Syria and the Art of Ignoring Reality

There’s trouble in the Middle East — as there nearly always is — and the usual suspects are demanding the usual action. Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard is beating the drums for war, a musical refrain that should sound quite familiar. He’s signed an open letter to President Obama demanding military intervention in Syria, a letter that is, hilariously, alleged to be from “experts” like him. And Karl Rove. And Elliot Abrams.

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has once again violated your red line, using chemical weapons to kill as many as 1,400 people in the suburbs of Damascus. You have said that large-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria would implicate “core national interests,” including “making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies [and] our bases in the region.” The world—including Iran, North Korea, and other potential aggressors who seek or possess weapons of mass of destruction—is now watching to see how you respond.

We urge you to respond decisively by imposing meaningful consequences on the Assad regime. At a minimum, the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship’s military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons. It should also provide vetted moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition with the military support required to identify and strike regime units armed with chemical weapons.

Moreover, the United States and other willing nations should consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime. The objectives should be not only to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons no longer threaten America, our allies in the region or the Syrian people, but also to deter or destroy the Assad regime’s airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants. At the same time, the United States should accelerate efforts to vet, train, and arm moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition, with the goal of empowering them to prevail against both the Assad regime and the growing presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated and other extremist rebel factions in the country.

Left unanswered, the Assad regime’s mounting attacks with chemical weapons will show the world that America’s red lines are only empty threats. It is a dangerous and destabilizing message that will surely come to haunt us—one that will certainly embolden Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons capability despite your repeated warnings that doing so is unacceptable. It is therefore time for the United States to take meaningful and decisive actions to stem the Assad regime’s relentless aggression, and help shape and influence the foundations for the post-Assad Syria that you have said is inevitable.

Now where have we heard that before? Oh yeah, ten years ago when the same people were demanding an invasion of Iraq, a war that cost us more than a trillion dollars, thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives. Paul Waldman takes a trip down memory lane:

Back when George W. Bush was president, William Kristol—editor of the Weekly Standard, former Dan Quayle chief of staff, and general conservative man-about-town—co-founded something called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, whose purpose was to beat the war drums until the American government and public saw the wisdom of an invasion. Kristol was eventually mocked not only for his status as a “chickenhawk”—like nearly all the war’s most visible boosters, he was eager to send other people to fight and die, but had avoided military service during the Vietnam War—but for his confidently offered yet comically wrong predictions about Iraq, like “This is going to be a two-month war” or his immortal assertion that there was no reason to think there’d be any conflict between Sunnis and Shias since “Iraq’s always been very secular.”…

Bombing Syria may or may not be a good idea; I’m extremely skeptical, but it isn’t as though there’s no reasonable case you could make for it. But when these clowns start advocating for it, it becomes very difficult to think it would be anything but a disaster.

Conor Friedersdorf has a similar take:

I’d never claim to be a foreign-policy expert. But I know enough to scoff when The Weekly Standard grants “expert” status to Karl Rove, and to discount the prognostication skills of everyone who urged American intervention in Iraq without the faintest idea of what would follow. But in D.C., expert status is never taken away for being repeatedly, catastrophically wrong.

“Legitimacy” in these circles is a matter of social standing and institutional affiliations, not knowledge or track record.

I’m noticing a pattern for Obama, though. He keeps turning for advice and wanting to put in charge the same people who have screwed up in the past. John Brennan was one of the key players in the Bush administration’s torture regime, so naturally he makes him his national security adviser and then head of the CIA. Larry Summers led the fight to deregulate Wall Street, leading directly to the financial collapse of 2008, so naturally he makes him his chief economic adviser and now is likely to nominate him to head the Fed. Bill Kristol and all these other neo-cons were the ones who led us into the disastrous Iraq war, so naturally he’s going to listen to them on Syria. If we’d wanted a third and fourth Bush administration, we would have voted for McCain and Romney.

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  • daved

    Oh, man. Given that Kristol has a near-perfect record of making bad recommendations on virtually everything, the fact that he’s now in favor of military action is about as close as you can get to definitive proof that we should do anything but that.

  • Well, they are experts. Experts in promoting unnecessary and expensive (in lives and $$$) military interventions.

  • John Pieret

    Well, Elliot Abrams does have extensive experience in getting presidents in trouble through interventions in foreign countries.

  • Saddam Hussein gassed his own people and that atrocity was used in part to justify the Iraq war. But the gassing took place during the Reagan administration and Saddam remained an ally until he invaded Kuwait many years later, and his oil went off the table. That gassing happened in 1988 and we did not invade Iraq till 15 years later. So when you look at the timetable for the war, we could not have invaded due to the gassing but only because our free access to oil had been cut. Plus the potential for profit.

    Syria has no oil but Syria does give companies like Halliburton great income potential,

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m inclined to think the world should do something to deal with such gas attacks. But the key here is the world should be doing it. And we should absolutely NOT be giving any credibility to people like Bill Kristol. He, and all the Neocons have zero credibility on anything to do with American foreign policy.

  • Nick Gotts

    I’m both surprised and delighted that on this occasion the UK House of Commons, usually completely supine when it comes to “defence” and “security”, has refused to back British participation in an attack on Syria, on the grounds that (a) We don’t know who was responsible for the mass-gassing that certainly occurred and (b) even if it was the Assad regime, the consequences of lobbing cruise missiles at Syrian targets have not been thought through. Absurdly, the proponents of an attack are claiming both that it would deter andor degrade ability to carry out further chemical attacks, and that it would not constitute an intervention in the Syrian civil war. Really, they can’t have it both ways. Whether the unexpected show of British independence will give Obama pause, I doubt – but it will certainly confuse the neocons, who will have to start praising the French as staunch friends and allies, and sneering at the British cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

  • raven

    If the Chickenhawk, Bill Kristol is for it, that should be the end. He’s always wrong.

    I’m sensing a lot of war fatigue in the west. Myself included.

  • Alverant

    And yet people still think Obama is a far left liberal. I wonder why.

  • colnago80

    Unfortunately, Obama shot off his big mouth last spring calling use of chemical weapons a red line. Well, it appears to have happened and now its make it or get off the pot time.

    As I have opined previously on this blog and Singham’s, all the possible alternatives are lousy. IMHO, the only action that makes any sense is to waste Assad and his minions, hoping that, with them gone, the disputants will come to their senses and stop destroying the country. That is, if we can find them. According to Israeli intelligence, many of the rats are leaving the country, like rats leaving the sinking ship.

  • slavdude


    That means we’ll be eating Thomas’s Freedom Muffins and drinking Twinings Freedom Breakfast while petting our Old Freedom Sheepdogs on the head.

  • dshetty

    hoping that, with them gone, the disputants will come to their senses and stop destroying the country.

    Because this is what we see happening in other wars? – your hope is going to have the same degree of success as prayer.

  • colnago80

    Re Nick Gotts @ #5

    Au contraire Nickey boy, it’s perfidious Albion again.

  • colnago80

    Re Nick Gotts

    The Hood blows up.

  • Lonely Panda, e.s.l.

    The only thing that stops a bad guy with chemical weapons is a good guy with chemical weapons. Or so I’ve heard somewhere.

  • felidae

    Little Billy the grinning idiot has as much credibility on foreign policy as Bozo the Clown

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    When it comes to whether or not to intervene in Syria its a real tough one – a lose lose situation with no good options. I think Jim Wright’s Stonekettle Station blog says it best on this :

    I also think we need to learn more and not rush into doing anything, we need to be very clear about what we want to happen and how w’e’re most likely to make it happen with least bad consequences for the longer term and I sure don’t envy Obama a or anyone else who has to decide on this.

  • grumpyoldfart

    They can kill each other, or outsiders can come in and share out the killing, but whatever happens the winners will enact draconian laws against their former enemies and the whole shooting march will start all over again just like it did in Egypt. It’s never going to stop. Not in Egypt, not in Syria, not anywhere.

  • matty1

    It’s never going to stop. Not in Egypt, not in Syria, not anywhere.

    And yet, I am planning a holiday this autumn taking in Croatia and Bosnia and have no more fears for my safety than if I were going to Denmark. It clearly does stop, just not always in the ways or at the times we would like. I can’t pretend to optimism about the near to medium term future but I do believe one day there will be people in Syria looking back on the civil war as part of history.

  • caseloweraz

    I agree that it’s hard to know what to do about Syria. One thing that is certain is that we (America) need to be absolutely right before we go ahead. (If it sounds like I’m quoting Davy Crockett, that’s because I am.)

    Scott Simon just reported on NPR that Putin says it makes no sense for Syria’s Assad to use poison gas because that would provide a pretext for harsh international response. Putin has a point. Similarly, it makes no sense for the rebels to use poison gas since they depend on the people of Syria for support. However, poison gas was used, so somebody isn’t acting sensibly.

    One thing I would suggest is to put Russia on the hot spot. Since Russia is Syria’s long-time ally, and since in the Security Council Russia has vetoed sanctions on Syria and also has vetoed (or would veto) UN approval of military action, the President should hold Russia’s feet to the fire by proposing they demand some responsible behavior from their ally.

  • Michael Heath

    caseloweraz writes:

    I agree that it’s hard to know what to do about Syria. One thing that is certain is that we (America) need to be absolutely right before we go ahead. (If it sounds like I’m quoting Davy Crockett, that’s because I am.)

    I don’t think it’s all that important we possess certainty on Assad’s use of chemical weapons. We already know he’s torturing and slaughtering people and deserves his power structure to be taken out. Instead what should cause us continued pause is understanding the ramifications of our engaging militarily, two factors in particular:

    1) would military intervention create a more probabilistic benefit for the people of the region than if we didn’t engage or,

    2) is engagement worth our blood and treasure, along with the blood of those who will suffer collaterally. Including our opponents and enemies, let’s not forget the intermediate ramifications of WWI leading to WWII.

    #1 is giving everyone qualms, as it should. No one seems to game-out good outcomes either way. But not engaging may be as bad as not engaging. This is the most difficult intermediate dilemma I’ve encountered. (Big dilemma was the Cold War.)

    #2 appears at first glance to be a solid yes, we should intervene. However I think that would be a fatally flawed assessment and more importantly, can’t be confidently calculated until we game-plan out the most probabilistic outcomes that require consideration in regards to #1. It only appears to be a relatively cheap and safe adventure in the short-term. But without understanding the blowback in the intermediate and long-term if we don’t go in or even if we do go in, we have no way of knowing what action is best in terms of the cost of blood and treasure.

    Iraq is a great example of #2 appearing to be an easy yes prior to invasion where the answer still remained an easy yes even after our initial invasion when entered Baghdad. And then an incredibly inept presidential Administration was revealed, a totally feckless Republican-led Congress demagogued the issue (with Fox News’ help), and leadership at the top of the military command snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory.

    The U.S. defense structure failed for a number of reasons, including seizing control of Administration rather than having the State Dept. doing it, not having any feasible Phase IV (post invasion) plans in place prior to invading, torturing detainees, and true to history – having generals and Defense officials running the show who rose through the ranks by being great at sucking-up rather than winning strategic military engagements.

    Yes I’m aware some people warned about invading Iraq and think they were proven right by the outcome. But the facts do not reconcile to their predictions. We failed yes, but for other reasons other than their predictions, reasons entirely under our control which reveals the incredible incompetence of Bush’s Administration and his generals, in particular CENTCOM Commander Tommy Franks.

    [Primary source material on why we failed after a successful invasion of Iraq would be George Packer’s Assassins at the Gate, Tom Rick’s Fiasco, “Matthew Alexander’s” (pen name) How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq , and Tommy Frank’s autobiography – proving how oblivious Mr. Franks remains.]

  • lorn

    A little late now, now that the POTUS has punted, for the time being, by asking congress to weigh in and share the responsibility, but there is a third option which I haven’t heard represented.

    We could assemble a strong case for legal prosecution of the Syrians responsible for and connected to this attack. We could push for the UN to declare any all of those people to be criminals and burden all UN members with taking actions to capture and bring them to trial for war crimes.

    This may be far more effective than it might appear at first blush. The leader like to think of themselves as patriots and heroes. They likely undeterred by the threat of a violent death in a missile strike. But they won’t like being declared criminals and monsters. It hurts their pride. Pride and reputation are big in those cultures.

    These are prideful people who would sooner die than be seen frog-walked into the Haige. Or have their inadequacy as a moral being exposed at great length while they have to sit and take it.

    There is also the issue of the charges being permanent. So charged they can be detained at any border, on any flight or voyage that leaves Syrian territory, and then there is the danger of being captured by rebels, or an extraction team snatching them up from Syrian territory. Lots of reasons to keep an eye looking over their shoulder. And none of this danger goes away until they die or stand trial.

    The advantages of legal action over air or missile strikes include eliminating the danger of collateral damage, not favoring one side over the other, and cost. It also would reinforce the standing of the regime of international law and show that it can have an effect in a violent world.

  • colnago80

    Re Michael Heath @ #19

    Here we have a textbook example of Monday morning quarterbacking by MH, essentially claiming that if we had only done x, y, and z, instead of of a, b, and c, things might have been different. Also known as counterfactual history. Nothing wrong with that, I have engaged in that activity myself, second guessing Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jellicoe at the Battle of Jutland, Hamilton at the Battle of Gallipoli, the German Naval strategy in WW 2, etc However, MH misses the forest for the trees, namely that the entire Iraq war was built on a big lie, namely that Saddam had WMDs. This was how the war was sold to the American people and the Congress. The UN inspectors said he didn’t have any and they were trashed by Rumsfeld and Co. Turns out that they were right and the Dubya administration was wrong. In fact, they knew going in that they were wrong and didn’t give a shit. Goebbels would have been proud of the Dubya administration; as he put it, if one is going to lie, make it a big lie, tell it loudly, and tell it ofter and people will eventually believe it.

    Hell, Arial Sharon told Colin Powell and his deputy Lawrence Wilkerson when they arrived to brief him that the proposed invasion of Iraq was a bad idea, but Dubya and Co. weren’t interested in contrary advice.

  • pacal

    I saw John McCain on Piers yesterday and he went on and on about how Human rights were violated by the gas attack and this was a war crime and unacceptable and that the USA could not stand back. Piers didn`t ask him about the gas attacks by Iraq in 1988 that killed at least 5,000. The USA did not intervene but ignored it.

    Hypocrisy is not something people like to say nothing of the fact that after the bill of goods people were sold to justify Iraq, people might be a more than a little skeptical here.

  • Michael Heath

    pacal writes:

    I saw John McCain on Piers yesterday and he went on and on about how Human rights were violated by the gas attack and this was a war crime and unacceptable and that the USA could not stand back. Piers didn`t ask him about the gas attacks by Iraq in 1988 that killed at least 5,000. The USA did not intervene but ignored it.

    The U.S. did far worse than that. The U.S. used resources and capabilities not at Iraq’s disposal in order to help Iraq make those chemical attacks far more deadly.

    Not only should Piers Morgan asked where Sen. McCain earned his moral authority to advocate the U.S. intervene militarily, but he should also be asking why he’s not demanding the arrest of President Bush and key members of his administration for their use of torture. Mr. Morgan should also ask why Sen. McCain is not demanding the arrest of President Obama and AG Holder for their not prosecuting the Bush Administration in spite of the treaty President Reagan signed requiring the Obama Administration do so, under threat of prosecution themselves.

  • caseloweraz


    To your primary sources I would add one book: Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City (Knopf, 2006).

    Also, let’s not forget James Fallows’ Blind into Baghdad from 2004.