A Point-Counterpoint To Andrew Sullivan’s Isolationist Position On Syria


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By Jay Kirell

Note – In the interest of full disclosure, I am I huge fan and admirer of Andrew Sullivan. He is, in many ways, my main influence for this blog. From the layout to style of content I choose, it’s all been influenced by the blogger and commentator I consider the premier Independent voice in the online world.

This blog and its author are but a speck compared to what Sullivan has created and earned through his excellent writing and commentary over the years. He saw the light on the Bush administration and was an early supporter of Obama – almost mirroring my own early admiration for the future president.

Observing his writings over the years, his eloquent and strident defense of classic conservatism stood out from the mass of sewer-dwelling drivel that passes for modern conservative/Republican thought.

As much as I admire him, and consider him a sort-of blogging prophet, leading wayward writers away from mainstream outlets into self-publishing their own ideas – I do, every now and then, vehemently disagree with him. The current issue of Syria is one of those times. Which isn’t unexpected, given I stand in the extreme minority of Americans (and British) who support intervention.

Sullivan’s most recent column attempted to directly connect the similarities and links between Obama administration’s cautious support for Syrian intervention and the Bush administration’s aggressive swan dive into Iraq.

I will attempt to disconnect those links. (Note – his words are in bold, mine in italics)

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Saving Obama From Himself

The next couple of weeks will be full of surprises, twists and turns, as this country debates in its Congress and media and living rooms whether to launch another war in the Middle East.

Already we’ve started off calling it a war, when it’s a limited military operation of a smaller scale than Libya.

But I think it’s fair to offer a preliminary assessment of where the wind is blowing. Obama’s case for war is disintegrating fast. And his insistence on a new war – against much of the world and 60 percent of Americans – is easily his biggest misjudgment since taking office. His options now are not whether to go to war or not, but simply whether he has the strength and sense to stand down and save his second term before it is too late.

Keep in mind, folks. Sullivan (like many others) was wrong about the Iraq invasion and has been tortured about supporting it ever since. The psychology behind his fear of Syrian intervention has to viewed through the prism of someone who was easily swayed by the Bush administration’s warnings about Iraq’s potential dangers.

Here’s what we know now for sure already: even if the president were somehow to get a majority in House and Senate for entering into RUSSIA-G20-SUMMIT Syria’s vortex of sectarian violence, it will be a profoundly divided one. The 10-7 vote in the most elite body – the Senate Foreign Relations committee – is an awful omen. To make matters worse, there is currently a clear national majority against war in the polls and the signs from the Congress suggest a nail-biter at best for the president. Under these circumstances, no president of any party has any right or standing to take this country to war. He is not a dictator. He is a president. Wars are extremely hazardous exercises with unknown consequences that require fortitude and constancy from the public paying for them. Even with huge initial public support for war, as we discovered in the nightmare years of Bush-Cheney, that can quickly turn to ashes, as reality emerges. To go to war like this would be an act of extreme presidential irresponsibility.

See, what did I tell you? Bush-based psychosis. His opposition, so far, is based only, according to Sullivan, off the public’s trepidation and congress’ fecklessness – not whether the actual events on the ground warrant a military intervention or not. Not whether there have been plenty of instances in the past where presidents have ignored congress’ will (Kososvo) or felt reret over not overruling the isolationist impulses of the public (Rwanada).

And on one thing, McCain is right. To launch strikes to make a point is not a military or political strategy. It will likely strengthen Assad as he brazenly withstands an attack from the “super-power” and it would not stop him using chemical weapons again to prove his triumph. We either lose face by not striking now or we will lose face by not striking later again and again – after the initial campaign has subsided and Assad uses chemical weapons again. McCain’s response, as always, is to jump into the fight with guns blazing and undertake a grueling mission for regime change. Let him make that case if he wants – it is as coherent as it is quite mad. It’s as mad as picking a former half-term delusional governor as his vice-president. There is a reason he lost the election to Obama. So why is Obama now ceding foreign policy to this hot-headed buffoon?

He’s not ceding foreign policy to McCain – in fact it is looking like the terms of the resolution will end up drifting away from McCain’s goals of an expanded intervention towards a more narrowly-focused one. And the issue is not about whether to “launch strikes to make a point” – that’s a ridiculously bad argument when discussing the seriousness of chemical weapons use. Launching strikes against Russia to protest their inhumane treatment of homosexuals would be “making a point.” Launching strikes against Assad’s military facilities and downgrading his capacity to continue his thug-like behavior – even if it doesn’t completely eliminate his ability to do so – isn’t “making a point” it is to – as FDR once said – “Do Something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, do something else.”

And I believe he knew more than you, (and slightly more than me) about military use.

The only conceivable way to truly punish Assad and assert international norms would be to get a UN Resolution authorizing it. That is, by definition, the venue for the enforcement of international norms. The US Congress cannot speak for China or Russia, Germany or Britain. And in Britain’s case, the people – through their representatives – have spoken for themselves. That means that, if we go through the proper route, nothing will be done. But that is the world’s responsibility, not ours’. And we are not the world.

This is the best argument that isolationists and anti-war types have against any military intervention the US has ever used anywhere at any time. And it is an attractive argument. I would only say in response to that, is that when the US assumed the role of lone superpower, it carried with it the responsibility to not be the world’s policeman – but the world’s firefighter. If other nations and world bodies are too constrained by political gridlock, hostile public sentiment, business interests or other reasons to not step up and put out small fires (Syria in 2011) before they grow into something out of control (Syria now) then it is the sole responsibility of the world’s lone superpower to lead a response. Not because its our legal obligation to do so, but because its our moral obligation to respond to extreme human rights violations. The fact that we haven’t, as a nation, always done so – or have started wars we shouldn’t have by men who are no longer in power, shouldn’t tie Obama’s hands in responding to the use of the world’s most feared and banned weapons.

The US has no vital interests at stake in the outcome of a brutal struggle between Sunni Jihadists and Alawite thugs. None.

We have no vital interest at stake in the civil war, that is correct. However, that fact alone doesn’t disqualify a response to chemical weapons attacks, which is the main issue. Not the civil war itself.

Increasingly, as we gain energy independence, we will be able to leave that region to its own insane devices. Our only true interest is Saudi oil. And they will keep selling it whatever happens.

All true. And all irrelevant in this instance, and also somewhat racist – considering if 400 British children were gassed by Assad instead of 400 Syrians, I doubt you would feel the same about turning your back to that horror.

Israel is a burden and certainly not an asset in our foreign policy.

Thank you, random Pat Buchanan impression.

The obsession with the Middle East is increasingly a deranged one. Taking it upon ourselves to ensure that international norms of decency are enforced in that hell-hole is an act of both hubris and delusion. We can wish democrats and secularists well. But we can control nothing of their struggle, as the last few years have definitively shown. And when we try, we create as many problems as we may solve. Look at Libya.

This is increasingly looking like an anti-Muslim screed instead of a cautious approach to a particular international conflict. Sullivan is essentially saying “fuck the middle east, they’re all nuts anyway” with some borderline Sarah Palin-like “Let Allah sort ’em out” dismissiveness.

My own fervent hope is that this is the moment when the people of America stand up and tell their president no. I support and admire this president and understand that this impulsive, foolish, reckless decision was motivated by deep and justified moral concern. But the proposal is so riddled with danger, so ineffective in any tangible way (even if it succeeds!), and so divorced from the broader reality of an America beset by a deep fiscal crisis, a huge new experiment in universal healthcare, and a potential landmark change in immigration reform, that it simply must not be allowed to happen.

The timing sucks, you are correct. Military action seems to never take place at the opportune time. Imagine how hard it was for Roosevelt to sell WWII before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. In that instance there were hundreds being gassed and the world sat back because it didn’t involve them. They had no national security stake in some far-away European nation.

We can stop it. And if Obama is as smart as we all think he is, he should respond to Congress’s refusal to support him by acquiescing to their request. That would damage him some more – but that damage has been done already. It pales compared with the damage caused by prosecuting an unwinnable war while forfeiting much of your domestic agenda.

Syria would be an unwinnable war, which is why it’s not going to be a war. It’s not going to be an occupation. It is, (according to accounts) at most, a 48 to 72-hour military operation with the chance for events on the ground to change, like every military conflict. In which case, Obama will no doubt bring his case back to the International community, the American people and Congress, where they can vote to kill this intervention in the crib if they see it getting out of hand. And as for Obama’s domestic agenda – in case you haven’t been paying attention to Congressional Republicans since November, his 2nd term agenda was D.O.A. the moment he was sworn in a second time.

This is not about Obama. It’s about America, and America’s pressing needs at home. It’s also about re-balancing the presidency away from imperialism. If a president proposes a war and gets a vote in Congress and loses, then we have truly made a first, proud step in reining in the too-powerful executive branch and its intelligence, surveillance and military complex. In other words, much good can still come from this.

As long as you’re not a poor Syrian civilian caught in a civil war where your own government is gassing you. But hey, if a rich, over-educated intellectual can sleep better at night knowing he re-built his cautious foreign policy credentials, then I guess it was worth it.

If Congress turns Obama down – as it should – Obama can still go to the UN and present evidence again and again of what Assad is doing. Putin is then put on the defensive, as he should be. You haven’t abandoned the core position against the use of chemical arms, and you have repeatedly urged the UN to do something. Isn’t that kind of thing what Samantha Power longs for? Make her use her post to cajole, embarrass, and shame Russia and China in their easy enabling of these vile weapons. Regain the initiative. And set a UN path to control Iran’s WMD program as well.

Seriously? The U.N.? With Russia having veto power over the Security Counsel, the Arab League not interested in sending in troops and Syria not being a signatory to the ICC, there is no end game for Assad other than being threatened to leave or killed. Putin is not going to be embarrassed because he’s backing Syria. He’ll present his version of “evidence” showing the chemical weapons used in Syria were released by the rebels on themselves. Some will no doubt believe him, looking for any excuse to keep the United States from dropping bombs anywhere in the world. And Assad will continue to do whatever he wants, with no fear of repercussion.

Obama once said his model in foreign policy was George H W Bush. And that president, in the first Gulf War, offers a sterling example of how the US should act: not as a bully or a leader, but a cajoler, a facilitator and, with strong domestic and international support, enabler of resistance to these tin-pot Arab lunatics. Obama, in a very rare moment, panicked. What he needs to do now is take a deep breath, and let the people of this country have their say. Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Yes, because the opposition to Syria has sprung up with no politics behind it – from the right or left. It has nothing to do with the selfish interests of those liberal and conservative ideologues who want an isolationist foreign policy, and the Republican politicians who want to oppose anything Obama supports. Combine that with a public juse suffering from pain old war fatigue and it’s not surprising there is such opposition on a national level.

But last time I checked, Mr. Sullivan, you are one of the harshest critics of Bill Clinton on the planet. One of your chief criticisms being Clinton floated on the wind of shifting public opinion and never seemed to have a moral center that anchored him politically.

Well, Obama clearly has that anchor. You don’t buck public opinion running 9-1 against intervention unless you’re absolutely certain in your soul it’s worth it. Because it’s obviously not a political calculation. And while it is your cross to bear that you and many Americans supported the Iraq invasion from the start, it is not mine and it is not Obama’s.

Don’t push your failures off onto him or those who opposed Iraq but can see the differences in Syria. You’re smarter than that, sir.

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  1. Syria, Action Or Inaction? | rational politics - September 9, 2013

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