Tag Archives: Syrian civil war

Professor McCain

There’s a veritable feast of things to love in this video. First, it’s hard not to appreciate FOX‘s Brian Kilmeade delivering his profound commentary: “I have a problem helping those people out if they’re screaming that after a hit.” (Yelling “Allahu akbar” is, presumably, more offensive than stating, “Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards.” Or openly rooting for an injured enemy soldier to pick up a weapon so you have a right to open fire on him. Or saying, while discussing a child wounded by your side’s gunfire, “Well[,] it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”)

But it only gets better from there, when John McCain gets all professorial:

Would you have a problem with Americans and Christians saying, “Thank God, thank God?” That’s what they’re saying. Come on! Of course they’re Muslims, but they are moderates. And I guarantee you that they are moderates. I know them, and I’ve been with them. For someone to say “Allah akbar” is about as offensive as someone saying “thank God.”

Aside from the fact that it’s funny to see John McCain suddenly realize that Muslims are human too, it’s even more hilarious to hear him say “I know them, and I’ve been with them.” Indeed he does, and has: unfortunately, it appears he couldn’t tell the moderates apart from the terrorist kidnappers. (Don’t you hate when that happens?)

Enhanced by Zemanta

Justifying the unjustifiable in Syria

Let’s start with the premise that some wars are justifiable. I’m with Jonathan Chait there. But he loses me very shortly thereafter in his piece from Tuesday:

The merits of intervening in Syria strike me as both a closer call and a lower-stakes matter than what we think of as “major wars.” The apparently forthcoming operation has much more modest ends than the intervention in Libya, which I supported and that succeeded in its aim. We will not be toppling a brutal regime or preventing an imminent massacre. The purpose of air strikes is to impose a cost on regimes that deploy chemical weapons against civilians. Attacking the Syrian regime won’t stop all future massacres of civilians, or even all chemical attacks on civilians, but it does strike, on balance, as better than doing nothing at all.

Essentially every line of this paragraph is inaccurate or incoherent. First, what, exactly, constitutes a “major war?” If a two-year-old civil war with a death toll exceeding 100,000 and displaced totals in the millions doesn’t count as one, then I’m not certain what it would take to persuade Chait of the war’s significance. (Like Mitt Romney’s conception of the upper class as households earning over $250,000 annually, it appears that Chait’s dataset of “major wars” is restricted to ones in which Americans die in sufficiently large numbers.)

I get what he’s trying to say: war may be devastating Syria, but an American intervention would pose little risk to the United States. To illustrate this point, he compares the proposed military action in Syria to that in Libya and concludes that the former actually represents the safer course of action.

This is, of course, absurd. Libya was led by Muammar Qaddafi, an increasingly isolated autocrat whose idiosyncrasies even his authoritarian Arab brothers despised, and they were only too happy to be rid of him. Virtually no one felt threatened, or was even particularly bothered, by what transpired in Libya: only a duped Russia (sign up for the no-fly zone, stay for regime change!) and a coterie of jittery Middle Eastern despots showed much concern. It was quite clear, in the end, that Qaddafi had no real leverage with anyone.

Contrast that with the situation in Syria today. Assad has the support of both Hezbollah and Iran. Oh, and Russia, which has already warned of the “catastrophic consequences” of an intervention in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Israel is standing ready to respond in case of retaliation in the event of an American-led strike in Syria. In short, it is really quite easy to imagine a scenario in which at least six nations (Syria, Lebanon, Russia, Iran, Israel, and the United States — and this doesn’t even include likely NATO partners such as the U.K.) are pulled into an increasingly intractable conflict. Syria is intricately woven into the political fabric of the Middle East in a way that Qaddafi’s Libya could only dream of being.

But Chait doesn’t stop there. He also insists, echoing a persistent journalistic theme that bears little resemblance to reality, that the Libya operation was a success. It is unclear whether he is referring to the prevention of a massacre in Benghazi or regime change itself as barometers of victory. In this failure, however, he is at least joined by the initial proponents of the Libya intervention, none of whom seemed to know the true objective either. In a preemptive rebuttal of his critics, he writes:

The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians. Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened. But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against.

Again, this is sheer madness. The “narrow, humanitarian goal” to which Libya intervention advocates staked their early justifications was to prevent a massacre in Benghazi by establishing a no-fly zone, and not regime change. Of course, we never had any definitive proof that such a massacre would take place, only the histrionics of a famously melodramatic leader. So was the intervention a success? Only if measured against the presumed alternative of a guaranteed massacre, an event that — by definition — we can never know for certain would have happened in the first place. The goal was far from “unambiguously accomplished.”

What really gets me, though, is this part: “…without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against.” This is a truly astounding declaration. Here is a White House statement from March 22, 2011:

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, issued a statement acknowledging that President Obama would like to see a democratic government in Libya, but explained that the aim of the U.S. military’s intervention there is not to enact regime change.

“We’re clarifying, as we’ve said repeatedly, that the effort of our military operation is not regime change, that as we actually say in this readout, it’s the Libyan people who are going to make their determinations about the future,” Rhodes said. “We support their aspirations, their democratic aspirations, and have stated that Gadhafi should go because he’s lost their confidence.”

This “narrow, humanitarian” NATO campaign to prevent a massacre eventually lasted seven months, included nearly 8,000 bombs and missiles, and played a decisive role in the rebels’ eventual capture of Qaddafi — long after he possessed any capacity to massacre anyone.

And yet even this incongruence is hardly the worst aspect of Chait’s argument. That prize is awarded to this sentence: “Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened.”

Exactly. That’s just the point.

And so here we are again, pondering a supposedly limited engagement in Syria. Once again, the White House has explicitly denied that the goal of the (decreasingly hypothetical) intervention in Syria would be regime change. Once again, the objective is muddy: murkier, even, than the Libya strikes — which were at least superficially described, at the outset, as a response to an impending massacre. In Syria, the massacre has already taken place, and Obama has seemingly settled on the phrase “strong signal” (against the use of chemical weapons) as ample justification for a potential military mission.

And, once again, Syria will remain an ugly place with or without external intervention.

Chait concludes thusly:

But I continue to be amazed that some of my younger liberal friends find it so easy to dismiss any weighing of pros and cons by venturing arguments structurally identical to ones that, in a domestic context, they recognize as absurd.

I, in turn, continue to be amazed that Jonathan Chait finds war so casually justifiable. In the first quote I excerpted in this post, he wrote: “Attacking the Syrian regime won’t stop all future massacres of civilians, or even all chemical attacks on civilians, but it does strike, on balance, as better than doing nothing at all.”

That’s right: an intervention strikes him as better than doing nothing. That’s only slightly worse than going to war to send a “strong signal.” And yet, “doing nothing at all” isn’t even an option on the table. (For one, the U.S. has already promised to supply the rebels with arms, even if that vow has not necessarily been fulfilled yet.)

Indeed, this is the principal victory that the national security hawks have wrested from their dovish foes in the American political sphere: the idea that ever deciding not to intervene somewhere is a form of cowardice and isolationism. It’s why Rand Paul is consistently portrayed as a hermetic isolationist for the sole crime of opposing thoughtless military adventurism. (He’s rightly portrayed as a “wacko bird” for many other things, however.) And it’s why the decision to go to war is consistently portrayed as a garden-variety policy decision, like raising taxes or modifying vehicle emissions standards.

But it’s not. John Adams once said that “great is the guilt of an unnecessary war.” After a string of them — initiated via flawed reasoning and later feted for their imaginary victories — it appears that war remorse, like John Adams, is history.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Bill Keller wants to repeat history, which would make him wrong twice.

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 10.20.43 AMScreen Shot 2013-05-06 at 10.21.40 AM


Last night, New York Times columnist (and former executive editor) Bill Keller’s column, “Syria Is Not Iraq,” appeared online. (It’s seen in the above screenshot at right, juxtaposed against equally intellectually-challenged fellow columnist Thomas Friedman’s piece from last year.) As usual, it was a doozy:

As a rule, I admire President Obama’s cool calculation in foreign policy; it is certainly an improvement over the activist hubris of his predecessor. And frankly I’ve shared his hesitation about Syria, in part because, during an earlier column-writing interlude at the outset of the Iraq invasion, I found myself a reluctant hawk. That turned out to be a humbling error of judgment, and it left me gun-shy.

Of course, there are important lessons to be drawn from our sad experience in Iraq: Be clear about America’s national interest. Be skeptical of the intelligence. Be careful whom you trust. Consider the limits of military power. Never go into a crisis, especially one in the Middle East, expecting a cakewalk.

But in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.

Keller concludes:

Whatever we decide, getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.

No, Keller, it doesn’t. Getting Syria right starts with acknowledging how Iraq happened. But doing that would require directly confronting the central role of Keller’s paper in propagating a flimsy and ultimately disastrous case for war in Iraq. Getting over Iraq, to use Keller’s convenient word choice, is a euphemism for allowing the same source that got everything so wrong in Iraq to make the same case for war in another country — again, with no exit strategy or, even, any strategy at all.

Keller argues that our failure to arm the rebels for fear of assisting al-Qaeda is in fact resulting in the same outcome, by ceding ground to the Saudis and Qataris, who are all too willing to assist radicals on the ground in Syria. But what Keller fails to mention is the fact that, after two years of civil war, an American decision to intervene now would raise more questions than it answers and may very well cause a public opinion backlash in the Arab world. Instead of being lauded as saviors, there is at least an equivalent likelihood of rebels asking, “How many lives could you have saved if you’d been here earlier?”

That alone is not a reason to stay away. But the audacity of the clamor for intervention — led by people like John McCain and, yes, now Bill Keller, the same people who so badly misjudged the prospects for success in Iraq — is that it makes the same characterizations about Syria that it did about Iraq. You’d think once would be enough.

Keller writes:

What you hear from the Obama team is that we know way too little about the internal dynamics of Syria, so we can’t predict how an intervention will play out, except that there is no happy ending; that while the deaths of 70,000 Syrians are tragic, that’s what happens in a civil war; that no one in the opposition can be trusted; and, most important, that we have no vital national interest there. Obama conceded that the use of poison gas would raise the stakes, because we cannot let the world think we tolerate spraying civilians with nerve gas. But even there, the president says he would feel obliged to respond to “systematic” use of chemical weapons, as if something less — incremental use? sporadic use? — would be O.K. This sounds like a president looking for excuses to stand pat.

This is a sickening, absurdist paragraph. “Looking for excuses to stand pat?” In Keller’s conceptualization, then, war is the default option, and Obama is doing somersaults in an attempt to evade his natural obligations. But this is simply not the case. Obama is perfectly right to observe that no vital national interest necessitates an American intervention in Syria (although he is seemingly less confident on this score than previously thought).

Keller’s not done:

In contemplating Syria, it is useful to consider the ways it is not Iraq.

First, we have a genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one. A failed Syria creates another haven for terrorists, a danger to neighbors who are all American allies, and the threat of metastasizing Sunni-Shiite sectarian war across a volatile and vital region. “We cannot tolerate a Somalia next door to Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey,” said Vali Nasr, who since leaving the Obama foreign-policy team in 2011 has become one of its most incisive critics. Nor, he adds, can we afford to let the Iranians, the North Koreans and the Chinese conclude from our attitude that we are turning inward, becoming, as the title of Nasr’s new book puts it, “The Dispensable Nation.”

Again, Keller’s historical — and personal — amnesia, combined with his implicit but entirely unsubtle smearing of prudent foreign policy analysts as appeasers, is appalling. There is no “genuine, imperiled national interest.” The primary reason everyone’s suddenly started talking about Syria is that Israel started bombing it. As always, Israel’s security interests take precedence over our own: where two years of civilian death and suffering elicited little more than yawns and sighs of boredom in living rooms throughout America, a few targeted airstrikes by Israel are amazingly effective at focusing the hive mind.

Keller writes:

But, as Joseph Holliday, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, points out, what gets lost in these calculations is the potentially dire cost of doing nothing. That includes the danger that if we stay away now, we will get drawn in later (and bigger), when, for example, a desperate Assad drops Sarin on a Damascus suburb, or when Jordan collapses under the weight of Syrian refugees.

Yes, let’s go to war now, risking very real American lives, to prevent a hypothetical outcome that may or may not cause mass fatalities in another country’s civil war.

Here is perhaps my favorite line:

Fourth, in Iraq we had to cajole and bamboozle the world into joining our cause. This time we have allies waiting for us to step up and lead. Israel, out of its own interest, seems to have given up waiting.

Israel?! That’s his example? Israel, he may recall, was perfectly onboard with the American invasion of Iraq as well. And why shouldn’t it be? Any half-conscious human being can see the natural advantage of allowing a foreign country to wage war on another’s behalf — including paying the costs in lives and massive budget deficits. Israel can stand pat and let Americans take the heat again, as we’ve been doing for years.

“Why wait for the next atrocity?” Keller asks. Indeed, why? For neoconservative warmongers like Bill Keller, waiting is for appeasers. The case for intervention in Syria, like that in Iraq, recalls the title of the famous post-financial crisis book, This Time Is Different. Each time, excuses and half-justifications are lazily proffered so as to distinguish one hawkish prophecy from its disastrous predecessors. This time, let’s approach the problem differently, instead of feebly attempting to differentiate this potential foreign policy quagmire from another, very real one from the past.


Enhanced by Zemanta

A chemical nightmare in Syria?

Wired reports that the Syrian government is weaponizing “deadly nerve agents” and, as if that weren’t terrifying enough, the worse danger has not yet arrived:

Assad’s chemical corps have spent years buying up and experimenting with the chemicals needed to make the nerve agent sarin; not even an increasingly bloody civil war has kept the labs from running. Today, Syria-watchers in the U.S. government believe, these chemical engineers may be skilled enough in handling sarin that the nerve agent might remain deadly for up to a year. (“This is not a ‘move it or lose it’ situation,” one American official tells Danger Room.) And during that time, the sarin could be acquired by one of the Islamic extremists working in the loosely led rebel movement to topple the Assad regime. In other words: There’s the prospect of chemically armed terrorists emerging from the Syrian civil war.

“Uncertainties regarding this crisis are pervasive, yet at least one outcome is highly probable: terrorist acquisition of chemical weapons if the regime falls,” writes Federation of American Scientists analyst Charles Blair.

Disappearing the Internet

Ezra Klein takes a look at how difficult it would be for the government to shut off the Internet in various countries, as the nation of Syria just did on Thursday:

There are 61 nations, including Syria and Libya and even Greenland, where there are only one or two providers connecting people to the outside world. “Under those circumstances,” Cowie writes, “it’s almost trivial for a government to issue an order that would take down the Internet. Make a few phone calls, or turn off power in a couple of central facilities, and you’ve (legally) disconnected the domestic Internet from the global Internet.”

But countries with a more diversified Internet infrastructure are harder to cut off. It took Hosni Mubarak’s government a few days to shut down Egypt’s Internet. And a blackout is even harder to pull off in countries like Mexico and India. (It’s interesting to see that China is ranked as a “low risk” countries. As James Fallowsreported a few years ago, the Chinese government was able to set up its “Great Firewall” to censor the Internet in part because most of the country’s access runs through fiber-optic cables at just three points.)

Meanwhile, it would be nearly impossible for a government to shut down the entire Internet in the United States or Western Europe. “There are just too many paths into and out of the country,” Cowie writes, “too many independent providers who would have to be coerced or damaged, to make a rapid countrywide shutdown plausible to execute.”

Hurricane Syria continues to expand

And is threatening not just Lebanon, but Turkey and now Israel as well:

Syria pulled both Turkey and Israel closer to military entanglements in its civil war on Monday, bombing a rebel-held Syrian village a few yards from the Turkish border in a deadly aerial assault and provoking Israeli tank commanders in the disputed Golan Heights into blasting mobile Syrian artillery units across their own armistice line.

he escalations, which threatened once again to draw in two of Syria’s most powerful neighbors, came hours after the fractious Syrian opposition announced a broad new unity pact that elicited praise from the big foreign powers backing their effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

“It is a big day for the Syrian opposition,” wrote Joshua Landis, an expert on Syrian political history and the author of the widely followed Syria Comment blog. Mr. Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, wrote that the “Assad regime must be worried, as it has survived for 42 years thanks to Syria’s fragmentation.”

There has been speculation that Mr. Assad, feeling increasingly threatened, may deliberately seek to widen the conflict that has consumed much of his own country for the past 20 months and left roughly 40,000 people dead. Although there is no indication that Mr. Assad has decided to try to lure Israel into the fight, any Israeli involvement could rally his failing support and frustrate the efforts of his Arab adversaries.

The attack on the Turkish border, by what Syrian witnesses identified as a Syrian MIG-25 warplane, demolished at least 15 buildings and killed at least 20 people in the town of Ras al-Ain, the scene of heavy fighting for days and an impromptu crossing point for thousands of Syrian refugees clambering for safety into Turkey.

At this point, I’d be most worried about Israel and Lebanon. Turkey may be upset but is unlikely to do something disproportionately aggressive without some semblance of international acquiescence (or, at least, ambivalence). Bibi Netanyahu’s Israel, on the other hand, is in a hostile and unpredictable mood (as it has been since he took office in 2009), especially now that the extremely hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu-Likud connection has been solidified into an actual coalition. And Lebanon continues to fulfill its role as a propane gas tank just waiting to burst into flames.

The ingredients for massive chaos to boil over are all there. Now all it might take is a little something extra to turn up the heat.