Beating the Drums for Intervention with Syria

uss gravely

It’s amazing to me how much of debate surrounding bombing Syria comes down to posturing and self-image. Do certain commentators feel more bold and important by living vicariously through the life and death struggles of others?

No one at The New York Times or the Weekly Standard will be parachuting into Damascus, or standing at attention aboard the USS Gravely as it fires Tomahawk missiles into Syria.

But having advocated so virulently for the U.S. to do something to save someone they might at least feel a bit better about themselves, their masculinity reinforced and a sense of pride in a country powerful enough to mobilize deadly military force at a moment’s notice reassured.

Honestly though, I just don’t have any idea how to explain the sloppy reasoning and empty rhetoric which so many pundits apply so forcefully, and with such seemingly joyful gravity and seriousness, whenever it comes to going to war.

Consider this the inverse of the question Jonathan Chait pawed at so painfully yesterday: Why does the proposition of bombing people far away elicit such a different mode of analysis from writers who, when it comes to domestic policy, are generally much more data-focused and skeptical of what can be achieved through brute-force?

So many of the arguments in favor of attacking Syria basically amount to wanting the U.S. to be “tough on crime.” Hit’em hard and fast, and then maybe they’ll start talking. James Fallows quotes Gary Hart saying, “The use of force is not a policy; it is a substitute for policy.” In this case though the use of force seems less like a substitute for policy even than a large scale version of an “enhanced” Batman interrogation. The Assad regime is crazy. They’re backed into a corner. They’re no longer rational. But maybe blowing some stuff up will knock a little bit of sense into them, eh?

Take Bret Stephens article at the Wall Street Journal, which begins, “Should President Obama decide to order a military strike against Syria, his main order of business must be to kill Bashar Assad,” a statement which completely relinquishes any responsibility to the actions of one’s country. Stephens wants to play the role of advisor to the President, a man who represents the entire country, without accepting any responsibility for what might result from his advise.

How else could Stephens summon the courage to utter such idiotic and reductionist formulations as, “The world can ill-afford a reprise of the 1930s, when the barbarians were given free rein by a West that had lost its will to enforce global order.”

Or this, “But now those words must be made to mean something, lest they become a piece of that other moral obscenity: the West’s hitherto bland indifference to Syria’s suffering.” According to Stephens there is nothing worse in the world than being a hypocrite, the implication being that Syrians owe it to the West to be bombed so that a crime perhaps even graver than the use of chemical weapons against civilians can be averted: the West losing face.

Then there’s this lovely letter to the President from the Weekly Standard, penned and signed by any number of rich white men, pleading for the U.S. to destroy Assad’s military, train the Syrian rebels, and presumable commit the trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of NATO personnel required to even attempt that.

I might consider it a fringe proposal if the anonymous members of The New York Times editorial board didn’t support something similar. The justification for this course of action though remains dominated by playground logic though,

“Presidents should not make a habit of drawing red lines in public, but if they do, they had best follow through. Many countries (including Iran, which Mr. Obama has often said won’t be permitted to have a nuclear weapon) will be watching.”

It doesn’t matter if the President shouldn’t have committed the U.S. to war with Syria, he already promised he would and people who make promises “best follow through.” If not, threatens the editorial, Obama may well be responsible for a nuclear armed Iran and whatever carnage occurs as a result!

Leaps of logic this fanciful would be laughed out of most opinion pages, let alone the one belonging to those who promise daily only to publish the news that’s “fit to print.”

The Internet is littered with other examples of this sort of adolescent machismo, indeed too many to discuss each one in detail.

I’ll close out instead with this round-up from Josh Dzieza at The Daily Beast of the “Six Best Opinion Columns” on whether the U.S. should bomb Syria.

Included in the bunch is Robert Satloff‘s argument that,

“Given the strategic stakes at play in Syria, which touches on every key American interest in the region, the wiser course of action is to take the opportunity of the Assad regime’s flagrant violation of global norms to take action that hastens the end of Assad’s regime. Contrary to the views of American military leaders, this will also enhance the credibility of the president’s commitment to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability, not erode America’s ability to enforce it.”

This is of course without any explanation as to how this could be achieved, why this military strike, and none of the ones prior, will be the magical one that convinces Iran to submit to the West’s agenda, or what exactly the global norms the Assad regime flagrantly violated were and what exactly constitutes them. If Iran is a “rogue nation” what do global norms matter?

Edward Luttwak suggests something different,

“By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.”

Luttwak suggests at the outset of his editorial that the U.S. has nothing to gain from involving itself in Syria’s civil war–only to simultaneously claim later on that actually the U.S. should involve itself by arming Syrian rebels in order for the two sides to reach a prolonged “stalemate,” Luttwak’s code-word for on-going civil war.

Andrew Slater prefers “putting boots on the ground,”

“And the assistance of a few hundred U.S. and Allied special operations forces could be the difference between a few bloody weeks of fighting before the post-Assad phase of the war (peace might not be the correct word for it) or a year of slowly bleeding the regime with bombers and drones while the Syrian people remain locked in the vise.  As the commentator consensus puts it, there are no good options right now for the Obama administration on Syria, but some are more cynical than others and if Syria becomes America’s newest drone war, it is not because we seek its end as quickly as possible and it is not because we value Syrian life so dearly. It is because without Americans on the ground, we can all be counted on to change the channel.”

The fact that Slater has no apparent rationale for why a “few hundred” special operations forces might be the difference between a quick end to the civil war and a much longer bombing campaign, is damming enough. He doesn’t even bother to venture a guess as to how a micro-ground invasion might achieve less bloody ends than bombardment from the air and sea, or offer any idea of what the “post-Assad” period will even look like.

And these are some of the “best” ideas of how to go about dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Syria currently out there.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

33 thoughts on “Beating the Drums for Intervention with Syria

  1. “No one at The New York Times or the Weekly Standard will be parachuting into Damascus, or standing at attention aboard the USS Gravely as it fires Tomahawk missiles into Syria.”

    No one on any political side advocating military action in Syria is willing to put their ass on the line and do that. That’s why they are all cowards and worth of no respect. If it’s that important get your ass to Syria and join the rebels. Oh, but then you’d be joining a terrorist organization and would be subject to drone attacks….


    • If any of those worthies from the WS, NYT, etc actually took part in a conflict, that would be a most serious violation of the neo-conservative mission statement which is “Let’s you and him fight.”


      • In that vein, what is the nature of the opposition that is there?

        It strikes me as being vague and shallow. If (perhaps “when”) we start lobbing missiles and the only American soldier casualties we have are forklift related? I don’t see much more than a huge collective shrug before we go back to discussing whether this is good for the Republicans in 2016 or good for the Democrats.


      • Lord, I wish it were that simple. I suspect that it’s more that journalists spend more time talking with Professional Politicians than they spend with anyone else (“anyone else” can give their opinion via opinion poll).

        They’re talking to everyone they know… on the left, we have Obama and Hillary, on the right we have Kristol and Krauthammer. The full spectrum.


    • The right-wing media supports intervention for a few reasons:

      * They’re reflexively in favor of bombing brown people, especially Muslims.
      * They continually confuse “Enemies of unfriendly regimes” with “pro-Americans”; witness all the blather written assuming that Iran’s Green Movement wanted our help to overthrow the Islamic government and institute a Western regime. (But we refused. Thanks, Obama.)
      * As a corollary, they get to call Obama weak for exercising even elementary caution about the use of force.
      * They’re too dense to realize what would happen to the few people in Syria they do care about (the Christians) if the rebels won.

      The mass media is, as always, the voice of official Washington, which is different from being strictly liberal. The Washington media wanted Clinton punished severely for sleeping with a consenting adult female, because it offended their idea of what’s seemly. Liberals thought the impeachment was one of the stupidest, sorriest spectacles we’ve ever seen, and were in no way surprised when the same people who insisted that perjury is a hugh crime later called Scooter Libby’s conviction a witch-hunt. After all, they had had no problem with Clarence Thomas claiming under oath that he’d never discussed Roe v Wade with anyone.

      At any rate, official Washington is full of Very Serious People who believe in surgical strikes and counter-insurgency in the way that slightly more sensible people believe in clutch hitting, and the official media reflects this.


  2. Man I’m totally convinced. If the Weekly Standard is advocating for it with that slate of “experts” (since when is Turdblossom a fishing foreign policy expert?!?!) then Obama should run, not walk, away from intervention.


  3. In all honesty, I’m surprisingly ambivalent about the Administration’s apparent plans here, provided they don’t do much more than lob a couple of cruise missiles at some pre-disclosed targets. Am I thrilled with the idea? No. But on the list ill-conceived American military interventions, something like that would rank extraordinarily low in my book.

    The risks caused by something of that nature are, on the whole, fairly low – it’s not going to topple Assad, it won’t threaten many, if any, civilians, provided that the targets are pre-disclosed, as appears to be the plan. Simply put, it doesn’t have the potential for much in the way of the unintended consequences (or in many instances, perfectly intended consequences) that usually make me opposed to military interventions.

    I also kind of see the logic behind it, particularly from a realpolitik standpoint. It strikes me as correct, as Luttwak argues, that no matter who wins, the US’ interests lose, but that stalemate means that several enemies of the US and its allies are fighting each other, which is helpful to American interests.

    The heavy use of chemical weapons against civilian populations, without any international consequences, wholly upsets that stalemate in favor of Assad (and thus by implication Hezbollah and Iran). Acting to limit (though not terminate) that use helps to restore the stalemate.

    If the result of those actions is also to marginally discourage the combatants from indiscriminately targeting civilian populations, then so much the better; regardless, at this point, things are so bad on the ground that there’s not much we can do that will make things worse for those civilians. There’s also the slight possibility that doing so will discourage other regimes from using chemical weapons in the future.

    Yes, these are both probably somewhat slim possibilities, but given the relatively low risk involved with the plans as announced to this point, they’re possibilities that can’t be so easily dismissed as unworthy of any significant weight whatsoever. Essentially, it’s a low risk/low reward proposition from a humanitarian standpoint, but with a definite national interest at stake.

    None of this means I support intervention, mind you, just that I don’t view the Administration’s plans here as being particularly worthy of outrage, particularly when compared to the moral outrageousness of the chemical weapons attack in the first place.


  4. I think it’s important that we strike at Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles, with advanced notice, so that he’s forced to disperse them. That will allow his regime much greater deniability regarding any future use of chemical weapons, while also making it easier for Al Nusra and Al Qaeda to get their hands on lots of nerve gas. It’s a win-win for both sides, and that’s the kind of thing that makes people like America. We help.


  5. “In its efforts to pressure Iran the U.S. Navy is very likely to try and prevent Iranian oil tankers from passing through the Straits of Hormuz on their way to refineries in India, given that Iran lacks adequate facilities to refine its own oil.

    If that were to happen, it is almost certain that Iran would move to block the strategic straits by sending its fleet of ultra-rapid watercraft to sink one or two oil tankers and in the process block the world’s busiest oil route, from where more than half of the world’s consumption of oil, transit. The result could be an immediate shortage of oil on the world markets. Prices at the pump would skyrocket and some industries would be forced to close. ”

    … quoting from

    Let’s have some merry fun, without the war, shall we?


    • Sorta a “madman across the water” approach to things? Maybe. But if Iran did what you’re suggesting there really would be a war. Or well, an Authorization of the Use of Military Force, which is indistinguishable from war. Not to mention that doing so would effectively amount to Iran shooting itself in das boot.

      Do you really think Iranian leadership is that crazy?


  6. Let’s keep in mind that no pundit advocating against the intervention is living under threat of Assad’s chemical weapons either; and that somehow does not invalidate their position on the matter.


  7. You’re knocking it out of the park with these, Ethan. Agnostic god bless you.

    It doesn’t matter if the President shouldn’t have committed the U.S. to war with Syria, he already promised he would and people who make promises “best follow through.”

    Shades of Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.”


  8. Not to be too pithy about it, but it’s not as though the people making the critiques that really it’s not our business if Assad decides using Sarin is a great idea are going to be suffering consequences from not doing anything about that, either.


    • If we fire a few cruise missiles at military targets, resulting in some clear destruction, but no real damage to the regime’s ability to continue to wage war against the rebels, and they use chemical weapons again, what do we do then?

      Lobbing some warheads from a hundred miles away in the midst of a brutal civil war doesn’t, by itself seem like a big deal, even a staunch anti-war type like myself. I mean, I don’t like it, but I’m not going to don my protest hat over it, if that’s all it is. But what if it doesn’t have the desired effect, which, given how brutal this civil war is (if you don’t believe me, take a trip over to the asshole of the internet, LiveLeak, and see for yourself), and what the stakes are for the regime, seems like a very real possibility? What’s the next step? A bombing campaign? Given how fluid and intertwined the lines are, and the fact that those lines are in the middle of cities, that seems like a really bad idea (bad enough to make me don that hat). And what if we shoot some missiles, they use chemical weapons again, and we don’t do anything more than shoot some cruise missiles again? What happens in the next brutal civil war involving a regime with chemical weapons (or the ability to acquire them) and nothing to lose because losing the war means losing everything? Are they going to be deterred by a stern warning and maybe a few cruise missiles that don’t really do any damage to their ability to wage war, knowing that we aren’t going to back it up with real military action?


      • We’ve given non-military financial aid, then we helped try to get the various rebel groups more organized, then stepped it up to CIA training rebel fighters, and now we’re talking about lobbing cruise missiles. There might be a trendline in all that.


      • I suppose there is, but I’m not willing to extrapolate beyond the current range of values.

        I imagine a serious bombing campaign of the sort we saw in Afghanistan in ’01 and ’02 would probably put an end to the war more swiftly than it’s likely to end at its current pace, but are we really willing to commit to that? Particularly since, given where this war is being fought, a bombing campaign means civilian casualties, and probably lots of them. And wouldn’t we likely need special forces and CIA on the ground in some numbers in order to direct bombing attacks, ala Afghanistan in ’01 and ’02? That’s going to make things messy for us, eh? Particularly when the rebels, who have so far shown little if any mercy for regime supporters, start doin’ what they’ve been doin’, but on a larger scale, as the regime retreats, but now with us on the ground watching them do it.


      • The administration seems to be driven by a combination of short term thinking and a desire to do something* without getting too deeply involved. That’s a good recipe for increasing incremental involvement. I’m not saying it will happen, just that the particular circumstances make it morelikely than it might otherwise be.

        *The idea that “punishing” Assas with some cruise missile strikes is “doing something” in any meaningful sense is ridiculous. The man is in a fight for survival–he’s not going to suddenly play nice because the threat level has further increased.


      • It’s true though. It’s the considered opinion of a Constitutional law professor.

        The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. — B. Obama, apparently no relation to the US President.

        If he does strike without authorization, Joe Biden says it’s grounds for impeachment.

        On the other hand, since Congress really didn’t have any skin in the game, why should they even be consulted? They’re not the ones running around threatening countries about red lines, having their bluff get called, and having to strike foreign leaders with cruise missiles to save face. If they’re no more involved in the situation than Belgium’s parliament, why should they have any more say than Belgium?

        But the strike isn’t going to be serious, unless there is an unfortunate targeting accident. The LA Times says this:

        One U.S. official who has been briefed on the options on Syria said he believed the White House would seek a level of intensity “just muscular enough not to get mocked” but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.

        “They are looking at what is just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic,” he said.

        Well, that statement has “President Sissy Pants” all over it.


      • I really wish Obama would be principled enough to send it to congress for congressional approval. They’d attach a repeal of Obamacare to is and pass it, then it’d die in the Senate and we’d end up doing nothing.


Comments are closed.