Tuesday, September 03, 2013

On Syria

I am not sure what I think about our (possible) impending interference in the Syrian civil war. I suppose my first and strongest reaction is to think this is a very bad idea. Terrorism (or Strategic Bombing, which is hard to distinguish from terrorism) doesn't work very often - it's hard to see what this attack would accomplish. I can see the point of punishing the use of chemical weapons - though as this post at The Edge of the American West points out, it's not clear why using chemical weapons is such a departure in the context of the violence and suffering already underway there. (Do I have an answer? maybe - something about the efficiency of non-conventional weapons; the idea that combining the callousness of widespread conventional warfare with the lethality of poison gas - or worse, nukes - opens the way to something even worse. The problem with this argument is more that the use of bombs, conventional or otherwise, is already hard to find any excuse for. Just as it's hard to express why firebombing Tokyo is more acceptable then nuking Hiroshima, it's hard to say why gassing people is worse than bombing them. I suspect, if I were to reach a philosophical conclusion from this, that one reason we condemn Hiroshima, or poison gas, or suicide bombers, etc. is to avoid confronting the morality of firebombing Tokyo - or making cruise missile strikes.)

The fact that these strikes are punitive is also worrying - it's not as if we are pretending we are there to end the war, win the war - we are making a symbolic attack... Which, again, is indistinguishable from terrorism. (Maybe it is halfway there: terrorism, properly defined, probably means - attacks on civilians, for symbolic purposes. Though honestly - I don't know if those terms are linked by "and" or "or" - I am probably inclined toward "or.") And - how often do symbolic attacks do what they are supposed to do? It is hard to escape the conclusion that bombing a country is more likely to strengthen the government of that country than hurt it - that is what usually happens. If the attacks were strictly military - they might work. But if they are punitive - if we are not committed to removing Assad, come hell or high water - I'm not sure they will gain us anything. Maybe they will discourage the use of chemical weapons (and by extension, maybe nukes) - that might well be a worthwhile goal... but it might come at the expense of even more bloodshed in Syria.

That's that. It is still better not to get too involved. Much as it feels right to do something about horrible situations like Syria's, it is also sometimes necessary to recognize that we can't solve everything. And that trying to solve everything is as likely to make it worse as better. So - be glad if we don't get pulled in....

The one good thing in this mess is the fact that Obama decided to take the issue to Congress. (Here are some of James Fallows' thoughts.) It is about time, I suppose - we have seen too much drift toward executive control of war-making. The notion that the president, as commander in chief, ought to have the power to start a war is a really shocking idea - not noticeably different from the idea that a General has the right to start a war. This is not one of the Constitution's ambiguous points: Congress declares war. Since WWII, we have found more and more disgraceful ways of weaseling around that point - but that's no excuse. Make Congress take their responsibilities.

Though this raises the rather bizarre possibility that the insane Republicans in the House might save us from this disaster yet. Not for lack of love of killing - but because they don't want Obama to be able to accomplish anything.

No - I don't believe that for a second. The House may be full of idiots and cretins, working happily to destroy the functioning government of this great land - but they are good dogs when they need to be. There are some things that will bring them into line: tax cuts - bullying women and minorities - killing people. They are authoritarians and war mongers, and I can't imagine them letting the chance to kill a bunch of Arabs go by the boards, no matter how much they hate the man in charge of it all.

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