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August 27, 2013

Comments

Maybe we should bomb ourselves.

"We have met the enemy, and he is us" - Pogo

I don't know a whole lot about it but I've generally found James Fallows to make sense, especially when he agrees with my gut instincts anyway. "Fact 1: Atrocities are happening in Syria. Fact 2: The United States has bombers, cruise missiles, and drones. Putting those two facts together does not make the second a solution to the first."

George Packer ...says it feels like 1914. He also says that Russia and Iran will not let Assad go down. I can't help connecting this to the Snowden humiliation, and whatever information is still encoded and not yet released.

This could escalate, but Bandar Bush, who is now head of Saudi Arabian Intelligence, just spent some serious talking with Putin. A deal might have been reached. $150 a barrel oil?

Welcome to Rome, or Victorian Britain. You, wherever you are, are most likely a resident and beneficiary of the Evil Empire. You are responsible, a brute and a victim. You can leave, but they won't miss you. You can protest, but nobody will notice. You can vote, and they will thank you for legitimating them.

You don't make policy.

Kinda a moral hell heading for a more physical hell, but the bread and circuses are terrific.

On the matter of legal justfication, I would say that:
- a fair number of people around the country do care about having one if we are going to start fighting. (Me included.)
- an infinitesimal number of the folks in Washington (both parties, and those who are not politicians) care. Some of them, at some times, will use the issue to score political points off each other -- but they don't really care about the issue as an issue. So don't expect anything resembling a real legal justification.

As for bombing Syria itself, any discussion of that has to start with the question: What are we actually trying to accomplish here? If we are trying to get rid of Assad, that's one thing. If we are just trying to punish use of chemical weapons, that's different. And if we are merely shoring up "our credibility," that's yet another. So, what are we trying to accomplish?

I think most of us can agree that the world would be better off without Assad and his regime in it. Which is not the same as saying that whatever follows him would be anything we would be happy to see either.

My personal take is that the best (or, more accurately, least bad) outcome, for the Syrian people and for their neighbors, would be for the two (probably more, since I suspect the Kurds would want to stay separate) sides to pull back into separate areas and partition the country. They would probably still keep fighting for years -- like India and Pakistan, but more vigorously. But it would be as close to real peace as Syria is likely to come, unless one side manages a successful genocide. Which is probably the only viable alternative to partition.

But the way we get to that, as far as I can judge (from my massive ignorance), is to bomb Assad hard, but not too hard. So he ends up weakened enough to have to pull back to the Alawite areas, but doesn't get actually beaten. No bets whether anyone really knows just how hard a blow that might need to be. Or whether we could execute it successfully, even if we are right.

Bombing Syria: good? bad? unknown?

Bad, because it is pointless. We're going to bomb Syria because of domestic political constraints. Months ago, the administration talked about the 'red line' but they never expected Assad to last this long and they never expected anyone to use chemical weapons. But now all the war mongers and media morons are screaming about the 'red line', so the administration has to do something, no matter how pointless.

We're going to bomb a foreign country because no one in washington can say the truth: the US military, despite costing a trillion dollars a year, actually can't solve a great many foreign policy problems, including the Syrian civil war.

Who/what would we be acting on behalf of?

We are going to bomb to protect America's innocence. People in this country, or at least the media bubble, are not capable of dealing with the fact that the US military has limited capabilities. That's like questioning our national manhood -- there isn't enough Vi*gra in the country to deal with the resulting flaccidity.

what legal document will the President point to authorizing him to commit an act of war against Syria?

None, because he doesn't need any.

If Congress cares, it can always cut funding, but it doesn't care because everyone is Congress is terrified of primary opponents screaming about 'soft on terror' or failing to 'support the troops'. Besides, there isn't going to be a war: we're going to launch some Tomohawk missiles and that'll be it, because Syria is too weak to fight back.

How much is this going to cost?

Spending $100 million on tomahawks to preserve our national manhood is a bargain.

There aren't really any easy good outcomes, but there is a bad outcome of not doing anything - increased Iranian hegemony in the region. The problem is, knowing that doing nothing is likely to lead to a bad outcome doesn't mean that there is necessarily a way to avoid it without making things even worse.

At this point, I suspect we are talking action because the Saudis really really want Assad taken down, and that is something we can probably do. The problem is, unless we are willing and can find some way to justify outright taking over the country (don't hold your breath), his replacement might well be acceptable to the Saudis and give the Iranians fits, but they're not likely otherwise to good for us.

It is weird how you can be poor, and have no ability to project power in a region, and still be a regional hegemon. If Iran is a regional hegemon, I guess I am too.

Fuzzy, I'm not sure how doing nothing increases Iran's power in the region. Assad was already their boy. And no matter how things work out, he is going to be a lot weaker than he was.

Iran lost clout in the region when the Syrian civil war took off, and there really isn't any prospect of their getting it back. Their best case scenario is that he somehow wins the war.

But he will be trying to run a country where the substantial majority of the people are not only opposed to him, but no longer really effectively cowed like they were before. Even if he pours lots and lots of money (that Iran doesn't have to give him) into secret police informers, he will never again have the control that he used to have.

There is potential legal justification for military action, even absent a UN resolution:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23855428

Quite how this condition might be met - "Any force used must be specifically targeted at stopping the atrocity and protecting the civilian population" - is however entirely beyond me.

I have little doubt that a large majority of the electorates in both the US and the UK are against any military action; I also have little doubt that it will happen anyway.

Maybe Putin's friend (and, once removed, Assad's friend) Edward Snowden was part of the hacking of the New York times today. Another reason to do nothing: we won't be able to read the paper!

I mentioned this link and this anecdote seems to have a lot of interesting historical resonances.

After the First World War, an independent kingdom of Syria had been briefly proclaimed in 1920. France, however, had reoccupied Syria forcefully on the basis of the mandate it had been granted at Versailles, ‘sacrificing herself’ in defence of the civilizing mission, with a view to bringing democracy, development and human rights. The Syrians, who were unreceptive to the idea that the occupation was for their own good, showed consistently in polls that a majority wanted the occupation to end. Syrians sent petitions to the League of Nations complaining about French exercise of power under the mandate. When these petitions went unheeded, uprisings erupted. In 1925, a more significant uprising broke out after the French high commissioner failed to properly handle Druze complaints against Captain Carbillet, a French officer who — although he also built roads, bridges and dams — tended to manipulate tribal factions in a way that threatened the feudal authority of Druze sheikhs. The French repressed the insurgency brutally. Insurgents were designated as ‘brigands’, villages that had harboured them were burned and the bodies of 24 rebels were paraded in the streets on camel backs before being exposed in a Damascus public square. After more fighting from the Syrians, the counter-insurgency took a new dimension. The French sent tanks into the streets and systematically bombed Damascus from the hills. Whole neighbourhoods were razed. Between 500 and 1000 locals were killed. Priceless Islamic cultural artifacts were lost.

Following the bombing, a controversy unfolded in the columns of the American Journal of International Law. The article by Colby is in fact a response to an earlier article published by Quincy Wright in favour of the applicability of the laws of war. The Colby article constitutes one of the last systematic attempts at excluding ‘non-civilized peoples’ from the laws of war, one which seeks to articulate, on the basis of existing sources, precisely what it is that makes ‘savages’ unworthy of such protection.

The Colby mentioned is Elbridge Colby who "denounced the acquittal by an all-white jury of a man who had, in 1925, shot a black soldier for refusing to step off a sidewalk to let a white man pass, an event that was to have significant negative repercussions on his career."

This is not to claim that Assad is innocent or that France is simply reverting to form. But, rather than history being one damn thing after another, it often seems like the same damn thing, over and over. For my opinion, what Farley wrote here, which I cut and paste, basically mirrors mine.

I don’t expect that the military action that’s likely about to happen will have any meaningful effect on the course of the Syrian civil war.
I do suspect that the U.S. will strike a variety of targets (most likely with TLAMs) that are associated in some way with the deployment and control of chemical weapons.
I think that the move of other air assets into the region (both by U.S. and U.K.) is largely a precaution against Syrian government reprisal.
Given Syria’s lack of response to recent Israeli airstrikes, I doubt we’ll see much beyond a rhetorical condemnation from the Syrians.
I worry that the Syrian rebels will over-interpret these strikes as support for their position, and begin to engage in risk-acceptant behaviors intended to provoke the government.
Beyond upholding the taboo against chemical weapons use (which I think has some value), it’s not easy for me to sort out the connection between means and ends.
I think the Obama administration made its “red line” commitment in the belief that there was virtually no chance that the Syrian government would use chemical weapons (or, indeed, survive this long). The administration seems to be struggling to escape a trap of its own making.
I hope that the reluctance to become directly engaged on the part of the administration will limit the dangers of entanglement. However, such dangers always exist.
On balance, I think it’s a bad idea to engage. But I also doubt that it’s a mistake of any significant or enduring consequence.

increased Iranian hegemony in the region.

I'm with Turb, I'm not seeing Iranian hegemony in action.

India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, the various other Stans, Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman, Yemen.

And Syria.

That's the neighborhood.

Iran can probably shut down the straights of Hormuz. It would cost them something, maybe a lot, but they could probably do it. For some period of time, probably long enough to annoy everybody else in the world.

That would be a royal PITA, but I don't see it as regional hegemony.

Maybe you could explain what you have in mind.

IMO the answer to whether it's a good idea to bomb Syria depends on whether anything good or useful would be achieved by doing so. It seems to me that the answer to that is "it's a crapshoot", so I guess bombing Syria would be, likewise, a crapshoot.

I also find myself with vanishingly small confidence that we aren't all being played eight ways to Sunday, by eleventy-seven different players, which also reduces my confidence in the wisdom of the adventure.

Beyond that, I have nothing to contribute by way of informed opinion on the topic.

I dropped in the comments of the Farley thread and one of the comments had a link to this about the red line of chemical attacks from the Monkey Cage

As for bombing Syria itself, any discussion of that has to start with the question: What are we actually trying to accomplish here?

To quote Sir Humphrey Appleby as best I can recall:

"Something must be done. This is a something. Therefore we must do it."

India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, the various other Stans, Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman, Yemen.

And Syria.

Big neighborhood. Actually, the neighborhood is even bigger. The neighborhood is the world, as exemplified by the New York Times hacking today. No man is an island, especially these days.

Well, one tiny little detail in Turbs argument is wrong: Iran isn't poor, it's rich - and potentially one of the richest countries in the world, due to its natural resources and well educated population.

As for Iranian hegemony, not an appealing thought given the current regime, but look at the alternatives: US? Israel? Saudi Arabia? - oh dear. At least Iran hasn't invaded any other countries since godknowswhen.

Iran isn't poor, it's rich - and potentially one of the richest countries in the world, due to its natural resources and well educated population.

Indeed, Iran is so very rich, rich enough to have an inflation rate of 40%. Would that we were all so rich!

If I was Barack Obama, I would prepare a very expensive, extensive bombing campaign against Syria, accompanied by covert action inside the country and then, at the last moment, as the debt ceiling/government shutdown vermin in the House of Republicans push their traitorous, murderous program for the bankruptcy and dissolution of the United States government, I would halt the the action against Syria and turn the weaponry on the elite political and media filth of the Republican Party and their families, who are positioning themselves to kill more Americans than Assad, Saddam, and al Qaeda ever dreamed.

I declare the threatened bankruptcy of the United States and the defunding of Obamacare to be poisonous gas and weapons of mass destruction under the Geneva Convention.

I think most of us can agree that the world would be better off without ______ and his regime in it.

This is a blank that has been and can be filled in with many names, some of them our staunchest allies.

It does not strike me as a good place to begin any sort of meaningful analysis.

It seems to me that any coherent foreign policy in the Mideast would include the arrest and prosecution of this traitor and the traitors in Texas who placed him in power.

http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2013/08/louie-gohmert-fueling-anti-american-conspiracy-theory-egypt.php?ref=fpb

He's fomenting hatred and violence against America in Egypt.

We don't even need the NSA to spy on him.

He declares his guilt directly into the microphone.

I looked at LJ's otherwise very interesting link at Monkeycage and saw the writer speaking as though Assad had killed "hundreds of thousands". In the first place, the counted death toll (and that's all people in the press ever use for the Iraq War, thanks to the misplaced trust in the thoroughness of Iraq Body Count) is 100,000, even if the real figure is larger, and in the second place, those supposedly doing the counting (the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights) claim that at least 40,000 of those counted dead were either Syrian army or Syrian militia supporting Assad.

NYT article on death toll as of late June

Of course I have no idea what the real numbers are and already expressed doubt about the Syrian Observatory breakdown in the other thread (for various reasons), but I wish people would stop talking as though the Syrian civil war consisted of Assad going around shooting and gassing people. The situation seems a tad more complicated and confused than that, to me at least.

Bennis and Wildman have an anti-intervention piece up at the Nation

link

That's a fascinating link, liberal japonicus. Thanks for posting it.

I also agree with the Farley cut&paste, although this seems a bit silly:
I worry that the Syrian rebels will over-interpret these strikes as support for their position, and begin to engage in risk-acceptant behaviors intended to provoke the government.
All the reporting I have seen indicates that the rebels are deeply skeptical (and for good reasons) about relying on any western help, and in any event it's hard to see how it would make any difference on either score.

This is also fairly to the point (it's from Greenwald, so sapient may ignore it):

(4) In 2008, President Obama, when he was a candidate for President, had this question-and-answer exchange with the Boston Globe:

"Q. In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? (Specifically, what about the strategic bombing of suspected nuclear sites — a situation that does not involve stopping an IMMINENT threat?)

"OBAMA: The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

"As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent."

Patrick Cockburn says that Syrian Kurds are being ethnically cleansed from Syria--40,000 just this week. But by the rebels, not the government.

I was wondering if ethnic cleansing is something that we bomb people for, or does it depend on who does it to whom or is it unimportant so long as nobody has labeled it a red line?

link

Another way to read the Monkeycage statement (by Eric Voeten), which is

Why should Assad be able to kill hundreds of thousands with conventional weapons without a U.S. military intervention but a much more modest attack using chemical weapons crosses the proverbial red line?

could be that he is noting the inherent contradiction that has been noted by others with chemical weapons vs. conventional weapons. It is hard to tell from the grammar, but it might be better expressed as 'Assad could have killed many more but why, in using chemical weapons, he triggers a response'. I don't know which reading reflects his thinking, but he has a number of interesting papers about international justice here. He's also said that he will do a series of blog posts on human rights institutions, so you may want to raise this point with him as I think it is a valuable one and you seem to have a lot of the links handy.

Why should Assad be able to kill hundreds of thousands with conventional weapons without a U.S. military intervention but a much more modest attack using chemical weapons crosses the proverbial red line?

One possible answer is that chemical weapons, while of limited or even no utility in conventional wars, are particularly effective weapons for repressing a civilian population for a regime which has no moral (or external) restraint on its actions.

Modern conventional weapons are also weapons of mass destruction if used in the manner Assad has done, but they also produce massive 'collateral' damage to economic infrastructure.
For a dictator facing a mass uprising, and lacking any compunction, chemical weapons are a very attractive option indeed.

While I am extremely skeptical about the utility of what's likely to happen in the next few days, and oppose immediate military action without a supporting UN resolution, I also believe it's likely that Assad would use chemical weapons on a massive scale if he was certain that there would never be any external intervention as a result.

I left a comment at his blog, LJ. I'm not arguing with his main point, with which I am sympathetic. I just singled him out because I keep reading people talking about the war in those terms, as though all the deaths can be attributed to Assad and as though the reported death toll consisted mostly of civilian victims. For all I know the real death toll is predominantly civilian and killed by Assad's side, but it's not what the Syrian Observatory count actually shows.

No man is an island, especially these days.

Since the original dates from about 400 years ago, I suspect there's nothing special about 'these days'.

I'm unclear on how this worthy quote is evidence, pro or con, for the idea that the threat of Iranian regional hegemony is either credible, or a good reason to bomb Syria.

I'm also unclear on how the NYT hacking makes the case for bombing Syria stronger or weaker.

Is this about the use of chemical weapons, or not?

I'm also unclear on how the NYT hacking makes the case for bombing Syria stronger or weaker.

While clearly it's no significant threat to US security, if conducted by the Syrian state, it is in theory an act of war, so would provide some sort of legal fig leaf for any subsequent action.

Of course, one could make a similar but much stronger case against the US for propagating the Stuxnet virus, for example...

I'm unclear on how this worthy quote is evidence, pro or con, for the idea that the threat of Iranian regional hegemony is either credible, or a good reason to bomb Syria.

Sorry, I omitted some threads in my train of thought there. I don't think that the term "Iranian hegemony" is meant to cover all of the neighbors that you mentioned (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, the various other Stans, Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Ukraine, for example). That's what I meant by pretty big neighborhood.

As to "no man is an island" the use of chemical weapons is an international problem that transcends neighborhoods.

I'm also unclear on how the NYT hacking makes the case for bombing Syria stronger or weaker.

By the way, I'm not "making a case" for anything but a response to the chemical attack, and bombing seems to be the only response on the table aside from invasion.

It's an interesting thing that Snowden, the hero, just took gigabytes and gigabytes of US national security secrets to Russia, and suddenly Assad feels emboldened to use chemical weapons on a large scale, and friends of Assad find ways to intimidate the New York Times by hacking its servers. Obviously, no proof of cause and effect, but it might give some people pause as to whether Snowden's great service to the country was maybe a little dangerous after all. And, yes, I do think the various massive intelligence leaks may be having an effect on the actions of the participants.

While I am extremely skeptical about the utility of what's likely to happen in the next few days, and oppose immediate military action without a supporting UN resolution, I also believe it's likely that Assad would use chemical weapons on a massive scale if he was certain that there would never be any external intervention as a result.

I'm hoping for a UN resolution as well, but I don't "oppose" military action in its absence, because I agree altogether with the rest of your sentence, and I don't think that Putin should be the only thing standing in the way of deterrence.

Sorry, I omitted some threads in my train of thought there.

Thanks for the clarification.

All of the countries I named are near to Iran. Of all of them, to my knowledge Iran can arguably be said to exert hegemony - preponderant political influence - on exactly one - Syria. Note my use of the word 'arguably'.

All of which is to say, there may be 1,000 very good reasons to make a military response to Syria's use of chemical weapons. Curbing Iranian hegemony in the region doesn't appear, to me, to be one of them.

That's my point, in it's entirety.

"It's an interesting thing that Snowden, the hero, just took gigabytes and gigabytes of US national security secrets to Russia, and suddenly Assad feels emboldened to use chemical weapons on a large scale, and friends of Assad find ways to intimidate the New York Times by hacking its servers. Obviously, no proof of cause and effect, but it might give some people pause as to whether Snowden's great service to the country was maybe a little dangerous after all. "

Somebody check the sunspot cycle--I think there was a coronal mass ejection just the other day. Obviously there is no proof of cause and effect, but I can't help thinking that solar magnetic fields might have something to do with the Snowdens dancing in sapient's head.

A slightly more likely, but still implausible theory that I've seen is that the US lack of action regarding the slaughter in Egypt might have emboldened Assad (or whoever) to think that you can get away with anything these days. Or the fact that nobody talks seriously of air strikes against the Syrian rebels or of arresting US or Israeli or other Western officials for their own morally dubious actions, just might have something to do with the general feeling that international law on war crimes is something of a hypocritical joke.

But personally I think it's solar magnetic fields.

Donald Johnson, you're perfectly happy to believe that Snowden took absolutely nothing of importance on his various laptops and thumb drives except things that would help us all see the light about the evils of the NSA. And maybe you're right. I happen to think you're the one who's deluded.

But what he took is Putin's now. And it's unlikely that we'll know for a very long time.

It is naive to think Snowden did not do great harm to legitimate US interests, even if he also revealed an ever-expanding security state. Time will tell if the harm to our legitimate national interests will overwhelm the value of learning what we've learned about the breadth and depth of NSA et al's surveillance.

But, that's an aside, given the topic at hand. IF Assad could be brought down/forced to the table, etc by raining down cruise missiles on him and his military, *that* might make the endeavor worthwhile. But, it can't and it won't and since he knows something of that nature is headed his way, he can now take steps to mitigate.

None of us read the Middle East very well, I suspect, but it can't be bad for Assad to have been attacked by the US and still remain in the fight.

I happen to be a big fan of Machiavelli and he was dead solid right when he said 'Never do an enemy a small injury.'

None of us read the Middle East very well, I suspect, but it can't be bad for Assad to have been attacked by the US and still remain in the fight.

Not sure that this is true. Unfortunately, a violent stalemate is apparently the short-term best solution until the parties can come to some kind of negotiated settlement. A weakened Assad might be more likely to deal.

It's an interesting thing that Snowden, the hero, just took gigabytes and gigabytes of US national security secrets to Russia, and suddenly Assad feels emboldened to use chemical weapons on a large scale, and friends of Assad find ways to intimidate the New York Times by hacking its servers.

Are you high?

Assad feels emboldened because the war is going poorly for him.

And no one actually hacked the NYT servers. They hacked a small incompetent DNS registrar in Australia that that the NYT was using.

Obviously, no proof of cause and effect, but it might give some people pause as to whether Snowden's great service to the country was maybe a little dangerous after all.

Is there any evidence, any evidence at all, that links Snowden to the chemical weapons attack or the NYT hacking? I don't see any. Which means that you're just writing out delusional fantasies.

It is naive to think Snowden did not do great harm to legitimate US interests, even if he also revealed an ever-expanding security state.

Is it ?

Given what is clearly pretty abysmal security at the NSA, nations like China and Russia have probably already been able to buy any such information from less public and less scrupulous sources among the other 999 sysadmins.

Setting aside that argument, I have yet to see a convincing case for any great harm which might have been done.

They hacked a small incompetent DNS registrar in Australia that that the NYT was using.

Which resulted in people's not being able to read the NYT for three hours. They seem to be getting better at hacking.

Is there any evidence, any evidence at all, that links Snowden to the chemical weapons attack or the NYT hacking? I don't see any. Which means that you're just writing out delusional fantasies.

How soon do you think there will be evidence, any evidence at all, of the harm Snowden has done with his massive leaks? Maybe there won't be any evidence. Maybe there is no harm. After all, George W. Bush looked into the soul of Putin. It's all good.

sapient, thanks for confirming that you have zero evidence for your theory, which puts it in the same category as astrology.

Keep the faith in Glenn, Turbulence.

As with most of you, I think this is stupid (there is another spin: that this is part & parcel of a general plan to prolong the conflict and make Russian & Iran pour more resources into it. That, IMO, shifts things from "stupid" to "evil").

I was against the Libyan adventure, and I'm doubly against this one. I'm tired of arguing why, as it should be perfectly obvious by now to all.

Which resulted in people's not being able to read the NYT for three hours. They seem to be getting better at hacking.

And? I'm struggling to find the relevance here.

Can I ask a stupid question?

How do we know the Syrian government used chemical weapons?

How do we know chemical weapons were used at all?

I'm looking at the reportage on this, and I see that UN inspectors are there, Ban Ki Moon has that they be given time to complete their work, and that John Kerry and Joe Biden say it's undeniable that chemical weapons were used.

Is there clear evidence that chemical attacks actually happened?

If so, is it clear who was responsible?

The main proof I have seen has been videos recorded and analyses of the videos and the report of Doctors without Borders. Because the videos are rather graphic, I think they have not been highlighted as much. This link discusses the basic points while this New Scientist article discusses why it is probably government rather than rebel forces. I am trying to find an article I read by a doctor who analyzed the video, but am coming up empty.

This might be a good time to remind everyone to please play the ball, not the man. Thanks.

thanks for the links LJ, I will check them out.

What blows my mind about all of this is that the only reason most people have seen that video is because it doesn't show people getting shot or blown up by explosives or strafed or boiled alive or shredded by shrapnel or any of the other myriad ways that civilians die horribly. Our media morons have bizarrely decided that you can't show almost any killing of civilians, but there's this weird nonsensical exception for chemical weapons. It doesn't make any sense. If the cable news folks played videos of other Syrian massacres (made with conventional weapons), maybe the US government would have done something two years ago, but no one can show those videos on TV because ZOMG! Civilians! Are! Getting! Shot!

If there's one thing Americans cannot abide, it is violence on their television.

None of us read the Middle East very well, I suspect, but it can't be bad for Assad to have been attacked by the US and still remain in the fight.

Not sure about that- it seems to me that it can be pretty bad for him if the West rejects him as an acceptable leader (eg Gadaffi); if his faction become interested in a settlement but understand that he is personally an insurmountable obstacle, that's an unhealthy position to be in.
But analogies between Libya and Syria seem to founder on the different role Russia plays here. Im starting to think zombie Russia may be the biggest security threat in the next decade or two: China wants to do business. Maybe a bit bareknuckled at times, but everyone's cost-benefit analysis should keep us from serious trouble. Russia seems poised to ride a wave of pseudofascist nationalism directly into Serious Trouble For Everyone.

Sound policy and military strategy here:

One U.S. official who has been briefed on the options on Syria said he believed the White House would seek a level of intensity "just muscular enough not to get mocked" but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.

"They are looking at what is just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic," he said.

And what does this remind me of:

Because of safety concerns, the team of U.N. inspectors in Damascus was forced to scrub a planned visit Tuesday to one of the suburbs allegedly hit by poison gas. They are to leave Syria on Sunday, but they probably will be withdrawn earlier if Washington warns that missile strikes are imminent.

And let's flip this around: if it was the opposition forces in Syria that used chemical weapons against the Assad regime, would we be talking about bombing the former?

Practically it'd be a lot harder to figure responsibility since the rebel leadership is so fragmented, and even within factions 'leadership' may have only tentative control over individual units and commanders.

Although the more general point that we often have different standards of behavior for nominal enemies versus ourselves or for nominal allies is well-taken.

Although the more general point that we often have different standards of behavior for nominal enemies versus ourselves or for nominal allies is well-taken.

True, but there is the fact that Assad is the recognized leader of Syria makes his action a "state action" rather than a terrorist action or something else. Syria signed the Geneva Conventions and is supposedly bound by them.

Donald Johnson, you're perfectly happy to believe that Snowden took absolutely nothing of importance on his various laptops and thumb drives except things that would help us all see the light about the evils of the NSA. And maybe you're right. I happen to think you're the one who's deluded."

It seems unlikely that he only took things that would expose the evils of the NSA. For one thing, we're told that those evils were of great importance to national security, so the two categories--"great importance" and "exposing evil"--aren't mutually exclusive. Maybe Ellsberg did some harm too. And there might be some genuinely harmful stuff that even I wouldn't approve being released in what he took. I just haven't heard about it.

But the link to atrocities in Syria seems rather tenuous, about on the same level as my sunspot theory--whoever I read that suggested a link to Egypt might have a better though still very weak case. You could argue that Obama's caving in to Netanyahu made him look weak to everyone, but again, I don't really propose that--he did bomb Libya after all and assassinates jihadis (and bystanders) with drones, unless they are in Syria or planting bombs in Hezbollah neighborhoods in Lebanon.

"Syria signed the Geneva Conventions and is supposedly bound by them."

So someone should bomb countries that violate the Geneva Convention? Interesting.

A fellow commenter at Open Zion (not a front page poster, just someone in the comment section) suggested the other day that the purpose for Obama bombing Syria would be put pressure on Iran. (I'm not sure about the etiquette of cutting and pasting someone else's comment at another blog, so I'll paraphrase.) He said Obama has set two red lines --the use of chemical weapons by Syria and the completion of a nuclear weapon by Iran. So in order for the second to be taken seriously he has to bomb Syria. Finishing my paraphrase, he isn't sure if this is to placate Israel or to effect Iran.

This makes sense to me. It's always about credibility with American Presidents.

Not sure about that- it seems to me that it can be pretty bad for him if the West rejects him as an acceptable leader (eg Gadaffi); if his faction become interested in a settlement but understand that he is personally an insurmountable obstacle, that's an unhealthy position to be in.

How many Middle Eastern strong men have been toppled by the west? How many have been toppled for any of the reasons you enumerate?

My point is simply that standing up to and taking a hit from Uncle Sam seems to be a badge of honor in some, perhaps, many quarters in the Middle East.

So someone should bomb countries that violate the Geneva Convention? Interesting.

A response by the international community is called for when a treaty's signatory violates the treaty. And yes, that includes a response to actions by the United States which violate the Geneva Conventions.

I'm glad that a case is being made before the UN. I think that a lot of groundwork should be done before any kind of military response is made with regard to Syria's use of chemical weapons. I also think that making no attempt towards responding to war crimes is very bad policy.

Unlike the United States, whose electorate responded eventually (not fast enough) by changing their country's leadership, Syria's "electorate" is being gassed, shot and bombed by their President, who appears to be staying in office. Although I don't support "regime change" by the international community, I do support a meaningful response.

Here's a piece opposed to US intervention on humanitarian grounds-

chemical attacks and military interventions

You're assuming we've stopped committing war crimes, sapient. And aside from that, if a country has our history it's pretty obvious we'll do it again, so long as there are no consequences. Elections are no way to deal with the problem--for one thing, almost no one (including me) votes for President based on this issue. (If I did, no way I'd be throwing my vote away on some third party candidate.)

Here's another blog on the Middle East, this by an American professor with friends in Lebanon. Here he is talking (in mid August, before the gas attack) with a Lebanese friend who is a supporter of Hezbollah. It's interesting for an American to read a supporter of Hezbollah who is wondering why the US is in bed with Al Qaeda supporters, and who says you can't reason with those people.

We don't have anywhere near enough variety in the Western press. I suspect our foreign policy would be somewhat different if we actually heard other voices besides ours.

qifanabki

How many Middle Eastern strong men have been toppled by the west? How many have been toppled for any of the reasons you enumerate?

I suspect that each case will have too many unique factors to make a statistical analysis useful. I'm sure that being hit and not taken out by the US is a useful propaganda tool. But my point is that if the West is dissatisfied enough with Assad to make his removal a precondition of a peace acceptable to the West, then that seems to me much more of a detriment to his position than being hit by the US and surviving will be an advantage.

"If I did, no way I'd be throwing my vote away on some third party candidate"

Forgot to delete the "no way" in that sentence. I meant that if I was a single issue voter (as I almost am as a blog commenter), I'd be voting Green or something.

Syria's "electorate" is being gassed, shot and bombed by their President, who appears to be staying in office.

Not by him personally, but by other Syrians who happen to support him. It appears that some of his citizens like him quite well.

Is the agenda to respond to the use of chemical weapons, or to unseat Assad?

Unlike the United States, whose electorate responded eventually (not fast enough) by changing their country's leadership...

Eventually every country changes leadership. I don't think we can call this consistent with the Geneva Conventions being enforced equally on all parties.

Although I don't support "regime change" by the international community, I do support a meaningful response.

I have a really hard time saying what we should do because of this- on the one hand, I really want to have an international situation where we can collectively act against war crimes, especially attacks on civilians. On the other hand, I don't see any reason anyone should accept us saying "We've done bad and ignored worse in the past but from here forward we're really going to be reasonably impartial referees of international standards".

That is, I really want to intervene. I want to be able to be intervening for the right reasons. But I am not at all convinced that this is what would happen and certain that this is not how it would be perceived.

Is the agenda to respond to the use of chemical weapons, or to unseat Assad?

My agenda is the former. And I'm as conflicted as anyone on what to do. I just believe that doing nothing is a terrible option.

And, yes, if the Syrian people suddenly elected a different leader, I think that there would be no need for the international community to "respond". I don't think that military response is always the right response. Unfortunately, international law is still in its infancy. Enforcing it even-handedly isn't really possible. That doesn't mean that it should be ignored by the international community.

I brought the subject up in a different thread, not because I was beating the drum. But I don't think isolationism is the answer.

In other contexts, I've mentioned that doing nothing has consequences, just as doing something does. We will be blamed for whatever happens, no matter what we do or don't do. I think that the steps we take to support whatever we do or don't do are probably as important to the cause of international law as the action or inaction itself.

We will be blamed for whatever happens, no matter what we do or don't do.

if we do nothing, the blame will be hypothetical ("the US could have..."). if we do 'something', there will be real consequences - some number of innocent people will inevitably be killed by our weapons - and our blame will be real and deserved.

right now, all real blame is contained within Syria.

and it should stay there.

Good Morning Mr. President, below are a couple of highlights from your schedule this week:

Wednesday, August 28: Commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by giving a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Labor Day Weekend: Order the bombing of Syria.

Have a nice day.

And, yes, if the Syrian people suddenly elected a different leader, I think that there would be no need for the international community to "respond".

Id agree, if the perps were tried in-country for their crimes. Or if there were some reconciliation like South Africa. I guess my bar is something like 'the matter is taken up seriously internally by the country'.
But I dont think either of those could reasonably be said to apply to eg the Reagan Administration's support of Iraqi chemical weapons use. I certainly can't endorse the idea that just because a party lost an election at some point since they committed a war crime, that's equivalent to their actions being repudiated and crimes punished.

I don't think that military response is always the right response. Unfortunately, international law is still in its infancy. Enforcing it even-handedly isn't really possible.

Id settle for something approximately even-handedly. At it stands, it's enforced so un-even-handedly that it doesn't appear to be more than an excuse for action when other motives underlie the desire.
That's my frustration; Id like to support your position that we should act to support international norms of behavior, but even if we do & even if that were to be our motive, it'll be a long time- and some enforcement that isn't so convenient for us- before anyone should believe us.

if we do nothing, the blame will be hypothetical ("the US could have..."). if we do 'something', there will be real consequences - some number of innocent people will inevitably be killed by our weapons - and our blame will be real and deserved.
right now, all real blame is contained within Syria.
and it should stay there.

I admit there's a moral consistency to only taking responsibility for what you do and not what you fail to prevent. But as a general proposition, I don't agree with it- Im not saying that we will do more good intervening than not, but if we could and fail to, Id regard that as a moral failing. And not a hypothetical one.

but if we could and fail to

what is the plausible scenario where we "do something" and things turn out for the best for everyone? (be sure to weigh the inevitable civilian deaths we cause properly!)

i haven't seen one.

therefore, the "if" in "if we could" is the kind of "if" that takes us from reality to total fantasy. and i refuse to take responsibility for things that can't happen in reality.

what is the plausible scenario where we "do something" and things turn out for the best for everyone?

That was not the question. You said that we're just not responsible for things we could prevent but don't, at least not in the same way that we are for things that we do. I don't agree.
It's important to know where one stands on that before weighing various policy options. eg if you're a pacifist, then it just won't matter if we can save some lives by taking others. I can respect that, even while disagreeing with it.

I am just not smart enough or well-informed enough or prescient enough to think I can foresee the results of our various choices with complete accuracy.
I can, however, say with complete accuracy that I think that the moral weight of what we choose is impacted by what we leave undone, that we ought to bear the moral weight for what happens with our forbearance.

*If* we can do more good than harm by acting then I think we should. Others may disagree on principle. Having settled that I can return to proclaiming my almost complete ignorance about what we should actually do. :\

[And Im presuming you read the bit where I said as a general proposition, since you quoted it and all].

>i refuse to take responsibility for things that can't happen in reality.

Then do both of us a favor and refrain from engaging in counterfactual hypotheticals? It's not like you were involuntarily dragged into discussing the point, you raised it.
If what you wanted to say was "We can't make the situation better so we shouldn't intervene", well, that's much more straightforward than what you wrote, isn't it?

You said that we're just not responsible for things we could prevent but don't

no, that is not what i said.

i can see how you got that, if i squint. but that's not what i was saying,

i'm trying to get someone to tell me what the "something" is that we should do that makes things better for everyone. because i assert that there is no such something.

and if the consequences of all our possible actions are on the whole negative, how could we be held responsible if our inaction doesn't lead to a positive outcome? we can't. so sapient shouldn't have to worry about the placement of blame.

I can, however, say with complete accuracy that I think that the moral weight of what we choose is impacted by what we leave undone, that we ought to bear the moral weight for what happens with our forbearance.

sure.

but Syria is not an abstract philosophical puzzle. our inaction there leads to death, and all of our plausible actions there will lead to death - probably more death than our inaction. there is no good solution. and it's not our fault. we didn't create the situation. and if we can't fix it, that's not our fault either.

It's not like you were involuntarily dragged into discussing the point, you raised it.

the point was already raised by sapient, to whom i was replying.

If what you wanted to say was "We can't make the situation better so we shouldn't intervene", well, that's much more straightforward than what you wrote, isn't it?

straightforward, sure. but not what i wanted to write. so, that's not what i wrote. it's a crazy way of doing things.

i can see how you got that, if i squint. but that's not what i was saying

OK, I can see now how you weren't actually trying to say that acting creates "real" blame versus (presumably) some kind of less-real blame for not acting.
otoh, maybe then you could've squinted at what I said and seen that I'd misunderstood? If I made the mistake of not interpreting your comment in context of sapient's, I think you made the mistake of seeing my comment only *in* that context.

First of all, I really appreciate the thoughtful discussion of the issues here, and especially in response to me.

I watched E. J. Dionne, and am watching Obama on NewsHour right now.

I don't think the Syria situation is an easy decision, and I'm not going . Basically, Obama's not thumping his chest (in fact, it looks to me that he's worrying immensely about this). Many of the people who are in favor of military action in Syria are, of course, in favor of military action in all cases, whenever. But Obama isn't making stuff up in an attempt to intervene. When he said tonight that Syria has the largest chemical weapons stock in the world, maybe he's right about that. (Anybody doing a Pinocchio test?)

If there's a global taboo against chemical weapons, how can we not make an emphatic statement about that? I find myself, again, being convinced by an obviously haunted and conscience-stricken Obama. He doesn't want to do this, unlike Bush/Cheney, who couldn't wait to do it.

I am not convinced that doing nothing is the right thing. I think Obama would like to believe that, but is also not convinced.

sorry - I didn't edit the last post. I'm really troubled and distressed about this issue.

Turb, Iran's economy ranks 17th/25th in the world and they have the biggest natural gas and second biggest oil reserves - why do you think the US is so interested in them?

Of course their economy has problems, some of the homegrown, but mainly due to sanctions - strangling the major export sector and cutting off access to the international banking system would have any country struggle with its economy.

Iran is a rich country, denying that just exposes your ignorance. Iran also projects power in the region, as is to be expected for a country of that size and status.

As to the "open thread" part of the "Bombing Syria Open Thread" whatever that means:

Did anyone see or read or hear the President's speech today? Obama's a hero, I don't care what anybody says.

Iran's economy ranks 17th/25th in the world

What happens to those numbers when you normalize for population?

and they have the biggest natural gas and second biggest oil reserves

We're supposed to take unverified estimates from a dictatorial regime at face value?

why do you think the US is so interested in them?

Americans are both astonishingly ignorant about the world and really irrational. I mean, this is a country where it is considered normal for people to buy rifles for their five year old kid and leave them lying around loaded. I think Americans are oddly fixaeted on Iran because of the hostage crisis.

strangling the major export sector and cutting off access to the international banking system would have any country struggle with its economy.

Yes, and their economy has been strangled for over three decades, with no sign of letting up in the foreseeable future. You get that right?

Iran also projects power in the region, as is to be expected for a country of that size and status.

Tell me about Iranian power projection capabilities...how many ICBMs do they have? Oh wait, they don't actually have any nukes do they? Hmmm...OK, how many aircraft carriers do they have? How many submarines? How many heavy bombers?

As I recall, we had our own bloody and cruel civil war. I'd like a show of hands here of those who think the European powers of the day should have intervened.

It is also distressing to observe the case being polarized as between "do nothing" and (some state of)war. There are plenty of options such as really massive humanitarian aid for the refugees, cutting off all aid to Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, sanctions, etc. A cruise missile or two falling on Riyadh, for your war lovers, wouldn't hurt much either, and could possibly (yes, there's that word!) accomplish a great deal.

There was a bloody civil war in Northern Ireland not too long ago. I do not recall Billy Kristol advocating cruise missile strikes on 10 Downing St.

But of course, these are warring factions of the little brown people, and sides must be taken to demonstrate, if nothing else, that we are the boss.

This link postulates a connection to an assassination attempt of Assad and the chemical attack.

and they have the biggest natural gas and second biggest oil reserves
We're supposed to take unverified estimates from a dictatorial regime at face value?

No, but those are also the estimates of the western oil majors:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_Gas_Reserves

Tell me about Iranian power projection capabilities

They project power through less conventional means (eg Hezbollah
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4314423.stm ).

I don't believe they are the regional boogeyman they are made out to be, and there are good reasons for attempting a rapprochement with them, particularly after the recent election, but they are indubitably a power of some consequence.

Iran has Russian built submarines and is currently working on building a capacity of their own armed with supercavitating torpedos. Enough to worry the US Navy at least. The quality of Iranian anti-ship missiles is iirc disputed but I doubt that the US will provide their carriers as test cases. I can't say how much of a real threat the Iranian ballistic missiles are (without unconventional warheads*) but the program has been hyped for many years because the range and payload significantly exceeds what Saddam had.
The US could crush Iran militarily but it would incur costs (potentially very high) either in personnel and expensive assets or in reputation.

*as seen in WW2, a rain of missiles carrying just high explosives can spread terror but is by itself no war winner.

armed with supercavitating torpedos

I'd guess that the main problem with supercavitating torpedoes are (in order of significance):

a) Inability to maneuver. Because of what supercavitation means, the whole of the torpedo body will be dry, which means in effect that any hydrodynamic control surfaces will be rendered useless.

b) No homing guidance. The propulsion necessary to achieve supercavitation speed is NOISY, which basically renders the torpedo deaf, so that it must rely on inertial guidance. Inertial guidance can't make corrections to an initial intercept course or follow a maneuvering target.

In short, supercavitating torpedoes are likely still not very useful. I wouldn't be surprised if there were also fuzing issues.

The US could crush Iran militarily but it would incur costs (potentially very high) either in personnel and expensive assets or in reputation.

A straight-up shooting match with Iran is one that the US military could win before it had its first cup of coffee in the morning. In terms of training and equipment, the US military is superior. Of all possible scenarios of confrontation, this is the one that the US would most prefer. It's a conventional war. We've been training to win the conventional war for many decades. This is a good deal of why we keep trying to engage in them, and also why adversaries avoid engaging in that way.

Except for Iraq, on a couple of occasions, and Iraq was easily crushed. Not without US casualties, but the people calling the shots would consider a few hundred US casualties to thousands of adversary casualties to be a big win.

And that's what it would be, most likely. We have a MUCH better Air Force, much better weapons and sensors, a pretty damned well-trained military, and a much better Navy. Any Iranian submarine attempting to approach e.g. a US carrier group would be repelled or killed by ASW sweeps.

Iran can badger us, of course, and make life miserable, but it would be a horrible mistake for it to try and engage us directly. Most likely it would simply attempt to disrupt shipping in the Gulf.

IMO, of course. But it's a decently informed opinion. Remember how fearsome Iraq's armed forces looked back in the early '90s?

Must be Scott Ritter:

The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 100 people is no "slam dunk," with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike, U.S. intelligence officials say.

President Barack Obama declared unequivocally Wednesday that the Syrian government was responsible, while laying the groundwork for an expected U.S. military strike.

Alas, yee-hah it is.

I'm thinking about this wargame, held last year.

POLLACK: The end of the game - and, of course, the end of the game was a - it's always a bad place to stop, was pretty bad. The Americans were about to launch a massive military operation against Iran. The only question was whether it was obliterating all of Iran's coastal defenses, air defenses, surface-to-air missile batteries, navy, et cetera, or whether it was going to be all that and the Iranian nuclear program. And the Iran team had already thought this through and decided that if that was what the United States is going to do, they were going to fight on in their words forever.

And so the game ends with the first big American military moves. And it's unfortunate because, of course, the real problems with a war with Iran are not that first big American moves, they're what follows. They're how do you turn off a war with Iran? How do you bring it to a close? How do you stop them?
link

how do you turn off a war with Iran?

The only way to win is not to play.

Like Atrios, I believe the Onion gets Syria right.

They're how do you turn off a war with Iran? How do you bring it to a close? How do you stop them?

You remember that they have two and a half times the population, and three and a half times the land area, of Iraq, and you don't turn it on in the first place.

The Foreign Policy website has a number of interesting articles. Here's one about the civil war within the civil war in Syria--the Kurds are fighting the fanatical Islamists.

link

A Kurd in the article makes a point I've seen others make--bad as Assad is, and he is very bad, some on the rebel side are literally genocidal. They want to exterminate people for their ethnicity or religion.

So again, is ethnic cleansing a crime against humanity? Actually, I asked this question at Jerome Slater's blog once, in connection with the Nakba. It turns out that ethnic cleansing doesn't have a clear legal definition. (I'll put the link for that assertion in the next post, since this place sometimes has a problem with multiple links). But starting with the Balkans (I think) people started using the phrase and talking about it as something just beneath genocide in its seriousness. If that's the case, why aren't we talking about our moral duty to bomb some of the rebel factions--in particular, those Islamists who are ethnically cleansing Kurds?

The author in the link below says ethnic cleansing has no precise legal definition, but proposes that it be treated as a type of genocide--

link

If that's the case, why aren't we talking about our moral duty to bomb some of the rebel factions--in particular, those Islamists who are ethnically cleansing Kurds?

Because we're not taking sides in the civil war; we're just enforcing a UN treaty to which the government of Syria is a signatory?

My reservation is this, and it's a big one: I don't think Obama has enough support, either internationally or domestically for this action.

sapient, I think you are correct about how unhappy Obama is about this. I just hope that, once he decides what he military action he would do, he first goes to Congress and insists that they sign on and authorize acting.

It would be nice to return to the Constitutional requirements on this sort of thing. And politically, it would mean that the opposition would either have to embrace the action (and its consequences!), or reveal that they don't really want him to act after all.

wj, I agree. I was okay with his actions regarding Libya because he had the UN resolution. He needs more (IMO) than he has right now.

Because we're not taking sides in the civil war; we're just enforcing a UN treaty to which the government of Syria is a signatory?

If it's a UN treaty, shouldn't the UN be the one to decide how to enforce it?

Any speculations on why the administration keeps referring to violations of "international norms" by Syria? What the hell is an "international norm"?

But when we intervened in Kosovo, it was supposed to be because of ethnic cleansing. If the US is going to act as global policeman enforcing the laws of war against those who commit war crimes or worse, then surely the ethnic cleansing of Kurds is comparable to a gas attack.

I almost refrained from pointing out that if we are going to act as global policemen, there might be some people closer to home we could investigate and if the evidence warrants, prosecute.

Anyway, this isn't really about enforcing moral norms. It's about the fact that Obama drew a red line on this particular point and now will lose the precious quality known as "credibility" if he doesn't do something. I think he's been reluctant to get too deeply involved in Syria (though our pals seem eager to arm the rebels and I'm not sure if we've done that yet--haven't googled it), but feels trapped by his own rhetoric.

I believe the Onion gets Syria right.

Hopefully they didn't get Obama right.

This legal rationale is less than convincing (from the UK):

It says the three necessary requirements for "humanitarian intervention" have all been met: There is convincing evidence of extreme, large scale humanitarian distress; there is no practical alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and the use of force must be proportionate and aimed at relieving a human crisis.

That is rather different than the rationale on offer here in the US (although is certainly a factor) and, more importantly, even assuming the conditions are met, applied before any mass use of chemical weapons.

Slarti - sadly, I think they got them both right.

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