Briefly, on Syria

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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21 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    There are a lot of really good reasons to intervene in Syria.

    The problem is that there are a lot of really good reasons to *NOT* intervene in Syria and given that most of the really good reasons have overlap with the really good reasons we invaded Saddam, it’s worth exploring which of the really good reasons ended up being hollow and which of the really good reasons to *NOT* intervene in Iraq turned out to be really, really robust.

    Now perhaps all we’re talking about is doing something half-assed and shooting some face-savers and, I suppose, there’s no reason to really be incensed about that… but that in itself argues that it’s not about the Moral Obligations We Have and it’s not about the Pragmatic Need To Address Chemical Weapons. It seems to be about the importance of following through after you say something about a “Red Line”… and arguments about the importance of backing up our Commander-In-Chief are arguments that we’ve heard before too.Report

  2. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    The USA was complicit with Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons. Not only was the USA compllicit, we helped him with intelligence on locations.

    The USA still maintains its own stocks of chemical weapons. Our aircraft fired tons of depleted uranium rounds into Saddam’s armour. It’s all being cut up and recycled. Uranium is a horrible poison and should be classified as a chemical munition but it isn’t. It’s too effective as an armour piercing round.

    The USA gave Saddam Hussein carte blanche to use nerve agents on his own people. If Russia and China are less-bothered by these tactics than we are, their memories are long enough to remember when the USA shined on Saddam’s brutal excesses.Report

  3. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Frodo didn’t throw the ring into Mount Doom. At the very moment, he found he could not, that he believed his resolve would allow him to use the ring for good and not evil. Gollum attacks and maims Frodo to gain the ring back, killing himself, and destroying the ring, in the process.

    Our body politic consists of a mixture of Frodos and Gollums — both those who effect attitudes of reluctance at the prospect of wielding deadly power against others but will do so anyway, and those for whom the possession and use of that power is an object of such intense and inherent value that they cannot see that its pursuit leads to an insane risk of self-destruction.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Frodo fails every time he’s tempted by the Ring.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to BlaiseP says:

        …And so the analogy collapses. Thanks a LOT, Blaise! 😉Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        No it doesn’t. Consider the temptations offered by the Ring to its various bearers: in every case, it’s some seeming Good gone horribly wrong in its excess.

        All that is gold does not glitter. The Ring tempts Smeagol with its lustre — on his birthday, thus it becomes his birthday present. It tempts Gandalf, promising him the powers of the Dark Lord himself. Galadriel is tempted:

        “And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”

        Gandalf entrusts the ring to the hobbits, knowing their visions aren’t very large. The best temptation the Ring can manage with Samwise Gamgee is making of him a Great Gardener.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Actually, Frodo resists the ring at the Barrow-Downs in his tussle with the wights.

        This is a very, very important moment in the books, IMO. Frodo resists the ring and the temptation to run away and save himself and instead saves his friends by chopping the wight’s hand off. This incident makes Gandalf think, and say at Rivendell, that Frodo has “some strength in him” (presumably to resist the ring) which might explain why Gandalf thinks the plan to send Frodo to Mordor has any chance of working (which we later realize it doesn’t as Frodo can no more resist the ring as anyone can).

        Interestingly, though, it may be that the ring didn’t care so much about exerting influence on Frodo at that point and would have rather Frodo fought. Indeed, the ring may have wanted Frodo to stay and fight and it may have even wanted others like Gandalf to see Frodo as more in control than really was.Report

    • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Thanks for ruining that for me, Burt.

      Please don’t say what happens to Romeo and Juliet. I have my hopes up for those two.Report

  4. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    The further swelling of the executive’s power to meet out violence across the globe in the name of freedom, humanity, or whatever.

    Given the amount of howling coming from some quarters, the request for congressional authorization actually seems to be one of those things that might prove a future constraint.

    Also, no one is proposing a ground invasion short of the crazies at the Weekly Standard. Iraq’s the wrong precedent here to be looking at. Kosovo, Somalia, Cyprus, Libya are some more analogous situations. Not that the outcome is all that much better, but Iraq shouldn’t be the litmus test for everything. That was a worst case scenario squared.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      Out of curiosity, why would you rule out Iraq as the yardstick here?

      For my money, the yardstick is Lebanon. Just pull out the tape measure a little farther, it’s all the same players in the exact same game.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Iraq was for all intents and purposes the worst case scenario for how to do an intervention of any sort. It was a full-scale land invasion, it had overly lofty goals, it had unrealistic time tables, general staff that didn’t understand the terrain, an army not equipped for the type of fighting required, the list goes on and on.

        No one is seriously proposing an open-ended occupation by US forces in Syria. (Unseriously is another matter entirely)

        From a sectarian soup stand point, Lebanon is indeed the right model. The French mandate partitions were one of the worst things to ever happen to the Middle East. Sykes-Picot deserve every bit of scorn that history has heaped on them and then some.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Iraq’s problems weren’t military, it was political. When Jay Garner was running the show, before that ridiculous factotum L Paul Bremer took over, Garner was walking around without a helmet on in Fallujah, saying “When do you want us to leave?” The Sunnis, now woefully fallen in the world, fearfully yelled back “La! La! No! You must stay here to protect us from the Shiites”

        I presume you’ve read Emerald City in which all this is laid out.

        The problem was political, not military. Had the American military been allowed to run that sorry nation for a year or so under martial law….

        But that’s all woulda-coulda-shoulda and I’ve promised myself not to indulge in that sort of thinking any more. The Iraqis only wanted security. Had we given that to them, they could have sorted out the rest for themselves. Put the old sheikhs back in charge, give them a semi-permanent jirgeh mechanism, give them all military radios and let them use us as a backstop to give the power brokers some mandate for peace, it would have worked out wonderfully.

        And I’d like to note this in passing: we could have used the invasion as an opportunity to patch things up with Iran. We gave them a great gift, two in fact, the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. We could have said “okay, Iran, let bygones be bygones, new times, new players, you share a long border with Iraq, time to start acting like Major Players, help us out here, stand up for the Shiites, help them along as you can, you’ve got tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees need to come back here.” That sort of thing. I think they would have bought it. Would have annoyed the Saudis no end but they oppress their Shiites too.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to BlaiseP says:

        The French mandate partitions were one of the worst things to ever happen to the Middle East

        I have a friend, a serious scholar of Eastern Europe and the Austro-Hungarian empire in particular, who’s (slowly) writing an alt-history that assumes WWI never happened because some chance event prevents the assassination. The Middle East is one of the more interesting issues in that storyline. What happens if the Ottomans don’t collapse? Would the effects of the Young Turks have meant a breaking up of it anyway? But even then you don’t get the mandates, so what lines would get drawn? Is there a greater Syria that includes what are now Jordan, Lebanon and Israel? Is there a separate Alawi dominated country on the Med coast? Is there ultimately an Israel anyway, absent WWII?

        And the real big question, could it possibly have turned out much worse than it has?Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to BlaiseP says:

        @J@m3z, I don’t think it would’ve made much difference. Iran and points east, Yemen, most of Saudi Arabia, and some other areas weren’t ever part of the Ottoman Empire, and they didn’t turn out well either. How that empire would’ve done is an interesting question, though.

        It was split up a decade before oil was found in the Gulf. (Iranian oil had been found a bit prior to WW-I, but they weren’t part of the empire). Had they hung on into the 1940’s or 1950’s the oil revenue may have kept them afloat, especially as they’d have had enough clout to dictate their own terms on pricing, possibly putting them into an early revenue position that the region didn’t attain until the 1970’s. But I imagine the overall weakness would’ve remained, with a reliance on Western or Soviet technology and weapons.

        But removing WW-I from history changes so many things (probably eliminating WW-II, the fall of the Czar, the rise of Communism, post WW-II Arab immigration into Europe, etc) that it’s hard to make any predictions about anything.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to BlaiseP says:

        The French mandate partitions were one of the worst things to ever happen to the Middle East
        I have a friend, a serious scholar of Eastern Europe and the Austro-Hungarian empire in particular, who’s (slowly) writing an alt-history that assumes WWI never happened because some chance event prevents the assassination. The Middle East is one of the more interesting issues in that storyline. What happens if the Ottomans don’t collapse? Would the effects of the Young Turks have meant a breaking up of it anyway? But even then you don’t get the mandates, so what lines would get drawn? Is there a greater Syria that includes what are now Jordan, Lebanon and Israel? Is there a separate Alawi dominated country on the Med coast? Is there ultimately an Israel anyway, absent WWII?

        And the real big question, could it possibly have turned out much worse than it has?

        I think it’s possible things could turn out worse. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire was likely to happen at some point anyway, the Young Turks didn’t have a sufficient center to rally around. There’s a very good reason why Ataturk basically gave up on pan-Ottoman statehood and focused so tightly on Turkish nationalism.

        The key from my own perspective is to see how the diplomatic alliances would work toward preserving the status quo in Central Asia and the Levant. Would there be a repeat of the Great Game? A second Crimean War perhaps, but this time with Germany playing as a wild card?

        How does France deal with its steadily declining state as a great power? Does British colonialism require more access to oil once the RN finishes its switch to oil burners? At that point does it change its strategy from coaling station centered ports of call to geographical regions?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      Personally, I think that the request for congressional authorization is *AWESOME*.

      It works on a (for lack of a better word) “moral” level, it works on a real politik level, it works on a selfish face-saving level.

      The only thing that might go wrong is if authorization is not given and stuff happens anyway. But I won’t worry about that unless it actually happens.Report

  5. Avatar krogerfoot says:

    . . . the executive’s power to mete out violence . . .Report

  6. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Iraq wasn’t in anything like a similar degree of chaos (really, massively violent upheaval in a region in upheaval) that Syria now is when Bush decided he wanted to invade. That’s where the Iraq comparison falls down. That doesn’t make the current situation a better one into which to introduce American munitions by any means. But the two situations really are not that similar at all, either on the unconventional weapons policy front or the underlying security and political circumstances in the countries at the relevant times.

    This isn’t to say that some of the reasons don’t in fact echo each other – they’re both bad guys and they’d be getting what’s rightfully coming to them! But the presence of those similar reasons doesn’t indicate the absence of very saliently distinguishing factors about the underlying fact patterns each president faces(/d).

    But all that being said, those distinguishing factors for me don’t produce arguments to intervene militarily that are compelling enough to overcome the daunting force of the reasons to be very wary about doing so. But there’s a real cost that is correctly articulated by Sec. Kerry in the quote here (if it’s the case that the regime used the weapons in the attack a week and a half ago, which seems to be increasingly in doubt, which is all the more reason to stay our hand). The Russians could scoff at our longitudinal hypocrisy all they want; in fact, a past policy of countenancing chemical weapons use no more morally commits us to countenancing it in the future than does Obama’s red line quote make it in the U.S.’s interest to strike. There’s a real cost to signaling to the world that, with respect to contemporary events, even when it an unfriendly regime doing it, the U.S. (and the world) is not going to take action when these weapons are used in the functional equivalent of war (i.e. in putting down insurrections). There were simply no analogous actions Saddam took in an analogous timeframe (i.e. during the same administration or shortly before a transition), such that the world was looking to see how the international community and the U.S. would respond – i.e. What’s your policy now? The world was not looking to see what George W. Bush’s policy in 2003 with respect to Saddam’s 1988 Halabja massacre (or his earlier use in the Iran war) was. American policy on that simply was what it was in 1988, maybe 1989… and then that was the history. Then Saddam invaded Kuwait, and then we intervened – for that reason.

    Here, the event is contemporary. As is the civil war in which 100,000 civilians have been killed. There actually is question as to what the U.S. policy response to these contemporaneously emergent eventswill be. If it’s to use force to punish the use of chemical weapons in a civil war to strengthen the norm against their use in international war (I mean, can you get more dubious? …but that’s not the point here, though I wish it were), then, yes, Russia and Uran will call us hypocrites. So what? We should be bound in making policy today by an amoral decision we made regarding a dispute that took place twenty-five or thirty years ago for fear that other countries’ dictators will say we’re hypocrites? No, that’s completely irrelevant. We should make the right policy for our country (which is going to involve some universal moral consideration, but is never going to be defined by it) today.

    The issue is simply that these strikes wouldn’t advance U.S. interests nor global security interests by strengthening the norm against chemical weapons, nor would they help the Syrians’ plight, enough to outweigh the dangers to regional stability, American reputation in the Middle East, or of unintended consequences via unpredictable but inevitable retaliation and counter-retaliation. It’s too dangerous: the strikes are a bad idea. But the reasons why (and the reasons why it’s a pretty close call and why there are real costs here that simply were not present in a decision not to intervene in Iraq in 2003) have really very little to do with either U.S. policy toward Iraq in either 2003 or 1983-1988.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

      The issue is simply that these strikes wouldn’t advance U.S. interests nor global security interests by strengthening the norm against chemical weapons, nor would they help the Syrians’ plight, enough to outweigh the dangers to regional stability, American reputation in the Middle East, or of unintended consequences via unpredictable but inevitable retaliation and counter-retaliation.

      …Nor the damage they would do, taken unilaterally as they will, to the legitimacy of international processes governing the use of force (UN Charter Chapter VII)*, I definitely should have added in.

      * This is not to say that that system is not flawed and unable to overcome alliance politics that don’t take account of all ethical considerations on each occasion where force is considered or that it will not produce rightfully undesired outcomes on a fairly frequent basis.Report

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