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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  • Madhabmatics

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Ima Pseudonym

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Monala

    Now that makes sense.

  • 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.

  • 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

    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.

  • 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?

  • 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.