The Logic of Atrocity

Posted: Sep 22, 2013 12:01 AM

Syria, withdrawn from the front pages of our newspapers for the time being, is not quite the red-letter time-bomb crisis as first billed to us. So we should ask ourselves what we have learned while the war-torn nation dominated the headlines.

The trajectory of U.S. policy was dramatically altered when Russian President Vlad Putin stepped in to save the day . . . perhaps merely because a reporter had the temerity to ask Secretary of State John Kerry for a list of demands before the U.S. went firing missiles in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s direction. Shocked by such a sensationally sensible question, Kerry mumbled something about giving up all their chemical weapons.

So Mr. Putin rang up Mr. Assad — or had his assistant ring up Assad’s assistant — and the next thing you know, the word from Syria was, “Sure.”

Do you want fries with that?

And so it was that an oft un-shirted tyrant short-circuited President Obama’s Hamlet-like oscillation to a U.S. military action against Syria — a strike opposed by Congress, a huge majority of the people and even Mr. Obama himself before he would equivocate with the inevitable, “But . . .”

Yes, but . . . many a slip betwixt cup and lip.

This Friday, Syria did meet the first requirement in making an initial report to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This doesn’t allay every fear, of course. Nor should it. The whole deal stinks of a ploy on the part of Putin and Assad. Besides, the proper response to the question — usually uttered with a rhetorical punch implying both the highest level of generality and a sort of weird, concentrated specificity — “can we trust Putin?” is, of course, “No.”

But the deal — the option for Syria to give up its chemical weapons — provides a breather.

Call it a timeout.

Yes, the deal gives us days, perhaps weeks, to catch our breath before Congress votes to give President Obama the approval he has asked for, but which he says he doesn’t need to strike Syria . . . and which he may choose to ignore if he feels like it, making the whole issue moot anyway.

But not moot — certainly not mute — have been the illustrious personages from American foreign policies past: Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. They both took time to try to make sense of the situation, and what they said was at least interesting.

“When the President of the United States draws a red line,” intoned Mr. Panetta, “the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word.” Apparently, those few peace protestors left on the left to protest warmongering in the Mid-East should change their signs: “No war for credibility!”

But it’s more serious than that, and even Panetta knows it. For what’s really at risk is the credibility of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Barack Obama. The United States has dropped megatonnage in the past, in response to the crossing of many a red line. Does the U.S. need to prove itself every time?

Mr. Robert Gates threw cold water on the validity of policy by red ink: “[T]o blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple days to underscore or validate a point or a principle is not a strategy.”

He’s on to something there. Going to war to save face over a line drawn on someone else’s sand is not exactly Clausewitzian wisdom incarnate.

For one thing, we don’t know what the results will be. “[W]e would be throwing gasoline on an extremely complex fire in the Middle East,” said Gates. “And we have no idea what will happen at that point. Haven’t Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action once it’s launched?”

Good question. The answer, at least for official Washington, is no. Those unintended twists and turns to which war treats its practitioners make a massive mockery of the “no boots on the ground” mantra prattled by every military strike supporter in Congress and administration mouthpiece.

Let’s term-limit the “boots on the ground” phrase, retroactively, and admit that blowing stuff up can lead to blowback, which can lead to boots on the ground.

Let’s also put a stop to “bloody shirt” politics where an atrocity is used to shut off debate. The most recent of glaring examples was the Obama Administration’s release, to CNN, of a film of Syrian victims of Sarin gas attacks. In his address to the nation weeks ago, to make his case for a threatened missile strike of Syria, Mr. Obama called on “every member of Congress, and those of you watching at home tonight, to view those videos of the attack.”

Oh, come on. Opposition to a military strike isn’t predicated on a lack of empathy. Were suffering the measure, we’d be at war in dozens of countries all the time, including in Syria more than a year ago, since over a 100,000 people have died in the civil war where both sides have committed atrocities.

To suggest that we should decide the best course for U.S. policy by watching acts of violence and the resultant human suffering is simple-minded and demagogic.

There’s something wrong when Russia’s dictator-president looks better than ours.     [further reading]