On red lines and war

Image: Michael Lusk

In The New Yorker yesterday, George Packer wrote “Two Minds on Syria.” It covers many of the issues in the current “should we or shouldn’t we” discussions about how to react to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. And at the risk of repeating what others have already said, I have a few things to add.

Like everyone else, I was shocked by the photos and videos from Syria, heartbroken and outraged by images of parents hugging their dead children and children crying over dead parents. But a skeptical little voice kept asking who would benefit by drawing the US into the Syrian conflict. And although we are being told now that the evidence points to Syria’s President Assad, it seems illogical that he would deliberately provoke US strikes against his own regime. Might the rebels themselves have done it, to draw our support?

And why act now? Is killing hundreds with chemicals really more heinous than killing thousands with guns or bombs? Are chemicals really any more a “weapon of mass destruction” than bombs and rockets?

I also have no faith in any attempt the US might make to form a coalition of nations to deal with the situation. Remember the Coalition of the Willing we organized to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq? The vast majority of those troops were ours. Most of the other coalition nations contributed only token numbers.

No matter. It looks as though we are on the eve of another intervention, another war. And make no mistake; using bombs or missiles on another nation is a declaration of war. Obama erred in drawing his unscripted “red line” in a world where nothing is so simple, so black and white. There are no lines; there are only gray areas. But now, absent some Solomonic edict from the White House, it appears we’ll be taking military action in Syria. And I object.

As I said yesterday in a Huffington Post discussion:

Let someone else lead this intervention, someone who hasn’t spent the last ten years fighting two wars in the Middle East. We’re not the world’s policeman, but as long as we keep acting like it, other nations will gladly let us take the lead and bear the expense. We’re about to be chumps. Again.

Many of you may disagree. And that’s understandable. It’s a complex issue with no easy answers. No right answers. I just happen to believe the US is neither faultless enough nor wise enough to be taking sides in someone else’s civil war.

17 thoughts on “On red lines and war

    1. I wish I were more confident that we’ll stay out of it. It’s hard to judge, the way the media are carrying on, and our track record on such things is not good. But just maybe Obama will take the hit to his reputation and refuse to drag us into another war.

  1. Obama has better sense than to walk into that quagmire… there is no political reason for him to do so, with him being a lame duck and all that accompanies that… but mostly, he has more sense than that.
    O’yeah, there might be a few token missiles thrown towards areas where Assad might be hiding (and he will be hiding) but no boots on the ground, no major attacks…. just a deterrent to the use of biochemical weapons.
    And it was almost definitely not the “rebels” that used the gas, the delivery system was missiles of the type that the rebels do not have.
    These people… the middle easterners, the muslims, the rebels, all of them… do not value life, especially the lives of women and children, anywhere near as much as we value them. To them, they are human shields, because westerners and especially Americans are not going to loose a barrage on men who are hiding behind women and children… it goes against everything that we value, and this fact gives them an advantage that is really impossible to overcome.
    Collateral damage is really hard to accept. I cannot imagine what it could do to a soldier to be fired upon by a rebel hiding behind a bunch of women and children… who are essentially hostages., They don’t want to die any more than the American who has to shoot them down to kill the guy who wants to kill them. They call it PTSD when they return, if they return.
    This is our great dilemma in Syria… and everywhere else that we are fighting. We really want to be better, both individually and as a nation… but there are forces, evil forces, corporate forces… that control us.
    I just hope that President Obama can handle this.

    1. I hope you’re right. I hope the man I voted for, the thoughtful man who wouldn’t make rash decisions or drag us into another war, is still in the White House tonight.

      I don’t agree with your “few token missiles,” however. I don’t believe we can have that without a full-blown war, any more than a woman can be just “a little bit” pregnant.

  2. I saw the George Packer column on another blog yesterday. It is an excellent piece. I can’t think of a better way to describe the exquisitely-difficult conundrum posed by the Syrian mess. Those on the right, including George Will in today’s papers, are having a good time taking the president to task for his “red-line” remark that may or may not lead to a bad decision.

    The Powell Doctrine states that a list of questions all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:

    Is a vital national security interest threatened? (Yes. Stability of oil supply.)
    Do we have a clear attainable objective? (No. This is a religious war in which we have no side.)
    Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed? (No, they are unpredictable.)
    Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted? (No. UN, NATO.)
    Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement? (No.)
    Have the consequences of our action been fully considered? (No. Again, unpredictable, esp. since rebel politics are undefined.)
    Is the action supported by the American people? (No. Public opinion is divided.)
    Do we have genuine broad international support?

    As for the last question, except possibly for the U.K. it seems to me we have international support only if the U.S. bears the brunt of the expense and of the political risk. That’s not support, it’s fence-sitting. The OECD considers us as the world’s only superpower to be the world’s policeman and we have spent ourselves into bankruptcy trying to live up to that image. Enough, I say. It’s past time that Europe steps up to the plate. After all, isn’t this ugly scene playing out in their own backyard?

    1. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and our leaders seem to be suffering from extreme memory loss, both short and long term.

      As I noted above, I too am tired of other nations sitting back and expecting the US to take the lead and bear all the expense in money and lives. I especially resent it given that we are trying to get out of two ill-considered Middle East wars. Syria is not and should not become our third war (although I don’t underestimate the influence of US oil interests). I agree with you; it’s time for Europe and the Middle East to take the lead. This is not our fight.

      Obama’s “red line” comment was an off-the-cuff response to a reporter’s question, not part of an official policy statement. Going to war over something like that would be tragic.

  3. For some reason… The past few times I’ve tried to reply to one of your Pied Type articles, I get a screen saying (paraphrased), “This cannot be posted.” In the current “On red lines and war”, I only tried to say: Sacrilege!  You and I are in total agreement. 🙂 Joe

    1. I’ve no idea what’s happening, particularly since this comment got posted. If it happens again, please note exactly what the error message says and what you are doing when it happens and I’ll report it to WordPress. Your comments should go up first time, every time.

      And thanks for continuing to read and comment. I appreciate it (especially when you agree with me 🙂 )

  4. With the Powell Doctrine in place, we would not have been in a war in 70 years…..and yes, this is not our fight, but we do not live in a vacuum… whatever happens in the world can some day happen to us.
    I don’t like the idea of being the policemen of the world… but I really don’t like the idea of Iran being the policeman of the world.
    And “token missiles” is the modern equivalent of the “shot across the bow”, and indication that yes, we mean business, change your pants, wipe the snot off of your face and do the right thing… and then we need to explain to them plainly what we think the right thing is. Which neither you or I might agree with, and indeed, 85% of Americans (roughly) think that we should stay completely out of it.
    I really don’t believe that they are foolish enough to ignore our warning… and I don’t really know what we should do if they do. But my hope is that they will feel that we (or a “coalition of forces) will come in and utterly destroy them and stop using chemical weapons to fight their rebellion.
    Lots of hope for the situation… I hope. Or I might just be a fool pissing into the wind….

    1. A nuclear Iran is a threat to the entire region, although I think the Israelis should handle that because they are the most at risk. A chemical Syria does not pose such a serious threat. So our taking sides will accomplish nothing other than show the world, once again, that they can sit back and do nothing and the US will do all the necessary policing. That once again, if others hang back, we’ll pay the price, take the risk, and deal with the consequences, whatever they might be.

      Note even Britain refuses to get involved. A strong signal that we should back off too, for all the same good reasons. Moreso now that even our biggest ally will not support us. And we’ve seen in the past how a “coalition of the willing” works. It will be Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs all over again.

      I don’t believe in “limited wars” anymore. Not after Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t believe we can slap Assad’s hands and he’ll be a good boy and go to his room. I don’t believe we can lob missiles into another country without repercussions — and we’ve no idea what those might be (other than giving Middle Eastern radicals yet another reason to hate us). I don’t believe we should respond after this chemical attack any more than we did after Assad’s previous chemical attacks, or that we should lob missiles over these several hundred deaths when 100,000 others have already died.

      John Kerry called the Syrian attack “a moral obscenity.” But war, too, is a moral obscenity. Killing anyone by any method is a moral obscenity. And it happens right here in the streets of America every day. Who are we to point fingers and declare others morally obscene? Such arrogance!

      1. I really do not feel that we should decide what we do on what GB wants to do… we should decide what we do on what we feel is right.
        I really feel that we should just stay the fuck away from middle-east problems but the petrol industries are worried about supply, so the majority of our politicians will be bought out.
        89% of Americans feel that we should stay out of it.
        75% of our politicians are indebted to the oil industry.
        We have to depend on the man that we elected twice to lead our country to do the right thing, and I think that he will,.. to the best of his ability.
        And I think that we should support him, and not necessarily any “coalition” that has no stated loyalty to the USA. Obama has stated many times his loyalty… and the energy industry has always stated their loyalty ot their stockholders.

        1. I wish I could say with confidence that wiser heads than mine will make the decision. But in the last couple of years I’ve come to believe there’s a severe shortage of people in Washington who make their decisions based on the country’s best interest instead of their own. There is, of course, nothing we citizens can do at this point but hope the president makes the right decision.

... and that's my two cents