I haven’t posted anything about the situation in Syria, because–to be utterly candid–I’m conflicted about it. Not about Assad–he’s a vicious dictator–but about what America should or could do that wouldn’t simply make a horrible situation worse.

I don’t consider myself either a hawk or a dove; I opposed our intervention in Iraq, but not Afghanistan, because the situations were very different. Afghanistan had harbored and supported the people who attacked us. Iraq was an obvious war of choice, trumped up by people who quite clearly had no understanding of the complex political realities of the Middle East. Furthermore, we had international support for our response to Afghanistan, and a pathetic, trumped-up “Coalition of the Willing” for our aggression in Iraq.

Justified or not, neither war went well.

Now I am listening to the arguments for and against a “targeted” action against Syria. The President’s argument–Syria has defied international norms and inaction will send a message that such violations can continue with impunity–resonates with me. But so does the argument that another “go it alone” cowboy intervention in the world’s most dangerous region is likely to end badly, doing more harm than good.

Until I read this post by Andrew Sullivan, I thought I was the only person impatient with the self-righteous moralists on both ends of the political spectrum. On the Right, we have the American Exceptionalists who believe we should be the world’s policemen, not to mention the irony-challenged chickenhawks who pontificate about saving the lives of Muslims they routinely stereotype and discriminate against here at home;  on the Left, we have the anti-imperialism scolds who loudly accuse anyone considering any intervention of any sort for any reason guilty of moral turpitude and/or commercial intent. To both camps, waging war or not is apparently a simple decision, to be made without any ambivalence or concern for the truly disastrous consequences that could flow from a wrong decision.

A recent article by George Packer in The New Yorker made all of these points far more clearly than I can. (Actually, this article from the Onion did an even better job of laying out the unattractive options–and when the Onion is the voice of sanity, that sort of sums it all up.)

Whatever we do, act or refrain from acting,  prudence requires that we think carefully about the pitfalls. What do we want to accomplish,  what decisions and tactics are likely to achieve that goal, and at what cost–not just in human lives and dollars, but to America’s long-term international interests?

I’m all for realpolitik. I just don’t know what it looks like right now.


  1. Sheila; I am also confliced regarding the part we should take regarding the genocide in Syria by it’s own leaders. I am anti-war but vile situations such as we are seeing in Syria due to chemical warfare on their own citizens, causes inner conflictions in all thinking people. I believe President Obama’s so-called last-minute-change-of-mind regarding the part Congress should take in this decision is that he has paid close attention to public polls regarding this very serious decision. Initially, polls seemed to be pretty even, pro and con. Now they appear to favor President Obama NOT taking on this responsibiity alone but requiring Congressional input and decision making. While this is not a declaration of war which requires Congressional action; it is an international military decision with far reaching effects. We seem to have little backup from other members of the UN regardless their original agreements and are faced with possible/probable wrath from Iran, North Korea and the ever-present conflicted relationship with Russia. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t; either way, we face the distinct possibililty of another war we do not need, do not want and cannot afford financially or with the loss of more lives.

  2. I thought the Sullivan link was very dishonest. The advocates for intervention are people who are on the Sunday gabfests all the time, have fixed perches on the top editorial pages. Sullivan has a bad habit (lots of examples over the rare times I check
    him out) of showing his cards by choosing strawpeople as representatives of the other side. Representatives of `the left and the Paulite right’ indeed! And having as banner
    illustration a Socialist Workers placard. Then Robert Fisk, someone unknown to most Americans.

    Sullivan is a smart person (a little too emotional and self-indulgent for my own taste). The person who is superbly informed on the middle east (and he speaks some of the
    languages and has lived there) is Prof. Juan Cole of Michigan, website He has written about this (and lots of other things) every day—I consult him in such situations beginning in 2003. And, at the end, I will paste from Eric Alterman’s Nation blog a section of this week’s entry featuring the professional opinions of Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chair of the the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sullivan and Dempsey are not flakey people, and they all present serious doubts on Obama’s impulsive plans.

    Sheila, we have all lived through decades of difficult decisions. And in each case, there are people whose arguments for whichever side you prefer can be embarrassing. But if you only present some anecdotal information and then sign off, you are not being, in my view, serious.

    Now the long Nation/Alterman post:
    Camouflaged Debate: How our Democracy Ignores the Military Case Against Syria Intervention
    by Reed Richardson

    Each day’s news out of Washington makes it increasingly clear; the time for talk is over. A US military attack on Syria is no longer a matter of if, but when (probably this weekend). The administration has now fully coalesced around the big idea that, in response to Assad’s alleged chemical weapons use, something must be done. And whether through sympathetic op-ed columns or jingoistic cable-news “debates”, the Beltway conventional wisdom has once again shown itself more than happy to oblige.

    The tragic déja vu quality of this media obeisance has been brilliantly captured by Conor Friedersdorf. But there’s another troubling aspect to what’s happening right now. For all the pundit bluster about the need to do something, there has been shamefully little scrutiny or public discussion of what can be done, despite a growing chorus of alarm from the folks who will do it. Even if Assad did brutally murder thousands of his own people using chemical munitions—something still not conclusively proven—the painful reality is that there is little our military can do right now to effectively punish him for any past atrocities or prevent future ones short of a massive expenditure of blood and treasure. And it is precisely this blinkered outlook that the nation’s military experts have been warning against.

    Indeed, it speaks volumes about our broken national discourse that the most prominent skeptic of military intervention in Syria happens to be the top US general in the Pentagon. For months, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been patiently laying out one compelling reason after another for not engaging our armed forces in Syria’s still-chaotic civil war. But only if you were willing to dig past the establishment media op-ed pages and look outside the cable-news bubble would you find the many red flags Dempsey has raised about our country going to war:

    “Dempsey Cautious on Syria” (April 30)

    “Martin Dempsey: Syria Options Costly, Risky” (July 22)

    “General Says Rebels Aren’t Ready to Take Power” (Aug. 21)

    “Dempsey: Rebels Wouldn’t Back US Interests” (Aug. 21)

    “Military Experts Cautious about Effectiveness of a U.S. Attack on Syria” (Aug. 29)

    Beyond these unheralded press accounts there was the sobering, unclassified letter Dempsey sent to Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, on July 19. In it, Dempsey discusses a range of military options, from limited airstrikes to establishing buffer or no-fly zones to taking physical control of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles. For the latter options, which admittedly aren’t being openly considered—yet—Dempsey estimates thousands of US ground forces would be involved at a cost of a billion dollars a month. And though the White House has all but officially declared it will execute the first, least muscular option, that choice has little to commend it as well. Dempsey sums it up thusly:

    Conduct Limited Stand-off Strikes. This option uses lethal force to strike targets that enable the regime to conduct military operations, proliferate advanced weapons, and defend itself. Potential targets include high-value regime air defense, air, ground, missile, and naval forces as well as the supporting military facilities and command nodes. Stand-off air and missile systems could be used to strike hundreds of targets at a tempo of our choosing.Force requirements would include hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions. Over time, the impact would be the significant degradation of regime capabilities and an increase in regime desertions. There is a risk that the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets. Retaliatory attacks are also possible, and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country.

    A couple of things. Note that the favorite pundit term “surgical strike” does not appear anywhere in Dempsey’s very frank assessment, but the phrase “probability for collateral damage impacting civilians” does. Also, it’s worth pointing out that even this scaled-back campaign would involve hundreds of military assets and cost billions of dollars. And then there’s the part where Dempsey explains how the very limited nature of such an air campaign translates into a higher likelihood that Assad’s regime will be able to withstand it. This, of course, merely opens the door for more pundits to call for more missiles and more sorties. The slope, in other words, gets very slippery from here on out.

    Nevertheless, this kind of less than sanguine assessment doesn’t stand much of chance with those in the press willing to absorb whatever rosy scenarios anonymous pro-war sources feed them. And sometimes they don’t even bother with that. Over at The New Republic, in an otherwise good primer on the Syrian state of affairs, readers are nonetheless treated to a hypothetically-riven rebuttal to foregoing a military strike:

    Retired Major General Paul Eaton, an advisor to the National Security Network, told me that ‘if Assad or rogue elements have decided to use chemical weapons in the face of very strong international condemnation, an attack is not going to be an deterrent.’ That may be true, but Assad may have also assumed that the United States, which had not responded strongly before, would once again back off. If that were Assad’s reasoning, serious retaliation could deter him, and could also send a signal to other rogue governments.

    Those second and third sentences are riddled with conditionals to justify spending billions of US dollars and possibly killing untold Syrian civilians. Not exactly a slam dunk. Others in the press don’t muster up that much intellectual honesty, though. Consider the credulous, unattributed assertion that snuck into this news story in The Hill, a statement that would likely come as surprising news to Dempsey:

    If successful, the U.S. strikes could cripple the Syrian military’s ability to carry out attacks on rebel forces and bring the regime to its knees.

    Really? A one, two, or three-day air campaign targeting a few dozen sites will bring to its knees a regime hardened by two-plus years of civil war? Recall that the NATO air campaign against Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s much weaker Libyan regime commenced on March 19, 2011 and continued on for 222 days. And as this 2012 Journal of Strategic Security article points out, Libya was a much better candidate for intervention than Syria for a number of reasons. One, the former had a geographically well-defined opposition with a credible military leadership based in Benghazi. Two, a United Nations Security Council Resolution authorizing military intervention was already in place. And three, there was broad support among Arab and neighboring nations for removing Gadhafi, Libya’s brutal dictator. But as Lance Kildron, of the Naval War College, concludes in his JSS analysis:

    [B]efore engaging militarily in another humanitarian crisis, U.S. policymakers should take each of the criteria used in Libya and apply them to the situation in Syria. By applying these criteria to Syria, it is evident that limited military intervention similar to the Libya campaign model does not fit in Syria.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, this kind of inconvenient candor from within the ranks about the lousy military options we face in Syria doesn’t sit well with some, in particular, a certain Senator from Arizona. As was noted almost as an aside in this front-page story of The New York Times: “Mr. McCain has said that doubts about military action expressed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, have emboldened the Syrian government to use chemical weapons…” Now, McCain’s shamelessly fickle relationship with the Pentagon’s point of view is well-documented. But still, accusing a high-ranking four-star general of tacitly encouraging the enemy just by doing his due diligence, that should merit a front-page story on its own and give pause to everyone beating the drums of war. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when our nation learned the painful, costly lessons of not heeding the expert advice of those who have seen war close up. Just ask Gen. Eric Shinseki.

    Oh no, the president assures us, Syria won’t be like Iraq. And I believe him—to the extent that I don’t think he’s stupid or reckless enough to launch a full-scale ground invasion of a Middle Eastern nation based on lies and misinformation. But to paraphrase the old adage about prostitution, launching an airstrike on Syria will still be pre-emptive war, Obama’s just haggling over the price.

    In fact, the administration’s feckless talking points make it seem like downright cheap when it comes to such a supposedly important undertaking. Calling the proposed airstrikes “just muscular enough not to get mocked” or “just enough to be more than symbolic” is an outrageously cavalier attitude toward the unleashing of deadly force. So, too, is the White House’s half-hearted goal to merely “deter and degrade” Assad’s ability to launch chemical strikes.

    In an interview with a local NPR station, former Army officer and Boston University professor of international relations Andrew Bacevich blasted the administration’s “weasel words” as emblematic of a similarly fuzzy, ineffectual military strategy:

    Degrade? Deter? If indeed the crime here is the use of chemical weapons to inflict large-scale casualties, how will this presumably very limited attack prevent any recurrence of that event? This will be an act of war by the United States against the government of Syria. When we go to war, we should do it only for the most serious reason. We should have very specific political purposes to be served, and I don’t see that in this particular case.

    I think what we have is a president who backed himself into a corner by foolishly saying the use of chemical weapons constituted a red line. Now the red line’s been crossed, and people in Washington are concerned about American credibility or the president’s prestige being compromised. I think we’re going to have a modest, ineffective military action undertaken to try to give the impression of restoring that credibility and prestige.

    We’ve truly arrived at a through-the-looking-glass moment, one where even liberal bastions like The New York Times editorial page believe restoring our nation’s credibility abroad somehow requires launching a military campaign that likely won’t achieve anything except accidentally killing some of the people we claim to be trying to protect. That we’re rushing to undertake this potential misadventure without any public support or Congressional approval only compounds the injury.

    To be sure, Gen. Dempsey is not a renowned Constitutional scholar, but one does not rise through the ranks and get to his position without learning to be both strategic and precise in every aspect of your professional life. So, the general’s language at the end of his July letter to Sen. Levin, much like Prof. Bacevich’s above, is worth noting for its strong Article I allusions:

    I know that the decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly. It is no less than an act of war. [emphasis mine]

    In other words, there’s a debate to be had about this; but—unlike the UK—we aren’t having it. Now, I’m a firm believer in civilian command of our armed forces. So, whatever Dempsey’s personal beliefs, when President Obama eventually gives his order on how to proceed with Syria, all of the military chain of command, Dempsey included, should execute with best possible speed. But it is precisely because dissent and debate are not roles given over to our military—and for good reason—that it falls to us as citizens to exercise those principles on their behalf. And yet, here we are once again—a chosen few in our nation’s capital stand ready to embark on a perilously ill-advised military campaign, all the while brushing aside real debate. Isn’t it long past time we try something different than heedlessly exporting violence abroad to encourage democracy, like practicing a little more of it here at home?

    Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

  3. War in Syria? Are you kidding me? If some other country tried to intervene in our civil war, how would that go over with Americans?
    I am sick and tired of America sticking its nose in the business of the middle east and frankly, don’t trust the media to tell us anything that would prove we need to go there. I don’t trust the media at all and if you can’t trust the fourth estate, than the problem is much larger than what we are being told.
    I think it’s terrible that children have been gassed. It’s wrong on so many levels.
    I hated the vietnam war, the Iraq one and in Afghanistan too.
    The only ones beating the war drums is the MIC.

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