It is happening again.

James Fallows: “Before You Conclude That ‘Precision’ Bombing Makes Sense With Syria …

For 20 years now we have seen this pattern:

  1. Something terrible happens somewhere — and what is happening in Syria is not just terrible but atrocious in the literal meaning of that term.
  2. Americans naturally feel we must “do something.”
  3. The easiest something to do involves bombers, drones, and cruise missiles, all of which are promised to be precise and to keep our forces and people at a safe remove from the battle zone.
  4. In the absence of a draft, with no threat that taxes will go up to cover war costs, and with the reality that modern presidents are hamstrung in domestic policy but have enormous latitude in national security, the normal democratic checks on waging war don’t work.
  5. We “do something,” with bombs and drones, and then deal with blowback and consequences “no one could have foreseen.”

So let’s not continue that pattern. Let’s “do something” different. Let’s “do something” else.

Only ten years after the disastrous “what could go wrong?” / “something must be done!” rush to war in Iraq, you would have thought these cautions would not need restatement. They do. In the face of evil we should do something, except when the something would likely make a bad situation worse.


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  • Cathy W

    When I saw an open letter to the President supporting military action in Syria, and it was signed by some of the same folks that supported military action in Iraq and managed that whole process so badly – Elliot Abrams, Karl Rove, Bill Kristol…
    …you know that post from yesterday about how if you end up with the same conclusion on a moral issue as both Vladimir Putin and Robert Mugabe, you might want to take a closer look at how you got to that point? I thnk you could make the same statement regarding those three guys and whether or not to go to war.

  • Enopoletus Harding
  • Jim Wisniewski

    So your super-dramatic ragequit lasted, what, two weeks?

  • P J Evans

    I guess he’s upset that we haven’t been talking about how much we don’t miss him.

  • Ima Pseudonym

    How can we miss him when he won’t go away?

  • Veleda_k

    Well, it was nice while it lasted.

  • Enopoletus Harding
  • flat

    I have been out from slacktivist for a few weeks did our resident troll said something interesting or am I delluding myself?

  • AnonaMiss

    Nothing interesting, but something quite welcome.

  • Cathy W

    Oh, this one sounds tasty, and very seasonal: Blackberry-Apple Pie.

  • guest

    That’s a funny coincidence–I saw my next door neighbour out picking blackberries this afternoon and she said she was going to make blackberry-apple pie.

  • Rhubarbarian82

    That looks delicious! I’ve been wanting to mix up my pies recently; I’d been making a few staples a bit too often and have wanted to branch out.

    Marginally related: I got a great book about homebrewing and have been trying them out. I’ve already got some spiced chai mead and some raspberry-rhubarb wine in secondary fermentation, and next I want to make some spiced apple cider and some blueberry lavender mead. There’s a recipe for blackberry wine too that I want to try, if I can get to it before blackberries get expensive again. Cheap and plentiful berries are one of the best parts of living in California.

  • Lunch Meat

    That does look good. Lately I’ve been practicing my french silk custard pies. I’m working on new inventions for the holidays including a chocolate orange pie topped with shaved almonds and orange zest, a raspberry-mint white chocolate pie, and a cinnamon/nutmeg/allspice white chocolate pie that was supposed to taste like eggnog but just tastes kind of…different.

  • redsixwing

    Chocolate orange? Raspberry-mint white chocolate? Can you come live at my place and make pie? Yum!

    I suppose I can contribute some actual content. I had some farmer’s market fruit that was going south the other day, so I ended up making plum-and-peach pie. That was a new combination on me, and I used inordinate amounts of cinnamon to counteract all the sweetness, but it turned out very nicely.

  • Cathy W

    That sounds yummy! Ooh. I should try a plum pie – the black plums I like seem to be good right now.

  • Daniel

    I just had one with berries I foraged myself. It also had a bit of cinnamon in it.
    That is all.

  • AnonymousSam

    Downvoted and flagged for situation-inappropriate flaming, and I don’t agree with you.

  • CoolHandLNC

    So crude, and the sentence lacks a subject. Here, let me tidy it up:
    Fuck, y’all!
    There, that’s better.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Oh look who stuck the flounce couldn’t resist one last silly parting shot.

  • Madhabmatics

    Wait, he flounced? And I missed it? Someone link me to it! Don’t leave me hanging.

    I mean Enopoletus was the guy who argued that A. Wyatt Mann comics about how evil minorities were weren’t racist, so

  • Cathy W

    It was…almost self-=aware:

    To paraphrase: he’s realized he’s accomplishing nothing here but beating his head against the wall, only to be insulted for his efforts. We have not been enlightened, despite a year of him trying his best. We have downvoted his eminently sensible posts, while upvoting the snark of others directed at him. He has better things to do with his time than participate in the community on those terms, so he will post nothing further here but “Fuck all of you.”

    …which I guess makes it only mostly a flounce.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    So not quite up to Skynet levels then, yes? :P

  • Madhabmatics

    hahahaha that is the whiniest, most self-absorbed post. how glorious

  • J_Enigma32

    I’ve been doing some reviewing of Ayn Rand’s words recently. I came across this wonderful gem:

    “To be exact, it was not a full, perfect, totally unregulated
    laissez-faire capitalism. Various degrees of government interference and control still remained, even in America, as deadly cracks in the system’s foundations. But during the nineteenth century, the world came close to economic freedom, for the first and only time in history. The degree of any given country’s economic freedom was the exact degree of its progress. America, the freest, achieved the most.

    Capitalism wiped out slavery in matter and in spirit.”

    That’s a direct quote from Rand, in her essay The New Intellectual. I distinctly remember EH saying something like that and the rest of us ripping his comment to pieces as a result.

    I’m all late to the party and pointing out the obvious by now, I’m sure, but I’m pretty sure that EH was an Objectivist (hence: I’m not a libertarian, but I agree with some of their points).

    In which case, good riddance. Well, good riddance anyway.

  • SororAyin

    I wish you hadn’t posted that quote. I’m pretty sure my brain just broke.

  • Carstonio

    What Salon calls the “conservative theory of rights” has the effect of protecting the wealth and position of a relatively small elite at the expense of everyone else. I’m sure that’s pure coincidence.

  • Oswald Carnes

    It is happening again.

  • JustoneK

    It’s an exhausting cycle.

  • LL

    Well, yeah, obviously the way to make a bad situation better is to bomb the shit out of it.

    Strangely, this solution did not occur to the government while the Global Clusterfuck of 2008 was happening on Wall Street, I guess because it didn’t involve another country full of innocent people.

  • Mark Z.
  • CoolHandLNC

    I just have to shake my head at the whole lets-bomb-Syria thing. Attack with what? Our government is so dysfunctional right now that we can’t even do basic budgetary process or agree to pay the bills. We have air wings at minimal flight hours, ships and submarines sitting at dock waiting for refit, maintenance deferred. And those sailors out in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea? These same politicians are even now trying to figure out how to screw them over on pay and benefits. Heck, congress is winding up for another shut-down-the-government fight, so those sailors can’t even be sure they will get their paychecks on time in a couple months.
    Oh, but we can spring for how much for cruise missiles and combat sorties? No problem there. We should get our own house in order first! The reporters could at least ask these guys if they know how much a cruise missile costs, and the operating costs of those destroyers and aircraft carriers, and how they intend to pay for all that. Raise taxes maybe?
    Saudi Arabia is playing both sides of the “Arab Spring”. They are backing the rebels but refuse to go along with US/British/French intervention because they can play both sides that way, too. Screw them. They have 157 attack jets, so if they want something bombed, they can get their hands dirty for a change and do it themselves.

    end of rant

  • Invisible Neutrino

    That’s okay, the Republicans get such a hard-on for the military they’ll vote through all the appropriations Obama wants as long as he blows something up. Perhaps they will not notice that the appropriations being slipped in are actually for extra unemployment insurance for…. national security.

  • CoolHandLNC

    That was the operating assumption behind the sequester as a negotiating point. The amazing thing is that it didn’t work. They are willing to hollow out the military if it means that they can obstruct Obama. It isn’t a sacred cow anymore. But this is maybe getting too political for this blog.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Back when the sequester was about to kick in, the Repubs couldn’t take the heat and insisted that military spending was off the table.

    The sequester went through anyway and it’s actually cutting military spending to the point where the Pentagon is laying off people.

    That’s pretty hardcore unprecedented, but Republicans *are* known for one thing: if they have half a chance at the military they’ll load it up with all the goodies they can find, they just need a reason.

  • Hawker40

    “That’s okay, the Republicans get such a hard-on for the military they’ll vote through all the appropriations Obama wants as long as he blows something up.”

    And then turn around and blame him for increasing the deficit by that amount.

  • Daniel

    “I just have to shake my head at the whole lets-bomb-Syria thing. Attack with what?”

    I’m more concerned with the question of “attack what?”- there’ll always be money for wars, they’re recession proof. What bothers me is what are we actually planning to attack, and how -given that we’re supposedly going in as retaliation for the killing of innocents with chemical weapons- we plan to avoid killing even more innocents with conventional weapons.

  • flat

    Yes I agree the whole attack what? question is something that concerns me as well.

  • CoolHandLNC

    Well, yeah, that is a problem too. I wasn’t trying to be comprehensive.

  • flat

    sigh, here we go again.
    The worst thing is I don’t even know which side I have to take, somehow I ended up agreeing more with china and Russia than America the UK and France.
    It is just one gigantic clusterfuck now matter which perspective I take.

  • kittehonmylap

    I realize that what Syria is doing is terrible, awful, no good, etc. But why is it our problem? Yeah, yeah, line in the sand…but why can’t the UN be the ones who spearhead this, rather than us?? Yes, I would very much like it if we could “fix” Syria. But all we have is a hammer & Syria really does not look like a nail. Libya was a nail, in & out, done. Syria…no. No. The two factions are bad & worse & which is which depends on the day. We can’t stop them from killing each other & our last “nation building” went SO WELL.

    Also, it would be grand if we didn’t piss off China & Russia simultaneously. Again with the need for the UN to be the one who does this.

    Also also, anybody seeing eerie similarities to the start of WWI here? And again with the “can we not do that please???”

  • Rupaul

    Well, we could take care of the Syrian refugees, who are I heard facing terrible hardships. Just using the money we spend on the cruise missles for
    blowing stuff up, to feed and house refugees, besides being the right thing to do, will make us friends in the Middle East instead of enemies.

  • BringTheNoise

    How many enemies do you think a strike, called for by the Arab League and supported by most of the rebel groups, will make? Not necessarily supporting it, but if you want to go the “What will the people there think?” route, it’s good to bear in mind what those people actually want.

  • Lunch Meat

    Do you have any idea what groups would be good to donate to?

  • Guest

    I’d like to recommend Doctors without borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, who are actually operating some hospitals from inside Syria and giving people emergency medical aid. There’s also Oxfam, who are helping refugees in the neighbouring countries.

  • Monala

    I keep thinking about Rwanda, and how the international community
    didn’t intervene, and how that was seen as a failure
    not by hawks but by people with humanitarian concerns.When and how should we address situations where massive deaths are taking place? (Note: I’m not saying we should get involved in Syria, just wondering where the dividing line is).

  • AnonaMiss

    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ this.
    I believe Fred has indicated in the past that he believes a refusal to judge, a refusal to act against injustice, is a judgment in favor of the oppressor. I would like to know how this idea interacts with his strong anti-war position and skepticism of just war theory.

    At this point, what else could we do to stop the chemical warfare?

  • Ross

    It seems sort of excluded-middley to suppose that there’s a conflict between “we should act against injustice” and “we shouldn’t go to war”.

    We could go to Syria and offer anyone who wants it a free ride to the US where we’d let them crash on our couches until either this blows over or they can make long-term plans.

  • Monala

    How do you logistically make that possible – entering the country, getting to the people in need, arranging transport, etc?

  • wendy

    Since Jordan and Turkey already have oodles of Syrian refugees, are sure to get more, and they’re being pretty gracious about supplying a piece of ground for the refugees to occupy as long as they need to…

    Perhaps we could send a few hundred planeloads of tents and blankets and food and water and some mobile field hospitals.

    At least we know that’d be helpful; I’m not at all convinced that bombing what we think are the right spots will achieve any predictable benefit to anybody we want to benefit.

  • Monala

    Now that makes sense.

  • AnonaMiss

    We could go to Syria and offer anyone who wants it a free ride to the US
    where we’d let them crash on our couches until either this blows over
    or they can make long-term plans.

    Pretty sure that would be going to war.

  • Ursula L

    At this point, what else could we do to stop the chemical warfare?

    A question that presupposes the answer that bombing will actually work to stop the use of chemical weapons, or otherwise help the victims of the chemical weapons.

    A presumption that I’ve seen nothing to support.


    One thing that any sort of bombing will certainly do is kill innocent bystanders, and make everyone in the area really annoyed with the people responsible for dropping the bombs.

    In the whole “we have to do something” one thing that has been missing from the discussion of what we must do is any sort of conversation with the people who were the targets of the chemical weapons. Representatives of the Syrian rebels, and of Syrian civilians on either side of the conflict. The people who will also be in the area when we start dropping bombs.

  • P J Evans

    It’s possible that the Syrian rebels were the ones who used the chemical weapons. Given that our sources of information are biased against Assad….

  • Guest

    The conflict started when Assad started shooting thousands of his own people. why shouldn’t our sources be biased against him? Is it better to trust Russian sources, when Russia has been selling arms to the regime for a long time and benefits from keeping him in power?

  • Baby_Raptor

    Please don’t see this as an attempt to dismiss your concern, because it’s not.

    That said, I think it depends on the specific situation. There are going to be some situations where nothing we could do would make it better. And then there will be some situations where immediate action would be a great improvement.

    What’s the criteria? I have no idea…That’s way beyond my area of expertise.

  • kittehonmylap

    I’m dumb. These can’t be a UN resolution due to fact that Russia doesn’t want anybody touching Syria. Resolution was denied. It’s possible NATO may do…something. There are no good options here.

  • Daniel

    Sorry, I’m going to blame disqus for this but the above comment wasn’t on here when I posted the comment below, so the patronizing blustery correction I wrote is actually pointless and should be ignored.

  • Guest

    Well actually there is a way around that. If Russia and China veto a resolution in the security council, it’s possible to have it put to a full vote in the UN. This was used after the French and British vetoed a motion calling for them to leave the suez canal.

  • Daniel

    “Yeah, yeah, line in the sand…but why can’t the UN be the ones who spearhead this, rather than us??”

    Erm… the UN is trying. The UK will have a vote tomorrow on unilateral (or bi-lateral or tri-lateral) military intervention, the government are quite keen on going in alone due to their innate desire to copy Thatcher, and the French have already said they’re eager to go in too. Surprisingly it seems the US is actually the more reticent this time. That’s at least how it appears in the UK.

  • Jessica_R

    Of all the times I wish BSG didn’t reflect reality, “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again” is easily at the top.

  • J_Enigma32

    You can’t find an easy solution, but this could’ve been easily prevented. See, the moral of the story – time and fucking time again – is “don’t support ruthless, tyrannical dictators”. But that’s all academic; our brave leaders never seem to learn. Of course, it makes sense; after all: authoritarians of a feather flock together, right?

    If we do get involved, I guarantee you it won’t be under altruistic principals. interjecting ourselves, throwing our dead weight in that country, will be another act of Empire Building. But guess what? Even if it’s not, and even if it is really, truly an attempt to save lives, nobody’s going to believe us. Do you know why? They’re smarter than that. The Iran-Iraq war wasn’t 300 years ago, it was 30. We used nerve gas with the Iraqis on the Iranians while we were selling them weapons to kill the Iraqis with. We were playing Emperor Palpatine. Nobody trusts you after that. And that’s just one example. That I can give more than two examples of us betraying former allies when it was convenient for us is more than enough proof there’s no reason to trust anything that comes out of his country.

  • Laurent Weppe

    Not necessarily: Take France’s attitude toward the Arab spring:

    For decades, France’s policy toward its former colonial empire was to prop up and support despots who would in return favor french interests, and for most of his term, the previous president followed this despicable tradition by openly favoring the despots who plundered North Africa and the Middle East

    When the Arab Spring began, the french government was openly favorable to all the dictatorships involved to the point where then minister of foreign affairs Alliot-Marie advocated sending french troops to help Ben Ali & co crush their rebellions during a debate in the National Assembly.

    The turnabout that led to France advocating an intervention in Libya could not be farther away from a desire of “Empire Building”: it happened because the french public opinion was furious at the Powers that Be, so furious, in fact, that Sarko, who had brazenly courted Gaddaffi and Assad made a 180° turn and repudiated the french shadow empire in order to salvage his chances of reelection.

    Of course, I’m taling about my own country here which does not share the US diplomatically cripling post-Iraq liabilities. Convincing the world that this time the US is not trying to fuck up a country for unavowable reasons is goind to be quite the daunting task.

  • AnonaMiss

    Only ten years after the disastrous “what could go wrong?” / “something must be done!” rush to war in Iraq, you would have thought these cautions would not need restatement

    There are a few important differences here which it will not do to ignore.

    1. The something-must-be-done for Iraq was based on attack capabilities which Iraq supposedly held, and the acts of mass destruction it might carry out in the future. The something-must-be-done for Syria is based on attacks which it is carrying out right now.

    2. The evidence for the SMBD-trigger in Iraq, when it was under debate, effectively came down to the administration saying “we have evidence, trust us.” The evidence for the SMBD-trigger in Syria is publicly available to the international community.

    3. The international community was not persuaded of the allegations in the case of Iraq. The international community with a few notable exceptions are persuaded of the allegations in the case of Syria. In the case of Iraq, those unpersuaded included democracies; in the case of Syria, those unpersuaded are limited to autocracies with questionable human rights records.

    4. Humanitarian motives are at the forefront of the arguments, wrt Syria, rather than a tacked-on “And think of all the oppressed Iraqis we’ll free/bring democracy!”

    Is attacking Syria the right course of action? I don’t know. I would like to hear what other options are available.

    But it’s not another Iraq.

  • Cathy W

    Laying these sort of things out, explicitly – remember, the American people as a mass have a very short attention span – should be part of making the case. I wouldn’t say “no, don’t go, not at all, not ever” – but we need to be sure that a) the case is really, truly, most sincerely solid, and b) that whatever action we take stands a reasonable chance of making things better rather than worse for the average Syrian civilian.

  • Carstonio

    Fred and many others here suggest any intervention in Syria would be another Iraq. Although I have strong reservations about it myself, I had assumed that it would be a repeat of Libya two years ago.

  • Carstonio

    While Fred’s assessment of the US personality is accurate, he doesn’t acknowledge (but probably agrees) that GWB exploited the mindset. I know that Bush pushed for war with Iraq almost immediately after 9/11, and I’ve heard that internally he was doing this almost as soon as he took office, but I’m not certain of the latter.