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.)