Letting go of intervention in Syria

Last week, I wrote a piece on the reasons to intervene in Syria. I did what critics of an intervention asked, and provided two goals for U.S. action and a way forward. Since then, I have changed my mind: the time has passed, and the window for an effective intervention in Syria has closed. Even if the President were not about to lose a vote in Congress — which, it seems, is now likely — it’s time to let it go, at least for now.

This is a good place to remind you all that I write and speak in my own capacity as a scholar and policy expert, and not as a representative of any of the institutions with which I am associated.

The bitter-enders like William Kristol are arguing that we have no choice, and particularly that House Republicans should resist the urge to deliver a mortal blow to the President over Syria:

The fact is that Obama is the only president we have. We can’t abdicate our position in the world for the next three years. So Republicans will have to resist the temptation to weaken him when the cost is weakening the country. A party that for at least two generations has held high the banner of American leadership and strength should not cast a vote that obviously risks a damaging erosion of this country’s stature and credibility abroad.

I think that’s both alarmist and inaccurate. It’s true that the President will suffer a political defeat if this vote fails, but I’d argue that this whole circus has gone on for so long at this point that the damage is already done, to the President and to the country, even if the vote — somehow — comes out in his favor.

This debate, both in the country at large and in Washington, just went on too long, became too partisan, too hysterical, and too drenched in sanctimony and ignorance. Even if we do the right thing, it will be for all the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile, while we’ve dithered and argued, the Syrian regime has recovered its footing. The Brits are out, the Russians are up, the UN is down. The Syrians have used gas, and they have now learned that at best, the democracies will react to such things by tying themselves up in knots and engaging in horribly self-referential navel-gazing, dilatory hearings, and earnest hand-wringing. A stumble into Syria isn’t going to sober us up.

Letting this one go doesn’t mean giving up on everything forever. We’ve recovered from far worse than this: we went from a loss in Vietnam to putting the Soviet Union on the road to oblivion in the space of a decade. This kind of ghastly fumble is recoverable, but not right away. We need to start a far greater reconstruction of our foreign policy, and we can’t do that while we’re doubled over from punching each other in the groin over Syria.

Note that I have not changed my mind about the moral justice of intervention against the regime of Bashar Assad. Nor am I any more or less worried about the many horrible alternatives conjured up by opponents of military action. Rather — and here I am speaking to my fellow liberal interventionists — it is time to let this go because the combined actions of a critical mass of people in the elected branches of the U.S. government, the defense intellectual community, and especially in the media have created a situation in which any action now risks becoming a complete disaster both in Syria and at home.

We had a chance to do something right and good, and through our own self-indulgence, laziness, petulance, ignorance, and incompetence, we’ve blown it. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Partisans of each party will blame the President or the Congress, depending on their alliances; others will point the finger abroad at British Prime Minister David Cameron, Iran, the United Nations, Vladimir Putin — well, we should lay some blame on Putin, to be sure — and any number of other actors for the continuation of the Syrian slaughter.

But in the end, we have only ourselves, the American people, to blame. We’ve spoken loud and clear, and we’ve said in a steady voice: “We no longer have any idea what the hell we’re doing or what we stand for.”

And our elected officials have listened. In the President’s case, his initial and correct gut instinct to go after the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons was blunted by the popular argument that he needed (unlike other Presidents) to go to Congress, producing a fateful delay.

Congress in turn asked its constituents what they wanted. Faced with a hypothetical intervention — and people hate those hypotheticals –  in a place they don’t know much about, they opted for doing nothing so that they could get back to arguing over the proper use of the word “twerking.”

Of course, in the end, many of the people opposed to intervention blame George Bush and the Iraq war for their reticence. That seems plausible the first time you hear it, and then you start to wonder: do President Obama’s supporters really think he’s as untrustworthy as they think President Bush was? Do Republicans who supported Bush in 2003 really want to make the argument they were hoodwinked and are now gun-shy?

Here’s a spoiler to those questions: I think the “it’s because of Bush” arguments are just plain bullshit all around. This isn’t 2003; Obama isn’t Bush; the existence and use of WMD in this case are not notional but real; and no one’s talking about an invasion. Conjuring up a debate from last decade is just another way of running for political cover on a tough call. Enough already.

To be sure, this time around in a Middle East conflict, Americans weren’t offered much in the way of explanations or leadership. I am still mystified, as are many people, by the President’s sudden turns over the past month. Secretary of State John Kerry, in one of the best speeches of his life, made a clear case for action, but the President made an 11th-hour change that left his national security team (according to reports, anyway) as puzzled as everyone else.

On the other hand (and in fairness to the administration), you shouldn’t need a whole lot of explanation about why chemical attacks on civilians should be stopped. This should have been as close as there is to a no-brainer (if not a “slam dunk,” a term we may never use again) by the standards of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy.

I believe if the President had made the case quickly and forcefully, our initial strikes would already be over. At the G-20, the President could now be explaining to Putin that if he doesn’t like what we did, Russia should have helped get Assad under control a lot earlier than this.

But that’s not how it went.

Meanwhile, our military leaders are…well, it’s not clear what they’re doing. Apparently, a lot of them are talking to journalists and retired generals, complaining behind the scenes about a war they don’t want to fight. The ultimate triumph of this insider campaign was an appalling piece by retired Army Major General Robert Scales in the Washington Post this week, in which Scales sought to disrupt the delicate, crucial balance of civil-military relations by letting us all know just how much our valiant warriors want nothing to do with what they obviously see as a bunch of confused chicken hawks and hippies in the White House:

Our senior soldiers…are tired of wannabe soldiers who remain enamored of the lure of bloodless machine warfare….Our military members understand and take seriously their oath to defend the constitutional authority of their civilian masters. They understand that the United States is the only liberal democracy that has never been ruled by its military. But today’s soldiers know war and resent civilian policymakers who want the military to fight a war that neither they nor their loved ones will experience firsthand.

You can almost hear Scales throwing a beer can at the television while telling Meathead and Gloria to shut their pie-holes. (And since when is America the only liberal democracy that’s never been ruled by the military? Was there a coup in Canada that I missed?)

Scales, like the rest of us, is a private citizen and can say anything he likes, but his hit piece on civilian policymakers is one of many that contained the “every military officer I talked to thinks…” line in it. That’s a dangerous thing in a democracy: as a civilian who once advised a senior member of Congress, I am not interested in which wars the military wants to fight. I didn’t realize it worked that way. (I also had no idea that retired generals were able to speak on behalf of anonymous members of the senior command in the pages of one of America’s newspapers of record.)

Anyway, the only thing worse than a bad policy is the refusal ever to give up on that bad policy, and I’m giving up on this one. After the 2003 Gulf War, U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine said that there were only four or five ways to have done the Iraq war right, and 500 ways to do it wrong. What she didn’t count on, she later admitted, was that we were going to try all 500 ways first.

That’s what I think is about to happen with Syria. Intervention is the right thing to do. But not if we try all 500 stupid ways first.

Syria has also been the perfect venue, like a singles bar at 2 am, for the moonbat left and the wingnut right to find each other out of desperation. (Among the many low points: Fox’s Eric Bolling covering his hand in ketchup on national television. Seriously.) And no one can flood the zone with bad information and conspiracy theories like extremists, and that does have a solid impact on an American population whose political literacy is already abysmally low.

The more disturbing trend, however, has been the way in which partisans of both parties have been mortgaging their principles in the name of party loyalty. Republicans who cheered on a full-up invasion of Iraq now thoughtfully pull on their chins and call for cooler heads to prevail while they pretend to reflect on strategic theory. Democrats, for their part, have rediscovered the joys of intervention. (Howard Dean supports a strike on Syria. Howard Dean?)

Let’s just say it out loud: we, collectively, have allowed our foreign policy to drown in a partisan swamp. The President tried to outflank Congress by handing them the power they say they want but in reality that they never want. Republicans have held up action because they loathe President Obama and do not want him to get credit for any kind of successful military action, no matter how right the cause. Democrats, meanwhile, are signing on to military strikes that they would normally oppose with screams so loud the veins in their heads would pop, all because this time it’s their guy who thought of doing it.

There are exceptions on both sides: Vietnam veterans John McCain and John Kerry are the obvious choices. But overall, there has been a partisan division in our leadership, one that reflects the sour, churlish, partisan mood of the American people.

And in a democracy, the people have the right to be wrong. Further down the road, we’ll have to pay the price for the American public’s ill-informed hissy fits on everything from the NSA to Syria, but those days aren’t here yet. While I still believe that the President could have turned public opinion around, especially if he had acted rather than displaying his own doubts, the fact of the matter is that the American public has decided that the use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians is something they can live with.

So be it. We’ll have to fight this out again when the next outrage takes place. And because of what we’ve done — what we have all done — this time around, there will be another outrage, perhaps one far worse than this. For now, we’re going to have to just tough it out, man up, and accept that Assad, at least temporarily, is going to enjoy a victory we’ve given him through a series of unforced errors, all of our own making.

We think that by refusing to engage in military action, we’ve chosen not to create a mess. That’s a comforting fantasy. Sooner than we realize, we’ll wish we had taken our chances with all this on our own initiative, instead of having more dire decisions forced upon us later.

Last week, I wrote a piece on the reasons to intervene in Syria. I did what critics of an intervention asked, and provided two goals for U.S. action and a way forward. Since then, I have changed my mind: the time has passed, and the window for an effective intervention in Syria has closed. Even if the President were not about to lose a vote in Congress — which, it seems, is now likely — it’s time to let it go, at least for now.

This is a good place to remind you all that I write and speak in my own capacity as a scholar and policy expert, and not as a representative of any of the institutions with which I am associated.

The bitter-enders like William Kristol are arguing that we have no choice, and particularly that House Republicans should resist the urge to deliver a mortal blow to the President over Syria:

The fact is that Obama is the only president we have. We can’t abdicate our position in the world for the next three years. So Republicans will have to resist the temptation to weaken him when the cost is weakening the country. A party that for at least two generations has held high the banner of American leadership and strength should not cast a vote that obviously risks a damaging erosion of this country’s stature and credibility abroad.

I think that’s both alarmist and inaccurate. It’s true that the President will suffer a political defeat if this vote fails, but I’d argue that this whole circus has gone on for so long at this point that the damage is already done, to the President and to the country, even if the vote — somehow — comes out in his favor.

This debate, both in the country at large and in Washington, just went on too long, became too partisan, too hysterical, and too drenched in sanctimony and ignorance. Even if we do the right thing, it will be for all the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile, while we’ve dithered and argued, the Syrian regime has recovered its footing. The Brits are out, the Russians are up, the UN is down. The Syrians have used gas, and they have now learned that at best, the democracies will react to such things by tying themselves up in knots and engaging in horribly self-referential navel-gazing, dilatory hearings, and earnest hand-wringing. A stumble into Syria isn’t going to sober us up.

Letting this one go doesn’t mean giving up on everything forever. We’ve recovered from far worse than this: we went from a loss in Vietnam to putting the Soviet Union on the road to oblivion in the space of a decade. This kind of ghastly fumble is recoverable, but not right away. We need to start a far greater reconstruction of our foreign policy, and we can’t do that while we’re doubled over from punching each other in the groin over Syria.

Note that I have not changed my mind about the moral justice of intervention against the regime of Bashar Assad. Nor am I any more or less worried about the many horrible alternatives conjured up by opponents of military action. Rather — and here I am speaking to my fellow liberal interventionists — it is time to let this go because the combined actions of a critical mass of people in the elected branches of the U.S. government, the defense intellectual community, and especially in the media have created a situation in which any action now risks becoming a complete disaster both in Syria and at home.

We had a chance to do something right and good, and through our own self-indulgence, laziness, petulance, ignorance, and incompetence, we’ve blown it. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Partisans of each party will blame the President or the Congress, depending on their alliances; others will point the finger abroad at British Prime Minister David Cameron, Iran, the United Nations, Vladimir Putin — well, we should lay some blame on Putin, to be sure — and any number of other actors for the continuation of the Syrian slaughter.

But in the end, we have only ourselves, the American people, to blame. We’ve spoken loud and clear, and we’ve said in a steady voice: “We no longer have any idea what the hell we’re doing or what we stand for.”

And our elected officials have listened. In the President’s case, his initial and correct gut instinct to go after the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons was blunted by the popular argument that he needed (unlike other Presidents) to go to Congress, producing a fateful delay.

Congress in turn asked its constituents what they wanted. Faced with a hypothetical intervention — and people hate those hypotheticals –  in a place they don’t know much about, they opted for doing nothing so that they could get back to arguing over the proper use of the word “twerking.”

Of course, in the end, many of the people opposed to intervention blame George Bush and the Iraq war for their reticence. That seems plausible the first time you hear it, and then you start to wonder: do President Obama’s supporters really think he’s as untrustworthy as they think President Bush was? Do Republicans who supported Bush in 2003 really want to make the argument they were hoodwinked and are now gun-shy?

Here’s a spoiler to those questions: I think the “it’s because of Bush” arguments are just plain bullshit all around. This isn’t 2003; Obama isn’t Bush; the existence and use of WMD in this case are not notional but real; and no one’s talking about an invasion. Conjuring up a debate from last decade is just another way of running for political cover on a tough call. Enough already.

To be sure, this time around in a Middle East conflict, Americans weren’t offered much in the way of explanations or leadership. I am still mystified, as are many people, by the President’s sudden turns over the past month. Secretary of State John Kerry, in one of the best speeches of his life, made a clear case for action, but the President made an 11th-hour change that left his national security team (according to reports, anyway) as puzzled as everyone else.

On the other hand (and in fairness to the administration), you shouldn’t need a whole lot of explanation about why chemical attacks on civilians should be stopped. This should have been as close as there is to a no-brainer (if not a “slam dunk,” a term we may never use again) by the standards of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy.

I believe if the President had made the case quickly and forcefully, our initial strikes would already be over. At the G-20, the President could now be explaining to Putin that if he doesn’t like what we did, Russia should have helped get Assad under control a lot earlier than this.

But that’s not how it went.

Meanwhile, our military leaders are…well, it’s not clear what they’re doing. Apparently, a lot of them are talking to journalists and retired generals, complaining behind the scenes about a war they don’t want to fight. The ultimate triumph of this insider campaign was an appalling piece by retired Army Major General Robert Scales in the Washington Post this week, in which Scales sought to disrupt the delicate, crucial balance of civil-military relations by letting us all know just how much our valiant warriors want nothing to do with what they obviously see as a bunch of confused chicken hawks and hippies in the White House:

Our senior soldiers…are tired of wannabe soldiers who remain enamored of the lure of bloodless machine warfare….Our military members understand and take seriously their oath to defend the constitutional authority of their civilian masters. They understand that the United States is the only liberal democracy that has never been ruled by its military. But today’s soldiers know war and resent civilian policymakers who want the military to fight a war that neither they nor their loved ones will experience firsthand.

You can almost hear Scales throwing a beer can at the television while telling Meathead and Gloria to shut their pie-holes. (And since when is America the only liberal democracy that’s never been ruled by the military? Was there a coup in Canada that I missed?)

Scales, like the rest of us, is a private citizen and can say anything he likes, but his hit piece on civilian policymakers is one of many that contained the “every military officer I talked to thinks…” line in it. That’s a dangerous thing in a democracy: as a civilian who once advised a senior member of Congress, I am not interested in which wars the military wants to fight. I didn’t realize it worked that way. (I also had no idea that retired generals were able to speak on behalf of anonymous members of the senior command in the pages of one of America’s newspapers of record.)

Anyway, the only thing worse than a bad policy is the refusal ever to give up on that bad policy, and I’m giving up on this one. After the 2003 Gulf War, U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine said that there were only four or five ways to have done the Iraq war right, and 500 ways to do it wrong. What she didn’t count on, she later admitted, was that we were going to try all 500 ways first.

That’s what I think is about to happen with Syria. Intervention is the right thing to do. But not if we try all 500 stupid ways first.

Syria has also been the perfect venue, like a singles bar at 2 am, for the moonbat left and the wingnut right to find each other out of desperation. (Among the many low points: Fox’s Eric Bolling covering his hand in ketchup on national television. Seriously.) And no one can flood the zone with bad information and conspiracy theories like extremists, and that does have a solid impact on an American population whose political literacy is already abysmally low.

The more disturbing trend, however, has been the way in which partisans of both parties have been mortgaging their principles in the name of party loyalty. Republicans who cheered on a full-up invasion of Iraq now thoughtfully pull on their chins and call for cooler heads to prevail while they pretend to reflect on strategic theory. Democrats, for their part, have rediscovered the joys of intervention. (Howard Dean supports a strike on Syria. Howard Dean?)

Let’s just say it out loud: we, collectively, have allowed our foreign policy to drown in a partisan swamp. The President tried to outflank Congress by handing them the power they say they want but in reality that they never want. Republicans have held up action because they loathe President Obama and do not want him to get credit for any kind of successful military action, no matter how right the cause. Democrats, meanwhile, are signing on to military strikes that they would normally oppose with screams so loud the veins in their heads would pop, all because this time it’s their guy who thought of doing it.

There are exceptions on both sides: Vietnam veterans John McCain and John Kerry are the obvious choices. But overall, there has been a partisan division in our leadership, one that reflects the sour, churlish, partisan mood of the American people.

And in a democracy, the people have the right to be wrong. Further down the road, we’ll have to pay the price for the American public’s ill-informed hissy fits on everything from the NSA to Syria, but those days aren’t here yet. While I still believe that the President could have turned public opinion around, especially if he had acted rather than displaying his own doubts, the fact of the matter is that the American public has decided that the use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians is something they can live with.

So be it. We’ll have to fight this out again when the next outrage takes place. And because of what we’ve done — what we have all done — this time around, there will be another outrage, perhaps one far worse than this. For now, we’re going to have to just tough it out, man up, and accept that Assad, at least temporarily, is going to enjoy a victory we’ve given him through a series of unforced errors, all of our own making.

We think that by refusing to engage in military action, we’ve chosen not to create a mess. That’s a comforting fantasy. Sooner than we realize, we’ll wish we had taken our chances with all this on our own initiative, instead of having more dire decisions forced upon us later.

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