Thursday, September 5, 2013

Watching a Beating on the Street, Uncomfortably

Ezra Klein at the Washington Post has read the transcript of the four hour Senate Foreign Relations Hearing, resulting in a 10-7 approval of the White House request for authorization to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons.  He was struck by the hollowness and desperation of the arguments made for a limited strike to "send a message" to Assad.  What's going on? 

As usual, Klein engages in some clear thinking:  
The problem is that achieving ... [the real goal of stopping Assad from killing his people with any kind of weapons right now] requires a military intervention of a size and length that America is not willing to countenance.  So they're increasingly trying to justify the military intervention that Americans might countenance [limited symbolic strike] by using the arguments for the military interventions they won't consider.  
Four main arguments were trotted out at the hearing in support of a strike authorization, he reports.

1.  Deter future dictators from using chemical weapons on anyone.  This is weak.  Doing something pretty ineffectual today won't deter anyone from anything in 2022.

2.  Prevent use of chemical weapons on American troops or civilians.  Weaker still.  We don't need to do something ineffectual in Syria to have credibility on that issue.  After Iraq and Afghanistan, we have all the credibility we need to deter this type of attack on U.S. troops or civilians.   Bombing some assets in Syria that, by the very terms of the authorization resolution being considered won't be sufficient to actually bring about change will do nothing to prevent future attacks on American soil.  In fact, our bombing of yet another country in this volatile world may well increase the risk of terrorist activity on U.S. soil. 

3.  Humanitarian intervention.  No it's not.  Bombing Syrians with cruise missiles from the Mediterranean, or from high up in the air, will harm that country and many people in it.  It may accelerate and fuel the civil war going on;  it will not reduce the refugees; it will not reduce the bloodshed, it will not save any Syrians. 

4.  Stop the killing.  That's what we want. That's the reason we're outraged--Assad has killed maybe 100,000 of his people, and forced 1.5 million from the country as refugees, and displaced another 6 million within the country.  The 1,000 dead in a chemical weapons attack, whose specific source is open to question, is just the straw that broke the back of our patience.  That's why it does not really matter who is responsible.  However, not Congress, not the American people, not Obama have a taste to really do what needs to be done to stop the killing.  To stop the killing and set that country on a course for a brighter future would require a hundred thousand troops and a long term involvement.   

Bottom line, it's not about deterrence, it's not about red lines on chemical weapons, it's not about credibility, or actually helping Syrians .... it's about we are shocked at the violence and we want to just "do something."  It's like watching a group of hooligans beating an old man on the street.  We feel we have to do something.... but we don't want to actually get in the middle of the fight to stop it.  

It doesn't feel good to watch this beating on the street.  There is no police to call.  No United Nations.  That beating won't stop unless we jump in the middle of it.  But we don't want to jump in the middle of it;  we don't want to get bloody.  It's not our fight.  And, truth be told, all the characters are kind of unsavory.  So we watch in the shadows, under the bridge, uncomfortably.  Maybe we'll throw a rock to scare the hooligans off;  maybe we'll slash a tire on their car.


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