It’s a Tough Moment for Liberals

NEW SLAUGHTERThis is a tough and perhaps evolutionary moment for liberals. Meaning the intramural conflict over what if anything to do about Syria.

It is fair to describe the standard progressive-liberal attitude towards American military intervention as one of intense if not intractable skepticism … to the point of knee jerk pacifism. And the rationale for that attitude is pretty solid.

Liberals, with a more nuanced view of history, aren’t just suffering from a Cheney-Bush Iraq hangover, where we were flat-out lied to and thrown into an incompetently managed war that when all is said and done (with veterans’ benefits and interest) may end up costing multiple trillions of (unbudgeted) dollars, but we also remember and continue to process the Tonkin Gulf charade that got us into Vietnam, followed by the atrocities of indiscriminate carpet bombing, napalm and white phosphorous attacks. And sliding further back, having studied history, we haven’t forgotten the blanket fire-bombing of not just Tokyo but four dozen other Japanese cities by Gen. Curtis LeMay/FDR in WWII, followed by two nuclear bombs.

After that we factor in all of this country’s nefarious, frequently counter-effective intelligence activities.

Point being; on a strictly historical basis, the United States stands on a very shaky pedestal from which to claim a moral prerogative to punish someone else for gross abuses of “accepted norms”.

But as much as those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it, history is never a precise mirror on the present. Time, social evolution and technology wear away at the perfect echo from then to now. 2013 is not 1943. Great nation states have not fought a war against each other for almost 70 years, the longest “peaceful” interlude in recorded history, and are unlikely to engage in one for the forseeable future, given the tight interdependency of the world economy. The respective populations of the United States, Russia, China, etc. are simply too well-informed about each other to accept the easy, jingoistic demonization of “the enemy” corrupt governments served up in the past, much less the likelihood of total annihilation.

Those are key facets of the liberalizing effect of technology.

Closer to the moment, Barack Obama bears no imaginable kinship to Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, the architects of the Iraq fraud and disaster. There is no case to be made that Obama is eager for military conflict. On the other hand he is not naive about the presence of abominable cruelty in human nature.

The split among liberals over Syria seems to break along the lines of those whose cynicism toward American motives is complete, and those who believe every new situation, with new characters in leadership in a different era is unique and must be dealt with in a way unburdened by the frauds, failures and genocidal slaughters of those who made military decisions in the decades before them. An irony is that a group for whom “nuance” is regularly embraced as a virtue is engaged in an internal debate over whether there are shadings and distinctions in a chemical weapon attack by a desperate dictator that make Syria distinct from … Iraq, Vietnam and so on.

The former say, “No. Our motives in this situation are no more pure or moral than Cheney-Bush’s in Iraq. No American president or administration can ever be trusted again. War of any kind at any time is wrong. So, no. Never.”

The latter argue that intervening against indiscriminate slaughters like Rwanda and Kosovo and like what Assad is perpetrating on his civilian population are actually far closer to having moral standing in the liberal concept of such a thing, than reacting with the full, profit-pumping apparatus of the military-industrial complex to the “Red Menace” in Vietnam or the oil-tainted imperative in Saddam’s Iraq.

For the latter group, and I count myself among them, the immorality of American/international inaction in Rwanda is still one of the most guilt-inducing memories of the last generation. By what standard was ignoring that “moral”? And how is that different from what Assad is doing in Syria? in the potential consequences to us? The price of gasoline?

And to be sure, the vitality of the debate is almost entirely among liberals. Conservatives, having long since sold their souls to reflexive, unexamined partisanship have, for all intents and purposes, no role in the current debate. They continue to say only whatever they need to say to weaken Obama and stay a step ahead of the next far-far right conservative primary opponent. Consequently, they have no credible standing in matters of practical morality. They are noise without signal.

Obama is going to have to make his case over the next few days, and make it far better than Colin Powell and George W. Bush made their’s for Iraq. Regardless of your views of the moral obligations of the lone mega-state in slaughters like this one in Syria, every liberal is well-advised to bring all the skepticism they can muster to whatever Obama says. And I believe he welcomes both the skepticism and the debate.

But … if they’re being intellectually honest, liberals also have to fully and honestly process the morality of inaction. As Obama said in his press conference in Russia the other day, there’s no one else the entire planet turns to in moments like this. Ever. We are the whole game, and therefore, the moral debate goes, we have a special responsibility to do what is reasonable to destabilize blatant state-sponsored homicide.

If progressive liberals want to sustain and build on their viability as effective leaders — not just on economic and social matters where they are clearly more far-sighted, but the whole range of leadership responsibilities — they/we are going to have to accept that episodes like Syria are a fact of life and may have to be dealt with in very unpleasant, antithetical-seeming ways when dialogue and diplomacy simply are not an option.

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62 Responses

  1. […] It’s a Tough Moment for Liberals (thesamerowdycrowd.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Another of your insightful, balanced and extremely thoughtful essays, Brian and one I agree with you on wholeheartedly, hard as that may be for an old liberal like me who protested the VN War from the outset and decried our entry Iraq. Don’t know if you saw Denis McDonough on Bob Schieffer’s program this morning, but I thought he made the same case you are making here very well and conclusively.

    Dennis McGrath

    • Yes, wonderful essay by Brian Lambert here and Denis McDonough was quite compelling on “Face the Nation”–along with Mike Rogers this morning. I also go back to Viet Nam demonstrations, have long been averse to foreign interventions, yet so vividly recall Colin Powell’s address in 2003 that I bought at the time 1,000%. With that history in mind and a trail of hypocracy in our Middle Eastern foreign policy in general I see how skepticism toward intervention now seems totally understandable, especially lacking clarity as to its possible outcome.

      However, I’m hoping President Obama does get the support needed to act.

    • Thank you, both. Now — Syria’s “acceptance” of “the Russian deal” withstanding, Obama has to make the case in a way that builds enough consensus to give the threat of action credibility in Assad’s mind.

      I may be naive, but I believe Obama’s preferred outcome all along has been to take the possibility of Assad using chemical weapons again off the table. The “degrading” and “destabilizing” aspects can be handled in more stealthy, less violent ways.

  3. This is perhaps the ultimate cynical analysis…

    http://freakoutnation.com/2013/09/08/president-obamas-brilliant-strategy-no-one-seems-to-recognize/

    Obama really does not want to go into Syria, but is seeking to lay the blame of inaction on the Congress…

    I don’t think that I really buy into this, but I do think that Obama does not want to be standing out there alone on Syria.

  4. Would that the situation in Syria post our pending and ill-defined bombing runs that won’t touch a hair on Assad’s head, or, his stores of chemical weapons, is remotely as positive as the situation is now in Rwanda after our failure to do anything in the face of its actual genocide by machete.

    But, alas, if I look at the hazy case you’ve made for how things will be better in Syria after this quaint morality play between the white hats and the black hats you envision ends, I’m left with serious doubts. Machetes have killed more people in the last 30 years than have chemical weapons. But it’s easier to sort out a complex world if you just stick with the nearly extinct use of chemical weapons as your “red line” that triggers moral courage. It also requires far fewer acts of moral courage as chemical weapons are rarely used for the annual perpetration of mass carnage and mayhem that inflict this world. Most of the killing and maiming and infrastructure destruction and famine and water shortages and refugee displacement is accomplished by and deadly and destructive means we find seemly and acceptable. No wonder Raytheon’s stock is booming just now.

    Meanwhile, have a look at whose company we’re keeping by refusing to be sign and ratify the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty:

    Armenia
    Azerbaijan
    Bahrain
    Burma
    China
    Cuba
    Egypt
    Georgia
    India
    Iran
    Israel
    Kazakhstan
    Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of
    Korea, Republic of
    Kyrgyzstan
    Lao PDR
    Lebanon
    Libya
    Marshall Islands
    Micronesia
    Mongolia
    Morocco
    Nepal
    Oman
    Pakistan
    Palestine
    Russian Federation
    Saudi Arabia
    Singapore
    Sri Lanka
    Syria
    Tonga
    United Arab Emirates
    United States
    Uzbekistan
    Vietnam

    Not many peers.

    This from 1997 Nobel Peace Prize Co-Laureate International Campaign to Ban Land Mines

    “Civilians bear the brunt
    The vast majority of victims are civilians and not soldiers. Year after year, Landmine Monitor has reported that civilians account for 70 to 85 percent of casualties. This is not just during a conflict – most of the countries where casualties are reported are at peace.
    Humanitarian law
    “Antipersonnel mines are indiscriminate and inhumane weapons and therefore go against international humanitarian law. The law of war imposes certain restrictions on how combatants operate. It says that they have to distinguish between civilian and military targets and that the injuries inflicted should be proportionate with military objectives. Antipersonnel landmines fail both the discrimination and the proportionality tests. Landmines are indiscriminate because a landmine is triggered by its victim, whether military or civilian. Landmines are inhumane because they inflict brutal injuries and have disastrous long-term consequences.
    “Long-term effects
    “Once planted, landmines don’t go away unless they are cleared away. Landmines sown during the First World War are still causing death and destruction in parts of Europe and North Africa. Landmines don’t obey peace agreements or ceasefires. The only way to prevent long-term damage is to stop any landmine use altogether and devote resources to clearing minefields and helping mine victims.
    Lethal obstacles to economic growth
    “Landmines slow repatriation of refugees and displaced people, or even prevent it altogether.
    “They hamper the provision of aid and relief services and threaten, injure and kill aid workers.
    “Medical treatment for landmine victims, where available, is costly, burdening an already overstretched health-care system.
    Communities are deprived of their productive land: farm land, orchards, irrigation canals and water points may be no longer accessible.
    “Mines also cut off access to economically important areas, such as roads, electricity pylons and dams.
    “A landmine incident may cost a family their breadwinner.
    Vocational training and support are often not available so many survivors struggle to make a living after their accident.
    “On the flipside, a mine-affected country stands to gain international assistance for mine clearance and victim assistance once they ban landmines and join the Mine Ban Treaty. Donor governments are understandably reluctant to fund demining in countries until they have given up landmines altogether.
    “Children are victimised
    “A child who is injured by a landmine will face months of recovery… if they don’t die and if they get treated in time. Many are killed on the spot due to blood loss, shock or damage to vital organs. A growing child with a prosthetic limb will need it refitted and worn in each year. Some never return to school after their accident. Many face social exclusion, for example, they are not seen as fit to marry. Like adult victims, they will face enormous practical, economic, social and psychological challenges in their rehabilitation and reintegration process.”

    So, forgive me if all this piety about doing something vague from a safe distance still leaves me a bit of skeptic.

    • If the US had signed on to ban land mines, would you now be in support of intervention in Syria? No, of course not. So what is the relevance of the land mines issue here?

      Or is it your argument that because we haven’t done a particular good thing (act to ban land mines) we are necessarily insincere if we try to do another good thing (end the use of chemical weapons)? Or do you see there existing a hierarchy of good things, and we need to start at the top (with the things that do the most good, like banning machetes) and work our way down to the things that do relatively less good (like land mines, and later Chemical Weapons, and probably last nuclear weapons, because so few people in total have died from them)?

      Seriously, i do not see the relevance of your land mine discursion.

      If your standard is moral courage, and you seek to encourage more of it in the US, isn’t it logical to start small? Work our way up to the serious acts of moral courage? (the ones that might hurt Raytheon and someone else’s retirement?)

      It is awfully easy to be a skeptic and throw stones (from a safe distance) when people exhibit insufficient moral courage to meet your standards. If you were really serious about promoting moral courage, shouldn’t you be encouraging even the baby steps? Isn’t your scorn and your opposition to even an easy “moral courage” step an impediment to getting something like a land mine banning treaty?

      • PM:

        I believe you don’t see it. I can’t help you. You’ve made your mind up. You’re on the side of white hats who will punish the black hats for their sidewindin’ ways. It feels good to you. And that’s what’s at stake here, how you feel. Not what’s going to result for the people of Syria and the region. Just your short-term emotional needs. I get that. I just don’t much care.

        But the relevance, for me, PM, is just what you suggest, start small, by doing the right thing as regards our own behavior in the world, something we can readily control and whose outcome we can fairly well anticipate, before we set about drawing absolute red lines and vainly trying to influence civil wars by merely firing tactical missiles at it with no credible hope of reliably influencing the outcome, like Syria’s. But, no, we can’t ban anti-personnel mines because it allegedly threatens some theoretical tactical interests of ours. And look at whose company we’re keeping. And, of course, we need to be the world’s biggest arms dealer because it’s good for our economy. Okay, fine, if that’s who we’ve decided to be, so be it.

        As for the ease of skepticism: Who suggested it’s hard to be a skeptic? Not me. But, as you mention it, PM, I suppose, compared to going along with conventional wisdom, skepticism can be comparatively hard. It was sure hard to do it during the phony build up to the Iraq War, especially if you hoped to run for president of the United States someday. That made honest skepticism downright onerous, PM, and beyond the capacity of many people now involved in this who bloody well knew better.

        You guys all seem to think you’ve seized on an elusive realization, that killing people with chemical weapons is bad. Everybody gets that. What I’m not clear about is how the course we’re currently contemplating does much of anything to improve the situation in Syria. We’re not going to blow up Assad’s stores of chemical weapons. And seizing them is too much effort. We’re going to degrade his ability to deliver them. Not destroy it, though.

        So they’ll be there handy for whoever ends up filling the power vacuum, should Assad be chased out. Sure hope it’s the unknown nice people you apparently hope will take over. I don’t know who they are, though. I’d prefer that Syria not collapse into a failed state and see those chemical weapons scattered into the hands of people who don’t run a sovereign nation, but just want to sew chaos in the ones that offend their religious sensibilities.

        I assume, though, that you’ve thought this through and can assure us lazy skeptics of how that will all play out. I continue to await your longitudinal outline of this gambit, however.

        • Jim:

          “You guys all seem to think you’ve seized on an elusive realization, that killing people with chemical weapons is bad. Everybody gets that. What I’m not clear about is how the course we’re currently contemplating does much of anything to improve the situation in Syria. We’re not going to blow up Assad’s stores of chemical weapons. And seizing them is too much effort. We’re going to degrade his ability to deliver them. Not destroy it, though.”

          So are you saying that you want us to send in troops and secure those chemical weapons? You want us to get involved in this civil war?

          I thought that you didn’t want us to do anything–so why are you criticizing Obama for not proposing to do enough?

          Seriously, the way to avoid creating another Iraq or Afghanistan is to have very limited objectives. Yes, all we are planning to do is to degrade–not to remove, not to nationbuild, not to set up a new government. There are limits to our power, to our ability to accomplish things in Syria, and i think that Obama is very smart to recognize those limits, and not to exceed them. He is attempting to punish those who used chemical weapons–that is it. He is not planning on improving the situation in Syria–only the Syrians can really do that. That is one of the lessons we learned in Iraq. But we can make it less likely that others will use chemical weapons in the future, if we act now in Syria.

          If everybody gets it, why not do something about it?

          • I’m criticizing the phoniness of it. What Obama is vaguely proposing under cover of getting congressional approval won’t “do something about it.” It’ll just be doing something, that will result in an unspecified something else. You think it’ll somehow be a safer world. I think it’ll be the usual blow back and worse situation in the Middle East.

            • ” I think it’ll be the usual blow back and worse situation in the Middle East.”

              so, you are going along with the conventional wisdom here? Is that the easy kind of skepticism or the hard kind? And this is your gut feeling, right?

  5. Perhaps the title of this post should be “It’s a Tough Moment for Obama.” All of this will land on him no matter what he does or does not do.

    As commander-in-chief he could have taken immediate action against Assad. Putting this before Congress was a bit like Margaret Thatcher sending naval destroyers to the Falkland Islands – “We’re coming, you know. And we really mean business. Do not doubt our strength. But it will be a while before we get there. (So why not work out an agreeable diplomatic solution before then?)”

    The Sunday morning consensus seemed to be this resolution will pass the Senate but not the House. So, Obama’s attempt to get direction from Capitol Hill will end in the null set. He will still have to decide if he will go it alone.

    Why should he?

    Never again. Hitler. Rwanda. The Killing Fields. Don’t even give North Korea a whiff of weakness. Because we must be the moral agent who protects those who can not protect themselves.

    Why shouldn’t he?

    Because he has very few allies on this one, even at home. Because we do not know what would replace Assad. Because we have no stomach for this. Because he won the Nobel Peace Prize, didn’t he?

    I don’t have the answer. Whatever it is, it will be unsatisfactory at the least and cause more death at its worst.

  6. That was an excellent essay, BL, thanks.

    I am a liberal and I agree with Brian, on some things. But I agree with Jim on others, and even PM in one place. It is extremely difficult. I feel a strong desire to stop the slaughter of innocents, and a huge revulsion at killing even more of them ourselves.

    We do need to be aware of some despicable past behavior that has deeply eroded our moral authority. Ignoring or denying that simply makes us arrogant fools.

    On the other hand, if there are good things we can do, should we not do them simply because our record stinks in many areas? Isn’t this as good a time as ever to start doing the right thing – consistently?

    I am an old hippie and hate that there are sociopaths in executive and legislative offices who totally disregard the lives of less-than-wealthy Americans. Clearly they see non-Americans as less-than-human. Those sociopaths make me feel ashamed of America. On the other hand, the overwhelming number of Americans are fine people.

    Sorry, I drifted a little bit.

    What I’d like to see is covert operations against Assad, that are on a level which will only target Assad and his leaders. (I think.) Let’s return to the constitutional requirement that Congress must declare war prior to any military action. No, not just agree to allow it. Only Congress may declare war and a declaration is an absolute prerequisite.

    • Here’s another blog worth a look: http://www.golemxiv.co.uk/2013/09/syria-cui-bono/

      • It’s rhetoric, nothing more

        It is always easier to dismiss rather than to engage, isn’t it?

        • Yeah, sorry to be such a slacker here on your comments section, PM. Obama’s claim that our national security is a stake, you call that a hard, demonstrable fact, and objective reality? I don’t. I call it rhetoric.

          • Right. Well, by definition, pretty much anything said by any politician is rhetoric, as is everything said on this blog. So calling any of this rhetoric is functionally the same as saying it is just words….ie, an empty and meaningless comment. A\n easy way for someone to sound dismissive without having to actually say something substantive.

            There is nothing here that requires you to comment, and better not to comment at all than to engage in empty rhetoric.

    • An old hippie, eh? Shocked, SHOCKED…..

  7. From President Obama’s statement at the G-20 on Friday:

    Of course, even as we’ve focused on our shared prosperity, and although the primary task of the G20 is to focus on our joint efforts to boost the global economy, we did also discuss a grave threat to our shared security and that’s the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. And what I’ve been emphasizing and will continue to stress is that the Assad regime’s brazen use of chemical weapons isn’t just a Syrian tragedy. It’s a threat to global peace and security.
    Syria’s escalating use of chemical weapons threatens its neighbors — Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel. It threatens to further destabilize the Middle East. It increases the risk that these weapons will fall into the hands of terrorist groups. But, more broadly, it threatens to unravel the international norm against chemical weapons embraced by 189 nations, and those nations represent 98 percent of the world’s people.
    Failing to respond to this breach of this international norm would send a signal to rogue nations, authoritarian regimes, and terrorist organizations that they can develop and use weapons of mass destruction and not pay a consequence. And that’s not the world that we want to live in.
    This is why nations around the world have condemned Syria for this attack and called for action. I’ve been encouraged by discussions with my fellow leaders this week; there is a growing recognition that the world cannot stand idly by. Here in St. Petersburg, leaders from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East have come together to say that the international norm against the use of chemical weapons must be upheld, and that the Assad regime used these weapons on its own people, and that, as a consequence, there needs to be a strong response.
    The Arab League foreign ministers have said the Assad regime is responsible and called for “deterrent and necessary measures against the culprits of this crime.” The Organization of Islamic Cooperation — its general secretariat has called the attack a “blatant affront to all religious and moral values and a deliberate disregard of international laws and norms, which requires a decisive action.”
    So, in the coming days, I’ll continue to consult with my fellow leaders around the world, and I will continue to consult with Congress. And I will make the best case that I can to the American people, as well as to the international community, for taking necessary and appropriate action. And I intend to address the American people from the White House on Tuesday.
    The kind of world we live in and our ability to deter this kind of outrageous behavior is going to depend on the decisions that we make in the days ahead. And I’m confident that if we deliberate carefully and we choose wisely, and embrace our responsibilities, we can meet the challenges of this moment as well as those in the days ahead.

    Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/09/remarks-obama-g-20-96386.html#ixzz2eMWhXYKP

    • It’s rhetoric, nothing more.

    • http://www.buzzfeed.com/thewilsoncenter/before-bombing-syria-4-recent-examples-to-conside-bh9k

      The US has had some successes, including the 2011 US and NATO air strikes that helped oust Qaddafi in Libya

      But, as Robin Wright notes, “it had the full endorsement of the Arab League, the United Nations and NATO, which ran the international mission. Thousands of Libyans actually did the fighting, while the Transitional National Council provided a viable alternative government from inside the country. And still Operation Unified Protector lasted 222 days.”
      The decision whether or not to use force in Syria shouldn’t be taken lightly, Wright says

      “In the case of Syria, a few days of strikes against military targets may assuage moral outrage over its heinous use of chemical weapons.
      But they also carry the danger of widening the war by legitimizing or deepening involvement by other foreign powers…”

    • It what ways is Syria “escalating” their use of chemical weapons? The President doesn’t burden us with any facts.

      What’s a bigger threat to Libya’s neighbors, chemical weapons attacks, or “two million refugees who have now fled the country, pouring into neighboring countries at a rate of nearly 6,000 every day. Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt are taking in the vast majority of these refugees, working with international aid groups to provide shelter, security, food, and water.”

      How will our “surgical strikes” help these neighboring countries being inundated with refugees?

      http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2013/09/six-million-displaced-by-war-in-syria/100587/

      • I assume he is referring to the first instances of chemical weapons use, which were small and isolated, and the most recent, larger use last month with over 1000 dead. That would constitute escalation.

        And i am not certain that these proposed strikes would help the neighboring countries with their refugee problems. These strikes are not designed to do that. Further, these strikes will do nothing to slow global warming, either. They are, instead, designed to punish those who have used chemical weapons in violation of international law. Narrow, limited, well defined in scope. Just as you have called for.

        To offer criticisms based on all the problems the proposed strikes will not solve is rather silly, don’t you think? That list could be endless. Perhaps you could focus your criticism on whether the proposed strikes will accomplish the goal they are designed to achieve–to make the future use of chemical weapons less likely.

        • Okay, it won’t matter. Despotic dictators don’t worry about world opinion. But I do think it’s fair to ask if the response causes more problems than it solves. I say it will. You say: chemical weapons are bad…over and over and over. We know that. They’re also quite rare in both their continued existence and and their use as a tiny percentage of the deaths perpetrated world wide by the more palatable conventional weapons we sell all over the world.

          Is it chemicals you don’t like, or blameless civilians dying? I’m more concerned about the latter than the former.

          I do worry about chemical weapon stores getting into the hands of terrorist groups like Al Quaeda and their peers more than I do in Assad’s stockpile.

          • I think that that is an excellent question to ask. I do not think that this response will cause more problems than it solves. I think that because the proposed strikes are so limited, and because i think that this has been defined as a solvable problem (deterring the use of chemical weapons). Certainly there is a risk of chemical weapons falling into the hands of Al Qaeda–but that risk is there whether we launch strikes or not. I am not certain that that is a solvable problem. Face it, Syria is largely already a failed state–the government of Assad has already lost control of large parts of the country. The danger of terrorist groups getting their hands on chemical weapons already exists. If we are able to destroy some of those stocks, that risk lessens. If we are able to destroy some of the delivery systems, that risk decreases. And, if this Russian proposal goes through, that risk becomes even less (so far that Russian proposal seems like the best way to keep chemical weapons from falling into terrorist hands).

            I am upset about both the use of chemical weapons, and about the deaths of blameless civilians. There is nothing that can be done about the latter (sadly) short of the US actively intervening in the Syrian civil war, with massive land operations and hundreds of thousands of troops to occupy Syria, much as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the blowback from the US getting involved in another war in the Middle East would be tremendous. If you are worried about the unintended consequences of a small number of precision strikes to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons, then you have to know that the unintended consequences of us doing anything that might make a difference in terms of saving the lives of those blameless civilians in Syria is simply beyond our imagination. I have no idea of what we can do about saving the lives of blameless civilians in Syria (I doubt signing the land mine treaty will have an impact). What do you think we should do to save the lives of those blameless civilians in Syria?

            I do think, however, that we can do something about the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. I think that President Obama’s proposals will help to deter further use of chemical weapons in Syria. That is why I am in favor of those proposed, limited strikes. We need to do what we can, and try very hard not to exceed our capabilities. I think that is the most important lesson that we have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

  8. I suspect there is a hidden agenda behind this — a very simple desire to slap down anybody who tries to use chemical weapons as a deterrent to anybody else who might consider it. (I’d like to believe that it’s an abhorrence to genocide in general, but the motivation seems to be restricted to the means of the mass killing, not the killing itself.)

    In a more perfect world the U.N. would understand this, and the body would have moved with uncharacteristic speed. Russia would grasp that it remains a target of terrorism, and it is in their best interest to keep these weapons off the table.

    • Yes, Russia appears to be rather shortsighted in all of this. Sort of like the US sticking behind its cold war allies at all costs, despite the handwriting being on the wall. When an ally clearly does not have popular support and its citizens are in open revolt, maybe it is time to drop that ally. Doubling down is not a good long term strategy.

      And i agree with you that it would be “better” if we could focus our response on deaths rather than means of deaths, but as a practical matter, I’ll take what I can get.

      Ezra Klein had a good post on exactly this aspect of the issue: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/06/this-is-why-there-is-no-enthusiasm-for-intervening-in-syria/

  9. Brian:

    I just wanted to thank you for your posts on this and other topics. Not only are they provocative, they really are helpful as we try to make our collective way through these decisions. I keep learning more and more from ALL of the people who contribute here (especially Jim).

    • Thinking exactly the same thing. Appreciative also of thought-provoking links to articles provided by contributors here. Just perusing the comment section of the Klein essay. Too often on this question I find myself becoming–was it the horse in Orwell’s “Animal Farm”?–leaning to the viewpoint that in the moment is the most compelling however contradictory.

    • It looks as if Russia is stepping in. I only gave this article a quick read but Russia has come forward with a proposal on chemical weapons. http://wapo.st/18ItsNi How can Assad take that but to say, “Thank you very much for the direction.”

    • Well, I would assert that this has essentially been what I have been saying so nauseates me about this “red line” discussion, and why I brought up the fact that we continue to deliberately lag behind our peers in banning the salting of landscapes with anti-personnel mines.

      Chemical weapons are, quite simply, a tactical anachronism, they’re no longer effective against an enemy that does not conveniently hunker down in trenches for weeks on end. That makes them easy to agree to ban because they’re not of much use. But to a country with the leadership the likes of Assad, a stockpile of chemical weapons are a poor man’s nuclear threat. No where near the deterrent to aggression or interference that nukes are, but still something of a trump card, at least in the squirming mind of a despot such as Assad.

      Let’s hope that Putin can twist the attenuated arm of Assad and get him to give up this weak threat and spare him our ill-defined intervention from above.

      • Jim:

        given that the US has abided by the terms of the Land Mine Ban (the last US use of land mines was in 1991, the US has had an export ban since 1992, and there has been no production of land mines by the US since 1997, and the US has been the largest single contributor to global mine clearance efforts) don’t you think your nausea/outrage is perhaps just a little bit overstated?

        As I understand it, the final significant hangup to the US signing the treaty (the only thing that it has not yet done) is the situation on the Korean peninsula, where land mines serve a tactical purpose. Land mines are only deployed inside the DMZ in Korea, and given the continual threats and the large North Korean tank forces and huge military presence along the DMZ, I am not certain that this exception is not justified.

        Really, having read all of your posts about how terrible the US is on landmines, now that i have looked into this, your entire case seems vastly overstated.

        Here is the Chair of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (Stephen Goose) talking about the US failure to sign on to the treaty:

        “The United States is already acting like it has given up antipersonnel landmines, but its actions need to be confirmed in its declared policy,” Goose said. (http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/03/01/united-states-time-has-come-ban-landmines)

        Hardly sounds like an international scofflaw to me.

          • Interesting….but this suggests that the problem is the illegal production and sale of landmines in places like Singapore and eastern Europe. There is no suggestion anywhere in that article (or on the rest of the related UN sites on landmines) that the US is anything but fully compliant with the treaty, despite not being a signatory to the treaty. Clearly the problem is one of enforcement, and in that area the US is apparently one of the leaders.

  10. Here is an interesting analysis by Graham Allison (who wrote THE book on the Cuban Missile crisis):

    http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/beyond-airstrikes-on-syria-ask-what-would-the-godfather-do/279457/

    • Seriously? Did you read this? We ought to kill Assad’s wife to make a moral point about international norms? “The Godfather,” was a fictional depiction of a gangster, an extortionist, a murderer, a well-connected thug. He used terror to get his way.

      That’s how Assad operates. You get some push back from taxpayers putting on civil protests against your policies, you start killing people and, badabing,at east in his father’s day, those mooks lose their taste for self determination in a hurry. Only this time, his strong-arm tactics didn’t work, and, being a one-trick thug, he upped the ante on the killing.

      This is the model your expert on a showdown between two cold war nuclear powers over half a century ago suggests we adopt?

      PM, let’s let this go. I cannot imagine ever seeing the world as you do.

      • Jim:

        did you read my post? I said it was interesting. You have no idea how i see the world–but you sure are quick to make assumptions and to take umbrage, aren’t you? If you have a sincere interest in how other people really do see the world, jumping to conclusions like you do (and always assuming the worst) is a pretty poor way to go about it.

      • James Fallows, in another interesting piece on Syria, recommends the same article:

        “Now the man who literally wrote the book about the Cuban Missile Crisis (Essence of Decision), my one-time professor Graham Allison, has weighed in with a very illuminating post on how Obama might expand his range of choices. Please do read it.”

        http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/09/unbelievably-small/279458/

        • As I think of it, “the Don’s” a lightweight compared to our record of expediently propping up despots, bloody coups, etc. I imagine Vito wouldn’t have participated in The World Court either.

          “The Godfather’s” a tragedy, not an object lesson.

          • what was it that Marx said? “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”

            • With movies, I find that the farces end up as tragedies. I think of “Network,” a black comedy in 1975, and now a rather quaint documentary; and, of course, “Catch 22,” another black comedy that is now the U.S. status quo, only corporations the likes of Milo Minderbinder’s have taken over more than just the military.

              “The Godfather,” to me, seems to be undiminished by time, a tragedy then, a tragedy now.

      • His central point — that Assad, his family and his ruling class should feel the wrath of the U.S./international community (such as it is) seems entirely valid. Whacking the Mrs. as she shops at Harrods is bit too melodramatic for my tastes. But as I said in the post I tend to believe there are ways the US can wreak havoc on his command and control operations and finances, (and those of his generals (and “investors”) while maintaining a public pose of deniability.

        Obviously I don’t KNOW, but I feel pretty confident that there’s a lot of this going on right now, and that threats are being made that there’s more to come, without or without cruise missiles destroying his air force.

  11. PM, methinks thou dost defend too much.

    The U.S, as the most powerful nation this planet, leaves a huge gap on planet-wide agreements when we fail to sign them. We have just a little weight to throw around. When we don’t throw it, other nations notice. When we don’t sign, we create the clear impression that we don’t support.

    The US did not sign on regarding land mines, International criminal court, Kyoto and others that I can’t think of, but Jim probably can.

    This is just the sort of thing I was talking about in my earlier comment. We ignore the ignoble parts of our history, unpleasant as it may be, at our own expense.

  12. OK, this might just be too much for me…..

    http://www.politicususa.com/2013/09/09/president-obama-outsmarting-winning-syria-firing-shot.html

    Even before we know what the final outcome is, some are saying that Obama planned everything this way–the threat of strikes was simply to force Syria and Russia to the table….

    • Based on HOW Kerry said it in his London press conference, it’s tough to think of this as a fully imagined plan. But … there can’t be much doubt that both the Syrians and the Russians were very concerned about Obama taking military action, regardless of what Congress decides. The threat — the “tough talk” — has clearly had some motivating effect.

      But it has to be sustained. As weary and cynical as every intelligent news consumer is of Middle Eastern gun play, they/we are just as exasperated with the routine charades of “peace talk”.

      This deal has to be constructed a very tight, short term schedule and with the UN or some third party handling the weapons. I see Syria is already phrasing this as a deal with the Russians, implying that the Russians would be put in control of the chemical weapons. That has next to no credibility.

      From what I read, the logistics of rounding all this stuff up and then transporting it for disposal is extremely complicated and obviously would require a very large number of “inspectors” on the ground in Syria with carte blanche to go anywhere and look anywhere they suspected might hold these weapons.

      What is the likelihood of that? “Low” I’d say.

      Therein might lie terms for a cease-fire … if either Assad or the rebels are capable of such a thing. (I doubt it.)

      • “Crisis averted. Now Congress suspends its vote on a military strike, the U.N. secures Assad’s chemical stockpile, and the Syrian people can go back to being killed with conventional methods. Everybody wins.” — Stephen Colbert

  13. Can’t we get back to the “War on Women”?

    And why does sarin gas upset so many people who think (third term) abortion is A-OK?

    Oh, that reminds me….why the silence from the libbers on the horrific treatment of women in the Middle East?

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