It seems obvious at this point that 1) The Obama administration is going to drop some bombs on something or someone in Syria, even if no one is yet sure what or whom; and 2) This is something they'd really rather not do. Back when George W. Bush was president, he and his team were practically giddy with excitement over the Iraq War, and much was made of the fact that nearly all the top people whose loins were burning to blow stuff up and send other people's children to fight had themselves worked hard to avoid serving in Vietnam. But the truth is that whether we're talking about a Republican administration filled with eager armchair warriors or a Democrat administration filled with peaceniks, every American president eventually scrambles the jets and orders the bomb bays loaded. And when you step back to look at all our military adventures, every invasion and police action and no-fly zone and Operation Turgid Thrusting, you can't help wonder whether we'll ever see a presidency in which we don't project our military force over somebody else's borders. Madeline Albright, Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, once said to Colin Powell, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?", and the implicit answer seems to be, none at all.
So I thought it would be worthwhile to take a quick look at some of the places we've invaded, bombed, or otherwise used our military on just in the last half-century, to put this in context:
A story from the Middle East's past to help understand its present: One evening in Cairo, British Ambassador Sir Miles Lampson arrived at the royal palace accompanied by the commander of the British army in Egypt and "stalwart military officers armed to the teeth." While he waited to meet King Farouk, Lampson heard "the rumble of [British] tanks and armoured cars, taking up positions round the palace." It was February 1942; Nazi general Erwin Rommel's Afrikakorps threatened to conquer Egypt, and the British wanted a government firmly in the Allied camp. Lampson demanded that the young, Axis-leaning king abdicate, but accepted a compromise: Farouk appointed the head of the Wafd Party, Mustafa al-Nahhas Pasha, to head a pro-British government. "So much for the events of the evening, which I confess I could not have enjoyed more," wrote Sir Miles, reporting to London on his coup d'état.
As the Obama administration considers military action against Syria as retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, it’s important to consider what such strikes could actually accomplish, and at what cost. As I understand them, the two main arguments for strikes are: 1) Having set a red line, the credibility of the United States now requires that the Bashar al-Assad regime be punished for crossing it; 2) Military action is necessary to uphold the international norm against chemical weapons and to deter future use.
We haven't started a new war in years, but Bill Kristol knows what to do about that. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
Back when George W. Bush was president, William Kristol—editor of the Weekly Standard, former Dan Quayle chief of staff, and general conservative man-about-town—co-founded something called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, whose purpose was to beat the war drums until the American government and public saw the wisdom of an invasion. Kristol was eventually mocked not only for his status as a "chickenhawk"—like nearly all the war's most visible boosters, he was eager to send other people to fight and die, but had avoided military service during the Vietnam War—but for his confidently offered yet comically wrong predictions about Iraq, like "This is going to be a two-month war" or his immortal assertion that there was no reason to think there'd be any conflict between Sunnis and Shias since "Iraq's always been very secular." In the end, Kristol and his allies got what they wanted, and that Iraq thing turned out great for everybody involved.
And now, in case you were on the fence about whether the American government should take military action in Syria, Kristol has returned...
A Canadian World War I soldier with mustard gas burns. (Wikimedia Commons)
Back in December, when the White House first declared that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would constitute a "red line" whose crossing would produce some kind of response (they never said what kind), I wondered why the taboo against chemical weapons exists. Now that it looks like we're about to start bombing Syria, it's worth revisiting the question of what lies behind the taboo and how it is guiding our feelings and actions.
Why do we have this international consensus saying that while it's bad for someone like Assad to bomb a neighborhood full of civilians and kill all the men, women, and children therein, it's worse for him to kill that same number of civilians by means of poison gas than by means of "conventional" munitions that merely tear their bodies to pieces? Indeed, we act as though killing, say, a hundred people with poison gas is worse than killing a thousand or ten thousand people with conventional weapons. After all, the Obama administration (not to mention the rest of the world) reacted to Assad murdering 100,000 people by expressing its deep consternation and trying to figure out how to help without actually getting involved. But only now that he has apparently used some kind of lethal gas in an attack that accounted for less than one percent of all the civilians he has killed are we finally ready to unleash our own military.
It’s too soon to say whether the Egyptian coup that overthrew the elected government of Islamist Mohamed Morsi—and the ensuing crackdown that has now killed more than a thousand people—has squashed any chance for democratic reform in Egypt. I think it’s safe to say that its short-term prognosis is grim.
What seems clear, however, is that the Egyptian military crackdown has ended talk of George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.” At the very least, it has revealed that many of its supporters weren’t that serious about it to begin with.
When two homemade bombs derailed the Boston Marathon on April 15, longtime Mayor Thomas Menino was laid up in Brigham and Women’s Hospital, recovering from his latest setback in a string of recent ailments. The mayor of two decades immediately checked out of critical care to attend police and media briefings; but in a wheelchair with his medical bracelet still snug around his wrist, Menino couldn't deliver the sort of reassuring rhetoric that Rudy Giuliani did for New Yorkers after September 11, when he stood with rage and pride atop a mountain of World Trade Center wreckage.
With Hizzoner on the sidelines, Americans sought answers from a number of surrogate authority figures, none of whom calmed the public quite like Boston Police Department (BPD) Commissioner Ed Davis. Tall and awkward but confident, with an endearing New England brogue, Davis reached through the news cameras, wrapped his meaty arms around America, and promised a swift response. In the time since, the commissioner has amassed admirers all the way to Capitol Hill; for the accolades, pundits often cite his handling of operations after the bombing, and his coordinating with outside agencies to immobilize the Tsarnaev brothers. Such admiration is now fueling reports that Davis may be considered to head the Department of Homeland Security—even though his hero status is purely superficial, and based more on a hunch about the commissioner's character than on his actual abilities.
On August 9, President Obama gave a news conference at which he defended his administration's record on surveillance while proposing some modest reforms. Predictably, it got mixed reviews from observers concerned about civil liberties. Less than a week later, The Washington Post published an important story about the National Security Agency (NSA) that makes it clear more reforms are necessary—and undermine Obama's defense of his record.
President Obama at today's press conference, talking about talking.
When Barack Obama said about the Trayvon Martin case that there isn't much value in "national conversations" led by a president, it was an unusual kind of candor. After all, having a national conversation is a great way to not actually do anything about a problem, particularly one that seems nearly impossible to solve. (If there's a problem that's quite possible to solve but would require politically difficult steps, one appoints a commission to study it) I thought of that watching his press conference today, when he was asked about the various surveillance programs that have come to light as a result of Edward Snowdon's revelations.
The intraparty fight among Republicans over foreign policy escalated further this week when former House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said that it was time to take stock of failed U.S. military interventions over the past decade, and acknowledge key anti-interventionist critics as important voices within the party.
Gingrich told the Washington Times in an interview he still considers himself a neoconservative, but said that “at some point, even if you are a neoconservative, you need to take a deep breath to ask if our strategies in the Middle East have succeeded.” Questioning the approach of exporting democracy through the barrel of a gun, Gingrich went on, “I think it would be healthy to go back and war-game what alternative strategies would have been better, and I like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul because they are talking about this.”
When you're a partisan, you have a certain obligation to be, well, partisan. That means that you have to put the things your side does in the best light and the things the other side does in the worst light. Their motives are always suspect while your are always pure, and if anything goes wrong it was obviously their fault, while if anything goes right they had nothing to do with it.
But just how far does this obligation extend? How far beyond the borders of logic and reason can you ride it? The unfortunate answer is, pretty darn far.
Defying the skeptics, Secretary of State John Kerry announced last Friday that Israelis and Palestinians had “established a basis” to return to peace talks, which have stalled since 2010. Kerry is wisely keeping a close hold on details so as not to create opportunities for spoilers in advance of negotiations actually taking place, but the latest is that preliminary talks, in which the Palestinians will be represented by longtime negotiator Saeb Erekat and the Israelis by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu’s “personal envoy” Yitzhak Molcho, will begin in Washington next Tuesday.
Earlier this week, two Democratic representatives felt the sting of the old adage, “no good deed goes unpunished.” Earlier this summer, Colorado representative Jared Polis and New Jersey representative Robert Andrews tried to push through an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act—a large defense budget bill—that would allow the Department of Defense to add nonreligious chaplains to the ranks of the military. Not only did the amendment fail, its opponents were so incensed that they introduced their own amendment, requiring any chaplain appointed to the military to be sponsored by an “endorsing agency,” all of which are religious. The new measure passed resoundingly, 253 to 173.
What with the important news of a baby being born in England and the further adventures of Anthony Weiner's penis dominating our attention, you probably didn't notice the failure yesterday of an amendment in the House to end the NSA's program collecting phone records on you, your neighbors, and every other American. Keep in mind that, as Sen. Ron Wyden has intimated, there are almost certainly other NSA surveillance programs that we would also be shocked to hear about, but remain secret.
That this amendment, sponsored by Republican Rep. Justin Amash, got a vote at all is somewhat surprising, but from all appearances, Speaker John Boehner saw it as a way to allow the more libertarian members of his caucus to let off some steam and take a stand against government surveillance. It may not have ever had much of a chance of passing both the House and Senate, but the Obama administration pushed for a no vote and General Keith Alexander himself went to Capitol Hill to lobby against it, and in the end it went down by a vote of 217-205
It’s not much of a surprise that Liz Cheney has decided to run for office, as she announced yesterday. With the help of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and access to his considerable network of donors and supporters, she’s been building a national profile herself, mainly on national security issues, for several years.