Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Red Lines

Update:  The conclusion of this post is deliberately ambiguous.  I wrote it that way to spark discussion.  Thanks for keeping those discussions, both here and on Facebook, polite. I appreciate it.

Comments here, on social media, and in email, expressed disappointment that I didn’t offer a concrete opinion regarding US involvement in Syria.  See the addendum at the end of the post.



Tongue firmly in cheek, I suggested on Facebook and Twitter the following:

You know what I'd like to see? A Constitutional Amendment that says before we can invade a country: 95% of both high school students and Congress have to be able to find said country on a blank map without help.

I posted it to social media on purpose, to spark conversation, to see how people honestly felt about involving themselves in yet another conflict, as research for this essay.

Sure, it’s a flippant comment, but think about it.

Ninety-five percent of all high school students, not to mention congress, would have to know the world so well that you could pick any random country from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and they would be prepared to find it on a map. And not only find the target country in question, but describe its people, its demographics, its place in the world economy, its relationship to its neighbors, its politics, its geography, its general history, its various beefs with the rest of the world, and the particulars of whatever conflict is occurring there.

Imagine what that would take. No really think about what it would actually take to make that happen. No, no, not what it would take to ratify such an Amendment (since, well, yeah, obviously), but what it would take to implement it, to bring our population to that bare minimum level of knowledge.

Oh, sure, wish in one hand, spit in the other, right?

But you know, if we’re going to go to war, if we’re going to send our children to war, if we’re going to drive ourselves further into debt, if we’re going to have to suffer the consequences of our involvement in conflicts for decades to come, shouldn’t we at least know what we’re getting into?

I mean a significant fraction of Americans can’t find America on a map.

Doesn’t it seem reasonable that those who send our soldiers into battle – not to mention the soldiers themselves – at least know where they’re going? Who they’ll be killing? And why?

That doesn’t seem like too onerous of an educational burden to me.

Be nice if the rest of America knew too, wouldn’t it?


So, anyway, Syria.

Something has to be done about Syria.

We have to do something, we’re all agreed on that, right?


Sure we are.

There’s been a war going on in Syria for, what? A year? Two years? Ten years? Twenty? Something like that. It’s a civil war, right? Or is it an uprising? A rebellion maybe? The Indian Summer of the Arab Spring? Whatever you call it, it’s some kind of conflict. It’s difficult to keep up with these things. To be blunt, well, there’s always a war on somewhere, isn’t there? Afghanistan, Iraq, The Kurds, Rwanda, Serbia, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Sudan, Egypt, Mexico, Libya, Darfur, Somalia, Russia and Georgia, Yemen, it’s a constant stream of woe and misery and destruction and death in some distant land far, far away.

And now it’s Syria.

Every single day, the news – whatever channel you happen to be listening to, doesn’t really matter – kicks off with an update on Syria.

Syria, Syria, Syria. 

For most of America, it’s an academic issue, just another brush-fire war in some place that has very little to do with us. We don’t sell anything to Syria. We don’t buy anything from Syria. We don’t visit Syria and they don’t visit us. Frankly, we don’t much like Syria, do we?  They damned sure don’t like us. 

We hear about Syria’s Ba’athist government – though few Americans could tell you what, exactly, the Ba’athists believe in and most of us don’t care enough to Google it.  We hear that Bashar al-Assad, the dictator (or is it Prime Minister? King? President?), is an Alawite – though few Americans could tell you what that means. Alawite, some kind of Arab, right? Some kind of Muslim, the bad kind, I guess.  We hear about the battle for Aleppo, though there are few, very few, Americans who have any idea where that town is or why anybody would fight and die for it. Heck, as long as we’re on the subject, there aren’t very many Americans who could name the capital city of Syria or describe in even the vaguest terms the historical significance of that ancient city.

We hear that al-Assad has committed atrocities, but most Americans can’t really describe what those are beyond the current go-to label “genocide.”

We hear that the rebels aren’t much better. But most Americans couldn’t describe who they are beyond the current go to label “al Qaida” or maybe Hezbollah – and few Americans could describe the current goals of either organization in more detail than “they hate America” and “they hate Israel” respectively.   

And yet, people are dying in Syria.

They’ve been dying, for years. How many have died? I doubt very many Americans could hang a figure on it, a couple hundred? A few thousand? Ten thousand? Beats me. Besides, they’re just Muslims, right? They all hate us anyway.

It’s hasn’t really been our business, this war in Syria.

Oh, sure, it’s terrible – in a distant academic somebody should do something sort of way. But it’s not really our problem, is it?

But now, now, a line has been crossed.

We could mostly ignore the conflict, mostly, just so long as al-Assad stuck to killing his people with guns and bombs, that was okay. Well, maybe not okay okay, but at least we could ignore it, mostly. Shoot ‘em? Burn ‘em? Blow ‘em up? Beat ‘em to death? Blast? Shock? Torture? Starvation? Disease? Exposure? Sure, sure, we’re good with that. Well, not good good, but it’s not really our business. We don’t like it, but it’s not our problem. Makes good news reports though, so there’s that.

Callous? Hey, it’s a tough world. We’ve got our own problems over here in the First World.

And it’s not like we get oil from Syria. Right? Right.

But gas? Boy Howdy, we’re going to draw the line at poison gas.

Because, it’s not the killing, it’s the method.

That’s the real moral issue, isn’t it? The method.




Please spare me the hypocrisy.

More than a hundred thousand people have died in Syria over the last two years. Hundreds of thousands more are displaced, homeless, starving, raped, blinded, sickened, crippled, maimed, orphaned, widowed, and without hope. In that they’re little different from the millions of similar refugees elsewhere in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia, in India, in South America, in Mexico, in Indonesia, and right here in the hearts of our own cities – and you don’t have to look very hard to find them. The Syrians are just like all the other people who aren’t our problem.

But gas, that’s the red line.

For us, it’s not the killing, it’s the method. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

Gas, that’s what it takes to goad us into self-righteous action.

And there is little doubt that war gases have been used on civilian populations.

And, so, now it appears we must do something.

The question, of course, is what?

We could do nothing, that’s a popular option.

We could denounce the Syrian regime on the floor of the UN. Always an effective tactic.  Then the UN could fight and argue and do nothing.

We could launch a few cruise missiles from Navy ships patrolling offshore, something I have a bit of experience with.  And likely this is indeed what will happen.  It’s a little better than nothing, honor is satisfied, no Americans get hurt, we blow up a “baby milk factory” or an “orphanage,” the Navy crew gets a ribbon, and America rolls over and goes back to watching the game. 

But in reality, those missile strikes do nothing. Who do you aim them at? What are the targets? The country is blown to hell already, what exactly will a few more explosions do?  The Assad government is against the wall, they win or they die. They’re not going into exile. They’re not going to share power, even if they had that option – which they don’t. They win. Or they die. That’s it. Why do you think Assad used gas in the first place? He wins, or he dies, what’s he got to lose?


What’s that?

Some people say it was the rebels who used chemical weapons?


It’s the same answer, they win or they die. They’ve got absolutely nothing to lose.  We kill them. Assad kills them. The only way they live is they win. By whatever means.

At this point, it doesn’t really matter who unleashed the gas, does it?

Certainly not to the dead it doesn’t.

The country is already on fire, a few cruise missiles are going to do what, exactly? 

American cruise missile strikes sure won’t keep anybody from killing anybody else – especially Assad, especially al-Qaida, especially Hezbollah.  Honestly, haven’t you people been paying attention?

If that tactic actually worked, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we?

All lobbing missiles at Syria does is make us feel like we’re doing something.

So, what then? Harsh language? Send in the CIA and the drones?

Unless we’re actually willing to commit forces for real and in strength, unless we’re willing to kill a lot of people, there’s not a lot of options beyond harsh language.

If you’re going to start lobbing missiles into Syria with the expectation of actually accomplishing something, then you’re going to have to pick a side. You’re going to have to commit and you’re going to have to follow it up with enough sustained military force to end the conflict and impose a peace on our terms.

And really, good luck with that.

Good luck assembling that coalition of the willing.  I was at the last party, I’m pretty sure we burned those bridges a couple years back.

Be that as it may, if you’re going to start lobbing missiles with the intention of actually doing something other than making yourself feel good, then you’ve only got two choices:

You can point your assault at Assad and go for a decapitating strike, wipe out the current Syrian regime and hand the country over to a dozen different mobs, many of whom are terrorist organizations. 

Or you can point your strike at the rebels, and hand the country back to Assad.

Those are the options. Note that either way, you’re likely to kill a lot of civilians via collateral damage. A lot of civilians – especially if you start firing missiles into chemical weapons storage depots. You should prepare yourself for those TV images accordingly.

Pick Assad, we’d get Russian help and Vladimir Putin’s undying gratitude. That might come in handy one day. We could ask for Snowden back and maybe some discount coupons for rides to the space station.

Pick Hezbollah, and we could demand that the price of toppling Assad is peace with Israel (oh, ho, didn’t think of that, did you?).

Both options have unpleasant side effects. Lots.

Or we could stay out, but that too has unpleasant side effects.

The simple truth of the matter, the ugly brutal terrible truth of Syria, is that for us, there are no good options – certainly not if we go it alone.

Frida Ghitis, World Affairs columnist for the Miami Herald and the World Political Review, outlined five reasons in her article on CNN today to go into Syria: 1) Other Dictators are watching: if we don’t do something, other dictators will use chemical weapons on their own people. 2) There’ll be chemical weapons in the future: if we don’t do something now, not just dictators but everybody will think they’re ok. 3) The war is spreading: i.e. Shit just got real. 4) Inaction hands a victory to al-Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah: if we don’t do something, the terrorists will win (boy, that sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). 5) A new generation of haters: The victims of this attack will never give up, neither will their kids.

White House spokesman Jay Carney gave a different reason: Carney said the United States and one hundred and eighty-eight other nations are signatories to the United Nations convention on chemical weapons, which opposes the use of such weapons. Carney said that signatories to that treaty have a duty to ensure “international norms” are respected.  International norms. 

Peter Suderman, senior editor at Reason Magazine gives eight reasons not to get involved: 1) If the rebels win, it’s bad news for us. 2) If al-Assad wins, it’s bad news for us.  3) Limited actions likely won’t have any effect. 4) Limited actions tend not to stay limited.  5) There’s no endgame. 6) Obama’s “red line” has already been crossed. 7) It won’t be easy. 8) The majority of Americans oppose military involvement in Syria.

And, of course, Glenn Beck predicts the end of the world should we get involved in Syria – because, really, isn’t everything about the end of the world in Glenn Beck Land? It amuses me to see conservative pundits siding with Russia and China – and by implication, admitting finally that they fear both because, apparently, their great and glorious God who favors America above all other nations can’t protect us from either Moscow or Beijing. Refreshing, that candor. Apparently God is just fine with what’s happening in Syria, nothing to see here, move along, move along, or I’ll give you a good smiting. 

Conspiracy website Infowars agrees with Beck that any strike on Syria will cause Iran to attack Israel in retaliation and thereby precipitate World War Three.

Rand Paul says, "The United States should never get involved where we have no clear national interest.  We should not intervene militarily in a country like Syria, where we can’t separate friend from foe and might end up arming the very people who hate us the most." Then he called for a “national debate.”  I don’t know that I necessarily disagree with Rand Paul, but it sounds to me like he’s already made up his mind, I’m not really sure what the debate is for – or how a national debate would be different from what we’re all doing right now.  From what I can gather, what Paul really wants is to be the one who gets to decide, not President Obama – but then again, he’s hardly alone as on that one, is he?

Christopher Dickey makes a pretty good case for doing nothing in his article Let It Bleed over on the Daily Beast. Dickey says that no American action can resolve the Syrian conflict.  That’s not entirely true, there are actions we can take, but they require a far, far greater commitment than a couple of cruise missiles. I figure about $1 to $2 trillion, ten years, and say 6,000 American lives – but hey, they’ll cheer us in the streets of Damascus.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney wanted to bomb Syria in 2007, but couldn’t convince George W. Bush.  Today he’s not sure if we should get involved or not. Seems the only thing Dick’s sure of is that Obama is wrong, no matter what he does.

Yeah, but what about the average American? What do they have to say about Syria? As always, let’s look to the comments under some of the above linked articles:

When things go badly - Keep this in mind. It was Obama's idea, his stubboen egotistical mindset, his inexperience and his insatiable need for power that killed more of our sons & daughters. No other nation or government approached and sought America's intervention. It was Obama.

Probably a good thing we’ve already assigned blame.  Proactive, not reactive, isn’t that what they teach in management school?

This is the third regime friendly to the U.S. after Lybia and Egypt that Obama has sought to topple. In each case Obama's actions have favored and supported known terrorists. 90% of Americans oppose this war yet Obama moves forward - What's that tell you?

It tells me somebody needs to let the nurse know it’s time to double up on the meds.

nice false flag operation. Poor Syrians. They're this generations Iraqis. Except their leader held the peace with Israel for 30 years... and we're taking sides with Al qaeda... makes zero sense. Someone at the helm here in the west is getting greedy..

I can’t imagine why this guy’s reasoning make’s zero sense.

It is foretold in the Bible that Damascus will be destroyed and no building left standing. About to become a reality it appears !!

The bible also said two of every kind of animal lived within walking distance of Noah’s house.  I’m just saying, you might want consider the source before you start to panic.

For us to choose a side, in this Civil-war will set the wrong impression for Syria, and the world, that a country can over throw their government and get support form the International community....and that's a message we do not want to send to the world.

I, um, what now? Good thing the French didn’t buy into this idea, we’d still be speaking English, or, well, you know what I mean.

I could go on, there are literally millions of opinions for and against American involvement in Syria. Most from people who can’t even find the goddamned country on a map.

Some of those positions from the professional sources, for or against action, have at least some merit – well, maybe not Glenn Beck’s unless you stay awake for a week on speed washed down with cheap bourbon as a number of those commenters obviously did – but something’s missing.

Did you see it?

For or against, do you see the common thread?

National leaders, pundits, politicians, the media, when these people speak of action, or inaction, one thing is missing.


Human beings.

This red line is about methods, it’s about what other countries think of us, it’s about future wars, it’s about the price of oil, it’s about defending the Holy Land, it’s about the End Times and biblical prophecy, it’s about national interest, it’s about terrorism, it’s about regional stability, it’s about UN treaties, it’s about money and treasure, it’s about making Obama look good or about making him look bad, it’s about the 2016 US presidential election, it’s about hundreds of things for and against our involvement in Syria – but it doesn’t seem to be about people.

Not really.

Should we get involved?

That’s the question, isn’t it?

Should we get involved in Syria.

Either we give a damn about these people, the ones dying, or we don’t.

It’s really just that simple.

Don’t talk to me of military action unless you’re talking about people.  If it’s about political parties, if it’s about scoring points, if it’s about money or defense contracts or any of the usual rhetoric, I’m not interested. Stay out. I’ve been to war, dead by bullets, dead by chemical weapons, dead under the treads of a tank, it’s all the same to me.

Don’t tell me about your loving God or how you believe in the right to life.   If this is about your religion, if this is about protecting some ancient temple in Israel, or bringing about your God’s goofy bullshit apocalyptic vision of the end times, if this is about the voices you hear in your head, I’m not interested. Don’t talk to me about the morality of your religion, unless you want to see me call shenanigans on your hypocrisy.  If your God has an opinion on Syria, he can stop being coy and just come right out and say it, in fact, while he’s at it, he can finally get off his fat useless ass and take an active role. Otherwise he can butt out, he’s got nothing to say about Syria that interests me.

I don’t care about treaties or treasure or politics or religion or even the supposed end of the world, if you’re going to tell me about the morality, the morality, of getting involved in Syria, or not, then talk to me about people.

Do we care about the dying or don’t we?

Do we have a moral obligation to help those caught in the middle of this conflict or don’t we?

Do we as Americans have a moral obligation as a civilized nation to do something about those dying people, or don’t we? Yes or no. There is no grey area here, it’s not a trick question, either we have the moral obligation or we don’t.

So which is it?

Do we have a moral obligation, whether they all hate us or not, to do something?

Does our morality depend on the hatred of others? Does it really? What kind of morality is that?

I know what I think the answer must be.

I know what the answer for a moral and just and civilized nation should be.

Listen, do you run into a burning building to save those inside? Do you run towards danger or away? Do you risk your own life to save others? Or do you stand outside on the sidewalk debating the religious and political worthiness of those trapped inside? Does it matter that the burning building may ignite the whole block? Does it matter that it may explode at any minute? Does it matter that the building owner is a jerk? Does it matter that the tenants, some of them, may hate you? Do you let their kids burn too? Do you?  Do you listen to the screams and say, “well, I don’t live here, it’s not my problem, sorry. I can’t put out all the fires in the world.”

Maybe charging recklessly into that conflagration will get you killed.  It might.  That’s that nature of the beast.  If it was easy,  everybody would do it. Maybe you’ll die and save no one, that’s the risk you take.

Especially if you go it alone.

Or do you just stand there and watch it burn, is that who you are?


Sometimes there are no good choices.

Sometimes you just have to do what’s right.


8/30/2013, Addendum to the original essay:


Sometimes you just have to do what’s right.

And what is that exactly?

What is right?

What is the right thing to do when it comes to US involvement in Syria?

That’s the question, isn’t it?

What is right?

What is right for us? You and me, individual citizens.

What is right for government?

What is right for the world?

What is right for Syria?

The above essay raises more questions than it answers. 

I used words that are not clearly defined in the context, morals, right. I begin the essay with concepts that would seem to indicate America should stay out of Syria, that there’s nothing we can do except to make it worse unless we’re willing to commit to full scale war … and then managed to work my way around to a conclusion that most of you took to mean that I think we should charge into with Syria guns blazing anyway.

Most of you skimmed over the essay’s lead-in, but that wasn’t fluff. It was there on purpose. The simple truth of the matter is that many of us don’t know enough about the situation, about Syria itself, about its history and people, about the hideously complex nature of the region, to even have an informed opinion. Not really. Not beyond the topical information presented by our news feeds.

The fact is, there are more questions than answers.

From my email, from the comments here and on the associated Facebook thread it seems some of you are confused by what I wrote.

You wanted a clear opinion, you didn’t get one.

That was on purpose.

I don’t have a clear opinion.

Folks, there are no easy answers. I certainly don’t have one. It’s apparent that neither the President nor the US Congress have a clear and unambiguous answer. Nor does the International Community.  The Middle Eastern powers have no easy answers, nor does China, nor Russia.

There is no right answer, only wrong ones.

There are no good choices, only bad ones in varying degrees.

We go in, people will die. We stay out, people will die.  There are moral choices, certainly, but they lead only to immoral consequences. 

If we go in, we should know the cost.

If we stay out, we should know the cost.

Syria is going to burn no matter what we do, it is burning right now. People are going to die, are dying right now. And the truth is that there’s not much we can do to stop it, even if we (however you define “we”) were willing to go all in, which we most certainly are not.

As of this morning, the White House is still indicating that the US will likely take some as yet undefined action. The United Kingdom is out, they will not engage. The UN can’t make up its mind, but the writing is on the wall. Russia is out. China is out. France is in. Israel, well who knows what Israel will do.  The rest of the Middle Eastern Muslim powers aren’t going to help and may, in fact, make it worse.

We go, the US, we go alone.

Whatever form our response takes, it’s going to be on us.

And we’re going to have to live with it.

So be it.

Up above I concluded that we should do what’s right.

But what’s right for individual citizens, isn’t always what is right for nations – in fact, it rarely is.

In the essay I used the analogy of a burning building.  I asked what you would do.  Would you run into the flames to save the people, or would you stand on the sidewalk and watch them burn. 

As an individual, you have a choice.  You can decide to place your safety above that of those in peril. 

The government gets no such choice – or shouldn’t anyway. At least not our government, if indeed we are the nation we claim to be.

But, of course, it’s never as simple as that.

For you and me, we can choose. We can decide to risk our lives for others, or we can decide that we just can’t take the risk – perhaps for good reason. Can we risk running into an inferno to save others when we have family depending upon us? Perhaps we personally lack the courage, and that’s ok for individuals, discretion is often the best part of valor.  Perhaps we know that we are physically incapable of the required heroics. Perhaps we know that it is futile, that it is just too late. We can make that decision for ourselves.

The fire department doesn’t get that option. The fire department must take the risk, they must go into the flames.

We have a choice, government does not.

Whoa, now hold on, I hear you say. You’ve pushed that analogy just about far enough.

Sure, the government, ours anyway, is obligated to save its citizens.

And that’s the point.

The Syrians are not our citizens.

The US government isn’t obligated in any way to come to their rescue.

Well, yes … and not exactly.

See, it’s just never that simple.

Remember what I said about finding Syria on a map?

Because of its strategic location, the war in Syria affects the entire world, physically, economically, politically.  The situation is staggeringly complex, the secondary effects can’t even be calculated beyond vague generalities. 

Syria is a quaking structure made of teetering dominos, when they fall, if they fall, the consequences could be catastrophic.

While the Syrians are not our citizens, the consequences of their conflict already directly affect us.  You don’t need to look any further that the fluctuating price of oil to see that. And yes, that matters. And yes, that is a perfectly moral concern, war for the price of gas. 

Oh yes it is.

Our economy, the world economy, is powered by oil. Like it or not, that’s just how it is.

The price of oil as it relates to the conflict in Syria (and elsewhere) must be considered. The price of oil directly and immediately affects the world economy. People the world over eat or go hungry based on that value.  Considering the the price of oil (and all that follows) when weighing the decision to get involved is no different, morally, than deciding whether to risk your life charging into that burning building by pondering how your risk will affect your loved ones.  If you die saving others, your children may go hungry and homeless. And that’s the real moral quandary here, isn’t it?

In fact, not to consider it is immoral, or at the very least selfish, because that value, the price of oil, affects us all far far beyond Syria.

And it’s not just oil. It’s Israel. It’s Iran. It’s Russia. It is economically vital sea lanes and global commerce. It’s complex international relationships. It’s the world economy. It’s political power and balances at home. It’s the political power and balances abroad. It’s international treaties and long term consequences that may affect our relationship to other nations for decades to come. It’s the economic recovery. It’s the price of food. It’s the will and the wherewithal of American citizens. It’s the lives of millions, perhaps billions, of people. It’s what comes after – something that we failed to consider in Iraq.  It’s the cost, in blood, in our lives, in our money. It’s millions upon millions of possible outcomes and consequences and repercussions and side effects and unexpected unpleasant surprises.

The world is not a simple place.  Actions, and lack of action, have consequences some of which can be predicted, many of which cannot.

This is what the President of the United States is wrestling with right now.

I was asked on Facebook what I would do, if I was standing in Obama’s shoes.

I don’t know.

I don't know what I would do if I was in Obama's shoes, because I'm not in Obama's shoes.

Yes, I know that sounds flip, but bear with me.

The President of the United States sits at the center of a vast, vast, vast web of information, far beyond that of the average citizen, beyond that of the average congressman, beyond that of any other world leader, beyond that of business and religious leaders, certainly beyond that of any blogger or pundit.

I know, I used to be part of that web.

He is surrounded by layer upon layer of advisers and intelligence.

He is the focal point for dozens, hundreds of plans and options military, political, and economic.

He commands vast, vast, vast resources.

And he is rigidly constrained by reality, by law, by political, economic, and military factors that most people simply have no grasp of.

The president's position is complex almost beyond comprehension.

One of the reasons that liberals have taken to hating Obama is that he hasn't made good on certain naive campaign promises – even things that he felt deeply about, such as the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison or military options or domestic spying. Because once in office, he found his reality far, far different than when he was a Senator, than when he was a mere citizen.

Morality for individuals is rarely the same as it is for government. Obama learned that the hard way.

And the same is true of Bush, of Clinton, of any president past, present, or future.

It's easy for me to say, "Oh sure, I'd do this or I'd do that." In reality, there's no way to know what I'd do, what anybody would do, outside of very, very broad outlines. You’d think most Americans would have figured this out by now, but unfortunately they haven’t.

The world is complex, far, far more complex than the simple choices presented by most “authorities.”

There are no simple answers.

There are no easy choices.


Here’s what I think should happen:

I think President Obama should go before the nation and clearly outline the options.

Limited strikes, no fly zones, boots on the ground, invasion and occupation, humanitarian relief only, or no action. Whatever the options his advisers are giving him, A to Z.  I think he should explain as best he is able, in simple terms, the advantages and disadvantages of each, and the expected consequences and outcomes. 

I think he should tell us which option he prefers.

Then I think he should publicly call for a vote in Congress.

I think every member of Congress should go on record, yea or nay, as representatives of the people of the United States.

And then I think the President should abide by that decision.


If we’re going to get involved, we should know the cost.

If we’re going to stay out, we should know the cost.


Government is not moral, morals are for individuals.

Government may be just, it may be rational, it may be ethical within certain broad guidelines, but it’s not moral. It can’t be. 

Sometimes you have to do what’s right.

And sometimes, the right thing is doing only what you can live with.


  1. I've listened to lots of rhetoric on this for several days. You summed it up brilliantly - humanely. I always admire your thinking, and how well you express those thoughts. This is one of your best.

  2. If the Government of this country had any sincere interest in doing what was morally right in spite of having to go it alone, or without regard to what the profit and loss would be, we would have spent the last several years dealing with Darfur, starting before Obama came into office, before the Iraq debacle.

    I think Obama overstated his position when he made his "red line" statement. Now we are in a bind because of it, and it smells like the run-up to Iraq all over again.

    I believe the country is rightfully skeptical about this. We've had a lot of "sources say" but little concrete evidence. We're going to pop a few cruise missiles at something or other at any minute because we can't wait for any corroborating evidence or support from other countries? How will this help anything?

  3. "... there’s always a war on somewhere, isn’t there? Afghanistan, Iraq, The Kurds, Rwanda, Serbia, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Sudan, Egypt, Mexico, Libya, Darfur, Somalia, Russia and Georgia, Yemen..."

    You missed Oakland, Jim.

    1. Indeed. Americans are dying daily with little notice beyond the local news "4 more killed in drive-by shootings" etc. and where is the red line? Kill them by the dozens and the NRA comes out until it blows over. And this is when we are to send more Americans to a country that basically nobody can find and nobody wants us, to kill more of their people?

      I don't think so. There is a lot of work to do here at home.

    2. Caution: This posting is related to the posting of Mike Rudolph but contains information that could lead to an Off-Topic discussion that in turn could lead to huge flame war. That is not the intention of the poster, but I realise it could be the result - especially if posters of a certain temperament read the posting. {End Caution}

      I read an article in the Guardian recently, It said: "... The figures from Congressional Research Service, plus recent statistics from icasualties.org, tell us that from the first casualties in the battle of Lexington to recent operations in Afghanistan, the toll is 1,171,177. By contrast, the number killed by firearms, including suicides, since 1968, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI, is 1,384,171."

      212,994 more Americans lost their lives from firearms in the last 45 years than in all wars involving the US, ever. It rather blew my mind; I'm 52 so that statistic has occurred inside my lifetime.

      With regards to Gun Control (there, I said the two magic words, bring on the freak show) I know it won't clear *all* the froth flecking the lips of the more lunatic participants on both sides of the argument but perhaps it might clear the eyes of more of the centre. Admittedly, sadly, there are so very few advocates in the centre.

      With regards to the Syria question, I suppose I support Mr Rudolph, To go with Jim's analogy; your own house is, at best, smouldering alarmingly, I have no solution either, I can't even work out which option is least terrible, even waiting and seeing is a bad idea,

      Info: I'm British, hence my spelling; but you got that from spelling, didn't you? and the article can be found here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/21/american-gun-out-control-porter

      It is only peripheral to this discussion, though.

  4. "there’s aren’t very many Americans who could name the capital city of Syria or describe in even the vaguest terms the historical significance of that ancient city."

    As I read these words I thought, hum, Damascus? I was pretty sure Syria was north of Israel, and I thought Damascus might have been a port city on the Mediterranean Sea, which was close, but wrong. I did recall from some documentary that Damascus is a very old town, even older than Los Angeles, which is um, what, at least a hundred years old? Perhaps?

    So, there are a few of us out here...who know a little bit and can even sometimes find their axx from a hole in the ground. Timber!

    I think I should quit while I am ahead though. I need to save some luck for the lottery, which I don't play. Huh.

    P.S. “there’s aren’t” from your line I quoted, is a typo, I think.

  5. Grand Zarkie of Planet VoltratronAugust 28, 2013 at 10:43 PM

    "Sometimes you just have to do what’s right." I was with you up until this. Unless I missed it. I don't see you taking a position on what's right to do here. I mean specifics.

    I will argue that the President painted himself and the US into a corner with his red line. And further that there is no practical course of action that won't end up badly. As you say, Jim it's win or die for both sides. So the innocents who get caught one way or another in their mess are on them.

    With that in mind the US should just stay the hell out of it, as painful and unjust as that may seem to some folks.

    1. I don't see you taking a position on what's right to do here.

      I thought I was quite clear on my position.

      As an aside, I don't think the president painted us into a corner - unless you think we should go to war for ego, to save face. Obama might have political egg on his face, but that's not policy. There's no law that requires us to take action on a bit of political rhetoric. Doesn't mean we won't, of course - and it'll be far from the first time.

    2. Grand Zarkie of Planet VoltratronAugust 28, 2013 at 11:10 PM

      What I got was that you're for intervention. But what action, specifically? Limited Tomahawk attacks, full on "shock and awe"? What? If I'm still not understanding, then release the badgers.But I'd really appreciate some clarification before you do that.

      As to Obama, no I don't think we should go to war for ego, but I think that's part of his calculus.

    3. What you got was that my position is not clear.

      Good, because that's on purpose. There's no easy answer here.

      As noted below: my personal position is both simple and complicated at the same time. There is a moral answer, and there's a pragmatic one, and there's what we will actually do as a nation.

      You're asking me about tactics, but your real question is strategic. There's a right answer for you and for me, and a right answer for nations and yet another for political parties - and they're not always the same, in fact they rarely are.

      Morally, as a nation, we should go in. We have an obligation to do so. We have a duty to do so. We have the power to do so, if we're not using it for good then what does that make us? If we are the people we say we are, we should go in.

      Individually however, I am adamantly opposed to more war, more deaths both American and otherwise. I don't want to see a single American serviceman die in Syria.

      Politically it's suicide. Neither the president nor congress will involve us in actual war - and the president has made that explicitly clear by declaring that we will not attempt regime change. We will only engage in actions that do not directly put American military personal in harm's way - because that's all the nation will tolerate, all our vaunted morality be damned.

      So that leaves us with what?

      I know what I think we should do, but I also know what we will do. I'm not prone to wishful thinking. There are no good choices, we'll have to play it as it lies.

    4. Yeah, the Prez fucked up with his red line comment. But that shouldn't obligate him to do something insanely stupid because he slipped his lip. And he's got NOTHING to prove to the chickenhawks in the GOP and their media suck ups. He took down Osama Bin Laden. They ain't got shit to say about him past that point.

      He should stand up in front of the press corps and state clearly, "It's a civil war, and it's not our GD problem, we're not sending one missile nor putting one pair of boots on the ground. Let the Syrian people decide their own destinies on their own."

    5. Grand Zarkie of Planet VoltratronSeptember 1, 2013 at 9:51 AM


      Sorry I didn't see your reply until now. Our vaunted morality as a nation is just that, vaunted. The primacy of corporate profits driving politics and policy both internally and in the world is pretty clear. America is exceptional in it's military strength, it's wealth, and it's belief in how we're the Light of The World. Meanwhile endless war, the country's wealth and income continue to be concentrated in fewer hands, our damaged vets are treated like crap...geeze it's beginning to sound like the last days of the Roman Republic, only with more circuses and less bread. But I digress.

      "There are no good choices, we'll have to play it as it lies."

      The good choice for the US is no direct intervention. And that's what I care about most.

      Obama's latest move is at least politically deft and gives me some hope. Congress being Congress, I think they'd never shorten their paid vacations to address the issue any sooner than 9/9. Then they'll posture and bloviate and dither as usual, and vote against military action, for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that it's the Black Guy.

  6. Very well stated. It's what's right. Period.

  7. Just grand. It's a full blown clusterfuck, no matter what, and we share the same planet and species, so...

    One quibble:
    "Pick Hezbollah, and we could demand that the price of toppling Assad is peace with Israel (oh, ho, didn’t think of that, did you?)."

    Hezbollah is on *Assad's* side (it's a confusing mess, and I can understand scrambling the players in the midst of trying to describe the morass...). I'm pretty sure you meant Al Qa'ida. Who we'd of course want to ally with. Sort of like our traditional allies, the Germans. (Bonus points to those who immediately remembered Tom Lehrer beating me to the punch on that by about 50 years...)

    1. "Why shouldn't they have nuclear warheads
      England says 'no' but they all are soreheads"

    2. A Tom Lerher lyric, you Sir, are my new favorite.

  8. I have the same sick feeling in the put of my stomach now that I had with the lack of any action years ago with Rwanda and Darfur. I do not feel American owns the patent on "life value". The Syrians' children have as much right to live as my own.

    I am not sure what the right course of action is (far beyond my pay grade), but I can say that "nothing" does not seem close to the humane option.

    1. I don't know about humane, but nothing is certainly not the moral option.

  9. This whole thing has me confused and sad and afraid. Your argument makes sense, but can't somebody else be the fire department for a change?

    BTW: "...few, very few, Americans who have any idea were* that town is..."


  10. I would suggest not getting involved with Syria. It doesn't do any good to die in a fire to save one person while thousands drown.

  11. I'm not certain exactly what a truly responsible action might constitute but I really believe that we must take action when any regime uses chemical weapons. Or biological or nuclear.

    These weapons are so fearsome that we MUST take action (if we can prove these weapons were used) in order to have everyone understand that it will never be in their interest to use them.

    I don't want American (or other) "boots on the ground" but I DO think that a few (or a few dozen) cruise missiles might dislodge Assad. Accomplish that, get outta Dodge and let the residents of Syria fight it out from there.

    Putin will get over it. Or he won't. Either way, the sun rises tomorrow.

    Respectfully, Doc

  12. I'm not sure there IS a right thing to do here. When people run into burning buildings they aren't dragging everyone in the nation in there with them. The person who runs into a building risks only themselves, admirable but not the same as running into a very long/expensive war in Syria. The real question isn't "is it the right thing to do?"; it is "can we actually make things better?" Seriously, Are we really willing to do everything it will take to reach that goal? Are we willing to lose more of our troops, end up with more wounded soldiers? Are we willing to stay embroiled in a conflict that will almost definitely end up with the "winning" side being a group who hates us?

    The guy who runs into a burning building without proper support and a plan to get back out is probably going to end up nothing more than another victim of the fire that has to be rescued.

    1. One also doesn't enter the building with a wrecking ball. We're as likely to kill the occupants we're trying to save as not.

  13. From Wilfred Owen, the English poet-soldier shot and killed one week shy of the armistice that ended World War One:

    Dulce Et Decorum Est

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

    GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
    And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
    Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

    1. Pretty clear description, Gas is a hell of a way to die. Yet what violent death isn't? Each individual who reads this essay needs to think what they personally are willing to risk. Jim has been on the sharp end and knows the human cost, do you?

  14. I think you meant that "God could get off his fat ass" not "off fat his ass".

    The only thing we could do that would effectively end this particular civil war would be the targeted strike against Assad. (Not sure if that's even legal under international law and opens the door to someone doing it to the US.) But all that would do is open the door to the free-for-all as every other unsavory group who's taken sides fights it out for dominance. Something like that might draw in Israel. I'm sure they'd react militarily to the possibility of Hezbollah getting their hands on the entire country. It's a mess.

    1. Already fixed.

      And no, it's not legal. It's also notable that the White House has specifically said that we will not engage in "regime change." Make of that what you will.

    2. Then it sounds like the "plan" is to destroy the chemical weapons. The only way to do that, without spreading them all over the place in explosions, is to march in and take them out. We'll have both sides fighting us in that case. Not to mention, if the weapons are being used, then they've already been dispersed to field commands. Which would mean we'd have to march in and take over the entire country for a time being. Sounds way too like Iraq and Afghanistan.

    3. My point.

      If it's really about chemical weapons, then you're either all in, or all out. A couple missile strikes get you nothing.

    4. But I'm not clear on whether you think we should be all in or all out.

    5. That was on purpose.

      My position is both simple and complicated at the same time. There is a moral answer, and there's a pragmatic one, and there's what we will actually do as a nation.

      The essay is deliberately obscure, that's part of the message. What's "right" is subjective. There's a right answer for you and for me, and right answer for nations - and they're not always the same.

    6. I appreciate your ambiguity on this, Jim. You're right there is NO good way to handle this.

      But also, once in a while at least, someone has to have the moral courage to stand up and just say "No." Yes, it's a dirty nasty thing to do, but sometimes, that's the best choice of a bad situation.

  15. What is moral and what our country can afford in morale is another matter. Do we patch up another country again while our own crumbles for the lack of attention?

    What are our men and women fighting for anymore?

    That is the question I have heard on lips everywhere I go. This has been heard from my friends in and out of the armed forces. This has been heard from my friends who are civilians of various stripes.

    Your talk of the moral stance is a good one... but I think the morale is lacking to truly back it up much anymore.

  16. Err, Hizballah(*) is fighting on Assad's side against al Qaeda. Which only makes sense. Assad has been the primary conduit for arms to Hizballah, and the Alawites claim they're a sect of Shia Islam, just like Hizballah is an organization of Lebanon's Shiites, while al Qaeda is a Sunni organization. And Hizballah and Assad are both best buddies and pals with Iran and neither has any liking for Sunni or al Qaeda (or its predecessor organization, the Muslim Brotherhood -- look up "Hama Massacre" for an example of the Assad regime's usual response to al Qaeda).

    Frankly if we were going to intervene on anybody's side it should probably be Assad's side, because the Baathists are the only group capable of putting the country back together, if the Baathists go down then it's a free for all and carnage. But I'm talking logic, and logic has nothing to do with it if Iran is in the mix. Which is why Israel is asking us to please take out Assad. And Israel runs our Middle Eastern policy because, well, we don't really care that much anyhow about what happens in places like Syria, and they do, so.

    Best case scenario is that President Obama does what he does best -- makes a speech, with lofty oratorical flourishes and lots of big words to wow the masses -- and goes to bed satisfied that he "did something" about that red line. Worst case is enormous sums of American money and some American lives getting dropped into yet another mess in the Middle East that we have no business getting involved with. So it goes...

    (*)I usually use the spelling "Hizballah", since the Arabic name for their organization is literally translated as "Party of God" and is pronounced "hah-zah-bah-allah" in formal Arabic and slurred/vowel dropped to something sounding similar to "Hizballah" in Lebanese vernacular Arabic. That said, there are so many Anglicizations of the Arabic name that there's probably a half dozen spellings that are "correct".

  17. I had similar thoughts reading a recent article about Syria crossing a line using chemical weapons. “Oh no, not chemical weapons,” I thought, as if it is a big bag of apples getting shot at or blown to pieces. “Just as long as I’m not gassed, go ahead and keep throwing grenades.” Theocratic dictatorships are unstable because they leave no room for debate or compromise. Eventually someone’s God wants to duke it out with the other guy’s God. No debate. Winner take all.

    My Jehovah is always the best, smartest, wisest, and is the better dresser (bigger churches with nicer paintings than your Jehovah). The God of Abraham-- Judaism/Christianity/Islam is like worshiping an abusive relationship, where the abused is constantly defending the abuser, and then transferring that abuse to others. Go Jesus, Go! Violence and hatred are learned behaviors.

    I agree that what gets forgotten is the people; human beings that are lost in the rhetoric. What a mess.

    I suppose religion gives people a sense of purpose, and even a bad purpose for so many, is better than none. I guess. But it seems to me people could still find things to do that didn’t involve psychopathic violence. Ugh.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Err, Anthony, the Baath Party is a secular party, not a theocratic party, and Assad is a run of the mill secular dictator, not a theocratic dictator. Yet another reason why it is crazy that we overturned a Baathist regime in Iraq and now appear ready to do so in Syria, the Baathists are about as big an enemy of theocrats as you can find, though they've cozied up to Hizballah out of necessity. But note that Hizballah is a native Lebanese organization and has no infrastructure in Syria and no chance (nor desire) of taking over Syria... Hizballah's main interest is that their friend Assad who channels Iranian weapons to them looks like he might be about to go down, so they've intervened on his side near the Lebanese border. Further than that, they lack the capability to go. They're organized as a Lebanese self-defense force, not an invading army, which implies completely different logistical considerations. As in, they rely on pre-placed supplies for their effectiveness against invading armies, which means that their logistical capabilities away from Lebanon proper are pretty limited. (And remember, novices talk tactics, professionals talk logistics).

    3. Theocratic dictatorships are unstable because they leave no room for debate or compromise. Okay, so take out the word theocratic, and you still have the same thing; a government with no room for debate. I certainly don't claim to be an expert on the political situation in Syria. And good luck finding anything useful in AP or Reuters, which is why I came here tonight, to maybe learn something. You seem to have some good information. I'll have to look closer at your analysis. But I did google on quick thing. According to Wikipedia, the goal of the Baathists is to unite the "Arab" world. How would you unite the "Arab" world without the cooperation of Islam/Muslims? What kind of government would that be? And Im not being a smart ass, I would like to know.

    4. Wikipedia is somewhat out of date. The Baath party basically started out as a pan-Arab movement, but nowadays is just your typical secular strongman party, with the only real guiding principle being to keep the strongman dictator in power. The fact that it is a secular party makes it attractive to minority groups such as the Alawites, Druze, and Syriac Christians, who otherwise would be locked out of power by the majority Sunni. That is the core conflict in Syria right now -- it is the majority Sunni against every other religious group for a fight over whether Syria will remain a secular dictatorship run by the coalition of minority religions, or will become a Taliban-style theocracy run by the majority Sunni.

      Regarding secular dictatorships being unstable, it appears that the most unstable thing about them is that they're rather fragile if kicked over from outside, since there is no real ideological glue to hold it together. Saddam Hussein was never in any danger of being overthrown from inside Iraq, it took an outside force to do so. The vast majority of secular dictatorships that have fallen apart over the last decade or so did so because the dictator got old and off his game, not because of any fragility.

    5. Yes, I mean fragile/unstable in terms of longevity in the context of the nation they (dictatorships) rule. There is indeed no ideological glue to hold them together, only force (violence). Our (I'm supposing you live in the US) government is from the ground up, it is a government by the consent of the governed, not a top down government, like a King's rule from a divine right (a theocracy). This huge base of power in the people makes for a very sturdy foundation.

      So, what you are saying (by the way, say hello to Linux for me), is the Sunni are trying to kick out Assad so they can put themselves and their God in power? Correct? I can see now why you think the US should back Assad. A Sunni theocracy in Syria doesn't sound encouraging. Where does Israel stand if that should happen? I am guessing Israel would go nuts.

      What exactly is the difference among the different factions of Islam? Sunni, Shiite, others? Is it kind of like the Lutherns vs. the Cowboys, I mean the Methodists? Yeah, I know I can google it, but my mom only lets me Google 6 things a day, because otherwise it wears out the Search Engine's radiator.

      Thanks for the comments.

    6. My understanding of the Sunni/Shia split is that there was disagreement regarding who should succeed The Prophet when he died. People split into two camps, each convinced that the other were Hell-bound blasphemers and everything that has followed is reaction to the 'facts on the ground.' Who was able to win which battles, that sort of thing.

    7. So the Sunni/Shia have been at each other's throats almost since the birth of Islam. Sometimes I wonder if the writers of the good old Torah/Bible/Koran didn't set up their business plan on purpose to incite in-fighting. You would think that a top down government with God at the top would be a wonderful thing. You know, all peace and quiet and everybody gets ice cream and cake after the barbeque on the three day weekend. It seems people really think this kind of reality could happen, if only the damn liberals, atheists, lawyers, actors, heavy metal musicians, used car salesmen, and Charlie Sheen would just get out of the way and stop spoiling it for the believers. It is a very seductive thought. I myself used to entertain such notions. I can understand wanting something like that, but a person should probably be asking themselves about their sanity when they are blowing up puppies, bunnies, and people to get it.

      But I ramble. Thanks for the answer, notacynic.

    8. The fundamental difference today is that the Shia are a fairly monolithic Catholic-style religion, while the Sunni are a quite fragmented Baptist-style religion. There is a formal hierarchy among Shiism, while the Sunni do not have a formal hierarchy, each mosque basically is run like an independent Baptist church with a board of deacons hiring the imam (if there is a full-time imam).

      From a theological point of view, this lack of a central theological body for Sunni Islam has led to Sunni Islam fragmenting in much the same way that Protestantism has fragmented in the Christian faith traditions. You have your hard-core right-wing zealots like the Taliban and Wahabi, then you have your moderate mainstream types like the folks who rule Bahrain, and you have your Sufi types who are more mystical, etc. So it's rather not appropriate to treat Sunni Islam as if it were a monolithic religion, because as with Protestantism, it is more of an umbrella for a number of religious traditions that fragmented from the mainstream over the years. Still, the fundamental schism that occurred between Sunni and Shia is as deep as the fundamental schism between Catholic and Protestant, so that's why we use the two wide umbrellas.

      Now, Syria and Lebanon are sort of weird in the Middle East in that they have a large number of religious traditions for historical reasons. In Syria the Alawiites claim they're Shia, but they aren't, really -- they just do that to cozy up to Iran and to Hizballah. Their religious traditions are sort of Islamic, but because of all the invading and conquering and such that went on they got a lot of other stuff in there too. But the core thing to remember is that the Baathist government in Syria is *not* going to collapse in the sense of people just going home instead of fighting, because the minorities who make up the government -- basically every religious tradition other than the Sunni -- pretty much are convinced that if they surrender, they will be wiped out to the last man, woman, and child (i.e., *genocide*). Which is why they were winning the war once Hizballah entered the war and attacked the Sunni rear from the Lebanese border, pretty much doing a Sherman on their logistics, because if the Sunni fighters go home there will *not* be genocide -- Assad doesn't have enough bullets to kill every Sunni in Syria -- so they just don't have the motivation that the government forces have. Which is why the radical al Qaeda types have moved to the forefront, because they *do* have the motivation, they're intent on creating a theocracy.

      As for what Israel's role is in all this, I've already noted on my own blog what I believe is going on there. But that's for another day.

    9. Thank you for the wonderful, lucid, and informative reply, BadTux. I only had vague notions about the structure of what is usually generically refered to in the news as "Islam." I don't completly understand your reference to Sherman (yes, I am aware he was a Civil War general), but I understand the rest of your post. I found the link to your blogs. I'll have to do some wandering around. Again, thanks for the input.

    10. Minor nitpick, but the Catholic/Protestant analogy doesn't work quite so neatly as you imply. That's because the Shi'a are almost as fragmented as the Sunni. You've got the majority Twelvers, but there are also Seveners, Zaydi, Druze, Bohra & Nizari Ismailis, Alawi, Alevi, Bektashi Sufi, etc., etc., etc. About the only thing they'll all agree is the belief that the Prophet directly picked Ali as his successor. After that, it becomes just about as much a free-for-all as the Sunni.

      Maybe a better analogy might be that the Shi'a/Sunni distinction is more like Orthodox/Protestant Christianity, considering that the Orthodox label could be considered to envelop all Catholicism, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Coptic Christianity, and the like. The schisms are not quite so far-reaching as the Protestant sects, but it's still pretty fragmented nonetheless.


  18. I have the awful feeling that this may be a "let's you and him fight" situation. There is not enough public information available, yet, for anyone to know what is happening in Syria beyond its basic horror. The USA is planning to act on intelligence--from where?--and undertake an air assault. Based on past history, this seems likely to fail, perhaps even make matters worse. And I fear the intelligence may be as good as the intelligence that formed the basis of the invasion of Iraq.

    I don't think you'd find many firefighters charging into a burning building without preparation or the knowledge they could help. I'm pretty sure they wouldn't charge in with flamethrowers.

    The USA is already involved. The USA helped start this fire. By supporting the Israeli hardliners. By supporting Saddam Hussein's uses of toxic gas. By training mujahadeen. By invading Iraq. By sabre-rattling at Iran. Above all, by helping make the region so unstable that people run to al-Qaeda and Hezbollah as sources of law and right.

    The people of the region do not want more of that sort of US intervention. We are, I think, regarded as an arsonist fighting the fire we started.

    If the USA really wanted to do something, it could take a long look at its strategic position in the region. It could press Israel to keep its promises and make a real agreement with the Palestinian Arabs. If Israel could at least be persuaded to let the Palestinians of Gaza have their lives, that would be an improvement. (It is projected that Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020.) The USA could attempt a diplomatic rapproachment with Iran, rather than supporting its hardliners by making threats. The USA could stop its drone wars, which seem to be making more enemies than victories. The USA could stop supporting anyone in the region with oil without regard to who they were.

    The USA could wage peace.

    None of these things involve lobbing missiles at Syria, which seems likely to make matters worse rather than better. They also involve big shifts in policy and losses of face. Much easier to lob missiles.

    1. The USA is already involved. The USA helped start this fire.

      You forgot the 1953 CIA coup to overthrow Iranian leader Mohammad Mosaddegh.


    2. Apparently our intelligence folks listened in on a mid-level bureaucrat going ape-shit at a chemical weapons unit asking them what the hell they thought they were doing. Seems either the chem unit went rogue or the order came from much higher on the pay scale than the bureaucrat. Neither of those bodes well for future stability in the conflict. (Though it does give Assad plausible deniability.)

    3. Juan Cole has an overview of recent developments: http://www.juancole.com/2013/08/western-strike-stall.html

      In the absence of further chemical weapon uses, I wish that we would wait for the UN investigation.

      Iran, by the way, is now threatening Israel if the US intervenes. It still looks to me like someone is trying very hard to get the US embroiled in another war in the region.

  19. I don't think, as you said, that there is a good military option. We would be bringing death and destruction to save people from death and destruction. I don't see how any military response would actually make things better in that country.

    But maybe we can do something useful for the people - send a shitload of humanitarian aid & ring the country with well-stocked refugee camps. Apparently the number of refugees is overwhelming to the neighboring countries (Botswana, Sierra Leone and Canada - I went to school!). An actually effective, meaningful contribution to the refugee situation would win us some gratitude from the countries involved (if we can get them to accept our aid in the first place - those Canadians are stubborn), and would provide solace for the people who could get out.

    Of course, there is not a ghost of a chance that this would ever happen. Rice and toilets are not nearly as sexy as bombs and assault rifles. At least not to US congressmen.


  20. My wife asked me my opinion--which side used the chemical weapons? Good question. It looks to me that--if the chemical weapons exist outside of intelligence reports--like they were released as a provocation intended to provoke US intervention. Neither side seem to me to have a strategic reason to use such a weapon. Which opens up the question of who would undertake such a provocation. Israeli hardliners are one obvious candidate--they might be hoping to put the fear of Allah into the Iranian leadership. I suppose US Iran hawks are another possible group. But there are probably a dozen state and non-state actors who might want to provoke a US intervention in the region.


  21. I love your writing and I usually agree with you. Well, often. But I have to disagree this time.

    I'm sorry, but your analogy in the final paragraphs just doesn't stand up. Sending a few Tomahawk missiles into a country isn't remotely like running into a burning building to save the people inside. It's more like blowing up the burning building to decrease the fuel supply and, whoops, sorry we blew you up, too, we were trying to help.

    Right now, people are dying. If we don't send in the bombs, more people will probably die. But if we DO send in the bombs, more people will certainly die. At our hands. How is killing people to maybe stop (at least for a little while) someone else killing people the "moral option"? As I see it, that's edging mighty close to the argument justifying the killing of abortion doctors.

    Instead of going in and killing more people, how about funding the refugee camps - so civilians have a safe place to go - meanwhile pursuing other, more diplomatic means? If not within Syria, then at the UN?

    Briefly, two other questions before I go:
    1) Why limit ourselves to Syria? If involving ourselves in civil wars is the moral option, why aren't you also advocating intervening in the Congo, where a devastating genocide has been going on for over 15 years now?
    2) Why were we okay with chemical weapons in 1988 when Hussein used them against Iran, as just confirmed in recently declassified CIA documents, but not now? Don't get me wrong, I think chemical weapons are horrible - but, like you, I don't think they're any worse than any other deadly weapon of war.

    ~ viajera

    1. Heh heh.

      What I said was, sometimes you have to do what's right.

      Now why did I phrase it that way?

      What is right?

      For some of us that's running into the building. For some of us, that's standing on the sidewalk and watching it burn. You have to choose, but if you choose to watch it burn at least have the guts to admit it.

      people are dying. If we don't send in the bombs, more people will probably die. But if we DO send in the bombs, more people will certainly die. At our hands. How is killing people to maybe stop (at least for a little while) someone else killing people the "moral option"? As I see it, that's edging mighty close to the argument justifying the killing of abortion doctors.

      Funny thing, the abortion analogy occurred to me more than once when writing this. I put it in twice, and took it back out.

      We send bombs, people die. We don't send bombs, people die. Like the burning building, the right answer, the moral answer is subjective, isn't it? That's the thing about morals.

      To answer your final two questions:
      1) Indeed. Why aren't we arguing about the Congo? Why aren't we arguing about Somalia? Or the Mexican drug war? That's probably why I used the lead in I did, you think?

      2) Uh huh. Probably why I mentioned the hypocrisy. My point exactly.

      Perhaps you don't disagree with me after all.

    2. I like the burning building analogy, but would like to explore it a little bit more. Twice in the last few years a house has burned down in my neighborhood, so I've been on that sidewalk. And if it had been absolutely necessary I'd like to think I'd be able to run into that building. But the thing is that actual firefighters hate that shit. Thats just one more person they probably have to rescue. They're the experts, they have the equipment and the expertise and the physical ability to go in there and get people out. And sometimes that expertise tells them that the situation is lost. The house is a goner and there's no reason to risk more lives, just do their best to keep the blaze from spreading.

      I see the Syria situation thusly, there were all sorts of steps that needed to be taken in this fire. Somebody needed to catch it a lot sooner, call 9-11 and get the trucks moving asap. Somebody needed to knock on all the doors when we first started seeing smoke and get the folks inside moving before the fire got out of hand. Somebody needed to make sure the nearby hydrant was working so that when the firefighters arrived they could do their jobs.

      At this point the chemical weapon attack is just might be the roof caving in. Time to douse the nearby houses and keep it from spreading.

      You mentioned the ineffectiveness of the UN in these situations. In a better world, the UN would be our fire department. They would be the ones who pick up the 911 call and send firefighters rushing to the scene. Instead what we have is a situation where the firefighters are underfunded, their expertise is ignored, their infrastructure is neglected. Instead we have a world where the only people who can pick up the phone are the Police. Now in an emergency, sure the cops showing up is better than nothing. I know a few cops, most of them are brave guys quite willing to run into that burning building and do the best they can. But putting out fires isn't their job. It's not what they are really trained to do. They don't have the equipment for it. With a fire what you want the cops doing is directing traffic, keeping the onlookers at a safe distance, making sure the firefighters have access to the hydrants. And you will need them to sift through the wreckage to see if it was arson and if it was then track down and catch the fucker before he does it again, or maybe even keeping an eye out for arsonists so that they can prevent the fire from happening in the first place.

      I think that beyond what we can do right now to help the people of Syria the moral thing to do is to fucking learn from this disaster.(the people of Syria are awesome by the way. I know a few Syrian americans and they are pretty cool froods, in a better world Syria would be the place churning out a population of educated and secularly minded muslims)

      Call me a wild eyed idealist, but what's happening in Syria (and the Congo, and Mexico et al) should be a call to strengthen the UN, to build up robust international institutions whose mission it is to put out fires, prevent fires before they happen, and deal humanely with the victims and refugees.

      That's gonna be a hard sell when the biggest player on the block is paralysed by a political movement that thinks the UN is a tool of the antichrist out to steal all of our guns and make us ride solar powered busses.

      Sorry this is so long Jim, it just kept getting longer. And sadder. Gonna listen to some Tull and do dishes for a bit. That will help me at least.

    3. Blotz "That's gonna be a hard sell when the biggest player on the block is paralysed by a political movement that thinks the UN is a tool of the antichrist out to steal all of our guns and make us ride solar powered busses."

      Yeah, solar powered buses to the FEMA camps.

    4. "That's gonna be a hard sell when the biggest player on the block is paralysed by a political movement that thinks the UN is a tool of the antichrist out to steal all of our guns and make us ride solar powered busses."

      As someone with a son on a Canadian ship in the region, my personal, selfish fear is that we'll end up having to send him there. Which would be awful.

      But, Jim as always makes me think about that position and I am forced to ponder what is right versus what is right for my family.

      Your answer struck a chord. And I have fervently wished for decades that the UN could live up to it's promise. And, all that time, I have quietly (and often not-so-quietly) bemoaned the seemingly reflexive anti-UN rhetoric out of the US. But, wishing doesn't make it so. Would there was a simple answer.

      Beth in Toronto

    5. There's a reason Roddenberry made the Federation the good guys in Star Trek. IMHO I think that's the future. Whenever I hear the paranoid freakouts from our paleoconservatives about one world government, a part of me just nods and says "Yeah...in the long run that's what I want." Not to go all hippy dippy about it, but that's certainly my ideal.

    6. Gracias, viajera.


      Mr. Wright wrote, “they win or they die” to describe each of the sides, and there are more than two. He was right.

      Do what is moral for the people. Agreed.

      Burning building analogies:

      There are more than two arsonists. We pick the most evil of them, and hurt him.
      The other arsonists keep setting fires, and people keep getting burned to death.
      The most evil arsonist is weakened. He still has lots of gasoline to set more fires.
      He is hurt, by us. We are morally accountable for the results of our having hurt him.

      The most evil arsonist, hurt and weakened, is in danger of losing, hence dying.
      He therefore uses more, lots more, of his remaining gasoline.

      We will have, for all the most moral reasons, created a scenario that will lead to more burning buildings, more people getting burned to death.

      I don’t have any good answers. Acting morally in a way that causes still more
      harm and death…?

      I still don’t have any good answers.


    7. "Why aren't we arguing about the Congo? Why aren't we arguing about Somalia? Or the Mexican drug war? That's probably why I used the lead in I did, you think?"

      We are...but no-one with the power to act is participating.

      The UN does some things, NGOs do some things but--as with private charity at the individual level--there is nowhere near enough funding. In the case of the UN, its ability to act is also impaired by its undemocratic legislature and unscrupulous conduct on the part of some of its members. I think perhaps the model of federalism on which the USA, the UN, and the EU is based is flawed, and is vulnerable to both obstruction and incorrect action (I am thinking of the European Credit Union) by unscrupulous minorities.

      Speaking of which, Medicin San Frontieres has withdrawn from Somalia due to attacks on its personnel abetted by "The same actors with whom MSF must negotiate minimum guarantees to respect its medical humanitarian mission."

  22. Using the metaphor of the burning building, I'm going to highlight a point of ignorance that I have.

    Who is going in? It's one thing to be sending somebody who will have no problem carrying people out of the burning building, another to send somebody who might manage it, and yet another to be sending in somebody with asthma, who can barely handle being on the sidewalk.

    I'd like to think that our military is ready for this, but I don't know, and so I waffle. If it was me going, I'd have no question - I know I'm not ready - but I can't speak for anybody else.

  23. Thank you from the bottom of my guts for this article. Putting all of the politics and religion aside, the bottom line is that this is about people.

    "Sometimes you just have to do what’s right."

    1. Retaliatory killing is never right...especially when innocents die in the crossfire. I don't pretend to have all the answers but killing people just doesn't seem to be the right one.

    2. See the my response to the comment immediately above yours.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. I'm in total agreement with you that "what's right" is highly subjective. It's just that it's impossible to remain completely subjective when discussing the fate of human lives.

      I agree that doing nothing is certainly not the humane course of action. But what is? Like you said, if we send bombs people die (with blood on our hands) and if we don't send bombs people die anyway.

      Perhaps there is completely different course of action? A humane course of action? There is of course, but I don't see our government choosing it.

      It all makes me sad really.

    5. As I said, sometimes there are no good choices.

  24. And another possibility: simple accident. A bomb hit on a chemical factory might lead to a release of a neurotoxin.

  25. Everything you said, Jim. I went through a similar thought process and stopped short at "there's nothing we can do at less than an incalculable price."

    So I can find Syria on a map and have an idea of where Damascus and Aleppo are, but you have me stumped on this. What is the implementable plan to save the people? I only come up with saturation policing, something we're not good at in our own country and totally suck at elsewhere.

    How do you keep the army, the snipers, Hezbollah, Al-Qaida, etc. away from each other and from the innocents without massive boots on the ground? As we learned in Iraq, Americans are really not equipped for that kind of work anyway. (And everyone please keep the word "terrorist" out of this. They're ALL terrorists, by definition, regardless of label.)

    My fondest hope is that Mr. Obama does not seriously think a few (or a lot of) missiles will "punish" Assad. And that he has been busily lining up Russians and Arab allies to the extent that he really knows what Assad's buttons are. That a drone can take out his collection of pink ponies or the combination to his Swiss bank account, whatever, just not more damn bombs. Oh, and keep more people from getting killed.

    But if you have a plan, I'm ready to follow you, Chief, even though my Army training is about 10 wars in the past.

  26. Perhaps there is this reason to go into Syria. There is an international treaty against the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Chemical Weapons are part of that list. So are Bio Weapons. But most importantly, so are Nukes. If a hard line is not drawn on No Use then what is to stop some nation deciding to nuke its neighbor? If the world doesn't move when one form of WMD is used, then why will it move if another is? Maybe that doesn't sound rational. "Of course we'd react to someone using nukes." But are all the leaders of nations with nukes rational? Are their allies? Do we want to take that chance?

    I've been hearing that the US and UK are planning on bringing this up in the UN Security Counsel. But with China and Russia both there, both Assad allies or anti-US, I don't see a resolution for action getting passed.

  27. Early on in the Viet Nam fiasco, my grandfather said something that I think was prescient -and- probably applies here, too. He was an immigrant, and a truck farmer. BTW, farming, of -any- kind, is damn hard work! Anyway .. he said it was going to last a long time and get =very= 'ugly', and in the end, no one would "win" a damn thing. Mostly because none of 'us' had any idea of what we were doing or what was really important. Most of the population of South Viet Nam were peasant farmers, just like he was, and none of them gave a tinker's damn about politics - they just wanted to grow their crops and feed their families, which was hard enough to do in the best of times.

    He also made sure I remembered and thought about something for any future 'nonsense': always ask 'who benefits?' Answer -that- question, and you're almost all of the way to understanding what's =really= going on!

    So, we now have (again!) a 'goat-screw' of truly magnificent proportions, where (again!) no one really -seems- to benefit. No matter which 'actor' in this play you look at, they -all- seem to be in a position of "damned if you do, damned if you don't", so it would -seem- that =no= -one- "benefits" from this current goat-screw. Notice I keep saying and emphasizing "-seem/s-".

    That's because someone =does= 'benefit' from all this, -no- -matter- =what= happens. It's certainly not "the people" of Syria, nor anywhere else in the Middle East. They are of no more importance than "we the people" are here in America. I'll give you a hint-- "War is good for business." Sound familiar? The =only= ones who benefit from these sorts of events .. are the über-rich who invest in and the multi-national corporations -who- =make= the armaments, the munitions and the other 'consumable' items used.

    It's certainly not going to be the poor 'boots-on-the-ground' troops (or even the swabies sitting off shore). It isn't going to be "the people" of [pick a location, any location]. It won't be a government or governmental entity of any location. And, lastly, I'm sorry, Jim, but doing what's "right" won't mean a thing to the -only- thing that =really= matters: "the bottom line" on someone's P&L statement. And it doesn't feel any better knowing that now than it did almost 45 years ago when I'd look at what used to be one of my buddies.

    P.S.--I tried to post this under my name, but the only thing it would allow is "Anonymous"!!

    1. Try clearing your browser's cache. That usually fixes the comment ID problem.

  28. One last thing: The core reason for the protests at the beginning was because the economy is a shambles. The economy is a shambles because of over a million Iraqi refugees (mostly Sunni) and not enough jobs, housing, or *water* for all those people. And there are over a million Iraqi refugees because we kicked Saddam's rear and made Iraq safe for Iran.

    In other words, the current situation in Syria is a direct result of our invasion of Iraq having destabilized the Middle East. Way to go, Dubya!

  29. I saw a report the other day that the Arab League agreed that Assad had used chemical weapons - that *might* introduce some "slightly less bad" options into the mix. I still think that support for refugees, and for the countries housing those refugees, would be a "something" that could be done, and should be done, that would have few if any down-sides, and *might* help stop this cluster-fuck spreading across the region.
    The other thing I *wish* politicians would take from all this is to be a little more considered about who we support and why when there *isn't* a war on - pushing Israel a little harder to treat the Palestinians like actual people would be a start, and not supporting bad people because we have a mutual enemy would be a good follow-on.

    1. @Lena the Red : "..pushing Israel a little harder to treat the Palestinians like actual people would be a start .."

      Of course that would be a lot easier if the Palestinians especially Hamas would do the same and treat the Israelis as equally human as well.

      I'd be very wary of singling out Israel as always the bad guy here too.

      I was discussing Syria with my brother just now. He was saying "..if they're not going to do things the Aussie way of okay, I fucked up, you fucked up, now lets go have a beer are they?" and noted same was true of the whole Israel-Palestine/Arabs conflict too. Therein lies the problem. These groups (in Syria and Israel-Palestine and elsewhere too) - my brother said "idiots" and its hard to disagree - are living together, they have to live together and yet they refuse to get along with each other and refuse even to accept the other as human.

      What can we do that will help or change that? I wish I knew.

    2. Correction - there was no "if" in my brothers quote. Just

      "They are not going to settle this the Aussie way of 'Ok, I fucked up, you fucked up, now lets go have a beer' are they."

      NB. Shared this on facebook to. Presume and hope that's okay Jim.

  30. Great article as always Jim Wright - thankyou. You've summed this up so well.

    I'm torn on this issue of intervening or not in Syria, really do NOT know what the right thing to do is.

    One thing I will say is that I think we need to learn more and not rush into it. We need to be very clear on what we want to do before do it.

    I'm very glad I'm not the one who has to make the final decision. My thoughts are with Obama and whoever else has to make that choice and hope they choose wisely.

  31. “What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no.”
    ― William Shakespeare, King Henry IV,

    We'll all be dead a long while.

  32. Thought provoking.

    I think that the questions are:

    1. What can we do?
    2. What should we do?
    3. Is there a course of action that is both what we should do and what we can do that is also better than not doing it?

    I agree with Jim that a token action is worse than useless. I am not sure that an all-in response would be better. I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of committing troop to something that we are not sure is a good idea.

    So, this post is not the answer to any of those questions but it does clarify the questions.

    Entering into a military conflict where there is no way to win requires either great moral courage or a huge disregard for the lives of US (and probably UK) soldiers. However, a lot depends on how you define winning. It is more complex than the definition that my father taught me: If, at the end of the day, your man is standing on that bit of ground, you have won. If, at the end of the day, his man is standing on that bit of ground, he has won.

    Suppose that we define winning as "the conflict does not escalate and as few people as possible die and the government left in power does not pose an active threat to us after all of this." Can we design a military action that would do this? I am not sure that we can.

  33. Here's a rather half-baked idea (but it should be enjoyable watching it get picked apart): instead of the choice of running into or not running into the burning building, let's call the fire department.

    Rather than getting directly involved, sit down behind closed doors and make a deal with the one US ally in the region that everybody already hates, Israel. Get them to send in the Mossad to get rid of Assad, as well as a strike force to secure the government there. They can truthfully cite that this situation is a security risk to their own country. Then they can state that they're going to immediately turn the country over to the UN or Arab League or some other international governing body and get out, that they've neutralized the threat to their country's security.

    The whole region will stomp and yell, but secretly, every single government in the ME area besides Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah -- Saudi, Qatar, UAE, Egypt, etc. -- wants Assad gone and would see this as doing the world a favor, so they themselves won't have to. Of course, some issues would have to be dealt with regarding Iran and Russia, so that's no small matter.

    Just something to consider....


  34. I was in Kenya during the Rwandan genocide. You really only knew because we weren't supposed to drink the water from Lake Victoria, on account of the bodies or something.

    You know what was on the BBC World Service that summer? OJ Simpson and his Bronco.

    Gen. Romeo Dallaire was yelling for help, he was practically begging, and America, and Canada, and the UN, did nothing. And people died, and were maimed and brutalized, and no one outside of Rwanda, and maybe Burundi really gave a damn. I don't think most people could find Rwanda on a map, even today.

    In Syria, there is social media, and there are reporters on the ground, and anyone with half a brain has some kind of tickle in the back of their lobes that something not good is happening.

    I'm a hippy granola peacenik. I really don't like war. I think it begets other war, and more violence. That's my disclaimer, but I used to be a navy wife, so there's that too. America set themselves up as the world police, some time around WWII I guess, and once you have done that, I think there is some kind of moral obligation to try and stop wholesale slaughter of a people. There's also the fact that among the world's nations, America has the firepower, and the capability to do something.

    If you are outside a burning building, and you are a wimp like me, who couldn't save a mouse from a paper bag, then running in to try and save people would probably end up with an even higher body count. I would be better to use my phone to call 911 and try to marshal bystanders to help. But if you are the big guy, the tall guy, the one who can bench press his/her own body weight, then you probably should try and go in and get the kids out.

    There should have been intervention a hundred thousand deaths ago, but should've doesn't help anybody. If America is going to go in, it has to be hard, but with some kind of a plan. There has to be follow up. I'm not smart enough to know what that looks like, but the murdered and the suffering, the displaced, the maimed and the mourning, deserve more than to be used as pawns in American Prime Time politics.

  35. Outside the box. We gotta go way outside the box on this one.
    Run into a burning building? No, buy the burning building, we can get it for a great price.
    Reinstate the draft, induct all the real estate salesmen and women.
    Send them to Syria (in the first phase) put a for sale sign on everything, tell people to start packing.
    Sell the properties to other conflicted people. Hutsi? Kurds?, put their homes up for sale

  36. We're damned if we do, and damned if we don't. If we're going to be damned, I'd rather it wasn't for killing.

    I must add though- I've followed the issue a little more closely than I might have. My dentist was Syrian. Wonderful man, about 40, gentle, a musician, poet, and thinker. We actually talked long enough once that we upset his schedule. I really liked him. And then suddenly he wasn't there. The office staff said that he was worried about his family and went home. The next time I was in the office and asked if anyone had heard from him, the news was grim. His brother had come to the office looking for some papers to settle his estate. Apparently he died in Aleppo. Refused to carry a weapon, died giving people emergency medical care.

    It's a clusterfuck. And there's not clean way out. I just want the killing to stop.

  37. Perhaps not a burning building, but instead a forest fire? In a forest fire you don't try to save the forest, you try to wrap a containment around the fire, you remove the people who are directly threatened, and you wall off the fire from moving toward other areas where there is a concentration of people. To protect people, you might even start small controlled fires specifically to deny the big fire fuel. Most forest fires are not extinguished, they are contained and then they eventually burn themselves out.

    But after the forest fire is out, we find that grass and trees do grow back, and the painful fact is that once they grow back, you have the exact same fire potential you had before!

    And there is the rub, nothing we talk of will actually fix the problem, and since the dawn of mankind, we've been doing this, we are just getting better at it and we are hearing about every single case where in the past they didn't make it out to the whole world. And it isn't moral, but is it moral to kill some innocents to rescue others? Especially when you cannot solve the underlying problem?

    I suppose we could put a line around the country, and say nothing gets in, it is a one-way border, refugees can come out, but no weapons, no food, no humanitarian aid goes in, anything that moves we stop or we blow it up... after a while, the country is half empty and those that remain are eating boiled shoe and yesterday's casualties, and then we can reset the country and build a stable happy democracy, just like ours, right... And what do we do with the ones who don't want our style of democracy? Herd them into camps and gas them? There is no morality there.

    The only way this can end with peace is when the people who are killing and dying decide it must end. When THEY decide that the fight isn't worth it anymore, when someone allows their brother to die without taking vengeance upon his killer, when people decide they have a pressing need to make common ground and work together. Until that happens, until the forest grows back with more fire resistant trees, the fire will just keep burning.

  38. Another brilliant piece, Jim. “Thought-provoking” doesn’t quite cover it.

    I think Catfood is on the right track, but I would shift the axis of responsibility to the Arabs in the region. We've armed the Saudis, Egyptians, etc. to the teeth - let them use those weapons to manage the problem. Yeah, yeah ... They're Sunni and they hate the Shiites and vice versa. Everybody will say it's a religious war. Fuck that. We're neither and they hate us anyway. Plus, we have our own ample supply of wing-nuts salivating over the possibility of bringing on the end-times.

    If the Syrian conflict is a regional security threat, the region should manage it. If it's an unacceptable moral situation, they should demand that it stop. If military action is required to enforce the demand, they should be the ones to enforce it. I'm pretty sure we've sold/given them sufficient weaponry to handle it and, if we haven't, I'm sure we have folks who would love to sell them more. (One of you military experts should feel free to correct me on that last point if necessary).

    As you so eloquently point out, there is no conceivable scenario where anything we start ends in anything like a “win” for us, and few – if any – in which it ends well for the Syrian people.

    Burning building? Only if you consider that there likely are IEDs in the hall, the victims are all blind and deaf and don’t know you're looking for them, and there’s a Zimmermanesque Bozo standing his ground to shoot you for illegal trespass when you come back out.

    Can you say, “Kobayashi Maru?”

    1. Any relation to Wavy Gravy?

    2. I agree. While what is going on is terrible, I don't see how we can intervene in a way that will actually change what's going on. We aren't going to put boots on the ground-and we shouldn't. So how exactly will intervention help the people?

      And frankly, if Syria's neighbors are not going to get involved, then we shouldn't either. Yeah, that's pretty cold, but we do have to consider the fact that we could very well get embroiled in another long war with no clear way out, and no victory in sight. And in the end, we will probably manage to piss off both sides.

  39. Thank you, Jim Wright. An incisive argument, as always. I would only make one additional point: If we are determined to wade into this mess, and if there is ANY question at all which side used the chemicals, I would hope that we would do a much better job (than last time) of determining the facts before taking action, lest we end up fighting on the side of those who used the weapon that trips us into the action in the first place.

    As for morality, our own government is engaged in an immoral war against its own people, starting with the poorest and working up. It may be a war of attrition, it might not involve actually shooting or gassing us (yet), but it is a fact. And if the purported cause of this local war is "lack of funds," as the right constantly bleats, then I would suggest our limited funds would be better spent on preventing civil war in THIS country. Restore education funding, scrap the embattled ACA and replace it with Medicare for All, fund the infrastructure through public works projects that employ millions of currently unemployed and underemployed people. Then maybe we can consider ourselves the arbiters of good and evil in a world gone mad. Otherwise, we are STILL a bunch of hypocrites.

  40. Here's a reason to try and convince Assad that chemical weapons are a bad idea. Imagine that in a future gas attack, a missel with Sarin gas goes astray and comes down just over the Israeli border. Let's say 30 or 40 Israelis die, some of them on camera. How many hours do you think it would be before Israeli jets were entering Syrian airspace?

  41. Yep, it's a bitch, any way you look at it. Thanks Jim, for this thoughtful and compelling post.

  42. I have to say there, Jim, ya got a good conversation started...this is the conversation we need in DC...But alas, there are too few deep thinkers who are holding the gun...

  43. 1- Damned if you do- Damned if you don't. OK. Which choice is cheaper?

    2- When this country tries to act as peace keeper when we do not have a vested interest to defend is precisely when we tend to do the most damage to ourselves and others. (i.e. Bosnia, Lebenon)

    Mid Level Bureau Cat

  44. Two caveats off the bat: I am Canadian and I'm a Quaker.

    I really don't like the idea of war, anywhere. I would love to live in a world without war.

    Unfortunately, I don't think that's ever going to happen. I believe human nature seeks out conflict both on an individual and national level.

    I think that any intervention should be about supporting the people on the ground. Not with guns, or chemicals or other such things but with food, shelter, clothing. The basic things humans need to survive.

    Non partisan support because, as you indicated, this is about *people*. I think it's possible to support people without wading into the conflict itself.

    I also own this may be a very naive approach. There is not (for me) a single, correct solution.

  45. Okay, Jim, *we* as a country decide whether *we* run into the burning building recognizing that if we are in, we have to be all in. I can go with that as long as *we* really means WE. That means that if the janitor's kid goes then the CEO's daughter goes too. If the security moms like the idea they get to send their precious ones. And if the generals and admirals squawk about readiness and the best and brightest, I say bullshit. They don't get a vote. We get a vote. They answer to us. It means we pay off the last two wars and raise taxes to cover the worst case in this war. It means we set aside irrevocable trust funds for the widows, orphans, and decimated vets from this conflict and the last two. It means we fully fund the VA and open more hospitals to take care of the folks who ran in with the axes and fire hoses. And while we're at it, we invest enough money in the system to reduce the wait for benefits to two weeks max. If WE decide we are the sort of country that runs toward the danger to help, we don't nickel and dime the folks who served. We don't lure kids into trading lives and body parts for educational benefits. We don't put the burden on the next generation to pay for all this when the rationale for the conflict is long-forgotten. And we sure as hell don't look away when war turns out to be shitty bloody carnage and the coffins start showing up at Dover.

    While we're debating Syria, this runs from the AP:

    BAGHDAD -- Car bomb blasts and other explosions tore through mainly Shiite districts around Baghdad during morning rush hour Wednesday in a day of violence that killed at least 80, intensifying worries about Iraq's ability to tame the spiraling mayhem gripping the country.

    It was the latest set of large-scale sectarian attacks to hit Iraq, even as the government went on "high alert" in case a possible Western strike in neighboring Syria increases Iraq's turmoil.

    Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/news/world/iraq-bombings-suicide-attacks-kill-at-least-80-701219/#ixzz2dMtF2Yhs

    1. Excellent comment. We invaded Iraq because they were allegedly using weapons of mass destruction on their people. Here we are 10 years later. Is Iraq any different now than it was before we went in and increased the bloodshed, adding our own to the piles of bodies? No, the Iraqis are still killing each other. The only thing that has changed is that Halliburton and Xe (Blackwater, Academi, take your pick) are wealthier, as are the politicians in their pockets.

    2. Gail, Three years or so into the Iraq adventure, one of the top commanders in theater said (paraphrasing) "We used to have one Saddam to worry about. Now we've got twenty Saddams to deal with." I can imagine an Iraqi civilian saying the same thing right now.

    3. Greg - ETC(SW) USN - RetiredAugust 31, 2013 at 5:12 PM

      Point of order. Saddam didn't "allegedly" use WMDs (gas) on his own people (the Kurds), he really did it - back in 1988. He also used chemical weapons during the war with Iran (side note - my own Persian Gulf deployment occurred during that war 10/87 - 3/88 - after the USS Stark was "accidentally" hit with an Iraqi Exocet missile and before the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian commercial airliner. Our deployment was part of Operation Earnest Will where US ships escorted Kuwaiti oil tankers as a show of free navigation during the conflict). It was after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 (wrongly thinking no one would care) that a true coalition led by the US threw him back out in the first gulf war in 1991. Part of the resolution of that conflict was that the US did not go all the way to Baghdad and topple Saddam, but he was made to destroy his WMD stockpiles and there were "no fly" zones set up in the north and south to protect certain enclaves of citizens. After the latest Iraq war, there appears to be no evidence that Saddam was pursuing new WMDs (the ones we never found). So, to Gail's point. We invaded Iraq on trumped up (my opinion, but shared by a lot of knowledgeable folks) intelligence over WMD possession (not use). Is Iraq different now? IMHO - Heck yes. Instead of the brutal dictator holding a semblance of order, you've got a dysfunctional "democratic" (questionable, again IMHO) government and a lot of chaos. There's a lot more wrong than the billions transferred to private contractors, though that's a small symptom of the larger problem/situation.

  46. I recall reading (in a Tom Clancy novel, admittedly) that in regard to weapons mass destruction, the US does not distinguish between types. That is, the use of gas justifies the same US response as the use of nukes, or biological weapons. Is this correct?

  47. There are other ethical questions involved, as well. It's easy to fund the stuff that enriches Halliburton, but we've not done a good job funding care for PTSD and homelessness among the vets whose lives are ruined in these adventures. Is it ethical to keep kicking the financial can down the road, and charging these wars to our children and grandchildren?

    Then there is the small matter of cost-benefit analysis. We've been at war for more than ten years in Iraq, and it's as big a mess as it ever was. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

    It seems to me we don't so much save people from a burning house as try to enlist our allies to run in with us, focus on putting out the fire in one room to train local firemen, build schools and bridges so the people in the burning house won't hate us, and hold elections so the people in the burning house can elect their own fire chief, while the Halliburton executives toast marshmallows. That being the case, our first moral obligation is not to send troops into that kind of hopeless mess.

  48. How is Syria more deserving of unilateral US intervention than is/was Congo, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Sudan, or Cambodia?

    The best thing for Obama to do right now is STFU until there is corroborating evidence from the UN AND (that's AND) other countries come on board.

    Even if that point is reached, there would need to be a strong justification for the US to lead this thing AND (that's another AND) a real plan with considered outcomes. I swear, BHO is sounding more like GWB than I would have believed possible.

  49. The only idea I've seen here that makes sense is refugee aid. If we could assemble a regional consensus, we could talk about some kind of military option. I'm not getting any sense that is happening.
    Could be wrong there. I get the sense that the Turks are getting tires of what's happening on their southern border.
    Still we can help people or kill them. One option is more palatable to me.
    Isn't Damascus the oldest city on our planet?

    1. It is the oldest inhabited city on the planet. I believe the distinction for oldest city goes to Catal Hyuck in Turkey.

  50. Alternately crying and hating you because you are so damned right all the time.

    1. I think you just wrote a One Direction song...

    2. Awesome: I'll donate the proceeds to some sort of relief effort.

  51. "It’s a little better than nothing, honor is satisfied, no Americans get hurt, we blow up a “baby milk factory” or an “orphanage,” the Navy crew gets a ribbon, and America rolls over and goes back to watching the game."

    Yeah.... That is exactly the size of what is about to happen. Nobody is running into any burning buildings. We will throw some molotov cocktails through a few windows, though, just to make sure that the people in there burning their own building to the ground burn it down according to the "rules".


  52. For both (and are there more than 2) sides, win or die. Yep, those are the options. Assad knows full well what happens to dictators who don't win; Gaddafi, Sadam Hussein. His possible option is to flee the country; Russia, China, Iran? But everyone who supported him still is faced with win or die.
    Other countries in the region, Saudi comes to mind, should be more involved - maybe they are, I just haven't paid that close of attention.
    Other thoughts - IF the US does anything, there had GD better have a clear plan and path to quit doing anything.
    And last, there have been many good comments here. I hope those commenters have sent their opinions to the WhiteHouse and to the Congresscritters. Otherwise, maybe this is just slactivism.
    Oh, last, last. Jim, I applaud how you take comments on your grammar, punctuation, corrections. Sign of a real man.

  53. Were a building burning, and people inside, the options are clear. Agree with just about every word you wrote and still don't know what is the right thing to do. Help people. Sure, which people? How? What would be helpful? How do you get to "whoa"? Maybe we grant safe harbor to everyone in the middle and let the two extremes continue to duke it out. SuznAZ

  54. Great write up. When mankind decides to stop solving problems with our "fists", we will have taken the next step on the evolutionary ladder. Instead of spending billions on a military option, perhaps we should just start sending ships over there to rescue the civilians who want no part of this shit show. I know for a fact there are tons of highly educated Syrians who would love the option of relocating and contributing to an economy that isn't in civil war.

    1. ...and yes, I'll spend my tax dollars on the "care, feeding and shelter", it's cheaper then war and creates a fuck load more good will.

  55. Strangely I thought of this article in the Onion while I read your article, Jim: http://www.theonion.com/articles/so-whats-it-going-to-be,33662/?ref=auto

    - Medicine Man

  56. Having had slept on it, and seen a bit more news, I think the best thing we could do is provide much more aid to Syrian refugees, and take the lead in organizing international aid. There is a crying need for such aid, and I can see no down sides to it. Take care of the people who have run out of the burning building, perhaps, though that may be stretching the metaphor out of shape.

    Beyond that..."To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." If the USA undertook diplomacy with the primary goal of making peace, rather than seeking its own advantage, that might do some good.

    Finally, very brave people might attempt non-violent intervention. Assad is a brutal dictator, but even he is unlikely to massacre citizens of Europe or North America. This would have to be thought out more; I am not sure what a non-violent intervention would look like in this case. As in war, in non-violence there is the question of strategic and tactical goals--what are you trying to achieve and how are you going to achieve it?

  57. Ever since this whole mess in Syria started I've been rooting for the rebels and now civilians have been gassed. It would be nice for once if a rich country like Saudi Arabia stepped up to the plate as it is in their corner of the world. I am still rooting for the rebels and this whole situation has me so conflicted. I hate the idea of standing by all this time while these sorts of crimes against humanity are being perpetuated - I used to work in the administrative building of the Holocaust Museum, a place with a particular perspective as you can imagine - and yet I can see why people don't want us to get into the middle of what can only be a huge mess in Syria and with Russia and Iran, which is already up to no damn good where we are concerned.
    Obama has the toughest job in the world right now. What can he do, if anything, to help or get others to step up and help? What, if anything, is possible?
    M from MD

  58. I don't really see any kind of military action being a 'win' for us or the Syrians. As other posters have mentioned, /non/-military intervention strikes me as the /right/ thing to do.

    Aid for refugees on the ground, possible amnesty or safe harbor - both good ideas. Medical assistance would be huge, micro loan organizations can help people rebuild lives elsewhere if necessary.

    To take a longer view on it (and to reveal my own personal biases), I think education is the key. When the fighting dies down - even while it is still going on - keep the children learning, whether in a school or a refugee tent. That is your best shot at not repeating this whole thing a generation from now.

  59. For all those whining that the Saudis should be stepping up -- they are the people who financed the insurgency against Assad's regime in the first place. In a sense the situation in Syria is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two Islamic "superpowers" of the region, and another event in the centuries-long war between Shia and Sunni. I look at the history of the two and I see no win if the U.S. gets involved on either side. Remember that the regime in Iraq is Shiite. Think about that. If we appear to be embarking upon a holy war against Shia Islam, what's that going to do to the stability of Iraq? We're a friggin' bull in a china shop here, the only action we can take that isn't going to send things crashing to the floor in pieces is, well, nothing. Destabilizing the entire Middle East to get rid of one run-of-the-mill secular dictator isn't exactly the kind of cost-benefit calculation that makes any sense at all.

  60. Juan Cole (again!) makes this point, in the context of the discussion of the failure of a British vote against this war, "The duplicity of Bush and Blair has deeply injured faith in government, even on the part of members of government. Their use of the high-flown rhetoric of protecting helpless populations from tyrants and deflecting dire threats of WMD cheapened those endeavors and trivialized them. They bent the sword of state and rendered it useless in any similar situation."--link

  61. Ok, gotta express my thoughts before I make it through all the comments. Seems to me that our ONLY moral and reasonable option is to abandon the thought of military intervention and instead send in a craptonload of humanitarian assistance. I would rather see brave men and women risk their lives to feed and protect all those innocent civilians, than go there and try to sort out who are the bad guys that need to be shot.
    Bring food. Bring blankets. Bring tents. Bring water. Bring medicine. Let them know that people care. War is NEVER a path to peace. It is only a path to power.
    Chandra in MO

  62. Hold on. The US helped plan, launch, fund and perpetuate this uprising. It wasn't spontaneous. We started training the rebels in Lebanon years ago. Regime change in Syria has been our policy forever. We knew the Russians, Iranians, and Hezbollah would fight back. Syrian civilians dying by the thousands was an obvious outcome, but our government deemed it acceptable collateral damage to get a gas pipeline to Europe through Syria to loosen Russia's energy monopoly there. Syrians are dying because of our ACTION, not our INACTION. Acting all pious now and claiming we have to do the right thing? AFTER 100K dead? Assad is an SOB, but he wasn't gasing anybody until WE STARTED THIS war for economic and geopolitical, not moral reasons.

    1. Hmmm. Okay, for the sake of discussion, let's say I buy the basic premise of your statement - I don't, but I'm willing to let you make your case.

      Please describe in detail both the economic and geopolitical reasons you concluded your statement with. Also, I'd appreciate it if you could provide more detail, including references, to back up your statement vis a vis the Syrian oil pipeline (which moves Iraqi oil to a port in the Med).

    2. Also, Iran.

      As I pointed out earlier, this is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the Saudis backing the "rebels" (who at this point are increasingly foreign fighters who crossed the border from Saudi Arabia, sort of like the Chinese "volunteers" during the Korean War) and Iran backing the Assad regime with weapons and financial support. But Iran (and Assad) are also on Israel's s**t list for providing weapons and financial support to Hizballah. And Israel determines U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, since the majority of Americans can't find the place on a world map and defer to "experts" who for some reason seem to be carrying Israel's water.

      Regarding an Iraqi oil/gas pipeline, Assad and the current President of Iraq are friends, and Syria is perpetually in need of money (they have to pay Russia cold hard cash for every bit of weaponry they get from Russia, Russia has no friends, only customers), so there's nothing stopping that from happening. Other than this little civil war thing. Huh. Funny how that works. So it can't be about oil and gas to Europe...

    3. Yes, yes, yes, Goddamnit, I got it, Tux. I spent some considerable time in that part of the world. I'm familiar with the players.

      I don't want you to explain anonymous' statement, I want anonymous to explain it.

    4. Sorry. Should have made this a reply, not a new post.

      I will. Russia's economy is heavily dependent on energy exports. They are second only to SA in oil production and the US in gas production. Their most productive fields are in Western Siberia, in proximity to the EU. The EU imports >30% of both its oil and nat gas from Russia through a vast pipeline network. Europe needs to diversify its sourcing of energy to lessen it's geopolitical risk from a resurgent Russia. The obvious sources are SA, Qatar, and Libya. A pipeline is the cheapest method and doesn't depend on the volatile Suez canal. A terrestrial pipeline from the Saudi Peninsula has to traverse either Syria, Iraq or Iran, with Syria as the most direct root. With Syria aligned with Russia and Iran, and an ongoing insurgency in Iraq, no pipeline will be constructed, ensuring Russia's economic health and Europe's dependence. However, a Sunni regime in Syria, friendly to SA, would allow such construction. So Russia's economic health is dependent on no pipeline being constructed through Syria.

      Everyone OK with this so far?

    5. Ha! Root!? I meant route.

    6. I follow you. Please continue.

    7. Greatly simplified, but on a regional basis, yes, it is a proxy war between SA and Iran (Sunni vs. Shia). Globally it is a proxy war between East and West. America's allies in Europe need energy source diversification, it's primary allies in the middle east want to supply it, and it's staunch ally Israel benefits from chasing Hezbollah off its border. Ever ready to defend our "friends", we funnel aid to those fighting for their benefit. We claim to not be sending arms, but funnel them through Saudi Arabia and the Libyan insurgency (remember the Benghazi CIA office down the street from the consulate?).

      If you light your competitors building on fire, then the winds (predictably) shift and your own building catches on fire, shouldn't we be talking about how stupid it is to light buildings on fire instead of whether we should run in to save someone?

      Thousands of Syrians dead was a preventable tragedy, but provoking a showdown with Russia and Iran over it is madness. The arrogance of the Toby Keith wing of both parties ("We'll put a boot in your ass. It's the American way") has wreaked plenty of devastation at home and abroad already.

      We are way past the point of being able to lay any claim to morality or responsibility.

    8. To clarify my point: The Saudis and Qataris have ample markets for their crude via sea-born tankers. Green conscious Europeans want gas, not crude. Tanking gas requires expensive liquification infrastructure. Pipelines are much more cost effective but require proximity and direct access. Syria and Iran are preventing that direct access. America's foes benefit from the status quo. Its allies benefit from overturning it.

      If you doubt that our government fomented this uprising, see this article on ZeroHedge: Zerohedge

  63. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  64. _________________________________________________

    Addendum added to the post.

    Comments below this line may refer to statements I added to the original essay. You may need to read the post again. //Jim


  65. Dead is Dead. These 19th Century handwringing over whether or not that Machine Gun is DEFENSIVE or if gasing someone on the battlefield is *worse* than bayoneting them are Bullshit.

    Instead of 95% of high schoolers and Congressmen being able to pinpoint Syria on a Map make them go to Syria and dig entrenchments and man OP and guard posts.

  66. Has nothing to do with chemical weapons, has everything to do with the petro-dollar, the federal reserve, and what flows there-from... At very least we should be debating WHY we are debating what to do about chemical weapons.

    1. Sooner or later, it always comes back to the Federal Reserve.


    2. Eh, Jim, at least the black-helicopter crowd hasn't shown up yet.

    3. Oh they'll be along, by and by

  67. Re: your comment on Congress.

    Yes, I've been saying for several days now. I want Congress in on this one. Both the House and the Senate need to bring up resolutions either saying "yes, military action is required" or "no, military action is not required". Then debate on it. Next, a roll call vote to pin down each and every member. Do they support the resolution or not.

    I want them on the record. No weaseling out on this one. They either support military intervention or they don't.

    Because whichever way this goes, you can bet your bottom dollar that this will be a central issue in the 2014 elections. So I want the whole Republican establishment on the record. They are either in or out.

  68. I'm not sure if this has been mentioned yet (I didn't see it in the article), but the reason why we have norms in place in regards to chemical weapons is because they are vastly more destructive and inhumane to civilian populations than standard artillery. They were banned for a reason. We don't want clouds of this shit floating through cities killing thousands or millions, especially if both sides started using them. It would be far worse than the horror we're seeing now.

    NOT responding to the use of such weapons sends a signal that this norm we've established is essentially null and void. The run on chemical weapons in various war-torn nations around the globe will be staggering. We can't topple this regime. We can't stop thousands and thousands more from dying or being displaced. We can't end this civil war. But can we send a message to Assad's people that THIS line shall now be crossed? That such a decision WILL carry with it repercussions, and that any other nations paying attention right now will want to heed that, lest they too receive a Tomahawk wrath?

    People are talking about intervention or going in Shock & Awe style, but I don't really see that on Obama's table at all at this point.

  69. Nick formerly from the O.C.August 30, 2013 at 5:41 PM

    1. The United States should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the United States or its allies are involved.
    2. U.S. troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. Otherwise, troops should not be committed.
    3. U.S. combat troops should be committed only with clearly defined political and military objectives and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives.
    4. The relationship between the objectives and the size and composition of the forces committed should be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.
    5. U.S. troops should not be committed to battle without a "reasonable assurance" of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress.
    6. The commitment of U.S. troops should be considered only as a last resort.

    -- Cap Weinberger

  70. Jim, just to be accurate.

    It's not 'England is out' it's The United Kingdom is out.

  71. Thank you for this post, it has been the most insightful analysis I've read regarding the entire situation.

  72. "But in reality, those missile strikes do nothing." But those strikes will do something. Because they'll end up being targeted at infrastructure. And those strikes won't affect al-Assad one damn bit, because you KNOW he's got gennies and a couple thousand gallons of diesel to run them on.

    So it'll affect the people, the non combatants, as they run out of power, or water, or sewage systems because brave American cruise missiles blew them to hell and gone. And that'll endear us to the non combatant populace, won't it?

    You and I are both shooters, Jim. We've been there, and seen the elephant, like several of the other posters here.

    And Syria is none of our goddamned business. Like you said, theres ALWAYS some nastiness going on somewhere in the world. We simply can NOT police it all for the world. We can't afford it. We don't have the treasure, or the manpower. Oh I know, our men and women will step up once again and troop face first into the fray, but they don't deserve that. In fact, they deserve BETTER from us this time than to be thrown into another senseless meat grinder with no moral place to stand. I mean, we've been renditioning people to Syria to be tortured on our behalf for a while now, so it's not like we have ANY moral ground to stand on, do we?

    Enough already. Unless there is a clear and present danger to this country, or to American interests (And no, corporate, MIC, and CIA assets don't count), it's their civil war and we need to tend to our own knitting. For a change. I'm sure we have a few roads or bridges to be fixed around here somewhere.

    Jeff Lamm AO3, USN USS Forrestal, CV-59/ Spc. US Army MPI, 351st MP Co.

    1. Quick note: If the people I've spoken to from Syria are correct, those infrastructure targets you mentioned have already been hit and destroyed, by Assad himself. I've one friend from Homs who told me a year ago that you couldn't get power or water there unless you were in an Alawite area (which the Syrian army deliberately left untouched). And I've seen news footage from Damascus months ago that looked as if it were in a state not too far from that too.

      Aleppo had been spared such grief up until last April or May. I've one of my employees who's a refugee from that city, though, so I might cautiously ask him how his family is doing. I'm loathe to do that under the wrong circumstances, because almost every time I speak on the subject with any of the Syrians here, I get a list of their recently dead . I don't mind listening, but watching the grief on their faces when they relate these tales of their departed friends and relatives is almost too much to bear. I nearly always avoid bringing it to mind unless it's their choice to speak about it.

      So, as far as affecting the general populace by a US strike, I think that genie's left that bottle already, courtesy of Assad's strikes on his own people.


  73. I have to say, I am very happy that Obama hasn't jumped in with both feet and his eyes closed. There was no act first, think later moves. He seems to be taking this very seriously, and weighing a lot of information and possibilities that the rest of us could never know. And whether I will agree with whatever happens or not, at least I will be able to believe that it was with deep thought and consideration, as well as the advice of the people who know the answers to the questions you have posed.

  74. I found your blog interesting and on point. I too get all pissy when people don't talk about people when they talk about military action/war. I agree with your burning building analogy. Me I'm a calculated risk kinda guy. Unfortunately I'm pretty emotionally driven too. Would I run into the burning building, well I haven't run into any burning buildings lately but my past is littered with getting involved while others stood by. It is a dammed if you do dammed if you don't situation. What can you live with is a good way to leave it. We all must live with our decisions whether those results are good or bad. I have my answer. Its time for the rest of America to make their choice. What are they willing to live with?

  75. Does the Intel gathering and military capability exist to identify the specific unit(s) that delivered the Sarin Gas? And then utterly obliterate it. I know there would be civilian casualties, there will be in any strike, but if we sent a message, not to Assad, but to the lowly lanyard pullers and gun loaders that If you fire chemical weapons, you will be reduced to ash, it might change something on the front lines. If all we are going to do is "send a message" that would be a message I could get behind.

  76. War can not be treated like a Chinese menu (I'll take one from column A, two from column B). Once you grab that tiger by the tail you can not predict how far the fight will go (the last ten years should illustrate that for anyone).

    You proposal sounds great, but it's false. American citizens will not be the ones casting the deciding votes, the industrial military complex "citizens" will be.

    We haven't fought a true war since 1942 - and we really only did well in one of those theaters. We let the Japanese get away with atrocities at least as awful as the Germans... and have left other corrupt "leaders" in power ever since.

    Recently we've proven the Nuremberg standards don't apply to our troops, nor to our internal security.

    I don't want to see any Americans or foreign citizens killed for oil. We have other resources but don't develop them because the controlling "citizens" can still squeeze a few dollars out of petrol chemicals.

  77. Great piece. The ambiguity is spot on. Anyone who has formed solid opinions on this nasty business, either hasn't thought it through, is an idiot, is a genius (in which case, blog it out and maybe it'll make it's way to someone who can implement your master plan!)or must have some serious misgivings about the choice they've made.

    So Congress has had their bluff called. Will they listen to the American people, the majority of which seem to be opposed to a war (unless you count limited action of the useless chucking of million dollar missiles into a rubble heap)? Are the American people even right?

    It bears considering, if we weren't "war weary" from Iraq and Afghanistan, we'd have done something for the Syrian non-combatants two years ago, wouldn't we? We would have had to, because that's who we are. Or were. Or are still are?

    What a mess.

    1. Grand Zarkie of Planet VoltratronAugust 31, 2013 at 4:14 PM

      I'm not an idiot, don't consider myself a genius, and I've thought it through since Jim first posted this one. I conclude there is only one course of action right now that makes any sense at all and that's to try to alleviate the suffering of Syrian refugees who have made it out.

      The gassing, the deaths by other means, are all on the Syrian players who don't want anything but victory. Direct military intervention of any kind would be an insane act. The most important reason being that no matter what the stated moral basis, the good intentions, the deterrence of future similar behavior, it would be the latest instance of the West's meddling in the Middle East. There is a long, long history of such dating back to at least the end of WWI. And yes, it's always been about the oil.

      Contrary to the "hate us for our ***FREEDOMS***" bullshit, they hate us because of what we've done and continue to do.

      My prescription is to start thinking past next Thursday, concentrate on gathering the most reliable intel possible, and prepare for the consequences as best we can for however this grotesque mess plays out.

      I know, fat chance.

  78. I am as conflicted as many other folks here regarding what to do in/with/about Syria ... If I had a choice, I'd go with the ideas for massive humanitarian aid - some folks have come up with some great ideas for aid.

    I would just like to add: Over the last few years, every time gas prices rise, someone says "Oh - we predict gas prices will rise to $5 or more per gallon by ... " (pick one: the summer, Christmas, the first of the year) - yet it never has. I am 100% certain that somewhere, some oil industry insiders are licking their chops and hoping this is the time. And those are the people who have the most influence in the U.S., right?

  79. I really have no idea what the solution would be. It is all so overwhelming. All I know is that there are a lot of people living in absolute horror and suffering. All I know is that I have many friends in the region that I am worried absolutely sick about.

    What DO we do? I want the people to be safe and begin working on healing. I don't want more people do die. This region is volatile and things can and have gotten worse.

    I don't know what the answer is and it sucks. It sucks to feel completely helpless and watch this. It sucks seeing my friends worried sick about family back home and watch them just disintegrate mentally in front of me not knowing how to help. It sucks feeling like one's own government doesn't care about anything but power and profit.

    What do we do? I am for anything that reduces human suffering. Does the US and its allies invade? Do we sit back and wait? I have no clue.

  80. This was extremely well written and absolutely thought provoking. However, in 2007 a 4 star general told us that the U.S. government would be invading 7 countries in 5 years. Please see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ha1rEhovONU for more information, and factor that into your thought processes. Namaste.

    1. P.S. One of those countries he listed was/is Syria.

  81. I could only make it through half of the comments, so if someone has already mentioned this idea, you may delete mine.

    I think we are all very tired of war. I think the point here is the terribly destructive 'collateral damage' that accompanies any war. To me, the ethical solution/action is how best to minimize the collateral damage (ie. civilian deaths) without throwing gas on the fire. I have an imperfect solution for an imperfect problem. Point the missiles at strategic positions of BOTH sides, call for an immediate cease fire for a month or two. Secure an area of the country as a patrolled no-fire zone for Syrian refugees. Airlift them, bus them, transport them any way they can get there. Have the area manned by a rotating coalition force. Once the cease-fire is over, let them blow each other to kingdom come. Work out withdrawal details with the 'winners' when 'peace' has been verified (put that one on the back of the UN). Be prepared for a long duration and a lot of expense, but at least have a clearer national conscience about actually helping the innocent instead of trying to figure out who they good or bad guys are in this fiasco.
    There's a million holes and details in trying to do something like this, but I could claim the same for any other action concerning this mess. And I would have a clearer sense of conscience if we put our fiscal and military might behind actually protecting the innocent.
    My two cents, Duff in NoFla

  82. Congratulations on a grand and successful troll! The King Under the Mountain would like to induct you into the Order of the Helm!

    As to the subject…

    You write: "I think President Obama should go before the nation and clearly outline the options. Limited strikes, no fly zones, boots on the ground, invasion and occupation, humanitarian relief only, or no action. Whatever the options his advisers are giving him, A to Z.  I think he should explain as best he is able, in simple terms, the advantages and disadvantages of each, and the expected consequences and outcomes. I think he should tell us which option he prefers."

    This is quite a radical proposal. It would turn US war-making to the model described in the Constitution, which, so far as I can make out, has never actually been used. Since 1945 our wars have been planned in secret and Congress has been called in only to allow and fund them after all the plans are made. (And, in fact, I believe this exactly what the President is again doing.) This is a piss-poor system of creating geopolitical and military strategy. The secrecy encourages groupthink and decisions made on internal political considerations rather than geopolitical reality, and the "take it or leave it" system of policy-making makes it near-impossible to correct the mistakes of the proposed strategy before it is implemented, and for years afterwards.

    Daniel Ellsberg to Henry Kissinger, on classified information: "Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you'll eventually become aware of the limitations of this [supersecret] information. There is a great deal that it doesn't tell you, it's often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn. […] You will deal with a person who doesn't have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you'll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You'll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you'll become something like a moron. You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours."

    Your remarks again: "The President of the United States sits at the center of a vast, vast, vast web of information, far beyond that of the average citizen, beyond that of the average congressman, beyond that of any other world leader, beyond that of business and religious leaders, certainly beyond that of any blogger or pundit."

    In the current situation in Syria there is something sensible to do that requires no subtlety to see: help the refugees. Is that proposal on the table? It is not. We have built this amazing system of intelligence gathering and I think only Bill Clinton has ever made effective use of it. The truths that that vast network of intelligence bring to President Obama are going to be used sparingly, if at all. He is dealmaking, the way he always does, and only information that is relevant to dealmaking will be used.

    (The problem is the same in economic policy, where there is vast and effective surveillance and where simple, proven policies that would vastly improve the economy are not being put into practice.)

  83. Jim, sorry, but my reply button does not work...so I have a few...going all the way back to the poem regarding WWI and gas...Here is another one from that period that always got to me...


    In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below.

    We are the Dead. Short days ago
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
    In Flanders fields.

    Take up our quarrel with the foe:
    To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.
    John McCrae

    Marilyn C

  84. Here are two articles that Mark Wolffe shared with me...interesting sources...especially the UK one.. my personal comments next,Jim, if that is okay...Marilyn C



  85. Jim, while I know that the UN Security Council will never suggest invasion of another country..I still think that the entire situation should be presented to the U.N...for no other reason that it makes it way more publicized internationally...As for the Arab League...wonder if there are any 'leaders' who are sharing real ideas with Obama behind the scenes...they seem as hypocritical as anyone...

    And have to agree with Gail H and Crejai (my reply button never worked...not sure why...we need to get our legislators to understand why our own infrastructure: teachers,thus students..roads and bridges and seriously VETERANS should be supported if we are really to understand the general improvement of all and that we get to claim we are arbiters of all...never mind our own atrocity of the incredible back log of disability claims

    Marilyn C

  86. And two ideas for showing our humanity...one: drop leaflets, not bombs or missiles that describe the pix and the report of the UN investigators..so more of the Syrian population might get true info about the cruelty of its rulers...did we not do that in other wars..or the Berlin blockade?

    And truly spend our money on the refugees thru the UN or Human Rights Watch...to relieve the budget of our smaller allied countries who ARE providing those spaces..maybe the info from those refugees could get back to the home country and fewer people will hate us...

    If someone can give me a strategy and tactics that include our own LEAVING the country, other than bombs down the smoke stacks, I would happily listen...until then I have to believe that Rep Duckworth...my Congressional rep...who has lost both legs in an earlier rodeo...has the right to a serious 'dog in this hunt,' to mix my metaphors...when she says...NO MORE DEAD SOLDIERS... and my original suggestion for any one who wants to send another's son...would be to volunteer his or her nearest young relative to go first...until a universal draft is reinstateed... Marilyn C

    1. Leaflets? To educate the Syrians on the cruelty of their rulers? Seriously...?

      You have a situation where a government representing 1/4th of the population (at most, based upon figures from Wikipedia placing 74% Sunni Muslim and 26% everything else) has been seriously rolling tanks over the other 3/4ths of the population for at least the past 2 years now.

      And you're suggesting we should drop leaflets to let the majority 3/4ths population (the ones under the tanks) know the true info? Because otherwise they wouldn't actually have any clue about the situation?

      Did I just walk into a Bulgakov story, or did somebody resurrect Joseph Heller when I wasn't paying attention?

      (Sorry for the snark, but that one suggestion does not do much to help the credibility for the rest of your ideas, IMNSHO.)


  87. Jim-may I direct your attention to the following article. http://www.nafeezahmed.com/2013/08/special-report-syria-intervention-plans.html I am having difficulty commenting under my google account which is why I selected the 'Anonymous' option under comments. I am Jane Levan.

  88. Hit enter too soon. The article I referenced above is an excellent analysis of the Western geo-politics that the author believes are driving policy in Syria including and I quote
    "Indeed, much of the strategy currently at play in the region was candidly described in a 2008 U.S. Army-funded RAND report, Unfolding the Future of the Long War. The report noted that "the economies of the industrialized states will continue to rely heavily on oil, thus making it a strategically important resource." As most oil will be produced in the Middle East, the U.S. has "motive for maintaining stability in and good relations with Middle Eastern states." The report further acknowledges:

    "The geographic area of proven oil reserves coincides with the power base of much of the Salafi-jihadist network. This creates a linkage between oil supplies and the long war that is not easily broken or simply characterized... For the foreseeable future, world oil production growth and total output will be dominated by Persian Gulf resources... The region will therefore remain a strategic priority, and this priority will interact strongly with that of prosecuting the long war."


  89. "There are no good choices, only bad ones in varying degrees." Agree with you 100%. I do not pretend to know where the hell that leaves us. Not sure anyone tasked with the responsibility of making what they hope is the "least bad" choice does either.

  90. Meanwhile...

    Looks like the vote is shaping up on party lines. The first whip counts show that it will pass the Senate without problems. There will be horse-trading in the House. As Jane Hamsher scathingly puts it, "They’ve mostly become born-again anti-interventionists, although a few are spouting Graham/McCain 'all or nothing' rhetoric." So far the Democratic objections are reported as "they want the language changed to prevent 'boots on the ground.'" Nothing about the strategic sense of this or about the lives of the people on the ground, nothing. The progressive caucus at least is talking about geopolitical implications. (I'd like some source on Congress other than Hamsher, but she's the only one of my regular reads out there counting votes.)

    There is some polling on this: it isn't popular, especially with women. 74%, including the pro-interventionists, are concerned about the geopolitics.

    Any plans to do a followup post?

  91. I'll sleep fine knowing, at least for awhile, we won't be turning Syria into another hellhole like Libya, a great example of destroying a country to save it. Here, here, for the bastion of freedom and democracy that is now Libya.

  92. You're right. If I take people out of the equation; then I'm pretty willing to stay out of Syria, and let it burn. Because: Reasons, lots of them.

    But when I picture all the people, all the families just like mine, their homes, their pets, and everything else that makes people, people to me. Then I'm willing to run into that burning building, maybe.

    But, am I myself willing to go over there, put my own boots on the ground to do it?

    No, I am not. And it makes me feel like a real dick to say it. :(

  93. My bad. The Congo has oil. Forgot to do research on that. I can't figure out why we don't stop the genocide there.

  94. Greg - ETC(SW) USN - RetiredSeptember 6, 2013 at 7:10 AM

    Addendum to the addendum, or whole new post? I'd be interested in your take about the political gymnastics (domestic and internationally) around the President's decision to delay any response and get Congressional approval.

  95. I know that we, our country and our Allies, formed the UN with the idea we could better secure peace by the UN deciding whether or not and how, a country should be punished for acts against its own people. The UN has its complications - one being that the Security Council must be unanimous and, with Russia being allied with Assad - the UN will not be intervening.

    As to the politics, policies and laws of the US: My belief and opinion is without agreement from the UN, it is illegal to interfere in a sovereign nation that is of no threat to us. The UN charter and treaty is part of our law and it must be followed. (Article VI of the US Constitution)

    As to Syria: I don't know much about Syria, though I can find it on the map. I do know they have been in a civil war for the past 2-1/2 years and that this war has many sides. Assad, the current governing body, is being rebelled against by many, many groups. Some groups are "good" and some groups are just as bad if not worse than Assad. I understand that these groups have no desire to come together, to compromise, to unite for the common goal of overthrowing Assad. I know that only with these groups, or a portion of them, deciding to coalesce does Syria come close to having a democracy. I know that short of that coalescence, the civil war will end when one group succeeds in taking over. It may be that Assad will be the ultimate victor. IAE, it is Syrians who know and understand what they want and what they are willing to fashion together, or not, for their governance. I do not believe democracy is something that can be forced on a people from outside forces. I believe it is only through a recognition that through compromise and tolerance, self government can be obtained.

    As to the people. I am so grieved that the Syrian people are undergoing such horror and loss. I believe my country should send whatever humanitarian aid they need. I have hope for the Syrians and I wish for them all peace and prosperity.

    1. to RockheadedMama

      I don't think the civil war's gonna end "when one group succeeds in taking over", unless there's nobody else left. Too many different factions, both ethnic & religious. A lot of these groups have been fighting each other for CENTURIES. (apologies for the caps, Jim)

      See http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/08/27/the-one-map-that-shows-why-syria-is-so-complicated/

      And even if there was a Miraculous Divine (deity of your choice) Intervention* and all Syrians were reconciled into One-Big-Happy-Nation, you'd STILL have all Syria's immediate neighbors, PLUS Russia, each with their own political agenda regarding Syria. It's a charlie foxtrot of Perfect Storm proportions. I don't think we should go to the dance.

      'Scuse if I'm a bit sarky - I've been waltzing-with-idiots on Facebook. And I'm depressed by the whole everybody loses except the weapons manufacturers and the "Let's use this to drive up the price of oil" people. Quote for tonite: "War isn't Hell. Hell is where guilty people suffer. War is where innocent people suffer"

      And sadly, food & medicine is never as sexy to the politicos as "Hey! We got REALLY BIG GUNS!"


      *(and no, I don't mean the USA - I'm thinking it would require nothing less than power on a mind-altering cosmic scale, with a probability factor OF somewhere between "a snowball's chance" and "a cold day"...)

  96. the red line comment doesn't mean he can change his position on the whole Syria conflict!

  97. Jim, you have a way of getting us to think about the consequences of our actions in a way our politicians seldom seem to grasp. Thanks.

    When you write "The President of the United States sits at the center of a vast, vast, vast web of information, far beyond that of the average citizen..."

    I think back to when I was a kid in high school in the late 1950's and early 1960's when our parents and teachers told us about government and Presidential actions, "well they must know things they are not telling us."

    I have read nothing yet that the Prez is willing to share with the public that would justify his actions in Syria. Yeh, OK, I get it, he has access to shit we lowly citizens know nothing about, but he outta share enough of it to make a better and more convincing case for war.

  98. Damn you, Mr. Wright, you really piss me off, making me think about things...

    But, I think you are correct it, so far the President(Obama) is doing the right thing and let Congress come up with their decision about it and hopefully he abides it, I believe that he will.

    Now, Congress is another problem, they are a pack of idiots, and it our fault, we elected them. I am sure person to person they are decent people(mostly), but get them in a mob they are insane. Do you think we will get something out of them? After all, the House just voted to defund the ACA, again.

  99. As usual a cogent and thought provoking post. I received my invitation to run into "The Burning House" courtesy of Medecins Sans Frontieres and The Red Crescent last week. I'm still trying to make my mind up whether to go. I got caught up in the clusterfuck that was Rwanda and I really don't relish being caught in the latest geopolitical mess that our lords and masters have generated. Thanks to your considered writing above, I think I have no other morally defensible decision to make, than to go. Don't worry Jim I won't tell my partner that it was your writing that helped me come to the conclusion that I have to go! I'll be based in Southern Turkey, so at least I'll be a lot further from the fighting than I was in Rwanda.


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