Monday, September 16, 2013


One of my favorite and most faithful blog readers, Carla Ward, asked me about Nick Kristof’s recent defense in the NY Times of his support of President Obama’s once-proposed punishment bombing of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria.


This is what I wrote to her:


I'm an admirer of Nick Kristof, a great writer and thinker, in my opinion, and I largely agree with him here.

We should have opposed Assad much earlier and more forcefully.  Obama's waiting for the "red line" of chemical weapons to be crossed was another example of his feckless passivity and indecisiveness.

He has been, again in my opinion, a disastrous president, if less so than his more aggressive and less-informed predecessor.

But bombing or not bombing, for chemical weapons or just mass murder, are not to me intelligent policy questions. 

Where national foreign policy is concerned the first questions have to be: 

-- What are our strategic goals?  and 
-- What's our plan to achieve them at the lowest possible cost?

It is good, and a genuine achievement to have chemical weapons taken off the Syrian battlefield, (especially with so little cost to American and human lives) but it leaves unanswered more basic questions like,
-- Should Assad be allowed to rule? to live? 
-- What are the available alternatives in terms of governing Syria? 
-- Are they more aligned to our interests? will they benefit Syrians?  

Then there are the even harder, how to questions like 
-- How do we get rid of Assad?  
-- How do we find a better successor? and 
-- How do we stabilize the situation in Syria and in the Mideast region so that the new leader has a genuine chance to succeed?

 Pardon me for not having answers to those questions, but then, I'm not the President.  For Mr. Obama to have asked for a national debate on bombing without even broaching, much less trying to answer these real, and harder questions is another example of why he is such a failed President.

One thing I think is certain: Secretary of State John Kerry's formulation of an "unbelievably small" bombing attack is 
-- unbelievable.  As the President said, "the US Air Force doesn't do pinpricks." 
-- a typically inaccurate (I would say dishonest) description of what would have been a doomed and ineffective gesture, which, if taken seriously, would have mis-framed that now put off debate.
-- a perfect example of a "half-measure," proposed by an Administration which flat didn't know what to do about being caught out on the wrong side of a gratuitous, hopefully never to be repeated artificial red line.

By the way, there are at least 2 more red lines out there waiting for American leaders to stumble across them, having to do with the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea and Iran.  The fact is, if it is willing to pay the cost in sanctions, isolation and opprobrium, a state can, with the necessary (mis)investment of personnel, money and national commitment, learn to make nuclear weapons.  Period.

Opposing states can enforce a high cost on such nouveau nuclear powers, but they cannot, short of war, stop them.

When George W. Bush had to face Kim Jong Il's willful crossing of the nuclear red line, he did the only smart thing: he ate it. Even with a nuke or 2, North Korea hardly poses a strategic challenge to the US, but it has powerful allies like China which would protect it -- again probably with punishments short of war, like changing its policy of helping to finance US debts -- should we take military measures to eliminate the North Korean threat, leadership or country.

Where Iran is concerned, there is a more rational appreciation of the costs of nuclear acquisition than in Pyongyang, and there seem to be real alternatives short of force that might convince Tehran to stay away from nuclearizing its military.  There is also a global consensus that all of them should be exhausted before any kind of forceful confrontation with Iran is considered.

The outlier from this consensus, blustering Binyamin Netanyahu, whose preferred form of warfare is attacking over-matched Palestinian or Lebanese militias and mercilessly bombing civilian populations, would obviously have to think twice before engaging a state as large and well-armed as Iran, for whom one-off air strikes against suspected nuclear facilities like those used against Iraq or Syria would be neither disarming, decisive nor deterring.

And, of Bibi didn't want to do such thinking, it would fall to President Barack Obama to enforce American interests in the region by emphatically leading a "global discussion" against any ill-considered Israeli aggression against Iran. 


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