osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,
osewalrus
osewalrus

Civilians, no less than generals, fight the last war.

I've reconciled myself that I am pretty much the only person I know who agrees with the Obama Administration apparent position that: (a) the U.S. really should not get involved in the Syrian civil war beyond what it has already done; (b) we need to respond to the use of chemical weapons against civilian populations or the practice will resume in the region (and the world); and, (c) the way to do this is not through "regime change" but with a strike balanced to demonstrate that it will cost more to use these weapons than not use these weapons -- an objective achievable by hitting some key targets via cruise missiles.


Now I understand many of the objections to this reasoning. I also think that many of them are valid and raise difficult questions with no clear right answer. For example, one argument is that even if we expect Russia and China to veto any effort to work through the U.N., we cannot preserve International law by violating it. This analogizes international law to domestic law, where we generally do not approve of 'vigilante' justice and see it as undermining the rule of law even when done in the name of the rule of law. It is a strong argument, and relies on debatable premises that distinguish international law and the behavior of sovereign states from national law and the behavior of individuals. There are also general arguments that the use of force is inappropriate because it will invariably produce civilian casualties and punish people who could not reasonably prevent the use of chemical weapons (the "collective punishment" argument) and various pragmatic arguments about the effectiveness of such measures and their cost.

These are all good arguments. I ultimately disagree with them, but as is so often the case in real world policy -- life is filled with bad and uncertain choices.

But what I find particularly painful and irrational are those who keep thinking this is 2003 all over again. Oh, except this time a substantial number of conservatives have predictably flopped on how a President ought to behave in such circumstances -- including a number of those who have been loudly complaining that Obama has been too weak on Syria. But set that aside for the moment. I'll also set aside those who base their argument on the idea that bad moral action by the U.S. in the past means the U.S. should never engage in military action going forward (which leads to the odd conclusion that we are retroactively absolved of our reluctance to stop genocide in Rwanda because we gave chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s). These arguments are at least consistent.

No, what drives me to distraction are the apparently large number of people who insist that the factual circumstances are the same as they were ten years ago -- including the idea that Obama has somehow been lusting for war in the Middle East and that the Ghouta Attacks are a 'false flag' operation or that the evidence for chemical weapon use is equivalent to the evidence that was used to justify the Iraq war. This is mostly coming from the left -- proving once again that stubborn idiocy is part of the human condition and not associated with any particular political affiliation.

For my own gratification, a few key differences.

2003: Key question was whether Hussein possessed chemical weapons or other 'weapons of mass destruction' in violation of U.N. resolution ending First Gulf War.

2013: Syria legally possess chemical weapons and publicly maintains chemical weapons manufacturing capability, deployment systems, and stockpiles -- all legal for Syria and in accordance with international law. The question is whether Syria actually used its chemical weapons, and if so whether they used them either directly against a civilian population or indiscriminately against rebels forces in a high civilian area.

In other words, the legal question and what needs to be proved is extremely different. To make an analogy, it is the difference between trying to ascertain whether a parolee has a firearm in violation of the terms of his parole, or whether a licensed gun owner took his legally obtained gun and shot his neighbor.


2003: Evidence that Hussein actually possessed chemical weapons was largely speculative. It came from a limited number of sources of dubious credibility -- some with obvious conflicts of interest or other credibility problems. Furthermore, even viewing all the assembled evidence as credible, reasonable minds could differ on whether these weapons existed.

2013: There is a copious amount of public evidence that a chemical weapon attack occurred in Ghouta and that some number of civilians died as a consequence. Over 150 videos were uploaded in real time documenting different people suffering from symptoms that experts in toxicology say are consistent with Sarin gas. Doctors Without Borders, a reputable NGO with no political or economic interest in the outcome, reports that its clinics were overwhelmed with hundreds of patients simultaneously, all suferring symptoms consistent Sarin poisoning. Rescuers and treating medical personnel have reported negative health effects consistent with secondary Sarin poisoning from exposure to residue on victims. Numerous eye witness accounts collected from multiple interview sources report seeing rocket launches into the area apparently gassed immediately before the events. Their description of the timing is consistent with the video upload timing, and the subsequent timing of the arrival of victims in medical clinics.

This does not, of course establish responsibility. The Syrian government first denied an attack had occurred, then denied that they were responsible. They also argue that the presence of U.N. inspectors assessing the validity of previous allegations makes it irrational for them to have launched the attack.

Nevertheless, there is considerable circumstantial evidence that the Assad regime launched the attack. For one thing, the evidence that *someone* launched a chemical attack on the Ghouta neighborhood seems pretty overwhelming. Faking the plethora of public evidence would require far greater resources than anyone believes the rebels have, and would need to stipulate that Doctors Without Borders (as well as other testifying to the presence of large numbers of civilian dead with no apparent wounds) are willing participants in the fraud.

Assuming an attack, there are 2 possibilities: The Assad Regime perpetrated the attack, or the attack was a "false flag" operation to frame the Assad regime. That would mean the attack was perpetrated either by the rebels (or a subset, such as the Jihadis) or by the United States for the express purpose of manufacturing a pretext to enter the war.

Let us consider the likelihood of "false flag" operation. First candidate, the rebels. the obvious motive would be to provide unambiguous evidence that Assad crossed the "red line" of using chemical weapons for the express purpose of getting increased foreign aid. The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence that the rebels, or any faction thereof, actually possess chemical weapons or the means to deliver them. This does not rule out the possibility of other sources -- such as Al Qeda or Saudi Arabia. But it makes it less probable.

The United States certainly has the capability, but the motive seems lacking. I will elaborate on that a bit later, but sufficient for this piece that to assume U.S. culpability would be to assume that (a) the U.S. has a motive for getting into the conflict, (b) that motive explicitly does not include regime change or invasion, since those are explicitly excluded as intended consequences (unless these denials are further deception), and (c) the U.S. could not otherwise enter the war.

These are not impossible, but they do have some problems with both motive and lack of any evidence to support so vast a conspiracy.

Finally, we weigh the possibility that it was the Assad regime. The regime possess the means (which they publicly acknowledge and are legally allowed to possess). They have a rather clear motive (and, indeed, are accused of having perpetrated smaller scale versions of the attack). The chief argument against this is the presence of U.N. inspectors nearby. This argument is somewhat weakened, however, by the Assad regime denying access to the area to the inspectors for several days following the attack.

To be clear, the case against the Assad regime is circumstantial and the case against either the rebels or the U.S. is not disproved. It is not irrational for people to want not merely circumstantial evidence, but ironclad proof before using military force. But to pretend that the evidence here is identical to the evidence in 2003 is absurd. There is certainly enough evidence to indict, if not yet to convict.

2003: It was clear even before 9/11 that many people in the Bush Administration viewed invasion of Iraq and 'regime change' as a goal. Many made the case previously why such action should have occurred in 1991, that removal of Hussein would stabilize the region and otherwise be in the best interest of the U.S. Many also had personal, ideological, or financial reasons for wanting to see the invasion happen. Almost immediately after 9/11, the Bush Administration sought to find a connection to Iraq and actively engaged in a long-term effort to justify the invasion.

2013: There is no indication that, prior to his election in 2008, or prior to the Syrian uprising in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, that President Obama or any member of his cabinet had any particular desire to invade Syria. To the contrary, the Obama Administration has been painfully aware of the cost of extended oversees military action. It has sought to avoid engagement outside of Afghanistan -- often to the consternation of military 'hawks.'

No one has any explanation for how Obama's attitude of not wanting to expand operations in Syria, trying to avoid military engagement in Syria, sticking to the commitment for limited engagement in Libya, winding down operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (after the surge), is at all consistent with the idea of a war mongering President so eager to start bombing Syria that he would recklessly disregard the evidence -- let alone go so far as to formulate a 'false flag' operation as a justification. Nor is it at all clear what the ultimate win would be. The Administration does not particularly like the current rebel government, which is an incoherent mess. It doesn't like Assad. It has made no public statements evincing any belief that we could reconstruct Syria or use it to break up the "Shia Crescent" of Iran/Iraq (sorta)/Syria/Lebanon (well, Hezbollah). Sure, Syria is important in the region because it is a critical link for regional player Iran and for Great Powers Russia and China. But -- unlike in 2003 -- we have not seen any Administration people or surrogates out there making the case that an invasion of Syria or the triumph of the rebel forces with our assistance would ultimately serve U.S. policy aims.

Nor does Syria have any particularly useful natural resources. It is not a major oil producer. Finally, removal of Assad is not useful for protection of Israel. To the contrary, while Israelis do not like Assad, he is a known quantity. No one new coming in would be better from Israel's perspective, and is likely to be much worse in the sense of destabilizing things.

Whenever I ask progressives who act as if this were still 2003 with an administration actively trying to 'sell' a war that it wants, the responses I get are on par with the responses from conservatives when asked: "why do you think Obama wants to take your guns and have the U.N. become the world police force." Except instead of arguing that Sandy Hook was an Obama-staged stunt to justify seizing all the guns, they argue that Ghouta is a false flag operation by the CIA to justify invading.

Which I suppose goes back to my original and oddly comforting perspective in all this -- idiocy is a part of the human condition, and no political affiliation or philosophy can claim either an immunity or a monopoly. There are, as I have repeatedly acknowledged above, many arguments to make against intervention in Syria. But "blah blah blah closet Republican blah blah military industrial complex blah blah Israel blah blah U.S. uses depleted uranium shells Guantanamo Larry Summers" ranks with "blah blah blah Socialist Kenyan Muslim blah blah Obamacare blah blah hates our freedoms death panels secret reparations plans."
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