Thursday, September 5, 2013

All Syria, All the Time

I have avoided writing much of anything on the issue of Syria (only this) – there is so much good work being done by the best writers at LRC,, and elsewhere…I find little of value that I can add.

That may remain true by the time I get through this post; I am prompted by a commentary at the Huffington Post by David Harris: “Why I Support U.S. Action on Syria.”  

Who is David Harris?

David Harris has been Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) since 1990. AJC has been described by the New York Times as “the dean of American Jewish organizations.” …He was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and London School of Economics. He was a Junior Associate at Oxford University’s St. Antony’s College (1977-78), a Visiting Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (2000-02), and a Senior Associate at St. Antony’s College (2009-11). Since 2001, he has broadcast a weekly commentary on the CBS Radio network, and since 2007, he has had a blog on international affairs at the Jerusalem Post.

I will start with the title.  Shouldn’t it read “Why I support other people’s action and the use of other people’s money on Syria”?  Because nowhere in the article does Mr. Harris suggest that his support comes with any personal commitment from him. His recommendation comes with no cost or consequence to him.

He begins:

Syria dominates domestic discussion and debate, as it should.

Why should it?  Why not the economy or jobs?  Why not the failure and bankruptcy of virtually every domestic social program undertaken by the state?  Why not the spying by the state on virtually every connected person in the world?  Why not the model of central banking, which has brought the world economy to dysfunction?  Why not any one of dozens of issues that affects virtually every one of the 300 million Americans alive today, and the countless millions yet to be born?

No.  Mr. Harris suggests that the subject that should dominate domestic discussion and debate is Syria: a country that 99% of Americans have never visited and most of those couldn’t find on a map.  A country located 5500 miles from New York.  A country that never, ever, ever has posed a threat to the place where those 300 million Americans live.  A country that will never have any meaningful impact on anyone living in America.


He attempts to present himself as balanced:

Those for whom it's a slam-dunk one way or the other may be missing something big.

For the full-speed-ahead, damn-the-consequences camp, pause for just one moment. Any miscalculations could entangle the U.S. in an endlessly complex civil war, once again proving that it can be far easier to enter than exit a conflict.

For the don't-touch-it-at-all-costs camp, think again. American passivity could give a green light to malicious global actors with weapons of mass destruction to forge ahead, believing that Washington won't respond, and paving the way for even worse calamities ahead.

How can you argue with someone who recognizes the extremes of the debate?  Obviously, he must have thought through all of the issues, given that he understands the territory….  Of course, when they go out of their way to tell you how fair and balanced they are, you can rest assured they are not fair and balanced….

The “full-speed-ahead, damn-the-consequences camp” has already been in action.  This camp has had its way since September 11 (which itself is connected to earlier events – whatever your belief about events of that day).  To consider options in Syria without reflecting on the connection to events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Iran is to demonstrate the shallowness of the opinion – whether or not that shallowness is purposeful.

And what of the “don't-touch-it-at-all-costs camp”?  How often in the last two-hundred years has this camp even been given a hearing?  There has been no such thing as “American passivity” on the international stage for over 100 years (and none on the continent for over 200 years).  Yet, we are constantly bombarded with stories of the next bogeyman about to get us.  How much more American aggression is necessary to convince every person on earth to act as the US government wants them to act?

At the end of the day, I can't remain on the 50-yard line. The case for limited U.S. action is far stronger than for no U.S. action.

“At the end of the day….”  Demonstrating again that he has given due consideration to his ultimate conclusion.  His opinion is carefully weighed, just ask him.  Or don’t ask him – he will tell you anyway.

Why? Let's first be clear regarding what this is not about.

It's not about any desire to commit U.S. troops to the Syrian battlefield, nor to endorse an open-ended action.

Think about this – his first statement on this point: it has nothing to do with the thousands, tens-of-thousands-or hundreds-of-thousands of Syrians that will be killed due to US involvement.  Instead: “Don’t worry moms, we won’t send your sons and daughters into the country.”

Beyond that, this may be true today (but I don’t take this as a given).  But who knows tomorrow?  How many military engagements taken by the US since Korea has been as limited as initially advertised?  The list is at best short, if it even exists.  Do you want to ensure that US troops will not be committed on the ground?  Don’t get involved in the first place.

It's also not about Israel, much as I hear reference to it in the public discourse.

This is nonsense – even (or especially) if you believe that Israel should be considered the 51st state.  How on earth could the United States government consider any course of action in the Middle East without the action having some potential impact on Israel?  If nothing else, aren’t the consequences to Israel of any considered action in Syria being weighed?

For me, what hangs in the balance is not about an individual but our country.

If the United States now flinches and, despite our declared "red line," let's Syria get away with this use of chemical weapons, then what is the message sent to the world?

Why is the United States government issuing any red lines?  What red line could there possibly be that extends beyond the borders of the United States?

The answer should be quite obvious.

Only if you accept that the United States has business issuing global red lines.

To our adversaries, it will be seen as an abdication of American leadership, which, in turn, will invite still more challenges to American interests and values.

On what basis is “American leadership” established?

What American interests?

What American values?

America (the government) carpet bombed civilians in Germany and Japan in the Second World War.  After the war, America supported the forced migration of several million Germans and the return of millions of Soviet subjects to Russia and many of those to certain death.  America dropped two nuclear bombs on civilians in Japan.  America has installed and deposed countless political and military puppets throughout the world.  America used Agent Orange throughout Vietnam.  America gassed defenseless men, women and children in Waco.  America used depleted uranium in Iraq.  America has supplied every two-cent dictator with weapons of unimaginable mass destruction.

….Saddam Hussein's Iraq also used chemical weapons against Iran and his own Kurdish citizens, with massive numbers killed.

Didn’t I just write that?  Weren’t these chemical weapons supplied by the US, for goodness sakes?

These are the values that need to be defended?

Leaders from Tehran to Pyongyang will conclude that Americans are war weary and unwilling to match deed with word. As a result, these leaders may become still more assertive, emboldened, and threatening.

This day is coming.  Economics will dictate it. 

And why would they then opt to believe any other American "red line" if we failed to act on this one?

Be judicious about the use of America’s military and the locations of future red lines, and this will never be a concern.

He ends as would be expected:

Let's hope that Congress, after reviewing the facts and taking into account what hangs in the balance, will do the right thing and authorize limited military action. The stakes for the United States, and the world, could not be any higher.

The right thing, we are told, is “military action.”

And the stakes for the world “could not be any higher.”

Not higher than Stalin, Hitler, Mao?  Not higher than antagonizing other nuclear powers, like Russia, China, or Pakistan?

People in Syria (and much of the rest of the world) know that one of the reasons this so-called civil war has gone on for so long is because of intervention by the west, in support of the rebels – most of whom come from outside of Syria. 

They aren’t looking for the United States to defend its honor, whatever that means.  They would prefer that the United States just takes its toys and returns home.


  1. Nice; just one correction to the second to last paragraph:
    Instead of "this so-called civil war has gone on for so long is because of intervention by the west", correctly "... intervention by other countries". No need to put all the blame on the "West" as plenty of Muslim/Arabic countries meddle in Syria's affairs (as well as in each others').

    It would be interesting to see what would happen in the Middle-East if ALL Western countries, including Russia would leave them totally alone...

    1. Norbert, you are of course correct.

      I fall into that habit lazily at times. However, part of it might be due to what seems to me the working model for the Middle East - even those other Middle Eastern countries that meddle in Syria's (as an example) affairs are behind the scenes attached to western powers.

      But, as ultimately the actors are human individuals and not abstractions like "states" and each individual has freedom to act, your point stands.