It’s amazing to me how much of debate surrounding bombing Syria comes down to posturing and self-image. Do certain commentators feel more bold and important by living vicariously through the life and death struggles of others?
No one at The New York Times or the Weekly Standard will be parachuting into Damascus, or standing at attention aboard the USS Gravely as it fires Tomahawk missiles into Syria.
But having advocated so virulently for the U.S. to do something to save someone they might at least feel a bit better about themselves, their masculinity reinforced and a sense of pride in a country powerful enough to mobilize deadly military force at a moment’s notice reassured.
Honestly though, I just don’t have any idea how to explain the sloppy reasoning and empty rhetoric which so many pundits apply so forcefully, and with such seemingly joyful gravity and seriousness, whenever it comes to going to war.
Consider this the inverse of the question Jonathan Chait pawed at so painfully yesterday: Why does the proposition of bombing people far away elicit such a different mode of analysis from writers who, when it comes to domestic policy, are generally much more data-focused and skeptical of what can be achieved through brute-force?
So many of the arguments in favor of attacking Syria basically amount to wanting the U.S. to be “tough on crime.” Hit’em hard and fast, and then maybe they’ll start talking. James Fallows quotes Gary Hart saying, “The use of force is not a policy; it is a substitute for policy.” In this case though the use of force seems less like a substitute for policy even than a large scale version of an “enhanced” Batman interrogation. The Assad regime is crazy. They’re backed into a corner. They’re no longer rational. But maybe blowing some stuff up will knock a little bit of sense into them, eh?
Take Bret Stephens article at the Wall Street Journal, which begins, “Should President Obama decide to order a military strike against Syria, his main order of business must be to kill Bashar Assad,” a statement which completely relinquishes any responsibility to the actions of one’s country. Stephens wants to play the role of advisor to the President, a man who represents the entire country, without accepting any responsibility for what might result from his advise.
How else could Stephens summon the courage to utter such idiotic and reductionist formulations as, “The world can ill-afford a reprise of the 1930s, when the barbarians were given free rein by a West that had lost its will to enforce global order.”
Or this, “But now those words must be made to mean something, lest they become a piece of that other moral obscenity: the West’s hitherto bland indifference to Syria’s suffering.” According to Stephens there is nothing worse in the world than being a hypocrite, the implication being that Syrians owe it to the West to be bombed so that a crime perhaps even graver than the use of chemical weapons against civilians can be averted: the West losing face.
Then there’s this lovely letter to the President from the Weekly Standard, penned and signed by any number of rich white men, pleading for the U.S. to destroy Assad’s military, train the Syrian rebels, and presumable commit the trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of NATO personnel required to even attempt that.
I might consider it a fringe proposal if the anonymous members of The New York Times editorial board didn’t support something similar. The justification for this course of action though remains dominated by playground logic though,
“Presidents should not make a habit of drawing red lines in public, but if they do, they had best follow through. Many countries (including Iran, which Mr. Obama has often said won’t be permitted to have a nuclear weapon) will be watching.”
It doesn’t matter if the President shouldn’t have committed the U.S. to war with Syria, he already promised he would and people who make promises “best follow through.” If not, threatens the editorial, Obama may well be responsible for a nuclear armed Iran and whatever carnage occurs as a result!
Leaps of logic this fanciful would be laughed out of most opinion pages, let alone the one belonging to those who promise daily only to publish the news that’s “fit to print.”
I’ll close out instead with this round-up from Josh Dzieza at The Daily Beast of the “Six Best Opinion Columns” on whether the U.S. should bomb Syria.
Included in the bunch is Robert Satloff‘s argument that,
“Given the strategic stakes at play in Syria, which touches on every key American interest in the region, the wiser course of action is to take the opportunity of the Assad regime’s flagrant violation of global norms to take action that hastens the end of Assad’s regime. Contrary to the views of American military leaders, this will also enhance the credibility of the president’s commitment to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability, not erode America’s ability to enforce it.”
This is of course without any explanation as to how this could be achieved, why this military strike, and none of the ones prior, will be the magical one that convinces Iran to submit to the West’s agenda, or what exactly the global norms the Assad regime flagrantly violated were and what exactly constitutes them. If Iran is a “rogue nation” what do global norms matter?
Edward Luttwak suggests something different,
“By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.”
Luttwak suggests at the outset of his editorial that the U.S. has nothing to gain from involving itself in Syria’s civil war–only to simultaneously claim later on that actually the U.S. should involve itself by arming Syrian rebels in order for the two sides to reach a prolonged “stalemate,” Luttwak’s code-word for on-going civil war.
Andrew Slater prefers “putting boots on the ground,”
“And the assistance of a few hundred U.S. and Allied special operations forces could be the difference between a few bloody weeks of fighting before the post-Assad phase of the war (peace might not be the correct word for it) or a year of slowly bleeding the regime with bombers and drones while the Syrian people remain locked in the vise. As the commentator consensus puts it, there are no good options right now for the Obama administration on Syria, but some are more cynical than others and if Syria becomes America’s newest drone war, it is not because we seek its end as quickly as possible and it is not because we value Syrian life so dearly. It is because without Americans on the ground, we can all be counted on to change the channel.”
The fact that Slater has no apparent rationale for why a “few hundred” special operations forces might be the difference between a quick end to the civil war and a much longer bombing campaign, is damming enough. He doesn’t even bother to venture a guess as to how a micro-ground invasion might achieve less bloody ends than bombardment from the air and sea, or offer any idea of what the “post-Assad” period will even look like.
And these are some of the “best” ideas of how to go about dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Syria currently out there.