Syria thread

A thread on the mooted intervention in Syria.

Commenters may want a Syria thread.

I have no peculiar insight to share with you, only the commonplaces.

Obama´s arguments for intervention:
P1. The use of poison gas is a war crime; against civilians, an odious one. It should be punished if possible.
P2. He, Obama, personally laid down a red line on the subject. Failure to follow through weakens the standing and credibility of the US.
P3. An intervention limited to bombing is likely to greatly reduce the Syrian government´s capacity and willingness to use chemical weapons again in the civil war.

Arguments against:
A1. A unilateral armed intervention, however limited, without the sanction of the UNSC, is itself a violation of international law. There is no prospect of an UNSC resolution authorising force, given Russian and Chinese opposition. You can´t uphold international law by means that violate it. (UNSC sanction isn´t needed for self-defence, but nobody is claiming that this applies.)
A2. The intervention has no prospect of ending the conflict through bringing about a negotiated peace, or the victory of either side.
A3. The slippery slope: given the very limited effect of the bombing envisaged, it will create strong pressures for further and more decisive involvement. This would have unpredictable outcomes, many of the possibilities being very bad.
A4. Precedents: the recent history of US armed involvements in the region does not support optimism about the effects of another one.
A5. Credibility does not require you to make good on all your threats, which makes bluffing unusable. It´s unlikely, after Iraq 1 and 2, Afgahanistan, Bin Laden, Guantanamo, Kosovo and Libya that foreign rulers will suddenly stop worrying about threats from the US government, especially on matters where its national interests are more clearly at stake.

Am I leaving anything vital out?

FWIW, I give a lot of weight to A2. The interventions in Kosovo and Libya were also illegal by the same standard, but they had the merit of being decisive. The standard criteria for just war include a good chance of winning; you should not shed blood for symbols.

In the Libyan case, it´s actually a good thing that Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy lied about their objectives of the bombing: their real aim was to overthrow Gaddafi by backing his opponents (a far more united and credible bunch than the Syrian rebels), and their means were sufficient to achieve this. Libya is still a mess, though probably an improvement on Gafafi´s creepy police state.

American “Justice”: Far Behind the Salem Witch Trials

The Obama Administration’s decision — released the Friday afternoon before Labor Day — that no one will be held accountable for the systematic policy and use of torture would be more nauseating if it were not so predictable.  I cannot add to Lemieux, Serwer, Drum, Sullivan, and Greenwald, and you should read them.

American political culture is at a particularly childish moment.  Our leaders cannot prosecute what they did in our name, and they cannot even acknowledge it.  Oh yes, President Obama did stop the policy, and he deserves credit for that, but it was all part of sweeping things under the rug: let us look to the future, not the past.  After all, looking to the past means looking at something unpalatable, and that is not allowed.  As Richard Hofstadter noted, “American use their history as an excuse for an orgy of self-congratulation.”  If anything, the Republicans are far, far worse: to the extent that they don’t want to sweep this under the rug, it is because they are proud of their crimes.

But it was not always this way.  Edmund Morgan, the world’s greatest living historian, recently published a book of essays entitled American Heroes, a work whose title appears to be the only flawed thing about it.  One (previous unpublished) essay is entitled “The Courage of Gils Cory and Mary Easty.”  Cory and Easty were residents of Salem in the 1690’s, wrongfully accused of witchcraft, and instead of turning states’ evidence and accepting a lesser punishment, they vigorously maintained their innocence, knowing that death would result.  They particularly condemned the use of “spectral evidence,” in which a person could be convicted of witchcraft simply by another person saying that he or she “was being tormented by a specter in the shape of the accused.”  Usually, courts refused to accept this evidence, knowing how unreliable it was.  But so terrorized was Salem by the prospect of witchcraft that the rule book was thrown out.  Cory and Easty, Morgan argues, were two of the most courageous people in American history.

Here is where modern times have truly become shameful.   Morgan relates that “there was another kind of courage displayed in connection with witchcraft trials that would be hard to find a parallel today”:

Five years after the trials, in 1697, the General Court of Massachusetts decided that the trials had sent innocent people to their deaths.  January 15, 1697, was appointed as a day of public fasting in which the people of the colony should ask forgiveness of God for what they had done.  And on that day Samuel Sewall, one of the judges, stood up before the congregation of the church to which he belonged, with bowed head, while the minister read a statement that Sewall had written, begging forgiveness of God and man for the part that he had played in the witchcraft trials, asking that ‘the blame and shame of it’ be placed on him.  On the same day the jury that had sat in the trials published a wirtten expression of their “deep sense of sorrow” for their decisions, “whereby we fear we have been instrumental with others, though ignorantly and unwillingly, to bring upon ourselves the guilt of innocent blood.”

What a moving and noble reaction from a people that was imperfect and knew it.  They could not bring back the dead, but they could restore the victims’ property, they could hold themselves accountable, and they could admit that they were wrong.  And from contemporary America: nothing.  We have instituted Regress in History. 

Morgan writes: “Can any modern people point to a similar willingness to remedy injustice, even after the event?”  In today’s United States, at least, we know the answer.

The Romney Clown Show Continues Apace

In the last three days, Mitt Romney and his campaign have:

1)   At best lied about and at worst divulged confidential conversations with the Australian foreign minister;

2)   Been unable to distinguish “Russia” from “the Soviet Union”;

3)   Used crude racial/ethnic stereotyping that even the Torygraph thinks is over-the-top; and now

4)   Insulted Great Britain and elicited a miffed push-back from the British Prime Minister.

And this doesn’t even include his vague and vapid bluster about Iran and China.  And note, none of this can simply be ascribed to misspeaking.  As Dave Weigel notes in Slate, for example, Romney’s position on Russia really does see it as the Soviet Union.

If anything, Fareed Zakaria is too kind when he refers to Romney’s foreign policy as “strangely amateurish.”  It isn’t strange: it is the actual flowering of a Republican Party ideology that thinks being a bull-in-the-china-shop exudes “strength.”  Dick Cheney seems like a wise man in comparison.  I suppose that’s what one should expect of a man who writes a book called No Apologiesand then changes it in the paperback edition in order to suck up to the Tea Party.

Romney just isn’t ready for prime-time: how much more trouble will he get the country into if he is elected President?

Romney’s “National Security” Speech: This Is A Test

In his speech supposedly about national security, Mitt Romney again said that President Obama has “apologized” to foreign countries for the United States.

This is a lie.

It is also a test: members of the Fourth Estate, will you report on this without saying that it is untrue?

UPDATE:  The invaluable Heather Hurlburt finds five more “untruths” (more commonly known as “lies”) in Romney’s speech.  Will the press call him on any of them?

Standoff weaponry

Kevin Drum notes that 65% of people in a WaPo poll approve of drone attacks on “suspected terrorists”, even on American citizens.  The question mixes up some important issues, and Kevin dissects out whether a death penalty, no matter how delivered, for being suspected is OK.  But a lot of people are also very antsy about using drones for anything other than surveillance.  A lot of people are also worried about giving the police Tasers.  Why?

I think our emotional reaction to stuff like this depends a lot on what alternatives we instinctively compare it to.  Is the drone a cowardly analog to lying in wait for a bad guy and bushwacking him, a pusillanimous substitute for standing up and ‘fighting like a man’, putting your safety at immediate risk?  Or is it just like launching a bullet from far away, or dropping a bomb from high in the air, or planting a mine that goes off when you’re in another county, except better because it’s more accurate and selective, can be called off right up to the last second, and even safer for the pilot/operator?   Is a Taser a way of allowing the cop to overpower a suspect without putting himself at risk by laying hands on him?  Will it be used where sharp words or the threat of a poke with a nightstick would have sufficed, or will it substitute for some uses of firearms, with less permanent damage (especially when the suspect turns out not to be a perp, but just drunk and foolhardy)?

I think we are diffident about these things in part because of some subconscious idea of sportsmanship. There’s certainly no glory in using them:  a sergeant sitting in front of a screen in Idaho someplace, vaporizing someone half a world away, is not going to figure in a war movie the way John Wayne’s or even Tom Hanks’ characters did, and a cop at the safe end of Taser wires is not Dirty Harry.  Achilles had status because he went face to face with Trojans (though it certainly wasn’t a fair fight), and Paris didn’t get a lot of props for a lucky arrow shot.  All this is probably a feature and not a bug; anything that deglamorizes killing people is OK with me, even at a price of objectifying and abstracting it.


“Reactive” versus “Strategic”? Please.

Foreign policy analysis will get a lot better when we stop using flatulent phrases like “strategic”, “reactive,” “leadership” or “realistic.”

Foreign Policy reports that President Obama decided last Tuesday evening to intervene in Libya after a “highly contentious” meeting.  This contrasts to some extent with the administration’s posture in regard to Tunisia and Egypt.   And it displeases some:

“In the case of Libya, they just threw out their playbook,” said Steve Clemons, the foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. “The fact that Obama pivoted on a dime shows that the White House is flying without a strategy and that we have a reactive presidency right now and not a strategic one.”

I literally don’t know what this means.  First, perhaps the reason why “the playbook” changed in Libya was that Qaddafi was sending in tanks to murder his own people, and that unlike with Egypt and Tunisia, we had a very contentious if not hostile relationship with Libya, despite more recent detente.

And that leads to the second problem: this opposition of “reaction” and “strategy.”  Clemons surely understands that the United States does not control events; there are 6 billion people in the world, more than 150 governments, and the United States is not a unipolar power.  Put another way, part of being “strategic” is that you have to react to events.  There’s no other way.

Foreign policy analysts love to genuflect at the memory of Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s Secretary of State.  Acheson never thought that South Korea was in the vital interests of the United States; neither did anyone else.  But when confronted with the sort of naked aggression unleashed by the North on June 25, 1950, the administration felt it had no choice.  Should it have watched as the North Korean communists took over the whole peninsula?

Maybe the administration saw this as a relatively cheap way to get on the side of the pro-democracy movement in the Arab world.  True?  Maybe not.  Maybe it will be a disaster.  But that won’t be because it is “reactive”.  If it works, then someone will later call it “opportunistic.”

George W. Bush was “strategic.”  As Stephen Colbert wisely noted, “He believes the same thing Wednesday as he did on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday!”  Is that better?

Foreign policy analysis will get a lot better once we stop throwing around words like “strategic” or “reactive” — or for that matter, “realistic”, “principled,” “leadership”, or “tough.”

A Libyan Insurgency Would Not Look Like Iraq

Even if Libya turns into a quagmire, here are three reasons why a Qaddafist insurgency would pale in comparison to Iraq.

Never doubt the intensity of a Sullivan scorned (at least politically, that is).  He is now excoriating the President for his Libya policy, and raising fears of a Libyan quagmire akin to Iraq.  Although one would have to be willfully blind not to feel a lot of trepidation over whatever we call Obama’s Libya policy (A war?  A police action?  A humanitarian intervention?), even a Qaddafian insurgency would not be nearly as deadly as Iraq’s.  There are a few reasons for this:

1)  Population and population density.  Iraq has more than 31 million people; Libya, roughly 6 million.  Yes, you heard that right: 6 million.  It’s a very large country, but it’s basically empty, mainly because it is mostly desert.  It would require far less troops, even under the assumption that the US would commit troops there (which would indeed be crazy, but I’m assuming worst-case scenario here).  Before oil was discovered, there was not much there: little wonder that it wasn’t colonized by the Europeans until 1911, and only then by the Italians, desperate for something after they suffered a humiliating defeat at Adowa to the Ethiopians a few years earlier.

2)  Safe harbors in neighboring countries.  Right now I’m reading Alastair Horne’s magnificent history of the Algerian War of Independence, A Savage War of Peace.  Very highly recommended.  Horne makes the point that the FLN could regroup and gain stregnth away from French forces by adopting safe harbors in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco.  In Iraq, insurgents could go to Iran and Syria, and Sunni insurgents got help from the Saudis.  This will be far harder in Libya.  Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco do not figure to help out.  Chad, Niger and Sudan might, but anyone pursuing Qaddafists will have little compunction pursuing them over the border, and Chad and Niger, highly dependent upon foreign aid, can be pressured into cutting off support.

3)  Past experience.  Insurgents can appeal to civilians by promising relief from hated regimes and by posing as apostles of national liberation: thus, Muqtada al-Sadr with Iraqi Shiites, or the FLN, or Ho Chi Minh or (fill in blank).  That will be much harder for Qaddafists to do.  They might get support from those ethnic groups from which Qaddafi’s family comes, but civilians will be under no illusions.  This hardly always works, see, e.g. the Taliban, but surely it will have a lot of effect, especially as a Libya-Iraq comparison.

None of this is to say that Libya won’t be a quagmire, or that Obama was right (or even constitutional) in taking his actions (although on balance I think he was — for later).  Rather, it is to say that if we are assessing Libya, we shouldn’t think that it is Iraq Act Two.