Tuesday, August 27, 2013


“Well, this time we’re really mad.” That seems to be gist of the message President Obama has charged Secretary of State John Kerry with giving to the world.

After a widely suspected chemical attack on Syrian civilians earlier this summer, almost certainly on orders from their murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad, reportedly killed between 100 and 150 people, The Obama White House said we were pretty steamed, and told Assad we were finally going to start arming his enemies in response. But we did not do so.

Just as we did not do anything to Assad after 2 years of his desperate attempts to hold onto power had produced an estimated 100,000 civilian deaths and more than a million refugees.

But now, Kerry says, things are different: now we know Assad ordered what we know was a chemical weapons attack that we know has killed upwards of 1000 civilians, who like the 100,000 dead who have preceded them are disproportionately women and children.

The proof, journalists have been told, will be found in “sigint,”digital messages with traceable sources and signatures that will establish, it was Bashar and his henchmen who put the poison gas into play.

Could this be the opportunity the Securicrats have been waiting for?  Is this when the surveillance capability which I accept cannot be undone can be used to benefit American security (if it is really being threatened)?  Could just the kind of message mining the NSA says it occasionally, accidentally uses to tap the communications of Americans be used righteously, to protect the innocent (even if they are not Americans) against their oppressors (even if they have never proposed oppressing America)?

If the NSA et al can really produce evidence that will convince reasonable people that the Syrian regime has indeed broken one of the world’s most serious laws and taboos, against using chemical weapons for mass attacks against civilians, that would be an important accomplishment.  And it might even provide a proper predicate for a serious response against those responsible.

But the US Government’s “proof” had better be good. As my brilliant friend George Kenney points out today in Huffington Post: 


"From the reporting it seems ineluctably clear that chemical weapons were used. That's a tragedy. But it remains far from clear who did it. None of the many insurgent groups are saints; to be honest, with the fighting going against the insurgency in recent months there would be far greater incentives on their side to use chemical weapons, in the hope of triggering western intervention, than there would be on the part of Syrian government forces."

But assuming, the charges against the Assad regime stand up, some hard questions still remain, like why would we respond?  To defend international law? To defend Syrian lives? Or would we be acting to defend our “credibility, “ to make good on President Obama's "red line" warnings?  As today's NY Times editorial puts it:

"Presidents should not make a habit of drawing red lines in public, but if they do, they had best follow through. Many countries (including Iran, which Mr. Obama has often said won’t be permitted to have a nuclear weapon) will be watching."

This sounds a little like Dr. Seuss' Horton Hatches the Egg raised to geo-strategic levels: "I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, and an elephant's faithful 100%."

Yes, it is a good thing for our allies and our enemies to know we are steadfast. But it is a better thing, if what we propose to do makes sense.

So what is that President Obama is considering?

Here is what the NY Times says we can expect:

“a limited military operation — cruise missiles launched from American destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea at military targets in Syria.”

The Washington Post has a bit more detail,

adding that “long-range bombers” may also be used for “no more than two days “ to hit “military targets not directly related to Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.”

Like what? Well, Army Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey told Congress in June, “Potential targets include high-value regime air defense, air, ground, missile, and naval forces as well as the supporting military facilities and command nodes.”

But the Post says the attack under contemplation would be something, “far smaller and designed more to send a message than to cripple Assad’s military and change the balance of forces on the ground.”

Clearly the Times heard the same ideas with slightly different words: “not a sustained air campaign intended to topple Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, or to fundamentally alter the nature of the conflict on the ground.”

So, the American government wants the world to know that making good on the President’s word means sending a message and a punishment to President Assad, but nothing more. Take that! Take your un-toppled self and un-crippled military and carry on. Carry on with an unchanged balance of forces in an unaltered conflict and just restrict yourself to killing without chemicals, the old-fashioned ways.


If, as Secretary Kerry said, Assad’s gassing his own people to keep power is a “moral obscenity,” then what is our killing a few of Assad’s soldiers (and almost inevitably, his people,) while keeping the arch-murderer in power and still dominating a majority of Syria’s citizens and territory?

It sounds like that’s America’s objective: to keep things as they are. Show a little might. Kill some Syrian Muslims. Intimidate some Iranian Muslims. But do not change the unrelieved awfulness of Syrian reality today.


Is this because we think, facing reality in a world and particular case of nothing but bad options, that this is all we really can accomplish?  If so, keeping that a “secret,” is another example of “old world thinking.”  Better to explain what we can and cannot do, and why, than simply to leave the globally visible results (the explosions will be seen on all-the-world’s TV, computer and tablet screens) to be interpreted unaided.


Our plan of action seems to be all about limiting risk, not in itself a bad thing. But if the limits, using only “stand-off” weapons, whether they be missiles, or drones, of bombers flying high (as in Kosovo and Serbia to keep pilots safe,) exacts a cost in targeting accuracy (as it did in Kosovo and Serbia,) it may not be so well received among the people on the ground or the people watching it all at home. 

The Kosovo precedent was, in a way, great for us – a war with no casualties:  none; no  American lives were lost in the campaign to free Kosovo.  But the idea of risk-free military action is a dangerous one, and to outsiders may seem both brutal and cowardly.  This is already how much of the world already perceives our military strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, America killing “because it can.”

We limit our targeting in both those places, too, and claim “good intelligence,” implied allied consent, and legal justification for everything we do, but much of the world hates us for it.

And wouldn’t you, if some foreign force meted out its brand of justice in our backyards, or even our boondocks? And wouldn’t you hate it even more if what the outsiders called justice were just geo-political posturing to protect its “word,” while changed nothing, while practically guaranteeing, of not enabling future crimes by the oppressor, and future repetitions of violent correction, further wastes of our blood and treasure?

If we choose force, death and destruction, shouldn’t it be to change something, to end, not prolong violent conflict.

Unless we cannot realistically expect to do better. 

So, tell us, if we can use our spy tech to track Assad’s messages, can we also use it to track the man himself?  If we can trace the communications of the Syrian chain of command to prove that carries out war crimes, can we not to target enough significant links in that chain to disassemble it?

Or are we just sticking to the pre-precision warfare rule of law, that killing “leaders” is unacceptable, while killing their forces and their victims is not?

Decapitation and not punishment is what needs to be done to the Assad machine if we mean to effect change.

Playing pattycake for 2 years while Syria has imploded in government-dominated violence has not worked. Quite the contrary, it has ceded the battlefield to forces that see themselves as either enemies of or betrayed by us.  Making our slaps slightly harder will not change the hearts and minds of those now fighting in Syria, nor will it save Syrian lives or stabilize Syria’s neighborhood.

But can America do that?  And if we can’t what can we do and how? If we decimate and thereby bring under control the Syrian government’s war machine (military and internal security), can we then quiet and reorganize a chaotic battleground state overrun by several different fighting forces, some of them unalterably opposed to any peace on American terms.

As Syria’s neighbor Iraq (and Libya and Yemen) eloquently demonstrate, it is much easier to create a state of war than it is to end one. And, make no mistake, after, and in part because of, our own 2 years of passive acceptance, Syria is in an advanced state of war, where every inch of ground is controlled or contested by force.

The disasters in those 3 states (and the continuing troubles in Egypt and Tunisia) show the rule of force must be ended before rule of law can start, and that almost always demands the application of greater force. We say peace, freedom and stability for Syria is our ultimate goal, but what risks will be run for that goal? Stand-off force cannot hold ground.

Almost unheard of these days in Washington, there seems to be a solid consensus, from the White House to the Congress, to the American people, that we want to keep our “commitment” completely risk-free. We do not want to get involved in Syria’s Civil War. Me neither. But, face it; nothing far short of that is likely to work.  And, even one American cruise missile means we are involved.

We may deny it, call it an isolated “punishment,” “surgical” and clean, but that’s not what the world watching the explosions is going to think. They’re going to say, the US is involved in murder, in destruction. And they are going to ask, for what? “Sending a message,” delivering a punishment, sounds a lot like, what were John Kerry’s words? Oh yes, “a moral obscenity.”

No, if we’re going to use the bullet, we’re going to have to bite the bullet. If we’re going to shoot at the beast, we have to kill the beast. If the only way to end war is to use war, we should, and then, with help from allies, with support from local participation, against some very determined foes, we must also be prepared to win the peace. Which, we should acknowledge in front,  is likely to involve a lot of time, a lot of costs, and some serious risks, including if we are honest, (even if for a limited mission over a limited period of time,) somebody’s boots on the ground.

If domestic politics, or the limits of our military strength, forbid that, the White House should say so.  Honesty about the relationship between policy and reality is something every government owes its people.   Bluster or weasel words or half-measures are not likely to work, as domestic politics, much less as foreign relations.


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