What to do? Ugh.
The NY Times' columnists had at it today. For the sake of those who don't subscribe, I'll provide below what I think are the best bits. This is a pretty long post, and you're entirely justified in not reading it; after all, what we think about this will have absolutely no effect on what happens. None at all. But the political scientist in me still tries to understand the issues and search for something called wisdom. Unfortunately, as Tom Friedman writes, a perfect solution to Syria "is not on the menu."
First Frank Bruni:
Our country is about to make the most excruciating kind of decision, the most dire: whether to commence a military campaign whose real costs and ultimate consequences are unknowable.Ross Douthat (a lost soul):
But let’s by all means discuss the implications for Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Iowa, New Hampshire and 2016. Yea or nay on the bombing: which is the safer roll of the dice for a Republican presidential contender? Reflexively, sadly, we journalists prattle and write about that. We miss the horse race of 2012, not to mention the readership and ratings it brought. The next election can’t come soon enough.So we pivot to Hillary Clinton. We’re always pivoting to Hillary Clinton. Should she be weighing in on Syria more decisively and expansively? Or does the fact that she authorized the war in Iraq compel restraint and a gentler tone this time around? What’s too gentle, and what’s just right? So goes one strand of commentary, and to follow it is to behold a perverse conflation of foreign policy and the Goldilocks fable.The media has a wearying tendency — a corrosive tic — to put everything that happens in Washington through the same cynical political grinder, subjecting it to the same cynical checklist of who’s up, who’s down, who’s threading a needle, who’s tangled up in knots, what it all means for control of Congress after the midterms, what it all means for control of the White House two years later.
And we’re doing a bit too much of this with Syria, when we owe this crossroads something more than standard operating procedure, something better than knee-jerk ruminations on the imminent vote in Congress as a test for Nancy Pelosi, as a referendum on John Boehner, as a conundrum for Mitch McConnell, as a defining moment for Barack Obama.You know whom it’s an even more defining moment for? The Syrians whose country is unraveling beyond all hope; the Israelis, Lebanese and Jordanians next door; the American servicemen and servicewomen whose futures could be forever altered or even snuffed out by the course that the lawmakers and the president chart.The stakes are huge. Bomb Syria and there’s no telling how many innocent civilians will be killed; if it will be the first chapter in an epic longer and bloodier than we bargained for; what price America will pay, not just on the battlefield but in terms of reprisals elsewhere; and whether we’ll be pouring accelerant on a country and a region already ablaze.Don’t bomb Syria and there’s no guessing the lesson that the tyrants of the world will glean from our decision not to punish Bashar al-Assad for slaughtering his people on whatever scale he wishes and in whatever manner he sees fit. Will they conclude that a diminished America is retreating from the role it once played? Will they interpret that, dangerously, as a green light? And what will our inaction say about us? About our morality, and about our mettle? [My emphasis.]These are the agonizing considerations before our elected leaders and before the rest of us, and in light of them we journalists ought to resist turning the Syria debate into the sort of reality television show that we turn so much of American political life into, a soap opera often dominated by the mouthiest characters rather than the most thoughtful ones.Last week, in many places, I read what Sarah Palin was saying about Syria, because of course her geopolitical chops are so thoroughly established. A few months back, I read about Donald Trump’s thoughts on possible military intervention, because any debate over strategy in the Middle East naturally calls for his counsel.
It is to President Obama’s great discredit that he has staked this credibility on a vote whose outcome he failed to game out in advance. But if he loses that vote, the national interest as well as his political interests will take a tangible hit: for the next three years, American foreign policy will be in the hands of a president whose promises will ring consistently hollow, and whose ability to make good on his strategic commitments will be very much in doubt.
This is not an argument that justifies voting for a wicked or a reckless war, and members of Congress who see the Syria intervention in that light must necessarily oppose it.
Tom Friedman (actually from Wednesday's paper):But if they do, they should be prepared for the consequences: a damaged president, a potentially crippled foreign policy and a long, hard, dangerous road to January 2017.
... [T[he most likely option for Syria is some kind of de facto partition, with the pro-Assad, predominantly Alawite Syrians controlling one region and the Sunni and Kurdish Syrians controlling the rest. But the Sunnis are themselves divided between the pro-Western, secular Free Syrian Army, which we’d like to see win, and the pro-Islamist and pro-Al Qaeda jihadist groups, like the Nusra Front, which we’d like to see lose.
That’s why I think the best response to the use of poison gas by President Bashar al-Assad is not a cruise missile attack on Assad’s forces, but an increase in the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army — including the antitank and antiaircraft weapons it’s long sought. This has three virtues: 1) Better arming responsible rebels units, and they do exist, can really hurt the Assad regime in a sustained way — that is the whole point of deterrence — without exposing America to global opprobrium for bombing Syria; 2) Better arming the rebels actually enables them to protect themselves more effectively from this regime; 3) Better arming the rebels might increase the influence on the ground of the more moderate opposition groups over the jihadist ones — and eventually may put more pressure on Assad, or his allies, to negotiate a political solution.By contrast, just limited bombing of Syria from the air makes us look weak at best, even if we hit targets. And if we kill lots of Syrians, it enables Assad to divert attention from the 1,400 he has gassed to death to those we harmed. Also, who knows what else our bombing of Syria could set in motion. (Would Iran decide it must now rush through a nuclear bomb?)But our response must not stop there.
We need to use every diplomatic tool we have to shame Assad, his wife, Asma, his murderous brother Maher and every member of his cabinet or military whom we can identify as being involved in this gas attack. We need to bring their names before the United Nations Security Council for condemnation. We need to haul them before the International Criminal Court. We need to make them famous. We need to metaphorically put their pictures up in every post office in the world as people wanted for crimes against humanity.
Yes, there’s little chance of them being brought to justice now, but do not underestimate how much of a deterrent it can be for the world community to put the mark of Cain on their foreheads so they know that they and their families can never again travel anywhere except to North Korea, Iran and Vladimir Putin’s dacha. It might even lead some of Assad’s supporters to want to get rid of him and seek a political deal.
When we alone just bomb Syria to defend “our” red line, we turn the rest of the world into spectators — many of whom will root against us. When we shame the people who perpetrated this poison gas attack, we can summon the rest of the world, maybe even inspire them, to join us in redrawing this red line, as a moral line and, therefore, a global line. It is easy for Putin, China and Iran to denounce American bombing, but much harder for them to defend Syrian use of weapons of mass destruction, so let’s force them to choose. Best of all, a moral response — a shaming — can be an unlimited response, not a limited one.
Finally, there's Nicholas Kristof. Kristof is the most humanitarian reporter I know of. I really respect him. Where there's war and misery, Kristof is there, finding out what he can about it, and how to stop it, and letting us know. And here's what he has to say:A limited, transactional cruise missile attack meets Obama’s need to preserve his credibility. But it also risks changing the subject from Assad’s behavior to ours and — rather than empowering the rebels to act and enlisting the world to act — could make us owners of this story in ways that we do not want. “Arm and shame” is how we best help the decent forces in Syria, deter further use of poison gas, isolate Assad and put real pressure on him or others around him to cut a deal. Is it perfect? No, but perfect is not on the menu in Syria.
As one woman tweeted to me: “We simply cannot stop every injustice in the world by using military weapons.”Fair enough. But let’s be clear that this is not “every injustice”: On top of the 100,000-plus already killed in Syria, another 5,000 are being slaughtered monthly, according to the United Nations. Remember the Boston Massacre of 1770 from our history books, in which five people were killed? Syria loses that many people every 45 minutes on average, around the clock.The rate of killing is accelerating. In the first year, 2011, there were fewer than 5,000 deaths. As of July 2012, there were still “only” 10,000, and the number has since soared tenfold.A year ago, by United Nations calculations, there were 230,000 Syrian refugees. Now there are two million.In other words, while there are many injustices around the world, from Darfur to eastern Congo, take it from one who has covered most of them: Syria is today the world capital of human suffering.Skeptics are right about the drawbacks of getting involved, including the risk of retaliation. Yet let’s acknowledge that the alternative is, in effect, to acquiesce as the slaughter in Syria reaches perhaps the hundreds of thousands or more.But what about the United Nations? How about a multilateral solution involving the Arab League? How about peace talks? What about an International Criminal Court prosecution?All this sounds fine in theory, but Russia blocks progress in the United Nations. We’ve tried multilateral approaches, and Syrian leaders won’t negotiate a peace deal as long as they feel they’re winning on the ground. One risk of bringing in the International Criminal Court is that President Bashar al-Assad would be more wary of stepping down. The United Nations can’t stop the killing in Syria any more than in Darfur or Kosovo. As President Assad himself noted in 2009, “There is no substitute for the United States.”So while neither intervention nor paralysis is appealing, that’s pretty much the menu. That’s why I favor a limited cruise missile strike against Syrian military targets (as well as the arming of moderate rebels). As I see it, there are several benefits: Such a strike may well deter Syria’s army from using chemical weapons again, probably can degrade the ability of the army to use chemical munitions and bomb civilian areas, can reinforce the global norm against chemical weapons, and — a more remote prospect — may slightly increase the pressure on the Assad regime to work out a peace deal.If you’re thinking, “Those are incremental, speculative and highly uncertain gains,” well, you’re right. Syria will be bloody whatever we do.Mine is a minority view. After the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the West is bone weary and has little interest in atrocities unfolding in Syria or anywhere else. Opposition to missile strikes is one of the few issues that ordinary Democrats and Republicans agree on.
[Snip]So, what would you do if you were in charge?
Some military interventions, as in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo, have worked well. Others, such as Iraq in 2003, worked very badly. Still others, such as Libya, had mixed results. Afghanistan and Somalia were promising at first but then evolved badly.So, having said that analogies aren’t necessarily helpful, let me leave you with a final provocation.If we were fighting against an incomparably harsher dictator using chemical weapons on our own neighborhoods, and dropping napalm-like substances on our children’s schools, would we regard other countries as “pro-peace” if they sat on the fence as our dead piled up?
An aside: I sometimes wonder if my NY Times online subscription is worth the $35/month I pay for it. The answer is always: I would be lost without it.