Friday, June 17, 2016

West of Eden: Dissent in the State Department

I more or less support President Obama's Syria policy as it is (with a reservation I'll get to below), but there's something I want to say about its critics, including the 50-odd US diplomats who have been circulating the internal cable that was leaked to the WSJ and the Times for today's papers,
urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its persistent violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war.
I want to say that I may disagree with them, but they're not bad people. I mean, some of the critics are bad people (hi, Senator McCain, hi, Ron Fournier), whose aims are not to help the suffering people of Syria, about whom they understand nothing, but to further their own misbegotten careers by picking at the president's perceived weakness in any way they can, to make themselves look larger, but some of them, possibly most, are good people responding to a terrible situation in a totally understandable way. (Including candidate Hillary Clinton, who I think is at least somewhat on the State rebels' side.)

Because the Assad regime is a truly dreadful, murderous and criminal, cruel and unusual, wicked operation. It kills far more civilians than any other party in the multilateral civil war. It imprisons citizens seen as dissenters and tortures them on a massive scale that is extremely well documented. It starves them to death and suffocates them. It interrogates them relentlessly though they have nothing to confess. It prevents them from bathing and keeps the hot cells unventilated. Its doctors extract prisoners' vital organs from them without anesthetic.

Outside the prisons, health and education systems are in a state of collapse. The government does nothing for them, but destroys whole neighborhoods including the women and children with barrel bombs. It keeps cities under siege and prevents humanitarian organizations from bringing in food supplies. Probably over half of the prewar population of 23 million has now been driven into homelessness, 6.6 million inside the country and 6.6 million outside (the number of registered international refugees is 4.8 million, mostly in terrible conditions in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan).

And it is very much the fault of the United States, because the United States created the chaos in western Iraq and eastern Syria that collided with the Syrian version of the Arab Spring, bringing in Iranian and Lebanese and ultimately Russian support for the regime, without which Assad would hardly have been able to survive (it needs to be understood that the Russian government absolutely sees itself as threatened by the Salafists in Syria and their connections with violent Islamist movements in the Russian Caucasus).

It is not unreasonable for Americans to want to do something about this, by military means if that's what it takes. It is not "neoconservative", or aimed at preserving a unipolar world order, and it is not "hawkish" in the sense of seizing on military solutions where diplomatic solutions are available; the proposals, for limited airstrikes on regime military targets, are meant to "pressure" the regime toward a diplomatic solution, not to replace the diplomacy.

What's wrong with it, as President Obama has understood, is just that it has no chance of making the situation better, and a strong chance of making it worse. In the almost inconceivable best case, that they somehow succeed in making Assad stand down instead of just making him still more murderously defensive, there's literally nobody to take over—I don't mean to take over the presidency, I mean the entire civil service and medical and educational establishments; every capable person who's not a criminal is a refugee, as they were saying on NPR this morning.

Wishing the US military could do something about it isn't a crime. It's Stupid Shit, but it's well meant. Please try to remember that.

There are two things I think the US could do, though it won't:
  • it could accept not 10,000 refugees but something like two million, toward the specific goal of depopulating Syria entirely and making it unviable, leaving Assad and Isis and the Nusra Front with nobody to govern (I've been saying this for years); and
  • it could join the International Criminal Court to help in preparing the case against Assad.
The reason we won't do these things is American "exceptionalism"—that we can't accept the risk that one single terrorist might show up in the batch, though we don't mind letting Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon have them, because they're just ordinary, unexceptional countries, and that we can't accept the risk that one of our own war criminals might get charged. We're so special we just can't be expected to put up with that. But we'd be delighted to oblige by killing some more of your people if you think that would help.

These are the ways the US could demonstrate that it's not evil. "Sending a signal", you know. Short of that, I''m afraid what we're already doing is the best we can.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.


Unknown said...

Hillary may not have been consistent in her opposition to same-sex marriage or her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But by God there has never been a matter of international affairs that she didn't think could be improved by blowing up Muslims with American bombs.

And guess what? That is the textbook definition of a "hawk" - even when the savage bird puts a (D) after her name.

Feud Turgidson said...

Unk - who asked you? or raised that?

Ten Bears said...

"You break it you own it" applies collectively and "chickens coming home to roost" is the more apt. Just because more than a few of us were protesting loudly that this is really a bad idea, "we" don't need to do this it could bite us on the ass doesn't mean that we all collectively "American" don't have blood on our hands. It bit us on the ass.

Finger pointing is counter-productive.

Unknown said...

Perhaps you missed this part.

"... some of the critics are bad people... but some of them, possibly most, are good people responding to a terrible situation in a totally understandable way. (Including candidate Hillary Clinton, who I think is at least somewhat on the State rebels' side.)"

I suspect that anyone with Hillary's record on Iraq, Libya, and Israel would not have their fundamental goodness assumed in this way if they did not sport the magic (D) brand.

Unknown said...

Oh, and before I forget, I would like to point out to the poster that "it is not unreasonable for Americans to want to do something about this" is itself a textbook example of American Exceptionalism.

Honest examination reveals the startling fact, unsuggested by anyone in our public discourse, that we do not in fact have any special dispensation from the Almighty or the Geneva Conventions to use military force to settle world affairs to our satisfaction. And while the NPR set may believe the pious fiction that the Pentagon is a humanitarian organ, I assure you that the overseas folk on the receiving end of our "smart power at its best" suffer no such delusion.

Tom Hilton said...

Ignoring the blowhard who's too gutless to even identify himself...

I agree with this. Syria is a horrible situation where there are no good policies, only least-worst, and picking the least-worst is at best an educated guess. People who are not monsters can come to different conclusions.

Libya was the same. Maybe we made the wrong choice there; I'm by no means certain of that. But the main foreign policy debate Bernie said something unintentionally revealing when, in the context of a question about Libya, he brought up if deposing Qaddafi were somehow in the same category as deposing Mossadegh. Which is just fucking crazy. Say what you will about the wisdom of getting Qaddafi out; he was a monster planning to commit mass murder against his own people, and getting rid of him is in no way comparable to deposing a popular elected leader whose only real offense was nationalizing American and British oil company's operations in Iran.

A lot of lefties think like that--like American intervention is always wrong and evil, no matter what the exigencies, no matter what the intent, no matter who else is with us. I don't listen to people like that any more than I listen to people whose reflexive reaction is always to bomb the shit out of some other country.

aimai said...

I guess I think all choices are bad choices in the Middle East. We are not the only cause of the problems in the Middle East--not even close to the only cause given climate change, intersectonal strife, oil politics, and of course the Iran/Iraq war and other local, internecine causes of war. As President Obama recently observed about gun control refusing to act is, itself, a choice that leads to deaths. I don't think the politicians mantra--even the great politican's mantra--is "first, do no harm." Because refusing to act can also do plenty of harm. Sometimes people can disagree, as Yas says, in good faith about what needs to be done. There are a lot of moving parts here, especially when some of the parts are refugees, moving on their own feet, to get out of harm's way.

And once again I have to say: fuck off, Unknown. Nothing you say or believe will have the slightest effect on US policy because you are planning to vote for Jill Stein so, having made yourself and your point of view irrelevant, it can be dismissed from the grown up conversation about what needs to happen.

Victor said...

This is today's edition of "What Aimai Said!"

If you don't want to be known, then why should I bother reading what you wrote?

Hell, a moniker is cover.
But you're too gutless and/or lazy to even come up with one!

Yastreblyansky said...

Thanks, folks. I don't think Unk actually read the post as much as got a startle reflex from some of the words. Maybe I should have started with a trigger warning, like "This post includes expressions that may make some readers uncomfortable, or put them in a state of uncontrollable self-righteousness."

I hope it was clear to everybody else that I think the diplomats' idea is a bad one. I said it was understandable for Americans to be thinking of such things not because we are "exceptional" but because we broke the region and owe some kind of reparations.

KenRight said...

I don't believe they are good people-not the dual loyalists and not the meddling liberal internationalists who might as well be. Nor do I believe the US government would not, under a neocon or a liberal internationalist president, do worse than Assad in stifling a rebellion.

William F. Glennon said...

A lot of lefties think like that--like American intervention is always wrong and evil, no matter what the exigencies, no matter what the intent, no matter who else is with us...

This in itself is a form of American exceptionalism. Everything that goes wrong, goes wrong because American imperialism. And oil.

Foreigners don't have agency, and if the shit hits the fan it's always because we threw it, having first made the shit in a Langley basement.

Yastreblyansky said...

Davis, always nice to see you! You're always right even when you're wrong, and this is an essential point. Nevertheless sometimes the US is really responsible for the worst possible stuff, as in Cambodia 1975 or Iraq and Syria right now.

Yastreblyansky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ten Bears said...

All the more reason, Yas, to stop doing what we are doing, now. Just in this thread references are made to five, if you know your history seven, "American" interventions of catastrophic lack of conclusion, where we've gone in and trashed the place and left without so much as a thank you ma'am, where we've bombed a people back to the stone age yet have yet to accept responsibility for nor meet the consequences of our actions. We just go bomb someone else.

Collectively. We. "Americans".

Supporters of War, or not.