I Guess We’re Going To Fire Missiles Into Syria?

Search YouTube for “Syria Scud” and you’ll find some horrific shit.  The government has been blowing up residential buildings in cities held by Sunni rebels using missiles.  For the past two years.

But recently, they’ve used chemical weapons on civilians, and this is somehow different.  Even though it is pretty well certain that far fewer people have died from these chemical attacks than in “conventional” attacks.  It’s like how even though we killed far more people in the conventional bombings of Dresden and Tokyo (not to mention rural Vietnam), destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki is what America should feel guilty about.  It’s not how many people you kill, it’s how you kill them.

So I guess we’re going to shoot missiles into their country from a gunboat?  We’ve got three models of warfare going on at once.  We’ve got a Bush war (hah! pun!) going on in Afghanistan for at least a little while longer, an Obama war with robot assassins in God knows how many countries, and now a downright nostalgic “just shoot missiles at them” Clinton-style war brewing in Syria.  Oh and also a School of the Americas, US-trained death squads “war” going on in Honduras, so I guess we’re still going full-Reagan as well.

Supposedly, dying of a chemical attack in a hospital is “worse” than dying under tons of the rubble of your apartment building or from a bleeding gunshot wound in the street, so we’ve got to get involved in yet another regional civil war?  Doesn’t make sense to me.

I’d like a non-interventionist America.  Sure, in the abstract, there is actually an argument for having a democratic world power, or better yet (though maybe implausibly) some sort of internationalist coalition, that polices the basic laws of warfare.  But the US has shown itself blind to its allies and downright hypocritical so often over the past half-century that it really would just be better if we retreated to our pre-Roosevelt foreign policy.  It would certainly reduce the motivation of foreign terrorists who really are just fighting for dominance of their home turf.  And isn’t preventing domestic terror attacks the nominal justification for everything we’ve done over the past 12 (Jesus…) years?

But, if we are going to go along with this incredibly expensive project of being an empire, I’d rather see us do an intelligent job of it.  In the long run, a well-run Pax Americana would cost fewer lives than a disorganized and schizophrenic one.  And guess what, the Assad regime is localized, desperate, conventional, and easily controllable, whereas pan-Arab Sunni religious nationalism (that is to say Al Qaeda) is kind of our enemy as far as enforcing hegemony in the Middle-East.  England under Victoria or even the US under Truman would have thought this through a little better.  I truly cannot understand why US militarists haven’t seen the value of the Baathist party as a regional ally.

There was this whole Neo-Con Bush idea that our war in Iraq was going to trigger a wave of democracy across the Middle-East.  And I guess that has happened, if by “democracy” one means open violent conflict between Sunni and Shia that overthrows formerly quasi-secular governments.  I really think that the best course now would be to withdraw completely, wait for someone to win, and make deals with whoever comes out on top.  Is that cynical and uncaring?  Reserved cynicism is preferable to violent idealism.  But at this point, our leadership (a club that nominally includes Obama) is following a script simply out of a lack of any plausible strategy or the will to stay uninvolved.

I am 100% certain that what we’re about to do in Syria is not going to help anyone at all.  Not the civilians.  Not the “rebels.”  Not Israel (regardless of what conspiracy theorists think).  And certainly not us.

  • Katie Herman

    I feel conflicted about this. The reason Obama and all the “experts” I hear on NPR feel we have to do something now isn’t because mass killing of civilians with chemical weapons is necessarily “worse” than other types of mass killing, but rather because Obama declared that chemical weapon use was a “red line,” so if he doesn’t do something now he loses all credibility. Now, I believe the reason Obama picked this red line is because he thought the threat would be enough to keep Assad from crossing it. Obama doesn’t seem to have any more appetite for getting involved militarily in Syria than most Americans do. If we really wanted to prevent civilian deaths and help those in Syria who are seeking democracy, we would have gotten involved years ago before it turned into such a gigantic shit storm with foreign radical groups making up a large part of the rebel forces.

    But despite cynicism about any idealistic, save-the-civilians motives, I do think there’s some reason not to want Obama/the US government to lose all credibility internationally. Assad doesn’t need to use chemical weapons. He’s killing lots of people without them. Using them is his way of testing his theory that, no matter what the US government or the international community says, we won’t actually do anything to stop him from taking whatever horrific actions he wants. If we do nothing, it shows that his theory is right, and then what kind of chance do we have of ever accomplishing anything internationally by making threats and drawing red lines instead of taking military action. In other words, saying, “the US government will not stand for you doing this” is a type of diplomacy–a type of diplomacy that won’t work if we have no credibility. And then are we looking at more resorts to military action? Or more people emboldened to commit atrocities assuming no one will do anything about it?

    And I have to say, though I don’t like America having to be the “policeman of the world” (and lots of people in other countries hate it too), we are still the most powerful country in the world militarily, and the fact that our leadership has just made empty statements for years while millions of civilians have been massacred because of movement that started in peaceful pro-democracy protests is pretty dispiriting. Which isn’t to say I pretend to know exactly what we should have done, and I’m not sure firing missiles at the country is a good response. (In such a densely populated country, we’ll certainly end up killing civilians.) But continuing to basically ignore the situation seems bad too.

    • http://www.culturecrisis.com/ Carter

      You’re probably right about the line in the sand. I found this in an LA Times article:

      “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 then there’s the op-ed over at the New York Times with the headline “Bomb Syria Even If It Is Illegal.” I mean, Jesus, can you imagine the uproar from America’s “left” if something like that had been written during Bush? Obama’s not going to seek congressional authorization, he’s not going to get U.N. approval. What we’re about to do is grossly illegal, more illegal than the invasion of Iraq was. I’m definitely glad to have Obama in charge of the Justice Department and the various regulatory agencies, but I actually miss having a right-winger as commander-in-chief, at least back then, there was some outrage.

      I think Assad is playing us for fools. We draw a red line, he sticks his toe over it, we attack with only enough force to be “just enough to mean something.” (Do we think that with all the shit he’s dealing with every day throughout the whole country, a symbolic show of force is going to upset him very much?) He loses a few military assets, draws his toe back, and gains credibility throughout the region as a fighter of U.S. Imperialism, and probably ups Russia and Iran’s support in the process. Seems like a pretty good deal.

      • Katie Herman

        I do think we should act more in cooperation with the U.N. Ideally the U.N. should be the “policeman of the world,” but the whole security council set-up makes it so damn ineffective. I heard on the radio this morning that Ban Ki-Moon said U.N. inspectors need more time to complete their probe and reach their conclusions, and we should absolutely let them do that before doing anything. I think a big difference between this situation and Iraq 2003, though, is that many in the international community (Arab League included) have been calling for us to do something more to stop the bloodshed for years while the Obama administration has reasonably not wanted to get too involved. Whereas in 2003 invading Iraq was basically a random idea that the Bush administration concocted and insisted on despite the objections of pretty much everyone else in the world. But if there is international support for some sort of intervention now, all the more reason to let it be something that’s decided and carried out internationally rather than as a U.S. action.

        As for more illegal than invading Iraq, I’m no expert on international law, but why is it more illegal? There’s probably little legal basis for either action without U.N./congressional approval, but a full-scale invasion and government overthrow seems like the bigger crime.

        Is Assad playing us for fools? I honestly don’t think we’re his biggest concern. He’s just trying to hold onto power. The fighting U.S. Imperialism angle doesn’t really hold up in this case since a lot of the opposition consists of radical, anti-U.S. groups and many countries in the region have been calling for greater U.S. involvement. What we look like right now is a country that pays lip-service to supporting freedom and democracy (remember Obama’s Cairo speech?) but won’t actually do anything to support it when those who fight for are being slaughtered. It seems we only care about the kind of democracy that we install through force.

        But the best argument against getting involved is one you bring up: It’s going to be a half-measure, so there’s a good chance it won’t actually have any deterrent effect. And if we’re going to fire missiles as people, we sure as hell better think it’s going to somehow make the situation better. And a more forceful action–like an invasion–is not something that almost anyone would support (myself included). So do nothing? This is probably naive, but I do feel that we have an ethical obligation to do something when genocide/mass slaughter is occurring. I don’t me WE America. I mean WE human beings. This is by no means the only place in the world where there sort of thing is happening, and I’m not sure what we can do that would really help, but if the U.S. leadership is proposing actions that have some measure of international support, I think it’s at least worth giving them consideration.

        • http://www.culturecrisis.com/ Carter

          Why I say it’s more illegal is not that it’s morally worse, but that as far as I know there’s no legal distinction between a small war and a big one.

          Bush sought and received authorization for the Iraq invasion from congress and at least sought approval from the U.N. and there was at least some pretense that the invasion was to enforce pre-existing U.N. resolutions about Iraq’s weapons and inspectors.

          Obama is bypassing congress and not even bothering to request U.N. permission. This is a new and dangerous precedent, and if it were a Republican doing it, a lot of our friends would be out in the street protesting.

      • mth2002

        I would offer that if we make a “symbolic” strikes, Damascus good very well see it as just that – symbolic. And then we’re back where we started, albeit with increased risk of collateral damage, loss of military assets, and financial expenditure.

  • JacobShell

    Surely before we have a debate about “whether it is morally good to bomb the chemical murderer Assad,” we should first see some evidence that it was indeed Assad’s regime that used these chemical weapons.

    On another note, hey remember that time here in the US that the liberal interventionists and the anti-war activists had their by-the-books debate on moral philosophy and both sides lazily assumed that the yellowcake uranium intel that had us going to war in the first place was presumably right?

    • http://www.culturecrisis.com/ Carter

      There seem to be confirmations coming from enough different sources that the attack definitely happened, so it’s at least a little bit more real than the yellowcake. But as for anything else, I really don’t know who to trust. There have been some high profile resignations from Al Jazeera lately over editorial decisions regarding Syria and Egypt. I don’t really trust any U.S. news source on any story that’s within arm’s reach of the Pentagon. Any online journalist could be bought out — many are, they never disclose it, and they’re very cheap. I guess the surest information will come from the U.N. if the missile strikes don’t happen before their investigation finishes.

      • JacobShell

        What is the evidence demonstrating that it was the Assad regime, and not one of the numerous psychotic terrorist anti-government groups in Syria, that fired the chemical weapons? Maybe the evidence has been making the rounds and I simply haven’t seen it.

  • http://www.culturecrisis.com/ Carter

    (For some reason some of the comments got held up for moderation and I didn’t notice. I’m still figuring some of the Disqus management page out)

  • http://www.culturecrisis.com/ Carter

    Yeah, I’m worried about the ways this could play out. Matt, you’d know a lot better than me, but I remember on multiple occasions over the past 10 or 12 years reading about war games scenarios (usually in the Persian Gulf) where US surface vessels were sunk.

    What if Assad is able to sink a destroyer or even a carrier? What happens next? Does Obama then have to invade? If he doesn’t and there’s mass outrage by the American people, who gets elected president next and what do they do?

  • http://www.culturecrisis.com/ Carter

    1) I think we’re a lot less credible in general than we were 15 years ago. If I was a dedicated leader of an anti-Western government or militia somewhere in the 3rd world, the lesson I’d garner from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is “even if the Americans invade, if you wait long enough, they’ll go home.” And if I was an international terrorist (ah man, my NSA file just got longer, hi guys) the lesson I’d learn from 9-11 would be “hit the Americans hard, they’ll panic and act self destructively.”

    2) I honestly hadn’t considered the attacks being indicative of some chain-of-command failure. Dictators are canny guys, and the attack simply doesn’t make much sense from Assad’s perspective. I can see the ways that the calculated risk of a small strike could be desirable from his perspective, but he can’t possibly know U.S. politics well enough to be sure we won’t go all-out on him (anyone on our hit list knows better than to take a president at his word). Someone down the chain who found himself in charge of a CW dump and in a sticky situation could very well have acted without thinking about international ramifications.

    3) That RAND link doesn’t work, but I’d like to read it. Even back in high school during Clinton, I felt like these little missile wars were never really about whoever we were striking. These shows of force seem to work best when we can be sure that the english-language media won’t pay much attention to what happens next.

    4) I definitely think there are things to be gained from being hit with a restrained and moderated U.S. attack. Politics is local and all that. Being hit, especially being hit while there is an international outcry, could curry further favor from Russia or Iran or Hezbollah. There are many parts of the world where there’s lots of political mileage to be gained from being America’s enemy.

    I just don’t see how we win this.

  • http://www.culturecrisis.com/ Carter

    The Onion has been great in the lead-up to this mess.