Assad’s infrastructure for making and deploying chemical weapons to prevent further chemical attacks is something I can see justified given Assad’s broken promise to disarm. Destroying specific pieces of infrastructure like labs, chemical plants, and airfields with air strikes also seems very doable. However, the allies had the practical problem that the amount of strikes required to thoroughly do that runs the risk of escalating the war and tangling directly with Russia and Iran. That left the US, UK and France dialing down the response to avoid a larger conflict, and hoping the threat of future escalation is enough to get compliance out of Assad. I suspect they were further driven by the old logic of “We must do something, this is something, therefore we must do it”. The big question is what happens next On the American side in particular, I don’t think the current leadership is competent to follow-up on the matter.
TL;DR yeah I’d say the strikes weren’t much more than symbolism.

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Peter T 04.17.18 at 5:45 am

I’m not saying that Damascus did not use chemical warfare – it has in the past. I’d just use extreme caution before accepting any particular claim. I’d also say that the narrative of the war is framed by wishful thinking, a heavy dose of propaganda and highly selective reporting. For instance “barrel bombs” are simply bombs dropped from helicopters. In an urban environment characterised by a maze of alleys and small courtyards, this is an effective tactic. That in such environments civilians and fighters are inextricably mixed is a fact of life (see Mosul, Fallujah and many world war II battles).

Hospitals are multi-story buildings, heavily constructed. They rapidly become headquarters or spotter posts for artillery fire – centres of combat activity. al-Kindi hospital in Aleppo, for instance, held out against the rebels for months (the rebels publicly killed all the defenders when they finally captured it). The main hospital in Aleppo was a bastion of the ISIS defence, and so on.

Both the rebels and a large chunk of the government forces are locals defending their turf, civilians in the quiet hours, soldiers when the fight is on. Uniforms are scarce. Both sides snipe, starve, loot and shell at random. The government can apply more force, but its record in treating civilians is better, if only because their forces are not motivated by sectarian passions – so you are not executed just for being a Christian or the wrong kind of Muslim. The Saudi-backed group that held Douma, for instance, reportedly took around 4000 prisoners. 200 were alive when they surrendered.

War has its own repellent logic. One is that when the stakes are really high, the ruthlessly expedient course will be taken, if the alternative is losing. In a sectarian civil war, the stakes are really high.

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heckblazer 04.17.18 at 7:05 am

I meant to include a link to the OPCW-UN JIM report on Khan Shaykhun to the Security Council.

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Hidari 04.17.18 at 7:14 am

And in any case, what sort of monster would kill what is reflexively called in the ‘Decent’ media ‘his own people’?

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1117/161117-austerity-deaths-england

Or using weapons of mass destruction?

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59262540b3db2b0d0d6d7d2b/t/59fbd873e31d19c9d1730554/1509677191992/Meyers.Fallout.Mortality.Website.pdf

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Hidari 04.17.18 at 7:36 am

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Mario 04.17.18 at 8:34 am

A point that I’ve also found puzzling is – why does the Assad regime have research facilities the development of chemical weapons? Chlorine is chlorine, nobody needs much of a recipe for that. High end chemical weapons? That ship sailed a century ago, and went under in the fifties of last century, and by now I expect reliable synthesis recipes for sarin to be available for whoever really wants it. And then it’s off the shelf equipment that is needed, very unlike the gas centrifuges needed for enriching Uranium, e.g.

So… what the hell was it that the west blew up?

P.S: I agree with the analysis of Peter T @77 on the messiness of this war.

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Z 04.17.18 at 9:29 am

LFC the use of chemical weapons is an esp egregious violation of international norms that requires some response

But isn’t there a due process codified by the UN to define what this response should be (as Heliopause also remarked)? And isn’t each assertion by the great military powers of their “right” to use military force as they see fit a further weakening of the norms that keep the peace?

PatInIowa @21 a report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant on Saturday morning said that French military officials had in fact warned their Russian counterparts of the impending strikes

A couple of days ago, Macron gave an extensive interview in which he said as clearly as can be in such an interview that he had indeed done so.

MFB In that case, what was the point of the attack? It clearly has nothing to do with strategic bombing, nor tactical bombing, so it is some kind of political agenda which is being served here. […] But that must mean that someone very rich and powerful wanted the attack.

I don’t know about May (Dipper @38 says she wanted to do Macron a favor, but I don’t know if that is a figure of speech or to be taken literally), but Trump and Macron would probably both welcome a diversion from the current respective debates in their respective countries (Stormy Daniels for Trump, a significant and multifaceted social conflict for Macron).

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Neville Morley 04.17.18 at 10:15 am

@ steven t johnson: I really wouldn’t worry about Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, which makes all sorts of odd assumptions about its subject, and effectively treats the migrations of assorted tribes and warrior bands from central Eurasia as a co-ordinated invading force similar to the Warsaw Pact. Better to look to his more general works, such as Strategy and History, for a sense of his ideas without so much of the unhelpful anachronism.

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Ignatz 04.17.18 at 10:53 am

Peter T @ 77, specifically: Barrel bombs are not just bombs dropped from helicopters. They are used oil drums filled with explosive and scrap metal, designed to maim and kill indiscriminately. They regularly get dropped on civilian areas. Pretty similar in effect to the suicide bomber at Manchester Arena.

Overall, as someone who works with the humanitarian response in Syria, where verifiable information from the ground is actually pretty easy to come by, it’s hard to read so many comments that confidently display a lack of even a basic knowledge of who the actors are or what they are actually doing.

Facts are being obscured (where have we seen that tactic before?), propaganda consumed and disseminated, and the resulting confusion serves to imply that the half a million people who have been killed and the six million currently displaced inside Syria somehow only have themselves to blame, and that the end of the conflict justifies any and all means.

The airstrikes seem very obviously symbolic to me, and I have no idea whether they were the best response to a crime such as the use of chemical weapons on civilians including women and children. But it’s jarring to read smart and presumably non-psychopathic people so eager to contextualize a crime against humanity, and so eager to contextualize civilian deaths in general – “a fact of life”; or to imply that it’s perfectly legitimate to target hospitals and medical centres.

There are laws, in case anybody forgot, and there used to be norms.

In a few weeks or months, things are going to come to a head in Idleb where a couple million IDPs are hunkered down with host families or in improvised camps. I’m reminded of how in 2008 the LTTE were slowly pushed back and pinned down in a pocket of North East Sri Lanka with around 100,000 civilians, and how somewhere up to 40,000 of said civilians were bombed and machine-gunned to death under the cover of killing terrorists. I don’t know what’s going to happen in Idleb but the potential scale dwarfs what happened in Sri Lanka. I would really hope that we can remind ourselves of what’s legal and what’s illegal, and what the responsibilities of state actors are, before it happens.

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casmilus 04.17.18 at 11:23 am

@81

Mario, at the end of the “Conservative Intellectuals” thread, you claimed:

“If you spend enough time in academia, you will see well-entrenched fields that are intellectually bankrupt. Some of them quite disastrously so. Especially in the social sciences, but also in the natural sciences. These fields don’t seem to be collapsing under the weight of their own contradictions, so I’d say you are wrong on that.”

Several readers wanted to know about the “bankrupt” fields of the natural sciences, but the thread was closed before you could answer. Could you expand on your point here please? It may even connect with your comments on the Assad regime having research facilities.

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Donald Johnson 04.17.18 at 12:03 pm

Ignatz—

“Facts are being obscured (where have we seen that tactic before?), propaganda consumed and disseminated, and the resulting confusion serves to imply that the half a million people who have been killed and the six million currently displaced inside Syria somehow only have themselves to blame, and that the end of the conflict justifies any and all means.”

I agree with some of this— the Syrian government has committed massive war crimes, but the implication seems to be that the blame here falls entirely in the Assad side, which is nonsense. It is, however, a convenient assumption for governments like the US and the Saudis who poured billions of dollars of weapons into the conflict. No account of the conflict is correct which ignores the high death toll among the Syrian soldiers, especially the Alawites.

As for refugees, I may not have time to look but I saw a poll last year that said they fled both the bombing and the rebels.

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Donald Johnson 04.17.18 at 12:16 pm

Here is a different link. Not sure if this will post. This was a poll of 160 Syrian refugees, most fleeing both rebels and Assad.

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/europe/2017-03-22/five-myths-about-syrian-refugees

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Donald Johnson 04.17.18 at 12:27 pm

Here is another link m this one about how the rebels are whitewashed, but unless you subscribe to Foreign Affairs you can only read one or the other in a given month.

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2017-10-30/syrias-extremist-opposition

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steven t johnson 04.17.18 at 12:32 pm

Thanks to Neville Morley for the input.

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Mario 04.17.18 at 12:48 pm

casimilus @85,

since it is OT here, I put it in a pastebin.

The west wanted regime change with a broken country at the end that they could ‘rebuild’ with their usual investor-state relations regime. And they wanted, and still want, the oil too.

I think the air strikes were so limited simply because if the strikes had got ISIS winning again, there would have been nothing the Grauniad and other compatible left outlets could have done to convince ‘liberals’ that it was the right thing to do. And without them, the whole deeply cynical and evil charade wouldn’t work.

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casmilus 04.17.18 at 1:16 pm

@84

“But it’s jarring to read smart and presumably non-psychopathic people so eager to contextualize a crime against humanity, and so eager to contextualize civilian deaths in general – “a fact of life”; or to imply that it’s perfectly legitimate to target hospitals and medical centres.”

Anyone who grew up in the UK or US since 1945 will have been exposed to a great deal of contextualisation about the mass killing of civilians in Germany and Japan, which was formally justified as strategic destruction of industrial production, although the best evidence shows it was ineffective in that respect, and in practice was simply directed at areas of cities.

The Avro Lancaster bomber was flown along with the Supermarine Spitfire during commemorations of the Battle Of Britain, even though it did not exist during that phase of the war. Although the Lancaster was employed in the immediate post-war to transfer food supplies to Europe, and it was also used to attack German ground forces in areas where the Allies had aerial superiority, its main use in the war was to kill civilians and destroy housing far away from the front lines.

I am fascinated whenever a young neo-Stalinist (or whatever the denomination is supposed to be) spouts off about how the Allies were irrelevant and the Red Army won the war with one arm tied behind its back. If that’s true, what the hell were all those Germans incinerated for?

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casmilus 04.17.18 at 1:25 pm

Long-time readers of AmConMag will remember this:

http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/syria-in-their-sights/

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Cian 04.17.18 at 2:40 pm

@Ignatz:
Barrel bombs are not just bombs dropped from helicopters. They are used oil drums filled with explosive and scrap metal, designed to maim and kill indiscriminately. They regularly get dropped on civilian areas. Pretty similar in effect to the suicide bomber at Manchester Arena.

So pretty typical bombs then. Lot like many of the bombs used by the west. I’m baffled by these people who believe in humanitarian bombs, or think bombs made in factories are somehow nicer. Are people really this naive? The point of a bomb is to blow stuff up and kill people.

Facts are being obscured (where have we seen that tactic before?)

In every war since the cave men? Again, tell me about this propagandaless war.

propaganda consumed and disseminated

Indeed, much of it by the rebels, their allies and the west. None of which is unsurprising given that it’s a WAR.

and the resulting confusion serves to imply that the half a million people who have been killed and the six million currently displaced inside Syria somehow only have themselves to blame

Err no. It implies that the Syrian government is not solely to blame for the violence and carnage. And that perhaps much of the blame lies with the Islamic rebels, the foreign fighters, the Turks and the various funders/enablers in the gulf states, CIA, etc.

and that the end of the conflict justifies any and all means.

There are two ways in which the conflict can end:
1) The rebels win, and we’re probably looking at a pretty massive war crime directed against anyone who is not a Sunni (and probably lots of ‘bad’ Sunnis also).
2) The government win and things return at worst to the way they were before. Which wasn’t genocide.

The longer the war goes on, the more people will die. So either pick (1), (2) or basically admit you’re okay with endless war.

But it’s jarring to read smart and presumably non-psychopathic people so eager to contextualize a crime against humanity, and so eager to contextualize civilian deaths in general – “a fact of life”; or to imply that it’s perfectly legitimate to target hospitals and medical centres.

I’m against war. The reason I’m against it is because I’ve bothered to educate myself on what warfare is actually like. Urban warfare ALWAYS results in many many civilian deaths. It’s inevitable as soldiers are hard to spot, are mixed with civilians and any invading force will face heavy casualties (fact of life – soldiers are a bit more indiscriminate when they’re fighting for their life. If you think you’d be any different, I call bullshit). These are the costs of war. If you are pushing for a war which will take place in urban environments, then you’re arguing that your desired outcome justifies these deaths. I personally think the Islamist rebels are terrible enough (terrible in a Nazi kind of way) that these costs are justified. Because I think if the rebels win many many more civilians will die. I might be wrong, but that’s my reasoning.

There are laws, in case anybody forgot, and there used to be norms.

Such as in Yemen which is a completely unjustified war that exists only because the Saudis want to punish the Houthis. They are deliberately starving them, and deliberating bombing civilians. The US and UK are assisting them in this grotesque war crime for which there is ZERO justification. A war of choice that the Saudis could end whenver they felt like it. So yeah, talk to me about norms.

Or how about Gaza where the Israelis just executed civilians for civil disobedience to indifference among western political elites? Or Fallujah?

I don’t know what’s going to happen in Idleb but the potential scale dwarfs what happened in Sri Lanka. I would really hope that we can remind ourselves of what’s legal and what’s illegal, and what the responsibilities of state actors are, before it happens.

Given that the Syrian government has not done anything like this in any of the other areas what’s different this time? What makes you think there won’t be another negotiated settlement, probably with the rebels and their families going to Turkey?

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Cian 04.17.18 at 2:43 pm

@Mario: So… what the hell was it that the west blew up?

Probably what the Syrians said it was. Even if Syria does have R&D facilities for poison gas weapons, the idea that the US has known about it, but only chose to do something about it a few days ago strikes me as very unlikely. The propaganda value alone would be immense.

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Hidari 04.17.18 at 3:50 pm

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LFC 04.17.18 at 4:18 pm

Z@82
Re your question about the UN: it implicates a set of questions that do not have simple, consensus answers, because scholars of international law and relations do not agree on them. For one international lawyer’s view, see the H Koh link I gave upthread. I haven’t studied it closely so not saying I necessarily agree w him. I’m sorry I don’t have time for a fuller answer today.

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Mario 04.17.18 at 8:19 pm

Ignatz @84,

But it’s jarring to read smart and presumably non-psychopathic people so eager to contextualize a crime against humanity, and so eager to contextualize civilian deaths in general – “a fact of life”; or to imply that it’s perfectly legitimate to target hospitals and medical centres.

Out of curiosity – how do you expect this to play out? Is one not allowed a single further thought once a medical centre has been bombed? What you call contextualizing is just the way one uses ones’ own brain to understand what is happening. Do you expect me not to do that?

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Orange Watch 04.17.18 at 9:02 pm

Ignatz@84
Barrel bombs are not just bombs dropped from helicopters. They are used oil drums filled with explosive and scrap metal, designed to maim and kill indiscriminately.

…do you not understand what industrial-produced bombs are, or how they function? “Barrel bombs” are not significantly different than “conventional” unguided airdropped munitions of comparable size, except that they’re less effective and don’t require the same industrial base to manufacture. However, they’re portrayed as a distinctly evil weapon because they’re a tool of poorer regimes w/o as ready access to high-quality industrially produced bombs as superpowers.

The only thing that makes Syria’s use of barrel bombs noteworthy would be how they target them. The bombs themselves are not something special.

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J-D 04.18.18 at 12:29 am

[The Olympian gods, while very stoned,] saw the founding of a great republic and proclamations hailing new gods named Due Process and Equal Rights for All. And they saw many in high places in the republic form a separate cult and worship Mammon and Power. And the Republic became an Empire, and soon Due Process and Equal Rights for All were not worshipped, and even Mammon and Power were given only lip-service, for the true god of all was now the impotent What Can I Do and his dull brother What We Did Yesterday and his ugly and vicious sister Get Them Before They Get Us.

(Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, Illuminatus!)

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Omega Centauri 04.18.18 at 3:20 am

Cian:
“2) The government win and things return at worst to the way they were before. Which wasn’t genocide.”

Thats the least bad scenario. And its really not “at worst”, its actually “at best” Of course a good part of the countries infrastructure will have been destroyed, the international standing of its government will be deep in the toilet, and the population reduced by several millions. And European politics will remain vulnerable to anti-migrant hysteria. There may be partitioning/dismembering of some parts of the country (if Turkey allows Kurdistan to continue to exist, which seems unlikely). Not a very happy outcome, but better than the alternatives.

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Neville Morley 04.18.18 at 6:30 am

@casmilus #91 re Lancasters. The pedantic answer as to why there was an anachronistic Avro Lancaster flying in the Battle of Britain commemorations is that the RAF has an official heritage flight team that appears at such events, named the ‘Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’ but intended to evoke the whole of WWII and beyond. Plus, I imagine, they happen to have an airworthy Lancaster, rather than a Blenheim or something else. But I think your wider point about willingness to celebrate machines designed to bomb cities is right; developed partly through films like Dambusters (or Memphis Belle for the US market) focusing on the tight-knit crew and whether they’ll all make it back, rather than on the nature of their missions.

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casmilus 04.18.18 at 9:50 am

FWIW the Allied bombing campaign did achieve a transfer of German fighter resources to the West away from the Eastern Front. A while ago Adam Tooze tweeted some stats in the official German war records which showed that from early 1943 there was a substantial shift of air units away from the main theatre that German ground forces were engaged in. It also seems the Allied attempts to plant false expectations of landings in Norway, Greece etc. were quite effective.

But nobody ever argued “let’s bomb German cities to draw their fighters on to our bombers”. Meanwhile Luttwak cited some stats on numbers of Allied bomber crew returning home early with unexplained engine problems etc, as well as the habit of some of them to dump part of their load in the North Sea so they could spend as little time as possible over the target area and its flak batteries.

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LFC 04.18.18 at 11:26 am

Mario @90
If the West had wanted regime change, as you assert, they could have moved vs Assad shortly after the civil war started. For various reasons, they didn’t. Even someone who followed US policy casually from 2011 on would have noticed that it was an inconsistent mess w Pentagon and CIA sometimes supporting different groups and pursuing different strategies. That was partly because it became clear from fairly early on that the moderate or pro-democratic rebels were not strong compared to the hard-line Sunni groups. It was only the rise of ISIS that really gave Western or at least US policy a focus. Under both Obama and Trump the main focus of US policy in Syria has been the defeat of ISIS, not the overthrow of Assad or the alleviation of the humanitarian disaster or anything else.

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Z 04.18.18 at 12:18 pm

LFC @96 it implicates a set of questions that do not have simple, consensus answers, because scholars of international law and relations do not agree on them

I agree that consensus answers do not exist, but that is in my opinion more a reflection of the fact that powerful actors will always find someone qualified to dispute even the clearer points than of anything else. I don’t see what is so ambiguous about Article 2 (3) and (4) of the UN Charter, myself, and I’m also not sure why you called their plain reading narrow above at your 17. As this plain reading is also the one with the best long term consequences, I would argue, I don’t see what’s not to like about it (and I remark that most states are quite happy with this interpretation as well).

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steven t johnson 04.18.18 at 8:21 pm

LFC@103 claims the main focus of US policy in Syria has been the defeat of Islamic State. Of earlier alleged confusions in US policy, diverting from regime change, LFC writes “That was partly because it became clear from fairly early on that the moderate or pro-democratic rebels were not strong compared to the hard-line Sunni groups.”

It was clear from fairly early on that US arms supplied to so-called pro-democratic rebels were rapidly transferred into the hands of the hard-line Sunni groups, including Al Qaeda and Islamic State. The US bombed Syrian government troops to block an attempt to relieve the IS siege of Deir Zeor, as I recall. The US also evacuated IS forces away from the Syrian army. And of course the very recent bragging of massive Russian casualties were undertaken to keep Syria from resuming control of what oilfields Syria once had.

Again, the US has both supported and attacked Islamic State. It has never slackened its animus against the national secular government, not for one moment. The irresolution on regime change LFC claims is in my propagandistic delusion, not real.

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Z 04.18.18 at 9:52 pm

Actually, I take that back: the behavior of great military powers this last two decades amply demonstrates that they don’t care one bit about international law in general and the legality of their use of military force in particular. Conducting a legal analysis of their use of military force for any other reason than to demonstrate their total disregard for the rule of law is dignifying their conduct with a seriousness it does not deserve.

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john c. halasz 04.18.18 at 11:56 pm

For those holding forth here from whatever moral-political or ideological “principles”, there’s this old article from the late Robert Parry:

https://consortiumnews.com/2013/10/16/how-us-pressure-bends-un-agencies/

I myself am not really interested in the proclamation of high-minded principles, but rather in what the ascertainable empirical facts of the specific case might be, what there implications might be and how the exercise of power actually “works”.

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F. Foundling 04.19.18 at 12:39 am

@OP:
The reason the most recent bombing was wrong was not that all bombings (or all acts of violence in general) are necessarily wrong and counterproductive, but that it was illegal in terms of international law, and, as if that wasn’t enough, it was also initiated on a pretext that was – and, as of now, remains – unproven, disputed and questionable (for reasons that should be obvious in view of the nature of the sources and the evidence and the broader context, but see also the publications on the subject of chemical weapons in Syria by Seymour Hersh and the late Robert Parry among others). The good thing is that so far, surprisingly enough, Trump’s illegal bombings have been relatively limited and not directly aimed at turning the tide of the civil war or effecting regime change, which much of the mainstream media and the establishment hawks have been clamouring for.

I didn’t have objections to the West’s providing air support to the SDF against ISIS, whose genocide of the Yazidis and, generally, demonstrative rejection of all post-medieval values had to be countered. I do have objections to the West’s providing air support, or any other kind of support, to the likes of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, or even to the occasional non-Islamist insurgent (who, btw, like many an ‘opposition activist’, often seems to find it remarkably easy to co-mingle and collaborate with the aforementioned), against the Syrian government. I certainly don’t think that the DFNS, an unusually decent entity by the standards of the region, should be left at the mercy of Erdoğan.

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john c. halasz 04.19.18 at 12:52 am

As a further slightly OT comment, one of the more “amusing” side issues of this horrific fiasco is the conflicting claims between the Americans and the Russians about the actual efficacy of the bomb strikes. The Americans claim to have launched 105 missiles and the Russians say 103, so that at least is in pretty close agreement. But the Americans say that 3 sites were targeted and all missiles landed on target, whereas the Russians say that 71 missiles were shot down and 5 airfields were targeted in addition to the 3 evacuated and undefended lab sites. Cruise missiles usually carry a 1000 lbs high explosive warhead. Here’s a before/after photo of one of the targeted labs:

http://www.moonofalabama.org/images6/barzeh.jpg

I’m no photo bomb damage expert, but it’s 4 2 story buildings covering maybe an acre of ground (,4 hectares). You can guess the scale from the surrounding buildings. Also note that there is no apparent damage to the surrounding buildings in the aftermath. Does that look like the damage of 10+ tons of high explosive or that so much explosive power would be required to reduce such a small site to rubble?

The U.S. and Russia are the 2 largest arms exporters in the world, though the Russian military budget at least in $ terms is less than the recent increase in the U.S. military budget and similarly the $ value of U.S. arms exports is similarly greater than Russian arms exports. Behind the scenes no doubt both military establishments were keen to field test their (anti-)aircraft capabilities and sus out the opposing side’s, as a side benefit of the politically determined brouhaha . And no doubt the claimed results will be appearing in slick promotional brochures at various international trade fairs. So which side is the biggest and boldest liars?

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LFC 04.19.18 at 2:16 am

steven t johnson @105

It was clear from fairly early on that US arms supplied to so-called pro-democratic rebels were rapidly transferred into the hands of the hard-line Sunni groups, including Al Qaeda and Islamic State.

That really does not undercut my point, unless you can show that the transfer of those arms was something the US was happy (or even indifferent) about. The non-Islamist rebels consistently complained about the meager degree of support they were getting from the US. I am not saying the US should or should not have given them more support, just noting that they complained about the level of support that was forthcoming.

But the more basic point is that if the US govt really wanted to have effected regime change in Syria, it could have done so before the Russians made their decision to intervene with substantial force. The US did not do that, for all kinds of understandable reasons. There wd have been v. little public support in the US for the level of force, ground forces and air power, that direct regime change would have required. Accordingly I don’t think regime change in that sense was ever on the list of the Obama admin’s options. Regime change was associated, of course, w/ GW Bush’s and T. Blair’s disastrous decision to depose Saddam Hussein. Obama had opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and while he did support an intervention in Libya in 2011, he repeatedly, as I recall, maintained that Libya and Syria were v. different situations. So no, I don’t think the Obama admin had much interest in regime change in Syria, esp. since a powerful non-Islamist rebel force capable of defeating the Syrian army and its allies such as Hezbollah never materialized.

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LFC 04.19.18 at 2:26 am

p.s. I also don’t think the Trump admin has much interest in regime change in Syria. Trump himself doesn’t like the fact that some 2,000 US mil. personnel are on the ground there and has said he wants to withdraw them (though w/o giving a timetable). His advisors are prob of a diff. opinion on that particular issue. But when one considers how much consternation there (understandably) was when Trump appointed Bolton natl sec adviser, what one saw in the US/UK/France strike on these lab sites (or whatever they were exactly) is prob pretty much what wd have happened had McMaster stayed in the job, istm. So the change in natl sec advisers prob made no difference w/r/t this particular action. Not that that is esp on topic, simply an observation.

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LFC 04.19.18 at 2:30 am

Actually I’ll modify what I said above: regime change might have been somewhere on the list of options, and certain people in the Obama admin might have been interested in seriously entertaining it, but Obama himself was not.

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Donald Johnson 04.19.18 at 4:22 am

David Ignatius, obviously saddened that we didn’t intervene on a larger scale, thinks it is wrong to say the C.I.A. weapons program didn’t accomplish anything. The CIA backed rebels supposedly killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/what-the-demise-of-the-cias-anti-assad-program-means/2017/07/20/f6467240-6d87-11e7-b9e2-2056e768a7e5_story.html?utm_term=.15e0a40a2769

There is something a bit sociopathic about America’s foreign policy “ community”.

You can also google the website of Conflict Arms, where you will find a 200 page study from last year about the weapons supplied to ISIS. Some came indirectly from the US, which bought weapons from countries in Eastern Europe and then illegally gave them to moderate rebels and from there they ended up in the hands of ISIS. I would supply the link, but am feeling lazy.

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Peter T 04.19.18 at 4:38 am

re LFC’s argument, the term ‘the US’ is a bit misleading. I think the CIA definitely had regime change in mind (as did the various Gulf states whose arms and money flows to rebels it facilitated). Defense was ambivalent, if only because it lacks the manpower to occupy Syria at the same time as it is engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq and has other commitments. Obama was wary of getting into another ME war, especially one with no clear side to pick and no reasonable outcome likely. On the other hand, he did not rein in the CIA (perhaps he could not?), possibly because to do so would have given the Repubs and the Beltway idiots more ammo.

So, as is usual in the ME, US policy was neither unified or coherent. And it remains so.

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bruce wilder 04.19.18 at 5:23 am

john c. halasz re: “high-minded principles” versus how the exercise of power actually “works”

One way power works, apparently, is to work very hard at “controlling the narrative” while not really caring over much about deliberating on objectives, ways, or means. One might suspect that the latter tends to undermine the latter. If power is focused on producing effective propaganda as job 1, and the middle-men purveying that propaganda have no more interest in exposing the game than is necessary to remind power that their cooperation must be bought, one wonders whether anyone is left to earnestly worry over the relation of policy to interests or outcomes.

In a world of liars, high-minded principle is a handy means to all ends. Lie with sufficient moral conviction and righteous self-regard and you can successfully motivate support from the ignorant while obscuring your actual intent or interests, assuming you have identified either even in private. There is a story for pundits and chattering classes to discuss, with very few actual facts constraining the scripts that can be recited on cable news. It would be such a bother if news organizations needed reporters or pundits to know anything about anything, other than how archetypal narratives play out.

It may be of some small interest to notice how little concern there has been in recent years with regard to law or precedent in formulating the narratives rationalizing U.S. foreign policy. Several commenters here have invoked “law” and at least one seems to think one can observe what makes the U.S. happy, and infer intent from that, as if the U.S. were a unitary actor with a personal psychology, even while mentioning in passing well known conflicts among advisors and such.

I can well imagine that Putin has the semblance of a plan, a sense of acting in and for a Russian national interest by calculated use of means at his disposal. Bashar Hafez al-Assad must have a remarkably fine grasp of what is necessary to keep the political machinery of a state besieged operational.

Is it even remotely plausible that anyone in the U.S. government in a position of authority and power has the slightest idea of acting in a conceivable U.S. national interest? I do not mean to rely over much in expressing my incredulity on the incapacity of Trump personally. He has the superficial but sincere patriotism of a guy who likes to yell at the teevee, and prefers to make up facts rather than make the effort to learn anything. It is easy to gaze on his antics and feel one knows the type. But, the U.S. foreign policy establishment — the Blob(tm) — is absurd in its bloodthirsty immunity to experience or criticism of its performance.

The OP’s snark, I thought, was well-applied to the conventions of moral labeling that are ritually applied to the political gesture or rituals of military “blowing things up” but it remains to us to wonder aloud if the propaganda and controlling the narrative is all there is to American power.

Certainly to me, it seems that American power is increasingly a contradiction in terms, “intent” merely a storyteller’s stylings. Power in this case does not work, does no work at all.

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sidd 04.19.18 at 5:55 am

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Hidari 04.19.18 at 7:55 am

Possibly not irrelevant.

The UK Government’s contribution to the attack on Syria was 8 ‘Stormshadow’ missiles (someone has been reading too much Lord of the Rings) which cost £790,000 each, coming in at, therefore, a total of £6.32 million. They are manufactured by BAE systems, the largest shareholder in which (and which, therefore, will see its profits rise as a result of this action, like Raytheon’s did) is Capital Research and Management, the tax avoidance facilitating company which employs Theresa May’s husband. Until last year, the vice Chairman of the ‘we love all wars by the UK’ BBC was also the Chairman of BAE.

President Trump also owns stock in Raytheon.

(sources from various places on the web that I can’t be bothered posting here, but it’s easily enough checked. And please don’t reply by arguing that this wasn’t the ’cause’ of this strike ‘cos I’m not claiming it was. I’m just saying it’s….interesting).

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steven t johnson 04.19.18 at 11:36 am

LFC@110 somehow believes that the either US didn’t know its weapons were going to so-called hard-line Sunni groups? Continuing to feed weapons to its fictional democratic resistance displayed it happiness to support the hard-line Sunni groups who were much better fighters against Assad, being genuine organizations. The mythical democratic resistance was basically collecting commissions as middlemen. Salesmen of course want more sales. It would be imprudent to draw the conclusion the US was starving the resistance because they were begging for more.

The belief that the US could have easily overthrown Assad at some unspecified time before the Russians came to help strikes me as fiction. Insofar as there is an idea here, it seems to be the assumption that Assad’s government was simply an Alawi minority tyranny, with the large majority of the nation rising up for freedom. I think on the contrary this is simply propaganda, that the resistance was almost immediately largely a hopelessly divided sectarian minority relying upon violence, funded from the US and Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Turkey, which never had sufficient support to overthrow the national secular government.

And lest we forget, it is very likely Benghazi was basically a falling out between the US and Islamist middlemen sending arms to Syria. Rather than admit this, I think Clinton loyally fell on her sword to tell lies about mobs. She was stabbed in the back by Republicans and their friends in the security apparatus, which proves their is no more honor among imperialists than among thieves. (Too redundant?) The people who insist Clinton was the Deep State candidate are the kind of people who pretend there is a Deep State, rather than an imperialist state, which is all trumpery. In my opinion.

Re Obama, I think Obama was entirely committed to regime change, much more than he was ever committed to the defeat of Islamic State. It was Islamic State which gave the US, or its air power anyway, a new role to play in Iraq….and its Islamic State’s defeat which has increased Iran’s influence in Iraq/increased Iraq’s range of motion, if not independence. The difference between Libya and Syria was I think, who was paying the bill. If anything, it is Trump who is trying to imitate Obama in Syria and have someone else take the lead. Macron plays Sarkozy, and May plays Cameron. It’s like expecting China to take out Kim Jong-un. Trump says he thinks other countries should do (i.e., pay) more. Why not take him at his word? He’s not an anti-imperialist, he’s not a peacemonger. All suggestions to the contrary I think are more trumpery.

Where Peter T sees confusion and incoherence, I see duplicity and division of labor. Well, perhaps I am excessively brutal in my views of humanity. Obama being the kind of man who thinks it is cool to be portrayed as signing off on drone kill lists strikes me as cryptofascist political theater. Others see it as nobly shouldering a grave burden in the cause of the nation, nay, humanity, and feel humbled by such virtue in our nation.

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LFC 04.19.18 at 12:32 pm

To B Wilder and some others: I am v aware that govts are not “unitary actors” as will be obvious to anyone who reads my comments in this thread. Sometimes in the interest of time one uses shorthand. Steven t Johnson misreads my comment at 110 but I don’t intend to engage w him further, except to mention that my pt about regime change did not depend on any characterization of the Assad govt and its degree of popular support. Thanks to Donald Johnson for certain links. I intend this to be my last comment here.

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Wild Cat 04.19.18 at 3:56 pm

111. LFC—You talk about a Trump Administration as though it exists. It’s just an incoherent scramble of monsters and mobsters cosplaying in the District of Columbia.

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