August 28, 2013

James Fallows looks at all the current arguments for bombing Syria and comes down on the side of not doing it:

For 20 years now we have seen this pattern:

  1. Something terrible happens somewhere -- and what is happening in Syria is not just terrible but atrocious in the literal meaning of that term.
  2. Americans naturally feel we must "do something."
  3. The easiest something to do involves bombers, drones, and cruise missiles, all of which are promised to be precise and to keep our forces and people at a safe remove from the battle zone.
  4. In the absence of a draft, with no threat that taxes will go up to cover war costs, and with the reality that modern presidents are hamstrung in domestic policy but have enormous latitude in national security, the normal democratic checks on waging war don't work.
  5. We "do something," with bombs and drones, and then deal with blowback and consequences "no one could have foreseen."

For instance, someone with whom I usually agree, Eugene Robinson of the Post,writes today: "History says don’t do it. Most Americans say don’t do it. But President Obama has to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s homicidal regime with a military strike — and hope that history and the people are wrong."

On where such "hope" might lead, I give you Spinney once more, with a numbered list of his own:

Consider the last twenty years: What has been achieved by

(1)using cruise missiles to bomb a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan and

(2) an obstacle course in Afghanistan, or

(3) the endless attacks on air defense sites in the Iraqi no fly zone in the 1990s, or

(4) the bombing campaigns of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars; and now

(5) Obama’s evergrowing drone campaign in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and god knows where else?

While such precision-guided coercion operations may infatuate the foreign policy wonks, media elites, and feather the nests of defense contractors, the resulting strategy of driveby shootings has failed utterly to coerce the likes of Milošević, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi, or the Taliban to behave in ways our pol-mil apparachiks deem to be acceptable.

Read about the horrors going on in Syria -- but also read Spinney, and an important reality-check item by John Hudson in Foreign Policy. Also theAtlantic's Conor Friedersdorf (and here), on why the honorable urge to "do something" about atrocities does not automatically mean dropping bombs:

The U.S. government could spend millions helping Syrian refugees... There is no shortage of humanitarian suffering for us to address, if that's how we want to spend our money, and I am fine with spending more of it helping people.

But injecting bombs and cruise missiles into a civil war probably isn't the most cost-effective way to help people. It is certainly the sort of humanitarian assistance most likely to make us bitter enemies, which inevitably happens when you pick a side and start killing some of the people on it.... Hawks are most interested in humanitarian causes that can be carried out by force. There is no reason the rest of us should share their world view.

Only ten years after the disastrous "what could go wrong?"/"something must be done!" rush to war in Iraq, you would have thought these cautions would not need restatement. They do.

In the face of evil we should do something, except when the something would likely make a bad situation worse.

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