Syria: At Least Someone’s Actually Thinking About It

NEW SLAUGHTERMy good friend Jim Leinfelder kicked over this “dialogue” on what to do/not do with Syria, wrItten by the New Yorker’s George Packer.  It’s intended to engender a rational conversation about the situation, our “responsibilities”, morality, etc. Allow me to jump in

It begins …

So it looks like we’re going to bomb Assad.


Really? Why good?

Did you see the videos of those kids? I heard that ten thousand people were gassed. Hundreds of them died. This time, we have to do something.

Yes, I saw the videos.

And you don’t want to pound the shit out of him?

I want to pound the shit out of him.

(Who doesn’t? There are psychopaths controlling governments all over the planet who I’d like to see reduced to a pink mist, and I’m guessing each and every one of them are watching to see if Assad pays any kind of penalty for violating the “accepted standards” for slaughtering his own innocent civilians.)

But you think we shouldn’t do anything.

I didn’t say that. But I want you to explain what we’re going to achieve by bombing.

We’re going to let Assad know that chemical weapons are over the line. There’s a reason they’ve been illegal since Verdun or whenever.

Except when Saddam used them against the Kurds—we knew, and we didn’t say a word.

(Just because the cold war Reaganites of the late ’80s, with the strategic genius Donald Rumsfeld leading their policy, looked the other way hardly means anything in the context of 2013 and Barack Obama.)

Is that a reason to let Assad use them against his people?

At this point, I don’t think Assad is too worried about the Geneva Conventions.

He should have to think hard before using them again.

He’s a bloody dictator fighting for survival. He’s going to do whatever he has to do.

(And will very likely do even worse if he feels his position weakened, either by American firepower, a resurgent rebellion, or the combination of both. I’m guessing he has plenty more where that sarin gas game from.)

Not if we really hurt him. Not if we pound his communications centers, his air-force bases, key government installations. He’ll be more likely to survive if he doesn’t use chemical weapons.

Killing civilians while we’re at it.

(At this point in these homicidal catastrophes, decision-making has to revolve around … which route offers the possibility of fewer civilian casualties? )

These would be very specific targets.

The wrong people always get killed.

(The “wrong people” always get killed … first. The class that benefits most from these slaughters are usually the last to go.  I’ve always liked the idea of targeting the villas, factories and banks of the dictator’s cocktail party supporting class. Seeing their fiefdoms reduced to rubble might inspire a beneficial round of palace intrigue. But launching a cruise missile into a Damascus mini-palace almost certainly means killing wives, children, gardeners and maids.)

Maybe. Probably. But if you were a Syrian being bombed by Assad every day, trying to keep your head down and your family alive, wouldn’t you want the world to respond, even if a few more people die? I think so.

Easy for you to say.

(There’s no accurate polling here. But I think we can safely say that Assad lacks majority support for what he has been doing.)

Hey, can we not personalize this?

Weren’t you just saying that I don’t care about dying children? (Pause.) So you want us to get involved in their civil war.

(And we would be. “A shot across the bow” isn’t meant simply to deter Assad from using more nerve gas. It’s meant to destabilize him to the point it swings the balance back in favor of the rebels who are, as we know, a godawful aggregation of the average American’s worst nightmare of Middle Eastern fanatics. Obama doesn’t want to say that, exactly. But let’s be honest, that’s the real point.; giving the opposition a chance to regain the upper hand and leave the appearance that Syrians settled this on their own.  But … good god … a rebel army composed of factions of the usual conservative religious lunatics is a “better option” than Assad with nerve gas? Sadly, it is … at least until the fanatics capture a nerve gas stockpile, if they haven’t already.)

I’m not saying that.

But that’s what we’ll be doing. Intervening on the rebel side, tipping the balance in their favor.

Not necessarily. We’ll be drawing a line that says dictators don’t get to use W.M.D.s without consequences.

You can’t bomb targets on one side of a civil war without helping the other side.

It would be very temporary. We’d send Assad a clear message, and then we’d step back and let them go on fighting. We’re not getting involved any deeper than that, because I know what you’re going to say—

The rebels are a bunch of infighting, disorganized, jihadist thugs, and we can’t trust any of them.

(I do think, and I strongly suspect, that the Obama administration is looking at ever way to employ cyber warfare on the Assad regime, as it has done and likely continues to do with the Iranians. The alleged Syrian hacking of the New York Times is a bit of an indicator of what is likely going on. More to the point, cyber-degredation is another way to avoid putting Americans on the ground, which I can’t imagine Obama ever agreeing to do.)

I’m not saying we should.

And what do we do if Assad retaliates against Israel or Turkey? Or if he uses nerve gas somewhere else?

(At that point I don’t think you’ll see quite the international trepidation we see now, which of course isn’t necessarily a good thing. The problem is that there are no “good things”. Assad’s decision to use nerve gas — and yes, it could have been his brother or some Gen. Ripper-like rogue commander — suggests he’s either testing to see what will be tolerated, or feeling himself on the verge of collapse. But recent intelligence seems to suggests he’s in a stronger position militarily than a few months ago.)

We hit him again.

And it escalates.

Not if we restrict it to cruise missiles and air strikes.

Now you’re scaring me. Have you forgotten Iraq?

(The Iraq comparison holds very little water. Iraq was a debacle where the Bush administration went looking for any excuse imaginable to attack Saddam Hussein, to the point of inventing its own intelligence. Or, “fixing it” around their intentions as the Downing Street memo revealed. It was a complete fraud. Obama is hardly looking for a reason to get back into combat in the Middle East. And while the Bushies memorably thought oil revenues would quickly pay off the cost a fortnight of fighting in Iraq, Obama might privately accept that $6 gasoline is the only way to quickly and effectively ignite a clean-energy revolution.)

Not for a single minute.

My point is that you can’t restrict it. You can’t use force for limited goals. You need to know what you’ll do after his next move, and the move after that.

(When does this ever happen? Please.)

It only escalates if we allow ourselves to get dragged in deeper. Kosovo didn’t escalate.

This isn’t Kosovo. The Syrian rebels aren’t the K.L.A. Assad isn’t Milosevic. Putin isn’t Yeltsin. This is far worse. Kosovo became a U.N. protectorate. That’s not going to happen in Syria.

(That’s all true, or likely to be true. so let’s drop the Iraq comparisons, too.)

You think Putin is going to risk a military confrontation with the U.S. and Europe?

I think Russia isn’t going to let Assad go down. Neither is Iran or Hezbollah. So they’ll escalate. This could be the thing that triggers an Israel-Iran war, and how do we stay out of that? My God, it feels like August, 1914.

(There is no end of terrifying scenarios here. But while we’re freaking ourselves with the fear that Putin would send the (not-so) Red Army south, and that the hellish conservative/religious nexus of Iranian mullahs and Hezbollah have the full, uncoditional support of their local populations, let’s mix in some “what ifs” if indiscriminate death by nerve gas is seen as nothing the United States cares all that much about.)

That was a hundred years ago. Stop with the historical analogies.

You’re the one who brought up Verdun. And Kosovo.

I brought up Kosovo because you brought up Iraq. That’s the problem with these arguments. Iraq! Vietnam! Valley Forge! Agincourt! People resort to analogies so they don’t have to think about the matter at hand.

And because they don’t know anything about the matter at hand.

I know what I saw in those videos.

Thank God Obama doesn’t make foreign policy that way. He knows what he doesn’t know about Syria. He’s always thinking a few steps ahead. He’s not going to get steamrolled by John McCain and Anderson Cooper.

(Despite being painted as the second coming of Curtis LeMay, Barack Obama is not a reckless ideologue. Nor is he running for reelection on a “Get Tough with the Towelheads” platform. I don’t think he gives a damn if the usual pundits and chickenhawks are accusing him of “dithering”. Unlike the last administration’s neo-con cowboys, I have confidence he’s making a rational assessment of the situation.)

At a certain point, caution is another word for indecisiveness. Obama looks weak! Or worse—indifferent. Anyway, he should have thought ahead when he called chemical weapons a “red line.” He set that trap a year ago, and now we’re in it.

Why does it have to be a trap?

(That “line in the sand” thing was always going to come back to bite him. At least he isn’t so much a fool he’s taunting them with “bring ’em on”.)

Because our credibility is on the line.

Thank you, Dr. Kissinger.

(Sorry. But among the common rabble, over there and here, “credibility” matters. “Nuance” and “parsing” falls on deaf ears in situations like this.)

See, that’s another thing people do in these arguments.


“You sound like so-and-so.” It shouldn’t matter who else is on your side. I mean, you’re in bed with Rand Paul. Anyway, credibility matters even if Kissinger said so. You have to do what you say you’re going to do, especially with bullies.

I don’t think Obama committed himself to any one course of action. But if he does bomb them, we’re involved in that war, and I sure hope his advisers have thought through all the potential consequences better than you have.

(We’ll see if they have. But I’m pretty confident they’re doing a better job of weighing all possibilities than Cheney and Rummy and Wolfowitz.)

Inaction has consequences, too. Assad gases more people, the death toll hits two hundred thousand, the weapons get into Hezbollah’s hands, Iran moves ahead with its nuclear program, the Syrian rebels disintegrate and turn to international terrorism, the whole region goes up in sectarian flames.

And how does firing cruise missiles at Damascus prevent any of this?

(I tend to believe the Americans have figured out several ways to stymie the Iranian nuke program with computer hacking, and I’m not convinced the Iranian population would put up with anything that conjured the image of another ’80-’88 regional slaughter. As for chemical weapons in the hands of Hezbollah … specific targeting of known depots would seem to do at least as much as doing nothing and letting the chaos continue apace.)

It doesn’t. But, look, all of this is already happening with us sitting it out. If we put a gun to Assad’s head, we might be able to have more influence over the outcome. At least we can prevent him from winning.

A violent stalemate. How wonderful for the Syrians. Some people think that’s the best solution for us.

(Obama’s best public position is the determination to take WMD off the table as an option for Assad. What happens after that — without question months more of outrageous mayhem — is what always happens when you mix medieval tribalism with religious fanaticism, superstition and intolerance. Of course if a few missiles miss the WMD stocks and decimate Assad air force … . Speaking of, I know the Saudis have been pushing money toward the rebels, but what if they police a “no-fly zone”? They’ve got a lot of nice equipment and low-cost fuel.)

I’m not saying that.

What are you saying?

I don’t know. I had it worked out in my head until we started talking. (Pause.) But we need to do something this time.

Not just to do something.

All right. Not just to do something. But could you do me a favor?

What’s that?

While you’re doing nothing, could you please be unhappy about it?

I am.

(So is Obama.)

60 thoughts on “Syria: At Least Someone’s Actually Thinking About It

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    Anguishing. Powerful dialogue. To feel profound moral responsibility but in the absence of any clear solution remain powerless–and helpless.

  2. PM says:

    Syria is a really tough one.

    1. Assad is a war criminal. I would love to see him removed from control in Syria, no matter who replaces him. I felt much the same way about Saddam in Iraq.
    2. There should be some consequences for the use of chemical weapons–killing the bastards who ordered their use would be a good place to start (and yes, i acknowledge the irony that the US apparently sanctioned the use of chemical weapons by Saddam against the Iranians. Still,….)
    3. I doubt that whoever replaces Assad will be a friend to the US. Probably not any better than Assad, and likely to be worse. Still, Assad has never been a friend, and his recent actions (including the use of chemical weapons) take this out of the realm of “better the devil that you know…”

    I am not at all convinced that getting rid of Assad will shorten the civil war in Syria. I am not at all convinced that it will save lives. I doubt that we will like Assad’s eventual successor. I do not think that we should try to re-build Syria, or influence the outcome of the civil war in any way. But I still think it would be a good idea to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons, Start by trying to destroy as much of the Syrian military/air force as possible with cruise missiles, and then give Assad an ultimatum–next time you use chemical weapons (or retaliate in any way) you (and your family) will be personally targeted.

    and then wash our hands of it. And because he has sanctioned the use of chemical weapons on his own people. I think that is sufficient cause. Oh, and I think it is a good idea that Obama has called on Congress to approve this action. For too long Congress has had it both ways on the War Powers Act—they obviously prefer to sit back and complain after the fact (that is the politically safe thing to do).

    I’d love to be convinced that there is a better course of action. Suggestions?

    1. Well, here’s what I’d do … based on what little I know.

      I’d let the decision come down to being on the right side of history, which will eventually be written by the liberal, mostly-secular modernists of the Middle East. (Considering the conservative religious nut jobs controlling Israel, that may well be decades off. But we know what pandering to the Old Guard of that region leads to.)

      I’d seriously degrade as many of Assad’s technological advantages as possible in a no-more than week-long missile blitz. Prior to that and afterwards I’d engage in as much cyber-warfare as possible on every computer system he – and his community of supporters — depend upon.

      Then I’d stop and let the dust settle for several weeks, without saying if there was more to come or not.

      I’d also insist that the Saudis assemble an Arab coalition to enforce a no-fly zone, and if they refused I’d make a public issue of them not agreeing to do so.

      The zealots and psychopaths would be furious. They always are. It’s what they do. Praise God! But if we looked credible in the eyes of those who expect us to defend liberty, we’d at least have the seeds of some victory at some point. (The same type of crowd in Libya seems pleased enough with how we dealt with Gaddafi.)

  3. bertram jr. says:

    Well, when the ‘commander in chief’ of our (once) powerful nation is a shave ice lovin’, flip flop wearin’ ‘community organizer’ with absolutley no real world bona fides, we really are in a tough spot

    1. I can’t quarrel with any of that. In hindsight, if we were ever going to “do something” we would have been better off arming the rebels at the beginning of the insurrection — before the jihadis got involved.

      But what is interesting now — and maybe you’re having this experience, too — is how few people, and by that I mean your friends and acquaintances — are daring to even offer a specific opinion on how to respond. It’s not like Obama and Kerry are going to ask us. But I get the distinct feeling that no one wants to be branded with even having taken a position on the matter. Yeah, it’s a miserable choice. There’s no happy outcome apparent no matter how far you look down the line. But I’m running into person after person who won’t even say, “Let’s not do anything.” For all the cacophony of opinions on everything from Obamacare to Mylie Cyrus, you can tell an event has higher-than-normal gravity when the usually definitive and verbose lapse into mealy-mouthed “both here and there” nattering, or radio silence. It’s a citizen opinion, for chrissakes. But no one wants to be “wrong” about something like this.

      1. Dennis Lang says:

        Einstein, to paraphrase: “The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on and do nothing.”

        However, being politcally and historically simple minded I have no idea of the consequences of a forceful intervention on the region or the world, or even what it would entail, only it would seem irrefutably justified.

        1. I hear ya, But all I’m saying is that position is essentially the same as Obama’s. No one “knows”. No one has a “clear idea” of what may happen. I’m just saying that obscure little forums like this are where the average person plays President … and even here they’re afraid to say what they would do, were the decision up them. I see it as a way of protecting the veneer of infallibility.

          1. PM says:

            Yes, the veneer of infallibility is exactly it. Great label!

            This is one of the reasons I am so happy that Obama has gone to Congress–make them take a stand! Most of them are basically concerned with protecting their careers, and wondering how this vote on Syria is going to look during the next election(s). I don’t think that they really care bout what is right or what is practical….

            That said, I have to say that I am impressed that both Boehner and Cantor have called for a yes vote on this. Mostly I am impressed that Cantor did not decide to hang Boehner out to dry by opposing him! I am not completely certain that they deserve kudos for rising above partisan politics, but still….the tradition that partisan politics ends at the waters edge is not completely dead.

            1. Dennis Lang says:

              Yeah, cool expression: “veneer of infallibilty” and to pre-suppose that legislative fence sitters are sitting there for self-serving reasons. However, to make that presumption don’t we also presume to know that the outcome of a military response will in fact serve its objectives? That, none of us know. Same is true of participants in this forum given the opportunity to play president. This time it’s jumping out of the plane with a parachute but no certainty it will open–to jump on principle only, or not.

            2. What I’m getting at Dennis cuts both ways … for or against “doing something”. What I’m saying is it is fascinating to watch public people and personal acquaintances decline to offer an opinion on the subject. I think a lot of liberals have been scarred by the Iraq war, where, based on what the government was telling us about WMD, we consented to the invasion. The embarrassment of “How could I have been so stupid to believe anything those morons were saying” has lingered in to this one. I’m all for intense skepticism when some politician beats the drums for military action, (this first idea isn’t exactly “war” as I think of it), but all I’m asking is, “If you’ve thought enough about it, what exactly do you think we should do?”

            3. Dennis Lang says:

              Yes, wonderfully expressed historical perpsective Jim. All true (as I recall from my diplomatic history classes). But to stand by with our hands in our pockets while human atrocities continue to unfold, even if the ultimate motive is self-serving…for me hard to swallow.

            4. Jim Leinfelder says:

              I’ve never known “blow back,” inevitable unintended consequences, to ever turn out to be better than we’d hoped. They’re always worse. And what’s at stake? Our vaunted “credibility”? We have some of that left, do we? It’s worth some collateral damage, is it?

              As for moral imperatives, please, we’ve sat on our hands as over 100,000 have died in Syria by the more seemly means of ordnance and small arms fire. We litter the globe with those weapons. And they kill VASTLY more people every single bloody year across this world than chemical weapons ever have or will. Chemical weapons are an anachronism, very difficult to actually deploy on a “mass,” as in WMD, scale. They do work as a weapon of mass terror, the goal, one assumes, of Assad, who learned governing by murderous terror from his old man, who we never saw any reason to disturb.

              It’s lovely to think we can fix things in Syria. But we can’t. And our motives right now are selfishly about our needs, not anyone in Syria’s. “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests” Henry Kissinger. Of course, he was paraphrasing George Kennan, Director, State Department Policy Planning Staff (American Diplomacy: 1900-1950. New York: New American Library, 1951), said: “Our own national interest is all that we are really capable of knowing and understanding, . . . the pursuit of our national interest can never fail to be conducive to a better world.”But he was paraphrasing Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Henry Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

              But Kennan also said the following about our misadventures in Iraq:

              Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before … In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it. Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.”

              And this:

              As quoted in “George Kennan Speaks Out About Iraq” at History News Network (26 September 2002)
              A doctrine is something that pins you down to a given mode of conduct and dozens of situations which you cannot foresee, which is a great mistake in principle. When the word ‘containment’ was used in my ‘X’ article, it was used with relation to a certain situation then prevailing, and as a response to it.
              As quoted in “George Kennan Speaks Out About Iraq” at History News Network (26 September 2002)

              So, yes, I am steadfastly against intervening in Syria. Because we’re not up to it. We’re not that sophisticated. We don’t know what’s going to happen if we do. But whatever it is, it’ll be worse than any of the deep thinkers calling for it have envisioned. Of that, and only that, I am certain.

            5. Well, as Ross Perot might say, “See now … now we’re getting somewhere.” Thanks for putting in the effort.

              The problem I have with using the “100,000 have already died, why should we treat this as different” is that:

              (1) The US position up to now, relative to military action, has been, “We have neither immediate interests here or any effective way to improve the outcome”, and we’ve stood aside and watched the slaughter, which is what we would continue to do if we decide the use of chemical weapons has no greater qualitative significance than bullets and bombs. If we should have done something before, we should do something now. Or, if it was never our problem, it never is … and the 100,000 don’t matter … to us.

              (2) Our use of nukes and napalm withstanding, chemical weapons, which are a weapon of civilian terror, let’s be clear, have been used only rarely since being banned back in the 20s. There’s something to be said — a lot to be said — for maintaining their special status as a means far too far, a place not even the most degenerate dictator is permitted to go with impunity.

              I understand what Zakaria is saying about the inevitable “redrawing” of sectarian lines in the Middle East. It’s still pretty damned medieval if you ask me, and not something the moderates and modernists probably cared much at all about until some crazed Sunni or Shiite blew through their door with a machine gun. But I wonder what Zakaria thinks the liberal-minded Syrian or Arab prefers we do? As I said, if you believe the U.S. has a constructive role to play here, as the cop putting a beatdown on the worst thug in the neighborhood, or as the only country with the diplomatic mojo to push the sides to a negotiation (and I don’t see that at all), I would design my response to be on the right side of those people. The liberal, secular, moderate, modernist crowd will eventually prevail … as they have in most of the places PM mentioned, and may still in Egypt. If those people can say, 10-20 years from now, “The United States did right by us”, I’d be pleased.

              I was reading this piece on the current thinking of moral theologians.

              It begins:

              “Traditionally, moral theologians have argued that to use military force justly, one must have a just cause; the use of force must be the last resort; success must be probable; the means must be proportionate; and the military action must be by a legitimate authority.”

              I would argue that Obama has four out of the five on his side and that few military commanders ever say out loud, “success is probable”.

              Beyond that I have very little patience with stuff like this:

              “Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, echoed the pope’s words. “The longstanding position of our Conference of Bishops is that the Syrian people urgently need a political solution that ends the fighting and creates a future for all Syrians, one that respects human rights and religious freedom,” Pates said. “We ask the United States to work with other governments to obtain a ceasefire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial and neutral humanitarian assistance, and encourage building an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities.”

              That is pious nattering of the first order.

            6. PM says:


              your argument appears (to me) to boil down to: “things always turn out worse than you plan”. And while undoubtedly some things do turn out worse, sometimes they turn out better. I, and many others, felt that apartheid in South Africa was likely to turn unto a massive race war before it was over. And while the end of apartheid was not without blood, there was much less than most “experts” thought. And the situation in the Balkans seemed to work out better than the pessimists expected. And the once seemingly intractable situation in Northern Ireland also looks much better (in hindsight) than many thought.

              I don’t know that things will not go to hell in a handbasket in Syria. But if you adopt the position that things are always going to fail, get fucked up, explode in your face, then you come down to a default position of isolationism (the only way not to make a mistake is to do nothing). Certainly that is not a position that George Kennan would have agreed with.

            7. Jim Leinfelder says:

              I don’t recall anyone bombing Apartheid into submission, “PM.” Economic sanctions may have helped move along the country’s own evolution on its own time table. We could learn a lot from their truth-and-reconciliation approach when it comes to our failures to confront our own history of egregious racism. But it’s got nothing to do with what is under discussion regarding Syria.

              Call me crazy, Dennis, but I find the killing of innocents by whatever means appalling, not just the rare use of chemical weapons. As I wrote, we’ve already stood by and watched as over 100,000 Syrians have died by more palatable weaponry and all the while I’ve read nothing here about it and heard precious little out of Congress.

              This “red line” business is a canard. And I do not believe that there will be any humanitarian gains from whatever it is Obama is “planning.” It’s nice to think we’re helping. But we won’t be. You can’t make the case any more than Obama has been able to. Or, if I’m mistaken and you can, please do so.

            8. Jim Leinfelder says:

              I essentially agree with Fareed Zakarias take:


              I’m not arguing for isolationism, as PM simplistically puts it. I’m all for increased engagement all over the world. Just not military. It doesn’t work, unless you plan to invade, and then you’ll end up killing far more civilians than any use of chemical weapons could accomplish.

              And, PM, it wasn’t any American armed intercession by the likes of the “Fenians” in Northern Ireland that brought relative peace. Our political engagement helped, certainly. But it wasn’t our martial contributions.

            9. PM says:


              no one is talking about bombing Syria into submission, either.

              it is always easiest to say that nothing we can do will work out as planned, so lets do nothing. a great way to wash your hands of all the bad things out there.

              If you want to stick your head in the sand and ignore the rest of the world, i imagine that won’t turn out nearly as well as you think, either.

            10. Jim Leinfelder says:

              Jim’s my name, “PM.” But anyway, doing something for the sake of striking a moral pose, regardless of what the results are is worse than doing nothing, in my view. The examples abound.

              Your examples are entirely off the mark: apartheid, Northern Ireland, U.N. protectorates…none are germane.

              Or is it your catharsis what counts here?

              Brian’s post says at least someone is thinking about Syria. I’m not getting that here.

  4. bertram jr. says:

    The sad thing is, the media / liberal front is so hell bent on protecting their incompetent fool boy President, that this fiasco (intervening in a civil war between 14th century jihadists) among others, is simply waved away.

    If Barry Halfwhite had any stones (or anything at ALL besides his teleprompter and Valerie Jarret) he would address the flailing US economy, instead of playing sandbox tyrant in Middle East affairs.

    It’s getting woprse, folks, and you all must have plenty of cash somewhere or else you’d be screaming for impeachment of this fool instead of stroking your peculiar liberal guilt assuagement.

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      So, bertram jr–You don’t think the Syrian question is worth our time–until domestic issues are resolved once and for all? And that the lack of satisfactory domestic resolution is attributable entirely to the failures of this administration?

  5. bertram jr. says:

    F— Syria. We have a totally inexperienced / incompetent, if not enemy of the people in the extant POTUS. Let the troglodytes in the middle east sort themselves out….

  6. bertram jr. says:

    “Call me crazy, Dennis, but I find the killing of innocents by whatever means appalling, not just the rare use of chemical weapons.”

    Oh the delicious irony / delusion of the elitist libtard!

    Hey, Jimbo – remember how we ended WWII? WE FIREBOMBED TWO JAP CITIES!

    If’n we, the good ol’ US of A, hadn’t, you’d be resoling your jackboots right now, before heading out for a little sushi.

    So please, more of your effete delusionment regarding ‘innocents’.

    1. Jim Leinfelder says:

      PM, we didn’t bomb South Africa at all, so that point continues to elude me. But, okay, I’ll bite, what are you planning to accomplish politically with cruise missiles, armed drones, fighter bombers, bunker busters, whatever you fancy? Because there is no military strategy to it.

      So, when the rubble settles, the smoke clears, the degraded uranium powder begins its multi-billion-year half life degradation (we’re assured that it’s not a problem for generations of Iraqis and others), and those killed by these more seemly means are stacked up and counted, what can we expect the results to be?

      I’ll be honest, I have no idea what will flow from them. But I am dubious of the merits of whatever these unknowable outcomes may prove to be. You seem to be saying, so what, it’ll feel good, even if it makes things worse, not better.

      Or, if you’re not saying that, then just what are you saying? Let’s take some Homer Formby’s to your veneer of infallibility.

    2. Jim Leinfelder says:

      Well, that’s what Eisenhower thought, yes, that there was no military justification for dropping nuclear weapons on Japan.

    3. Jim Leinfelder says:

      And BTW, “Bertram,” the firebombing of Japanese cities was mere prelude to our dropping of the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which one assumes were what you were intending to refer.

      But what that has to do with what Assad has perpetrated against his own people merely to cling to power, eludes me entirely.

  7. PM says:

    Well, “Jim”, let me see if I can explain it to you in a way you’ll understand. I’m going to try to address all of your points in this post, rather than piecemeal, so please bear with me.
    My general disagreement with you concerns the way you have formulated your theory: “But whatever it is, it’ll be worse than any of the deep thinkers calling for it have envisioned. Of that, and only that, I am certain.” I strenuously disagree. Not only do I think that this is false (that some things actually turn out better, rather than worse), but I happen to think that the implications of this belief are terrible. As I said in an earlier post, “But if you adopt the position that things are always going to fail, get fucked up, explode in your face, then you come down to a default position of isolationism (the only way not to make a mistake is to do nothing).” And that applies even if you (somewhat belatedly) decide to limit the application of your theory to military intervention.
    So I cited 3 different examples (of immanent civil warfare) when things turned out better than what deep thinkers thought: South Africa; Northern Ireland; and Kosovo. In that sense, all three are relevant examples, in that they serve to rebut your theory. Yes, in South Africa there was no foreign military intervention, as there was in the other 2. But in that sense it serves even better to show that sometimes things turn out better than people expect (which proves your theory wrong). Further, as Brian pointed out earlier, Kosovo appears to be the model that Obama is following, as opposed to Iraq. In that sense, I think it is highly pertinent.
    I find it interesting that you spent so much time quoting Kennan, and yet still do not seem to understand what his central message really was. Containment was a policy of engagement with the world. Kennan insisted that the US be prepared to oppose the USSR (both militarily and thru economic and diplomatic means) everywhere, to prevent it from expanding into the (potential) vacuum created by the USA withdrawing (militarily, economically or diplomatically) from the world stage (as it did after WW1). Kennan crafted containment to prevent the USA from going back to isolationism. He felt that it was imperative for the USA to engage the USSR in the Greek civil war, through NATO, and other areas of contestation (as an aside, I invited Kennan, who was a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, to join a small group of us undergraduates for dinner. He graciously accepted, and was delightful and charming—and it turned out to be his birthday!).
    Obviously, things changed with the fall of the USSR, but the implication of your theory is no military intervention ever—because we can never be assured that everything will come out perfectly (and you know that it will always be worse), we should effectively do nothing—because we can never be assured that it will go well. That is a mighty high bar to meet, and the only way it can be met is to attempt nothing. Nothing ventured, nothing failed, after all. Apply that policy to the USSR in the 1960’s, and……well, Kennan would not have approved.
    While I understand that Kennan was arguing that the Iraq war decision was bad, he most certainly was not arguing against the US ever taking military action in the world. See, if all you wanted to do was to say that you thought military intervention in Syria was a bad idea because it might not turn out well, we could have a reasoned discussion about whether or not Obama appears to have taken steps to keep the intervention limited (ie., will this be more like Iraq or more like Kosovo), etc. But you have gone much farther, to try to make the case that the US should never intervene militarily (because it never ever turns out well–the one thing you are certain of, right?). And I think that is just dumb.
    I do think that the situations (Iraq vs. Kosovo) are quite different. GWBush and Rummy and Cheney wanted to go into Iraq in a big way from the start. That is clearly NOT the situation with Obama and Syria. Indeed, it seems to me as if Obama read those warnings made by Kennan, and is trying to craft this intervention so that it will be limited (which is certainly NOT what happened in either Iraq or Afghanistan). Obama is not talking regime change or nation building here, or anything even close. In fact, Obama has been winding down the US role in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and taking steps to end the “war on terrorism”. Further, the criticism of Obama from the right is that he has not been aggressive enough on Syria—that he should have intervened already! His decision to seek Congressional approval prior to taking action in Syria again serves to demonstrate just how different the situations really are. I do think that there are plenty of important lessons to be learned from the debacle of Iraq, but an attitude of never intervening in the Middle East ever again is simply taking appropriate caution too far. And that appears to me to be what you are guilty of. I understand it, and we need to be more cautious in our use of military force than we have been, but to assume that all use of military force will turn out badly and thus should not be done is simply going too far.

    Now, maybe I have over-reacted to your comments, and perhaps, in the heat of the moment, you might have overstated your position somewhat. That could well be the case, and, if so, I apologize. But I think that military intervention is a critical tool for the US and should never be taken completely off the table. Further, I think that this is an instance where it ought to be used, and I think that Obama is proposing to use military force in a limited and fairly specific fashion, where there is a good chance of success in achieving those limited goals (punishing the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime). Sure, there is a chance that it will not work. But that type of risk is always present, and we should never become so bound by the fear of failure that we fail to act when it is appropriate. That is my central disagreement with you.

    As for what I am saying, all you need to do is to read what I have already said (the third post in this thread). Clearly, I avoided Brian’s “veneer of infallibility” even before he used the term. For your benefit, I’ll repeat it here:
    Syria is a really tough one.

    1. Assad is a war criminal. I would love to see him removed from control in Syria, no matter who replaces him. I felt much the same way about Saddam in Iraq.
    2. There should be some consequences for the use of chemical weapons–killing the bastards who ordered their use would be a good place to start (and yes, i acknowledge the irony that the US apparently sanctioned the use of chemical weapons by Saddam against the Iranians. Still,….)
    3. I doubt that whoever replaces Assad will be a friend to the US. Probably not any better than Assad, and likely to be worse. Still, Assad has never been a friend, and his recent actions (including the use of chemical weapons) take this out of the realm of “better the devil that you know…”

    I am not at all convinced that getting rid of Assad will shorten the civil war in Syria. I am not at all convinced that it will save lives. I doubt that we will like Assad’s eventual successor. I do not think that we should try to re-build Syria, or influence the outcome of the civil war in any way. But I still think it would be a good idea to get rid of Assad, Start by trying to destroy as much of the Syrian military as possible with cruise missiles, and then give Assad an ultimatum–leave Syria or be targeted next.

    and then wash our hands of it. And because he has sanctioned the use of chemical weapons on his own people. I think that is sufficient cause. Oh, and I think it would be a good idea for Obama to call a special session of Congress and to make the case there for this action. For too long Congress has had it both ways on the War Powers Act—they obviously prefer to sit back and complain after the fact (that is the politically safe thing to do).

    I’d love to be convinced that there is a better course of action. Suggestions?

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      Not often–in fact never I have actually felt a comment here was so marvelously developed and written it needed to be printed out (despite lots of super writing along the way and why we keep visiting the Crowd). This is it.

      Look forward to Jim’s reply I’m certain equally passioned and reasoned.

      Very well done!

    2. Jim Leinfelder says:


      Your long-winded reiteration of your emotional needs regarding Syria and the empty promises you offer are no more moving to me than were the neo-cons’ assurances about the invasion of Iraq. Nothing you’ve written convinces me of your ability to foresee the future with any greater clarity. Our stated goal is not regime change, or simply killing Assad, as you’d like to somehow neatly accomplish with a bunker buster. What is the goal? Oh, right, to protect our precious credibility.

      1. PM says:

        Well, “jim”, all you have in response is “long winded”, and other insults (emotional needs? come on, even as an insult, you can probably do better)? Seriously, address the issues. Step up to the plate. or just acknowledge that you’ve shot your wad.

        ( I have never mentioned credibility. that is solely your interpretation).

        1. Jim Leinfelder says:

          Congress, the Secretary of State, various pundits, the President, they’re all pinning this on America’s “credibility” in the wake of Obama’s “red line” rhetoric.

          1. PM says:

            but it is not part of my argument….please do not add things to mine that are not there.

            I think that the case stands without any concerns about credibility

      1. Dennis Lang says:

        Sad. Jim, you were doing so well. However, instead of a calculated dissection of PM’s well articulated points foregoing, we get “long-winded” and some idle rhetoric. My disappointment for expecting more compelling from you. You’re generally an asset to any conversation that I’ve followed here.

        The issues in Syria remain monumental. The tragedy there heartbreaking. We watch as simple distant spectators. Is this our role in the world in 2013? And I don’t ask that rhetorically. Right now it’s THE question.

        1. Jim Leinfelder says:

          At the risk of offending, who are you to me, Dennis? Seems rather presumptuous to assume I seek, or need, your approbation. What are your credentials as blog arbiter?

          But, your pretensions aside, what’s there to dissect? There isn’t a single fact or discerning insight in anything PM, or you, have contributed on the subject. Who but a moral cretin can’t see that every moment of the civil war in Syria has been heartbreaking? It eludes no one. But what we can realistically do about it continues to elude me and, I would assert, the two of you.

          The wisdom of inserting ourselves in some token manner to “degrade” and “deter” in this poorly-understood bloody civil conflict remains an open question among many intelligent and morally intact Americans. But the burden of making the case for martial intervention remains on those beating the drums of war much more so than those asking for one. You’ve limned nothing in the way of a chain of contingencies, much like the President, I regret to point out.

          Our role in the world is hardly distant or passive. We are engaged, for good or for ill, all over this planet, and have been fighting two wars to dubious ends for the last ten.

          I suggest taking a break from grading posts and make an effort to articulate your case and manner of prosecuting this intervention without rendering matters even worse than they are now.

          1. Dennis Lang says:

            Jim–of course I am nothing to you. But I wasn’t seeking your approbation. Only, having followed this conversation, especially the enlightening exchange between you and PM, I was in fact disappointed that the strength of your engagement in it (for lack of a better expression) appeared in your immediate reply to tail off. Truly sorry if you were offended. Merely an observation. Of course I “know” you only through your comments right here that as I mentioned I have found consistently thoughtful.

            If I was smart enough to overcome my ambivalence and formulate a useful viewpoint on this issue I’d be delighted. Regrettably I’m not. I’m listening and reading and trying to learn what I can.

      2. PM says:

        What, this is someone else who can say it better than you? Seriously, make an effort. At least put their argument in your own words. Make it look like your original work.

  8. bertram jr. says:

    Well, Bertram thinks the “conservative intelligensia” agree on this: Let Allah sort them out!

    Get Barry back on the golf course where he belongs and bring back some experienced military / policy makers to do what they are TRAINED AND CONSITUTIONALLY MANDATED to do – protect American interests.

    Start with uneployment (tax relief for business) and the economy (tax relief for business). STOP THE DESTRUCTION OF THIS COUNTRY BY THE ENEMY WITHIN. I can not fathom the concern over Syrian deaths by their own countrymen when we have American ambassador and military dead in BHENGAZI and an unaccountable Obummer / Clintoncankle White House.


  9. PM says:


    first, let me apologize for the somewhat snarky tone of my comments (it was cocktail hour….). You are, of course, under no obligation to respond–this is not your job, not even your site! And i have no doubt that you (like the rest of us) have plenty of other things that you could/should be doing.

    Still, I have enjoyed our back and forth, and would hate for it to end here. I would appreciate it if you’d put in the time and effort to make your case–it is a case that deserves to be made. While i believe strongly in the case I have put forth, I do not think that it is the only option, and it might not be the best or optimal option. The only way I know to test it is in the arena of ideas. So, please engage it, expose the weaknesses, make the case for an alternative.


    1. Jim Leinfelder says:

      I’ve made my case, PM. I don’t think we should attack Syria because I don’t think it will help. The language is weak: “degrade,” as opposed to “destroy” or “eliminate.” It doesn’t take much capacity to commit an atrocity like the one we’re citing as our casus beli. Sounds to me like what we’re planning to do will exacerbate the situation by creating a more desperate Assad, one even more likely to turn to poison gas to maintain his grip on power by terrorizing the citizenry and, thus, weakening support for a motley insurgency. That’s how the Assad family operates.

      But here’s what I’d like to see from the administration as this slow-motion intervention seems to inexorably roll out–transparency. Declassify some of the intelligence that forms this basis for this decision to do “something.” Turn it over to some reliable third-party analysts. Yes, I am operating under a Bush doctrine hangover, PM. John Kerry’s stentorian performances are viewed by those of us who were equally vilified when we opposed invading Iraq based on our disbelief of the implausible-sounding case being sold by the neo-cons.

      That’s what this feels like from the administration, a sales job. So, right now, I am dubious of the wisdom of what is being proposed. My concern is not saving the money it would cost to do it. My concern is for the Libyans, for the region out of what I like to think is a sense of enlightened self interest.

      We should stay engaged, or, rather, return to engagement, with the Middle East, but not through military intervention. Democracy is not something that can be imposed. It’s got to be organic. We can support efforts toward it where we see them emerging, as we did in the examples you cited early on in this little donnybrook: ending apartheid in South Africa, peace in Northern Ireland. Your other example was the Blakans, which was a U.N. protectorate in response to genocide. This isn’t genocide. It’s horrible, tragic, “heartbreaking,” but not something we and the our peers in the U.N. are willing to invade to stop.

      What we are willing to do, in my opinion, is not going to be effective and may well exacerbate the situation for the people living there, and in the surrounding areas.

      1. PM says:

        Well, then we will let the cases stand.

        But I do want to address one aspect of what you said–the sales job. Are you really being fair to the Administration? After all, it is a sales job–it has to be a sales job, it really can’t be anything else. Obama (and Kerry and Powers, etc.) are trying to convince us that this is an appropriate plan of action. And that is exactly what they should be doing. Without a “sales job”, Obama would simply be ordering the attack, and telling us about it after the fact.

        I understand that Bush and the lies over Iraq have poisoned the well of public opinion towards any use of military power, and that is an understandable reaction. But it is not a good reaction, it is not a reasoned reaction, and not a reaction that I think is in the best interests of our country.

        Obama is not Bush, and I think that it is unfair to treat him as if he is. I think that he is already being far more transparent than Bush (sure, more would be better, but there are legitimate limits…I am not certain that I am qualified to say exactly what those are, but I do know that they exist). Perhaps this has not yet risen to the level of genocide yet (although there is a clear religious/cultural aspect to the conflict–Alawite vs. the rest), and we are not going to enjoy the warm blanket of UN authority (which, thanks to the Russians and Chinese, is becoming rather meaningless), but it still seems (to me) that international law (forbidding the use of chemical weapons) is worth supporting with military action. And i think a sales job in support of that is a good thing. He should make this case, and the fact that he is trying to sell it to the congress and the public should not be held against him–in fact, he should be applauded for doing so in such a forthright, open, transparent and honest manner. And because he is doing it BEFORE he takes action.

        Whatever you might think about the action he is proposing, you at least need to give him credit for the process he is using. He is going about this the right way, and I sincerely hope that he is creating an important precedent that future presidents will be forced to follow.

          1. Jim Leinfelder says:

            My point was merely that then Sen. Kerry, a rabid careerist, backed the unilateralism of the Bush Doctrine to preserve the viability of his candidacy for president, and now, as Secretary of State in Obama’s cabinet, he’s selling the President’s military intervention in another sovereign nation’s civil conflict based on the threat of continued use of WMDs.

            Nobody told us how long we’d be in Iraq and Afghanistan, either. In fact, quite the opposite.

            So, that’s why I’d like more transparency and less sales.

            1. PM says:

              Well, Obama is asking for a time limited authorization, so that is a difference. Further, given that we were talking about nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan, we could pretty well assume that it was not going to be a quick in and out…..

              I never understood the logic that, in 2004, the Democrats needed a war hero in order to defeat Bush….personally, i thought nominating the only possible candidate from a more privileged background than Bush was a mistake. But then they didn’t ask me…

Comments are closed.