Friday, August 30, 2013

A Syrious Question

Thinking about this Syria tsurris, I have a question for the readership.

Let me start by saying that IN THIS CASE I see pretty much all the military options available to the U.S. as "bad". I don't see how anything short of a fairly massive effort will have any more than a nuisance effect, while anything short of a successful Turkish invasion and occupation (h/t to Sven in the comment thread over at MilPub!) has IMO a fairly serious risk of Somaliaizing this whole portion of the Levant. This particular case is one where the "First, do no harm" rule pretty much comes into force.


That said, what I'm wondering is whether the whole political drive from within the Obama Administration (aided and abetted, of course, by the usual Republican Warhawk Chorus Starring John McCain!) isn't a 2013 variation of the sort of thing that Great imperial Powers have always done to small states and peoples who irritate them?

At least here for the U.S. the actual "risk" is pretty minimal...there's little likelihood of losing three legions in a forest, or an entire punitive expedition in the Hindu Kush.

So while it's frustrating for U.S. citizens to watch our government do this stuff, I'm not sure how you avoid it unless you're sensible enough to not play the Imperial Game at all, and I can't think of a Great Power in history what hasn't, from the Expedition to Syracuse through Crassus' legions in Parthia to Adowa to Isandlhwana to LZ X-Ray...

I'm not trying to say "oh, well, it just is what it is.." or minimize the additional misery this will do to the already-pretty-damn-miserable country or that irritation with the ridiculous way it seems to being ginned up, but I guess I have wonder; is this another example of U.S. geopolitical/strategic cluelessness (as I think my man seydlitz would suggest)...or just a Great Power's instinct to hammer down any nail it doesn't like to see sticking up? Are Obama and his people making a unique mistake, or are they doing the same thing that Kublai Khan did in Java in 1293, Deng Xiaoping did in Vietnam in 1979, or Woodrow Wilson did in Mexico in 1916?

So my "big picture" question would be " there a way for the U.S. in particular to avoid this, or is this sort of thing a feature of being a Great Power, not a bug in this particular Administration or ANY U.S. Administration..?"

Because if the former, well, there would seem to be a way out of this damned rut. But if the latter...

I'm genuinely curious; what do you think?


Don Francisco said...

I was struck by a recent commentator, observing the west will go to war in Syria out of 'embarrassment'; seeing the images of war & chemical attacks, there is feeling that something must be done, even if we don't know what will help or whose fault it is.

I'd side with it being a feature not a bug. Politicians like playing it, so does a substantial part of the population. I don't think the US in unique in this regard,

Ael said...

Great power behaviour can change. Witness the distinct lack of direct collisions since thermonuclear devices were invented.

As far as those expeditionary forces go, they should (and can) be controlled via international law. (I.e. the UN Security Council).

However, there is a fundamental lack of respect for the law (any law not just international law) in Washington.

Until that changes, the USA will continue to blow up random small countries as byproducts of invisible power games played inside the beltway.

FDChief said...

Ael: Nukes do change the equation. But I think they may also tend to act as generators of Great Power expeditions rather than deterrents if the smaller nation/faction doesn't have them...YET.

Hence the current U.S. posturing versus Iran; IF the mullahs get a nuke it's a game-changer and makes Great Power intervention less likely. But their intention to GET a nuke makes it more - rather than less likely - for Great Powers aligned against them to intervene in their affairs.

And I'd argue that the use of and respect for "international law" is yet another aspect of the whole bug/feature part of this for Great Powers. It's all well and good for the UNSC to talk smack, but how does it actually restrain the U.S. (or Russia or China) if those Powers don't want to be restrained?

And I'd argue that no Power "respects" the UN. They're willing to use it when it furthers their aims, but the U.S. is no different than any other Power in disregarding it when it contradicts them. Why not? The UN has no enforcement capability. THAT's a feature, not a bug.

jim at ranger said...

What Woodrow did is irrelevant.
Ditto Truman.
We have the UN and we are a founding member. We are not supposed to be a rogue warrior state regardless of what you and Marchenko espouse.
If we are not going to follow the Nuremburg rules then we should change our flag to the Black flag symbolizing no quarter.
Our hands are not clean when it comes to chemical weapons , so why the outrage in Syria. Hell , in the Occupy protests we used chem against our citizens. Think WACO =samo samo.
Think Fallujah and Willy Pete.
Remember that in early 42 we had hundreds of tons of chem wpns in Hawaii to use if the Japs invaded. What about agent orange?
My next point is let the syrian and all the fighters attracted to this skirmish kill the hell out of one another and the world will be a better place.
As a CBR trained O i was wondering EXACTLY what agent was used, AND what were the meteorological conditions at the strike area. Were these persistent or non persistent?
We sure are weak on the details just like the chemical weapon sites in Iraq that turned out to be helium production sites for weather balloons.

Pluto said...

I cannot "go to war out of embarrassment" because I am considerably more embarrassed by the lack of the following:
- a reasonable objective
- a reasonable plan to achieve the objective
- a reason to think that this won't spread into something worse

Syrbal/Labrys said...

WE certainly didn't run to blast Saddamn Hussein in 1988 when he killed at least twice as many people with gas.

And then, there is the disturbing bit that America allegedly KNEW about this latest attack for three days before it happened and felt no rush to ACT then to STOP the occurence.

That is not very "Great Power"....I tend to label that a day late and way more than a moral dollar short. We don't use the World Court or the UN except when it is convenient to us; the rest of the time we pull their teeth and ignore them. That is what I call "chickenshit." Not a technical political term, but more descriptive than "great".

jim at ranger said...

To all,
With the strategic sat photography available at the NCA level i can't but wonder where the photos are to verify the claims being made by the US administration re:chem wpns.

Pluto said...

Syrbal: "And then, there is the disturbing bit that America allegedly KNEW about this latest attack for three days before it happened and felt no rush to ACT then to STOP the occurrence."

I've got several problems with this statement.

1. Show me the sources telling us that the US knew about this in advance. I'm very uncomfortable with the belief that the US government is omniscient and never makes mistakes.

2. You're saying we should act to prevent a POTENTIAL attack that might or might not happen at some point in the future? If this is so, I urge you to turn yourself into the police immediately on the grounds that you will undoubtedly break some law in the future and we should get the punishment phase out of the way immediately.

3. Whatever happened to "innocent until proven guilty?" Is it not possible that somebody in the Syrian chain of command might (Assad for example) might have a change of heart and countermand the order? That would have been a far better thing than the US acting to prevent something it "knows in advance."

4. How do you prevent an attack while it is happening? The only way I can think of to do so involves violating a very large number of international laws regarding sovereignty that protect the interests of the US far more than intervening in a single attack like this. Especially because we are likely to make a mistake and shoot up a wedding party instead of the people launching the attack.

Jim, as usual, has a very good point that the US government has offered exactly zero evidence that they know who ordered the attack and can make strikes that will only punish the offenders. This reminds me so much of Iraq (with even less supporting evidence) that it makes me sick to my stomach.

I have nothing against targeted strikes as long as I am confident that the best interests of the US (not necessarily the US government) are being served. There is nothing in this whole sordid affair to increase my confidence level.

Barry said...

FDChief: "Hence the current U.S. posturing versus Iran; IF the mullahs get a nuke it's a game-changer and makes Great Power intervention less likely. But their intention to GET a nuke makes it more - rather than less likely - for Great Powers aligned against them to intervene in their affairs."

Not really; the US and other western powers (not to mention the Saudis, Saddam, etc.) have been pounding on them ever since the Revolution.

FDChief said...

Jim: Any good prosecutor knows that if you establish a pattern of criminal behavior you've gone a long way to convincing the jury that your accused done the crime. The fact that the U.S. has been doing this sort of thing since back in the 1800s seems to make a credible argument that this isn't a one-off, it isn't some sort of unique mistake or bad judgement call on the part of this Administration or of a U.S. government mesmerized by the "War on Terror", but something that tends to happen to nations and governments who see themselves as Powers. So the fact that Wilson and Truman and Kennedy and LBJ and Clinton and Bush I and Bush II and now Obama are doing much the same thing seems to make it pretty clear to me that this is a feature of U.S. politics, not a bug.

IMO that kind of sucks, because it suggests that there's no real cure for the Washington Rules; that short of a massive realignment in the way that the geopolitical powers in the country think we will keep running into this damn stuff. Every decade or so there will be another Gulf of Tonkin, or another Libya, or Syria, or Nigeria to "straighten out", whether or not the various places and peoples are amenable to military force or whether the U.S. is the right agent to use such force or whether force is the right tool period...

srv said...

This isn't so much about leaders as it is about those who surround them. I've pretty much decided that most leaders are just people being molded by true believers who have the money or position to play in the major leagues.

At the pointy end of those bombs, there's not really a huge difference between neocon philosophy and the Right-to-Protect crowd.

Great powers attract these sort of people.

Barry said...

"At the pointy end of those bombs, there's not really a huge difference between neocon philosophy and the Right-to-Protect crowd."

R2P is the 'Compassionate Conservatism' of the neocons. It's a way of piously painting the desired current war in a moral light.

Note how little talk of cutting off funding for the Egyptian Army there was, no matter how high it piles the bodies.

Syrbal/Labrys said...


My questioning whether we knew and did nothing came from a discussion here I don't think the American government is infallible and do not understand your hostile attitude. IF you KNOW someone is going to do something wrong, as there was the suggestion that American intelligence knew, it would certainly behoove that knowledgeable person to at least offer the suggestion of a warning to those in harm's way.

To say there is no moral ground requiring a warning (note, I did NOT say to ACT/Bomb anyone), is like saying, so what if the weather service knows a hurricane is coming, why may or may not hit anyone we care about.

You erected a straw man argument out of what I was talking about; what I was saying is we should have WARNED about possible chemical attack; if we did not do so to hide our intelligence operatives --- then we can scarcely claim 'high moral ground' for an attack AFTER the chemical attack. What I said was Assad should face charges in World Court, not that America take a pre-emptive military shot.

basilbeast said...

Note how little talk of cutting off funding for the Egyptian Army there was, no matter how high it piles the bodies.

Which true point highlights what is behind all this.

Money. I'm sure that there's some wise aphorism along the lines of "Money talks and morality walks."

War is truly a racket, and everytime that comes up I recall Michael Moore's interview of the manager of a weapons factory, weapons systems advertising, weapons "porn" in videos.

As far as features and bugs, one of the common descriptions or accolades of great leaders is their ability to shape events, not to react to them. Most current versions seem to go along to get along, hardly breaking mold or patterns.

Maybe Caligula was a great and clever leader after all.

Pandering to war lust and profits by marching his legions off to Britain but pelting the North Sea with ballista bolts and ordering his army to collect seashells as spoils is certainly unique.

Or just a vicious rumor. The wiki bit on this is funny.


basilbeast said...

And furthermore, what the hell happened to that former Winter Soldier Kerry, channeling Darth Cheney?

Is he so dense or clueless about what a former SoS endured and learned over the past 10 years? Even if there were CWs used and ordered by Assad, selfrighteousness doesn't go far to make might right.

And there's grumbling in the ranks, according to Fallows. Who knows.


basilbeast said...

"Dinner with Hitler? Did Kerry get an autograph?"


FDChief said...

Well, I guess the magilla will be decided by a vote of Congress. One can only hope that they will not come up with a piece of work as completely effed up as the 2001 AUMF, but I have no confidence that they won't.

Christ, what a mess.

jim at ranger said...

To all,
Before Congress votes shouldn't some one ask--where did the sarin come from?
What's the source?

jim at ranger said...

To all,
I just don't get it.
In Panama we killed at least 2000 civilians for no observable purpose.
We killed millions in the VN war, many of women and children. We bombed Cambodia and Laos back into the stone age. Can anyone forget the napalmed girl running naked down the road? We defoliated a country.That was a chemical weapon was it not?
We killed women and children routinely in the PWOT. Mannings release showed a gunship killing a kid, if i remember correctly.
So how are we morally superior?
Of course i didn't mention Dresden/Hamburg/Tokyo/Naga/Hiro, but i guess you all get the point.
And Congress, well they'll do what Congress always does.
Don't they always?

Syrbal/Labrys said...


I don't think we are morally superior, I think we are hypocrites. I think we are being sold a bill of goods, just as we were on Iraq.

And I am terribly afraid nobody in Congress is listening to constituents, outside of those who are lobbyists with lots of money.

FDChief said...

Like I said, jim, I think that this is just a feature of having lots of bombs and guns; people and nations end up using them because they can. I don't think this has anything to do with morality, superior or otherwise...

I suspect there are some poor dumb bastards on the Hill and elsewhere who really believe that they're going to "kill for peace". The majority of the folks being heard on this issue as in favor of it have various power-political motives.

FDChief said...

Actually, Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones sums up the issues I have with this as being about enforcing the 1925 Geneva Protocol:

"The problem is that no matter how virtuously we view our own motives, and no matter how clear we think our message is, the rest of the world views things differently. They are much more cynical, and the message they'll take away from air strikes is that the U.S. will punish the use of chemical weapons if:

You are a small country that poses no real threat of retaliation;
And we didn't like you very much to begin with;
And the current U.S. president happens to want to do it;
And America's current strategic alliances permit it.

Would American air strikes on Syria give the world's tinpot thugs something to think about? Sure. And maybe you can say that every little nudge helps. But if we end up bombing Syria, I don't think anyone would take away from it a belief that America will always and forever retaliate against any country that uses chemical weapons. That's a pleasant fiction we might enjoy telling ourselves, but history doesn't back it up and the rest of the world knows it."

Yep. What he said.

jim at ranger said...

In 1992 GHWB sold the war with a line of lies that included one that said that Iraqi soldiers took 22 Kuwaiti babies off of life support thereby killing them.
In 1914 we sold the Huns as bayoneting Belgian kids. Neither proved to be true.
I doubt all the intel/news coming outta Syria AND the White House.

Syrbal/Labrys said...

I know, JIm....the old line about how one knows a politician is lying is that 'his mouth is moving' comes to mind. I have to get a grip on my own mild conspiracy theory affliction at some ways, us bombing Syria would IMPROVE Assad's cred in the area. And that and the continued drum beat makes me wonder why we might want to do that, you know?

FDChief said...

jim, Labrys: While I don't have any confidence or belief in the capability of any U.S. politician to play political 12-dimension chess to the degree that he/she/they would gin up airstrikes on Syria to bolster the Assad regime, the history of the area shows that the U.S. has been able to get along just fine with Assad, even to the point of renditioning our captives to him to torture when we didn't feel energetic enough to do it ourselves or something.

In all honesty I really do think this goes back to some defense policy staffer briefing Obama's NSC about the Syrian chemical attacks (plural, there have been several, mostly small, and at least one or more are suspected of having been by rebel outfits or by government defectors to the rebels...) and mentioning the problem of facing a potential enemy who not only had chemical munitions but the will to use them.

Chemicals suck as weapons; well-trained troops don't lose many people to them (civilians, on the other hand, drop like flies...). But they make even simple military tasks difficult and - probably the MOST important factor - they freak the U.S. public out. The notion that Our Brave Boys and Girls might get slimed if we invaded Syria would go huge in cooling off public enthusiasm for such an invasion.

So...Obama ends up spewing his "red line" bullshit and when Assad's people (possibly...we still don't have any irrefutable proof...) gas his rebels we're caught in the old cleft stick of our own fashioning.

Stupid and pointless, but more believable than this all being some complex Machiavellian scheme to prop up Assad...

basilbeast said...

Military suicides, tragically, outnumber combat deaths these days.

General Dempsey contradicts Sec. Kerry's statement that bombing is not an act of war.

And I've seen pictures like this

on FB and around the web.

Is there trouble brewing in the ranks?


basilbeast said...

I just ran into this, which correctly judges the meme I've heard many times, last night from EJ Dionne f'rinstance, that the US will lose face if we decide not to sprinkle Syria with Freedom Bombs. And think of the Children!!

"Michael Gerson made his bones by strategically placing verbs and things in the sentences for the least literate president in the history of the Republic. Famously, Gerson was the Christian conscience of the administration that brought the United States over to the side of nations that torture and that wage aggressive wars. Yes, dear friends, Michael Gerson was the gospel bobo of the waterboard. Naturally, this all qualified him for a post-ventriloquism career on the op-ed pages of The Washington Post, under the command of Fred Hiatt, whose skill in personnel matters rivals that of the 1962 New York Mets. It seems now that Gerson has examined his deeply Christian conscience and has come out on the other side as a brawny spokesman for the Why Do They Laugh At My Mighty Sword? position on Syria.


basilbeast said...

.the old line about how one knows a politician is lying is that 'his mouth is moving' comes to mind

In case you need proof to defend yourself . . . . . .

"Update: Also note that Kerry said he and Hagel were against the Iraq war. They both voted for it. C'mon."


Pluto said...

Syrbal, I apologize for the attack. My only defense is that you started out your comments very similar to a lot of the pro-bombing comments and I flew off the handle.

I've encountered quite a lot of people recently who are in favor of bombing and use very similar arguments to yours but without the twist you added at the end. Count this as a reading failure on my part.

Like you, I favor a slow building of a coalition using the World Court and the UN similar to what Bush the elder did in 1992.

It would restore US prestige in the world by working within the framework of treaties already in place, would force the US government to make its information public, and would put Russia in a tough position diplomatically if the charges can be proven.

Depending on the evidence and the actions of the Assad government, I could even see myself favoring boots on the ground if we could find a reasonably good moderate replacement for Assad (unlikely but theoretically possible).

There's no need to hurry here, the Assad regime is holding off the rebellion(s) but it cannot stop it(them) and they will eventually wear down government support until they win out of sheer government exhaustion. This is very similar to the gameplan in 1930's China and took only 15 short years to work.

no one said...

".... but more believable than this all being some complex Machiavellian scheme to prop up Assad..."

IMHO, this is a collision of America's messianic complex (e.g. spreading freedom and democracy to the heathens) and its hard-on for Iran. Regarding the latter, the wonks think that Iran will jump bad to protect - or at least avenge - an action against Assad and that will give us the window of opportunity to finally fulfill the fantasy of ruining the Iranian Revolutionary Gov't.

IMVHO, the wonks and wide eyed world saviors are pushing us to the brink of WW3. Note there has recently even been some crazy talk about the US being able to defeat the Russians in set piece war.

We should be working with the Russians in support of Assad to crush the Islamic radical scum that is attempting to make Syria part of some hideous anti-US caliphate.

FDChief said...

"We should be working with the Russians in support of Assad to crush the Islamic radical scum that is attempting to make Syria part of some hideous anti-US caliphate."

Weellll...forst of all I don't know if anything is going to put the civil war genie back in the Alawite bottle, Russians, the U.S., Assad, or whatever.

I'm guessing the best that anyone can do now is hope that some decently brutal Ataturk-type secular strongman manages to assemble enough partisans to keep the entire thing from just becoming Somalia on the eastern Levant.

And secondly, everytime I hear the word "caliphate" I reach for my revolver. It's REALLY high time to get over our juvenile obsession with the fantasies of a bunch of raggedy-ass salafis. There are "Islamic radical scum" in Syria. They are neither a majority of the rebels (though they are often the most ruthless and thus the most militarily effective) nor likely to want to form some sort of pan-Arab "caliphate" with the people they hate - such as Iran, longtime backer of the Assad clan.

The bizarre fear and loathing of this comic-book "caliphate" which existed in bin Laden's masturbatory fantasies and Michelle Malkin's under-the-bed-wetting nightmares is perhaps the only thing that has caused more damage to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East than our BFF embrace of Israel.

Other than that, well, yeah. The sensible thing would be to work with the Russians, Turks, and Iran to broker some sort of deal where Syria ended up with that Ataturk-type guy. We won't do that, of course, because that would mean actually "negotiating", which we have somehow managed to conflate with "surrendering" by forgetting how the great empires of history managed to play and finesse both their enemies and allies.

Fuckadoodledoo, we're stupid.

FDChief said...

"I could even see myself favoring boots on the ground if we could find a reasonably good moderate replacement for Assad."

1. After three years of war the only "moderates" in Syria are probably the ones no longer breathing. Don't get your hopes up.

2. U.S. troops are a bad solution to a worse problem. You want "boots on the ground"? Look north. The Turkish Army is a damn good outfit; tough, trained, and professional. There might be some issues with the Syrian Kurds, but overall if there was a "solution" to this involving foreign troops - and I don't agree particularly that there is one, mind you - it would seem to me to work better with the Turks and with U.S. forces.

Just my opinion, but there you are...

Syrbal/Labrys said...


Apology accepted. There is no way I favor boots on the ground unless it is part of a UN mop up AFTER Assad is finished and humanitarian relief is needed.

I'm sick of watching Americans play cop places where the natives like shooting us better than each other.