Driving Blind: The Road to “Intervention”


Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, gamingvulture.tumblr.com. And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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51 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    Gregory Djerejian of the Belgravia Dispatch has a good take on Syria also.


  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    What does the plan actually entail? Kill the bad guy? Knock the bad guy off his feet so the Syrian Populists can kill the bad guy? Save face after making a big speech about a red line? Will we be “Nation Building” afterwards or will the (inevitable) civil war be allowed to take place on its own timetable rather than on ours?Report

    • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

      Short answer is: nobody knows.

      Pundit answer: U.S. will fire some manner of missiles at various “assets” in order to restore some level of parity between the regime and rebels as well as “punish” Assad for using chemical weapons and allow us to save face in the process and also hopefully maintain the international norm about how chemical weapons are “off limits.”

      The end game of which will be a return to the status quo where the West waits to see if diplomacy and continued hostility with Western armed rebels can force the regime to come to some sort of political compromise, best case being a transition from power.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        There doesn’t appear to be any push for nation building or ground forces. That would surprise me greatly if we did that.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      Failure to get an answer for that question is what led to Iraq and Afghanistan being the quagmires they are.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I disagree. Changing the answer after you wrote the plan caused Afghanistan.
        Clark’s plan was decent and worked well.Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        Iraq and Afghanistan can’t be quagmires because a quagmire is a swamp or muddy bog. Vietnam was definitely a quagmire.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        “Greeted as liberator” was an answer I seem to recall bandying about.

        Oh, and that Iraqi oil revenue will pay for the invasion, occupation, reconstruction. Yeah, that too.Report

  3. Avatar NewDealer says:

    This is going to earn me scorn but I think the situation about whether or not to get involved with Syria is very morally complicated.

    I have never been an isolationist. Isolationism always reminds me of the anti-Semitic America Firsters during the lead up to WWII. These are people who called WWII a “Jewish plot” and a “Jewish War”.

    What is happening in Syria is also not comparable to the Yellow Cake arguments of Iraq.

    Neither side is necessarily on the side of angels but I believe that Assad has used nerve gas on his own people and that is evil.

    Most Americans are opposed to intervention but just because the majority opposes something does not mean they are right. I don’t know if we should intervene in Syria or not but it is rather bad to simply say it is non of our concern.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Maybe we’ll just throw a few missiles at the problem and feel like we’ve actually done more than merely stand idly by.Report

    • Avatar Cascadian says:

      @newdealer I’ll book end you. I’m just exhausted with the middle east. I’ve gotten past the point of caring and wish there were a containment policy available, a pox on all their houses. I know there’s not a good solution but until there is one, I’ll just hide in the mountains and mind my own business.Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      Well, some Tomahawk missile strikes can probably take out Assad’s weapons depots, releasing big clouds of nerve gas, blister agents, and other assorted nasties, teaching Assad about the stupidity of storing such weapons in areas that he controls and perhaps getting him to turn his chemical stockpiles over to Al Qaeda and Al Nusra.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      I think there’s a moral case for overthrowing Assad, but then there was a moral case for ousting Saddam and the Taliban too, they were brutal despots. Sic semper tyrannis and all that.

      The problem with Iraq wasn’t a lack of moral justification, it was a lack of actionable policy that would improve the situation. Just because there is a case for intervention doesn’t mean you actually have a sufficiently well-designed intervention to implement. And without a well-designed intervention the results will likely be no better than Iraq and Afghanistan.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        This is why I said it was complicated but something feels rather bitter and distasteful to me to let innocent Syrians suffer.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        The game seems to be rigged in such a way that, no matter what happens, no matter what we do… intervene or not, nation build afterwards or not… what happens will be our responsibility.

        And the arguments for how awesome it would have been had we intervened are much more flattering to our better selves than the arguments for how, seriously, we should have known better than to kick the tar baby after punching it twice. (I have the suspicion that we’re not allowed to use that one anymore. Which one do we use instead?)Report

      • Avatar Cascadian says:

        @newdealer If it’s innocents suffering, couldn’t we allay your guilt with helping someone else with all the cash that would be one missile? How many Africans or South Americans or Detroiters could we help with the price of even the most limited engagement.Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        Well, over rollcall I said:


        About the only halfway decent option I see for Syria is for the US to use its ties to militaries throughout the region and convince a number of countries to form an allied coalition under a unified command, to fill the rebel power vacuum with generals and forces from Egypt (though they’re busy at the moment), Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Turkey, the UAE, and even Pakistan, with the aid of NATO or other troops if needed. The goal would be to displace Al Nusra, Al Qaeda, and other jihadist militants while simultaneously displacing Assad, Hezbollah, and the Syrian leadership, basically putting a foot down to stop the civil war and restore public order by removing everyone in charge on both sides. It’s a double-decapitation strategy.

        The region needs to attempt what Europe perhaps should have done to handle the breakup of Yugoslavia, treating it as a failed state and ensuring that any breakup is peaceful, dousing the fires of sectarian hatreds and vengeance by putting a lot of boots on the ground. As evidenced by the flow of money and weapons, neither the Gulf oil states nor other moderate countries want to see a victory for either Assad or his jihadist opponents (who are just going to stir up more trouble back home if they win), which means regional powers might agree to create a stronger third horse and insert it into the fight. They’ve looked for a viable (and moderate) rebel army to back, and unfortunately one doesn’t presently exist, and since it seems no country is willing to stick its neck out and commit troops in a conventional war against Syria, a coalition is required. It would let them share out the blame and responsibilities.

        If such a force insisted that it will fully protect the rights of both Shias, Sunnis, and Alawites, and the sponsoring countries ensured that their deployed forces reflected that diversity (especially at the higher command levels), they might avoid a strong sectarian backlash from Shias in Iran, Lebanon, and southern Iraq and gain broad support from the region’s public, which wants an end to the violence and the threat of a major sectarian bloodbath that might engulf other states.

        If Syrians on both sides are more afraid of their neighbors (and their currently bleak future) than they are of an invasion and occupation from a broad coalition of Muslim moderates under the watchful eyes of the UN, then they might welcome such forces. Of course Iraq argues that this might not be the case, and that despite logic and reason they’ll just welcome a third group of targets to the party.

        Unfortunately, convincing any of the countries in the region to cooperate, contribute soldiers, and agree amongst themselves to a unified command would take a lot of leadership and persuasive power, which the Obama Administration has largely squandered in the region. So I just figure we’ll lob some missiles, cluck our tongues, and moan about the lack of a morally viable rebel army we could support.


        With Saddam, every country in the region was afraid of his huge army, led by a genocidal lunatic, so the US had to take the lead. Syria certainly has similarities, but if the ragtag bands of rebels have kept him stalemated for this long, perhaps regional leaders would have more confidence in contributing forces toward moving Syria to some sort of post-Assad period while exerting enough social control to avoid chaos.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        This is why I said it was complicated but something feels rather bitter and distasteful to me to let innocent Syrians suffer.

        Doubtless, but is there reasonable hope that our actions would diminish the suffering of innocents, vs. maybe shifting which innocents suffer?Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        intervene or not, nation build afterwards or not… what happens will be our responsibility.

        @jaybird , I think this is a bit self-centered of us. If we don’t do anything, I don’t think people outside the US will be saying 20 years from now “it would have all been OK if the US had done something.”

        In general, I think it is safe to say people hold the bombs we drop against us far more than than the bombs we don’t drop. When was the last time you heard anyone complain about Darfur?Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        The problem with Iraq wasn’t a lack of moral justification, it was a lack of actionable policy that would improve the situation.

        This. Some aspect of the occupation that everyone agrees is an unmitigated good thing. And at least IMO, new constitutions and elections are far from what is necessary; it needs to be something material. My own proposal would be to rebuild the electric grid on a crash basis. Play no favorites; every neighborhood and hamlet gets electricity, no matter which side they were on. Make it clear that anyone who messes with the new grid will be punished. Have people in US military uniform do the work.

        I don’t anticipate that such a policy, or anything similar to it, would ever be supported. It would be expensive, both in terms of the equipment and lives (as it puts US troops in quite exposed positions). The US Army Corps of Engineers almost certainly lacks the bodies necessary to do the job and continue its domestic commitments (dams, levees, etc). Also probably lack some of the skills necessary, so if uniformed people are going to do the work, there would need to be a draft of certain engineer and craft skills.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        people hold the bombs we drop against us far more than than the bombs we don’t drop.

        Man, that’s a crazy sport if I ever heard of one!Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        people hold the bombs we drop against us far more than than the bombs we don’t drop.
        Man, that’s a crazy sport if I ever heard of one!

        It’s also called the Buckner Rule.Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        @newdealer I can certainly understand why you’d find it bitter and distasteful. I feel the same way.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Neither side is necessarily on the side of angels but I believe that Assad has used nerve gas on his own people and that is evil.

      Is this different from the other guy?

      Not that I think you’re morally wrong about Syria. I don’t. I think there was moral justification to invade Iraq (even if it wasn’t the justification we actually used). My issue has more to do with self-interest. What’s good, or not good, for us. Primarily.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    There should be aboslutely no military intervention in Syria of any form. Its only going to make a bad situation worse. Randomly dropping bombs isn’t going to do much to hurt Assad or help his opponents. The only military action that we can do that will harm Assad is a full-scale invasion. The reasons why this is a bad idea should be legion. It will cost immensely in lives and materials, we will be responsible for the clean up after Assad falls and there is no way anybody could do a competent job.Report

  5. Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

    Does anyone see a coherent strategy in the Administration’s slowly building responses yet? Because without a clear set of goals and a defined strategy for achieving them, all we can do is engage in a few random tactical acts that accomplish nothing more than what Jaybird suggested, just feeling like we did something instead of nothing.

    What if we did a SWOT analysis here? What our are applicable strengths? What are our relevant weaknesses? What are the opportunities? What are the threats? My intuitive analysis of those is not positive. Is anybody’s?Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Too many unknowns. If we aren’t moving now (and I don’t think we are), it’s because we haven’t persuaded Russia to let us move.Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        At this point we couldn’t persuade the Russians to do vodka shots.

        Changes in Iran were looking promising (they appointed a Western educated woman as VP), so the Administration declassified and released a ton of documents on the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup attempt, hoping to give Iranian hard liners more leverage against us.

        One prominent writer suggested that we use the “Costanza Policy”, developed by George Costanza on Seinfeld. The concept is that the administration should do the exact opposite of what their instincts dictate, because their instincts are always completely, one-hundred and eighty degrees, wrong.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        lol…so silly. When our interests coincide with the russians we will get along just fine. Hate to break it to you, but the CIA involvement in Iran is not new or news. They just gave some more details but it was all known. Their hard liners were going to say what they were going to say no matter what. Their pat robertsons don’t actually need our help to dislike us.Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        Well, was it critically important for us to provide their hard liners with some fresh material at this crucial juncture?

        How can we tell if we have Russian, Chinese, and North Korean moles running our foreign policy if they wouldn’t do anything differently from what the administration already does?Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        ROFLMAO…There you go georgie, spilling the crazy sauce. maybe the lizard people are controlling our foreign policy….i mean really, its sooooo obvious.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        George may be on to something. I think the lizards do dictate our foreign policy.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Don’t blame me; i voted for Lrrrr of Omicrom Persei 8


      • Avatar George Turner says:

        Well, if the Russians or Chinese were running our foreign policy it would at least indicate that someone intelligent was making decisions, which would in a way be comforting. Absent that, it means that the decision are coming from a gaggle of delusional spastic morons.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Well there is a kind of conservative that does love a dictator so i can see where you admire Putin and the chinese gov’s policies.Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        Well, I do like Chinese and Russian policies regarding civil liberties, since they don’t have the pervasive surveillance state, partisan tax audit policies, warrantless searches, or naked body scans, and have some checks on executive power and arbitrary rule by fiat.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        why yes georgie, russia and china are bastions of freedom.Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        Indeed, compared to us these days. That’s why Americans have been forced to seek asylum there.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        George is like a box of Callicles: You never know what sophistry you’re gonna get.Report

  6. Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

    “The record clearly shows that, in every instance since the Second World War in which the U.S. government has launched strategic missile attacks on foreign soil, our military forces easily targeted enemy assailants with total precision, leaving no civilian casualties, collateral damage, or any long-term negative consequences for the affected country or region, American foreign policy, or international relations as a whole.”


  7. Avatar NewDealer says:


    Fair points on how it seems like we are morally damned if we do and morally damned if we do not.

    That being said, tar baby is not a term to use.

    A few months ago someone on Kevin Drum’s blog, someone made the case for non-intervention by evoking the prime directive from Star Trek. As a friend pointed out, that smacks of racism by saying that middle easterners are less advanced societies and therefore lesser members of humanity or possibly not even completely human.

    I am deeply suspicious of people who take political cues from Star Trek.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Well, I’m sure you remember the degree to which pro-interventionists were flattering themselves (morally and otherwise) when it came to intervention in Iraq.

      I’m not confident that this is that different.

      I mean, I understand the intuition that says “let’s go in there, kill him, kill his maybe top ten people, and kill his children.” Seriously, I do. If I thought that there would be a good way to do that with a spectacularly well-guided missile, I’d be asking “what are we paying taxes for???” and calling for a spectacularly well-guided missile.

      However… in killing Assad (and his top ten and his children) we’ll be creating a power vacuum and a great deal of uncertainty. We’ll then have to deal with the question of whether we’ll want to midwife Syria through the uncertainty (like in Iraq! Pottery Barn, baby!) or whether we’ll want to leave and see how Egypty Syria’s uncertainty resolution is. Given that I suspect that there is going to be a civil war no matter what, I suspect that the best course of action is to let it happen on their terms/their timetable and let them overthrow their own dictator.

      But I totally understand the argument that Assad (and his top ten and his children) should get the death penalty for the whole “dictator” thing. I just don’t believe that we’ll be able to say “and they all lived happily ever after” once we throw his body (and the bodies of his top ten and his children) to the dogs and the birds. We’ll instead say “and now it’s our moral responsibility to get from B to C. And then C to D. And then to deal with an insurgency. Ingrates.” And so on.

      Let Syria figure this stuff out on their own. Perhaps they’ll have learned from Iraq and Egypt and whatnot.Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        There’s already a civil war in Syria, and by the numbers it’s probably killed more civilians than were killed in Iraq since our 2003 invasion. I think the more difficult question is whether having one side win will make things better or worse. Will the killing stop or will it just shift in to a higher gear?