Sunday, September 1, 2013


Reader Ken Dreyfack raises 3 interesting questions in his comment on my recent post WAR-LITE?

"1. So, you're saying, other than expressing moral outrage and verbal condemnation, it's better to do nothing? As I understand Obama and company, they're saying that the US can either launch a few Tomahawks, as a mostly symbolic gesture, or just shut up and move on.
"2. The notion that sending a few missiles amounts to war - or war-lite - strikes me as a rhetorical slight of hand. Would you say that the US went to war when Reagan and Clinton launched air strikes on foreign lands during the 80s and 90s?

"3. One possibility you seem to exclude is that the spectacle does not show up on television. If the targets are Syrian military airfields and control centers, I don't understand why that will necessarily appear in prime time anywhere."

Let me address them in reverse order.

3.  First of all, I think the likelihood that Syrian state television will be putting forth all its best effort to record on video any damage done by American weapons is very high.  They've done a pretty comprehensive job of "covering" for the state's particular interest the damage it wants to show which it can blame on its various rebel opponents (and not showing what it may not want its people to see).

On the other side, independent video recordings made with high and low-quality cameras and mobile phones have kept the world's television channels and YouTube very well supplied with video of the violence on all sides in Syria.  That they will be making and communicating pictures of the American attacks is, in my estimation, all but certain.

2.  Global video news channels were few and their coverage primitive when Presidents Clinton, GHW Bush and Reagan ordered their military assaults on Iraq and Afghanistan (Clinton), Panama (Bush, Sr.) and Lebanon, and Grenada (Reagan).  Today, there are literally dozens of television news channels with points of origination and view as diverse as Russia, Iran, China, and Qatar as well as the old standbys in Germany, France, the UK and US.  But this just represents an escalation in the global exposure of warfare and its effects.

What makes this a new age in communication are the digital video networks which link mobile phone and tablets and computers, which enable "amateurs" to "cover" whatever they see.  They have kept the civil war in Syria alive in human consciousnesses around the world for 2 years now.  You have also seen their video from Egypt and Tunia, Bahrain and Yemen, Iran and Iraq.  Their power and influence are only growing.  As I like to say, today almost everybody has the opportunity to know something about almost everything.  This global blanket of video communication, married to video's difficulties in properly presenting scale means that, to billions of people, war-lite (no matter how carefully modulated) looks and feels very much like war.

1.  Finally, as to what President Obama's options might be, beyond a few stand-off attacks for a few days, or doing nothing and moving on, they are admittedly few, and difficult, and all present higher risks than war-lite.  But they might actually produce results the US could take pride in, and might actually be received positively by much of the world.

They begin by turning off the megaphone.  Blaring red-lines to intimidate the likes of Bashar al-Assad or pacify the likes of Bibi Netanyahu was always bad policy.  As I noted a couple of posts ago, nowadays the so-called message in red-lining is intercepted and overheard and reinterpreted a few hundred million times before its reaches its intended recipient, and its major impact is in painting the red-liner into a self-made corner.

Telegraphing our explosive punches before we deliver them, as loud John Kerry has been doing this week serves every bit as little purpose.

War in the era of almost universal communication is best done quietly.  Believe me, the noise will begin soon enough.

Instead of broadcasting invitations to the Syrian military to base its troops in schools, mosques and historic or cultural monuments, we should be quietly using our intelligence and surveillance capabilities to locate President al-Assad, and those strategically near and dear to him.  We should then, when we are ready, and not a moment before, attack him, as precisely as we can, which means, not with Tomahawk missiles or Predator drones, and certainly not with bombers flying at 15,000 feet or higher (as we did in Kosovo) to keep them safre from Syria's formidable air defense system, but with Special Forces, whose boots and weapons and forward air control systems need to be on the ground for a short as it takes to get decapitation of the Assad regime done, with bombers and ground attack planes, taking, alas, possibly fatal risks, and quite possibly some losses, but achieving a much higher level of targeting accuracy.

We should co-ordinate our attack, after it has started, as best we can, with anti-Assad forces on the ground, dropping them weapons and providing them with intelligence sufficient to intensify the pressure on Assad.  We should do as little excess or collateral damage as possible to Syria and Syrians, but may want to consider expanding our higher-risk, but higher-accuracy assaults beyond the Assad team to the rebel factions inside Syria we believe are terrorist-linked (to al Qaeda or Hezbullah or the Iranian al-Quds force.)   

As far as these secondary targets are concerned, selectivity of victims and minimization of civilian losses should take precedence over speed.  It will take time to mobilize and organize our real or potential friends in Syria, and there are plenty, and we can enable them to take care of their rivals who are also our enemies at a tempo of our choosing.

Job One is eliminating Assad and Company, whose many war crimes and crimes against humanity eminently qualify them for real, if brief and contained war.  This is something we can do, but only at an elevated risk of losses on our side.  Leadership almost always involves risk-taking.  Piddling risk brings piddling gain.



  1. I think there are two separate dilemmas at work here. If the US and its allies, (the Brits will turn up once there is more evidence,) intervene then they will be accused of imperialism. If they don't intervene, detractors in the ME and elsewhere will go to town on shaming them. The other dilemma is that short of regime change how are they going to prevent further large scale murder of the innocents? There doesn't seem to be a stable intermediate point where any kind of peace agreement could be reached.

    In addition, unlike many other conflicts, the combatants with a geo-political stake in the game are all well-funded and can keep this conflict going for a considerable while. Controlling Syria would be worth the cost in lives for many of these groups.

    A cynical argument can be made for the strategy that says, let them duke it out and then we take out the last man standing. But it is hard to see how that policy could justify the massive loss of innocent lives.

    Unlike Iraq, there is increasingly clear evidence of the existence of WMDs and that they are being used on civilian populations. Just because the US got it wrong, or was misled, once isn't enough of an argument not to do something now.

  2. Well David, your response to my comments has finally convinced me - tossing in a coupla symbolic cruise missiles is the least bad option. Maybe that will make Assad think twice before using chemical weapons again. If Congress approves the attack ahead of time, it might even convince a few hostile governments (N. Korea? Iran?) that the US has not totally lost its deep-seated propensity to drop explosive devices on non-white peoples to express its displeasure.
    The do-nothing alternative is unacceptable, for obvious moral reasons.
    The figure out what's going on/buddy up with our friends/assassinate Assad/get some other bad guys at the same time approach depends on grossly unrealistic good luck. It must be all the recent attention to NSA giga-snooping, combined with the admittedly impressive precision of satellite and drone-born surveillance, that has folks convinced that when it puts its mind to it, US military/security forces have the eye-popping technology to evesdrop upon and pinpoint the location of just about anyone anywhere in the world. That is demonstrably untrue.
    Despite the presence of tens (hundreds?) of thousands of troops on the ground, it took six months to find Saddam Hussein and nine months to find Qaddafi, even though both had 'lost' their wars and most of their support infrastructure long before.
    And even if the extremely unlikely scenario of beheading the Assad regime were to occur, the chances of an outcome that would advance the interests of the US are even more unlikely. Just look at the recent US Middle East batting record. We struck out in Iraq (Malaki isn't even willing to stop the planes resupplying Assad from Iran from using Iraqi airspace). We struck out in Libya. And the count is 0 and 2 in Egypt. It seems preposterous to posit that the US could do better in Syria, where even the State Dept. admits that we have very little idea who's who, a long history of enmity, and very few resources available to enhance our understanding of the situation, much less to make friends.