(George Packer has a chat.)

UPDATE : Dearest readers, as much as I’d like to lay claim to the words that follow, I cannot. They aren’t mine. The ‘dialogue’ here is from George Packer at The New Yorker, but reading now through your comments, it looks like I didn’t make that clear. The link above to is to his column. Packer begins:

“So it looks like we’re going to bomb Assad.


Really? Why good?

Did you see the videos of those kids? I heard that ten thousand people were gassed. Hundreds of them died. This time, we have to do something.

Yes, I saw the videos.
And you don’t want to pound the shit out of him?I want to pound the shit out of him.But you think we shouldn’t do anything.

I didn’t say that. But I want you to explain what we’re going to achieve by bombing.

We’re going to let Assad know that chemical weapons are over the line. There’s a reason they’ve been illegal since Verdun or whenever.

Except when Saddam used them against the Kurds—we knew, and we didn’t say a word.

Is that a reason to let Assad use them against his people?

At this point, I don’t think Assad is too worried about the Geneva Conventions.

He should have to think hard before using them again.

He’s a bloody dictator fighting for survival. He’s going to do whatever he has to do.

Not if we really hurt him. Not if we pound his communications centers, his air-force bases, key government installations. He’ll be more likely to survive if he doesn’t use chemical weapons.

Killing civilians while we’re at it.

These would be very specific targets.

The wrong people always get killed.

Maybe. Probably. But if you were a Syrian being bombed by Assad every day, trying to keep your head down and your family alive, wouldn’t you want the world to respond, even if a few more people die? I think so.

Easy for you to say.

Hey, can we not personalize this?

Weren’t you just saying that I don’t care about dying children? (Pause.) So you want us to get involved in their civil war.

I’m not saying that.

But that’s what we’ll be doing. Intervening on the rebel side, tipping the balance in their favor.

Not necessarily. We’ll be drawing a line that says dictators don’t get to use W.M.D.s without consequences.

You can’t bomb targets on one side of a civil war without helping the other side.

It would be very temporary. We’d send Assad a clear message, and then we’d step back and let them go on fighting. We’re not getting involved any deeper than that, because I know what you’re going to say—

The rebels are a bunch of infighting, disorganized, jihadist thugs, and we can’t trust any of them.

I’m not saying we should.

And what do we do if Assad retaliates against Israel or Turkey? Or if he uses nerve gas somewhere else?

We hit him again.

And it escalates.

Not if we restrict it to cruise missiles and air strikes.

Now you’re scaring me. Have you forgotten Iraq?

Not for a single minute.

My point is that you can’t restrict it. You can’t use force for limited goals. You need to know what you’ll do after his next move, and the move after that.

It only escalates if we allow ourselves to get dragged in deeper. Kosovo didn’t escalate.

This isn’t Kosovo. The Syrian rebels aren’t the K.L.A. Assad isn’t Milosevic. Putin isn’t Yeltsin. This is far worse. Kosovo became a U.N. protectorate. That’s not going to happen in Syria.

You think Putin is going to risk a military confrontation with the U.S. and Europe?

I think Russia isn’t going to let Assad go down. Neither is Iran or Hezbollah. So they’ll escalate. This could be the thing that triggers an Israel-Iran war, and how do we stay out of that? My God, it feels like August, 1914.

That was a hundred years ago. Stop with the historical analogies.

You’re the one who brought up Verdun. And Kosovo.

I brought up Kosovo because you brought up Iraq. That’s the problem with these arguments. Iraq! Vietnam! Valley Forge! Agincourt! People resort to analogies so they don’t have to think about the matter at hand.

And because they don’t know anything about the matter at hand.

I know what I saw in those videos.

Thank God Obama doesn’t make foreign policy that way. He knows what he doesn’t know about Syria. He’s always thinking a few steps ahead. He’s not going to get steamrolled by John McCain and Anderson Cooper.

At a certain point, caution is another word for indecisiveness. Obama looks weak! Or worse—indifferent. Anyway, he should have thought ahead when he called chemical weapons a “red line.” He set that trap a year ago, and now we’re in it.

Why does it have to be a trap?

Because our credibility is on the line.

Thank you, Dr. Kissinger.

See, that’s another thing people do in these arguments.


“You sound like so-and-so.” It shouldn’t matter who else is on your side. I mean, you’re in bed with Rand Paul. Anyway, credibility matters even if Kissinger said so. You have to do what you say you’re going to do, especially with bullies.

I don’t think Obama committed himself to any one course of action. But if he does bomb them, we’re involved in that war, and I sure hope his advisers have thought through all the potential consequences better than you have.

Inaction has consequences, too. Assad gases more people, the death toll hits two hundred thousand, the weapons get into Hezbollah’s hands, Iran moves ahead with its nuclear program, the Syrian rebels disintegrate and turn to international terrorism, the whole region goes up in sectarian flames.

And how does firing cruise missiles at Damascus prevent any of this?

It doesn’t. But, look, all of this is already happening with us sitting it out. If we put a gun to Assad’s head, we might be able to have more influence over the outcome. At least we can prevent him from winning.

A violent stalemate. How wonderful for the Syrians. Some people think that’s the best solution for us.

I’m not saying that.

What are you saying?

I don’t know. I had it worked out in my head until we started talking. (Pause.) But we need to do something this time.

Not just to do something.

All right. Not just to do something. But could you do me a favor?

What’s that?

While you’re doing nothing, could you please be unhappy about it?

I am.”

53 responses to “Exactly.

  1. Well said. There’s been a similar argument running in my head for weeks.


  2. Yeah. Intervening in Syria is just about the stupidest policy action I’ve seen in my lifetime.

    We are basically bombing the more rational enemy to help the more irrational, jihadist enemy – who several years ago was killing US troops.

    Why are we even taking sides?

    Why aren’t we taking the case to the UN? Or Congress?

    Even George W. Bush checked all those blocks before Iraq, and this intervention makes a whole hell of a lot less sense than Iraq (i.e., Iraq was actually trying to shoot down our aircraft enforcing UN resolutions).

    And then there’s Hezbullah, which makes al Qaeda look like child’s play. These guys have the capability to attack US targets IN THE US.

    They do that and then America is all in. We’ll have boots on the ground in a heartbeat, and by that point, we would be justified in doing so. The problem is that we shouldn’t even put ourselves in that position in the first place because either way, we lose by intervening.

    If Assad stays in power, we fail. If the rebels overthrow Assad, we fail.

    All this boils down to one thing: Obama flubbed. He used the red line comment in the wrong context. He heard his advisers using it regarding Iran (rightly so), but misapplied it to Syria in relation to a civil war, thereby committing the US to the policy. I can guarantee you that his advisers didn’t come up with such a stupid statement, Obama improvised at a press conference.

    Not only did we not intervene when Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s, WE GAVE THEM THE COORDINATES to Iranian targets. The US can easily back away from the red line comments because there is plenty of historical precedent to do so.

    Obama needs to back away from this ill-advised comment. Aiding and abetting our enemies is not even remotely worth US tax payer dollars.

    We should just buy popcorn and let both sides destroy each other – at zero cost to the US treasury!


    • Here’s a more extended rant about Syrian intervention on my site. I’m probably a little harsher on Obama than I should’ve been regarding his personal motivations, but I think the policy case for intervention is incredibly weak since the case for doing nothing is a whole heck of a lot stronger.



    • Sean – I pretty much agree with everything you said, including how Obama’s words last year put him – and us – between a rock and a hard place. That was careless and very worrying to me. He is after the President of the US and these days not a word should pass the mouth a president that hasn’t been carefullly considered.

      And when you say “If Assad stays in power, we fail. If the rebels overthrow Assad, we fail.”, you say it all.

      Lose all around. Not to mention how bombing a third Muslim nation would inflame the region even further.

      Even this new initiative – Russia, inspectors etc – even if everyone agrees, how the hell do they pull that off in a war zone. And whose word do they depend upon to be sure they’ve foound all the sites.

      Awful. I weep.


  3. In its history, the US has never intervened militarily anywhere in the world for humanitarian reasons. There’s always a strategic or resource goal to be found if you dig deep enough. The Syrian civil war materializes the ongoing regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran; naturally the US will support its Saudi ally and attempt to weaken its Iranian enemy. If nothing else, supporting intervention means supporting killing Shia in order to save the lives of Sunnis–not much of a trade off if one’s primary value is human life, as the current crop of intervention enthusiasts claim.


  4. maggieannthoeni

    Excellent piece – thank you so much. It’s hard to know how to bring key points to attention and you’ve done it. One of the horrors is that those gassed are twice sacrificed for political gain – once by whomever killed them, and again by whomever else wants to use their deaths as convenient leverage. As has been said – “this is all about real estate and has only been waiting for ‘just cause'”.

    An anguished irony I’m needing some time to process is that this decision-making re Syria on the part of the US is happening at precisely the same time we’re pretending to understand Martin Luther King’s message.

    I suppose part of the rationale of Obama et al is to stick to King’s emphasis on domestic, racially rooted, inequalities for this specific occasion, as per his March on Washington Dream speech. But King took his insights to the universal, (“Why I Am Opposed To The War in Vietnam”; http://youtu.be/b80Bsw0UG-U), and ‘compartmentalizing’ doesn’t sit comfortably with me.


  5. maggieannthoeni

    Reblogged this on Thoughts From The Well and commented:
    I’ve struggled to find a way to introduce a line of sanity while the impossibly loud sound of saber rattling focuses on Syria. Moe at “Whatever Works’ has posted an effective piece, supplemented by reader comments.


    • Maggie – thanks so much for the re-blog. I’m honored.

      And I agree so wholeheartedly when you note that “As has been said – “this is all about real estate “. Let me add, wars are fought over three things – always: real estate, religion and resources. The REAL ‘three-R’s”.


  6. Thanks for posting this discussion, Moe. This is a good example of why I subscribe to your blog. It is so much more than the bulletin-boards of thoughtless opinions that many others are.

    I think Sean Hazlett has it right on the Syrian intervention question. The overarching questions that need to be answered are basically those of the Powell Doctrine:

    The Powell Doctrine states that a list of questions all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:

    Is a vital national security interest threatened? (Yes. Stability of oil supply.)
    Do we have a clear attainable objective? (No. This is a religious war in which we have no side.)
    Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed? (No, they are unpredictable.)
    Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted? (No. UN, NATO.)
    Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement? (No.)
    Have the consequences of our action been fully considered? (No. Again, unpredictable, esp. since rebel politics are undefined.)
    Is the action supported by the American people? (No. Public opinion is divided.)
    Do we have genuine broad international support?

    As for the last question, except possibly for the U.K. it seems to me we have international support only if the U.S. bears the brunt of the expense and of the political risk. That’s not support, it’s fence-sitting. The OECD considers us as the world’s only superpower to be the world’s policeman and we have spent ourselves into bankruptcy trying to live up to that image. Enough, I say. It’s past time that Europe steps up to the plate. After all, isn’t this ugly scene playing out in their own backyard?


    • Jim – you make such an important point about this scene being in Europe’s backyard. Every time I look at Syria on a map, I look to the western border and see Turkey.

      Once upon a time, Iraq was country providing a barrier between Iran and the West. Between Shia and the West. But that’s gone. And not the line is closer and it’s Turkey.

      Fingers soooo crossed.

      The Powell doctrine? Looks like everyone finds it perfectly logical to admire Powell and ignore (or deny) his doctrine.


  7. Reblogged this on Still Skeptical After All These Years and commented:
    Maureen Howard has this excellent discussion of the Syrian dilemma on her fine blog, “Whatever Works”.


  8. As far as I can see, the only legitimate reason to use military power is to further to goals of your nation and I can’t see where going after Assad will do that for the US.


  9. Thank you again for an excellent piece and to the commentators for their add-ons. I agree that this is an ill thought out reaction to Obama’s retoric about lines in sand. He seems to feel he is obligated or it will look like his word is worthless. As to the UK being equally keen – well Cameron clearly is but it has to get through Parliment and our Labour party threaten to abstain. Support in the country is put at about 8% and everyone is recalling the lies that lead us into Iraq. Happy days


    • Hi David, always nice to see you. Since I”m late to this comment thread, we know that things have moved along a bit. Cameron found a way out and then Obama tried a way out with Congress. And now it’s playtime with our best buddy Mr. Putin.

      But anything that keeps us from sending the bombs in is to be hoped for.


  10. Absolutely agree, and I’m also terrified that any action in Syria, even limited action, will spin out of control into a larger war. The video of the chemical attack was sickening, but Syria is not worth a World War III.


  11. Progressives,

    Look at this strictly in the context of the history of the Obama Presidency. America voted for an isolationist President after Cowboy George. Obama has delivered. Retreat, retreat, retreat. America got exactly what it voted for.

    Nobody in the middle east respects America now. Well we didn’t vote for respect. We voted to play it safe. President Obama made the mistake of believing he could bluff his way to respect by drawing lines of red.

    In the real World force matters. You can’t bark with the big dogs with your teeth pulled. Don’t pretend you care about poison gas when you don’t. Don’t pretend you care about innocent victims when you don’t. Don’t pretend you can get back the respect and fear of the Iranians by saying scary things to the Syrians.


    • Alan – looking at this in the context of Obama’s years is looking at a slice of it. While I agree that he’s bumbled here, our national reluctance across all political spectrums comes from 50 years of experience of (see comment to brat above) failure in wars.


  12. The rhetoric here has been excessive on all sides. What will happen is that Obama will carry out a punitive strike against Syria, satisfying his recent “shot across the bow” statement. Both Russia and Syria will be fully in the loop. Obama will swagger back to Washington, his manhood affirmed, and then the real–covert, behind the scenes–war will resume. Not to downplay the terrible suffering of the Syrian people, but the stakes are very high, and the players involved are aware that an Obama-Putin pissing contest must be avoided at all costs. Obama and Putin get this.


    • Obama will swagger back to Washington, his manhood affirmed,(Ojmo)

      Sorry to burst your bubble but this isn’t a gender thing. Its an economic thing. Considering the good ole US of A’s economy is directly tied to the military/industrial complex it is important to remind yourself that both male and female benefit from these demonstrations of military might. Methinks just as many women as men want cheap oil!


      • I really hate to say it, t4t, but I pretty much agree with ojmo on this one. This is just a pathetic attempt on Obama’s part at “dick waving.” The world, especially the Muslim World, doesn’t respect him like they respected Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. and that galls him no end and I think this is just an attempt to show that he’s capable of “being a man.”

        Aside from that, it’s a good distraction from the domestic economic collapse he’s be shepherding to conclusion.

        As for the oil – If Obama was concerned about that, i.e., if he actually wanted stable oil imports, he’d be backing Assad instead of trying to destabilize the region.


        • The middle east is about the oil. Syria is no longer on board with the way things are typically done. Assad is done, the Americans know this and are just positioning themselves for what comes next. A strike on Syria is just that, a positioning move. The ONLY reason the Americans have anything to do with any country in the Middle East is because of OIL. To think otherwise is extremely naïve or just plain ignorant. Rwanda and the Congo should tell you tons about the caring nature of the United States and most world powers for that matter.


      • The notion that a US attack will lead to cheap oil is ludicrous. Syria is a very minor producer of oil in the region, and most of what it does produce goes to Europe. This is most definitely not about oil.


        • ojmo, I think T4T is saying that oil is why we’re in that region in the first place. Not that oil per se is ts in Syria. We only pay atteniton because it’s a regional issue and that means oil


          • @Moe

            Exactly, the only reason anyone pays attention to most of these nutbars in the middle east is because they have economic vested interests. I find it fascinating that we can bomb, shoot, burn people but as soon as you say chemical weapons everbody is in an uproar.


          • Moe, I agree with you and T4T that oil is at the center of our national interest in Syria, and I have to question, really, if it isn’t at least subconsciously at the basis of our national concern over the 200 gassed children. That sounds appalling, I know, but consider this. There are an estimated 1 million deaths and half a million cases of irreversible blindness every year because of vitamin A deficiency, which is something we know how to fix with a GMO-kind of rice. But rather than pushing this fix, there’s actually public opposition to using it. But gas 200 kids and we’re ready to drop bombs. This is really nutty when you think about the numbers, eh? 200 dead kids versus 500,000 blind ones and a million dead people. What the hell are we doing?


            • That doesn’t really make much sense, not that making sense is necessary for politicians. If they were concerned about oil, they’d be largely supporting the regimes that were / are in power since all of them have been committed to maintaining supply. The various rebels and new governments aren’t necessarily so committed.


              • Don’t kid yourself jonolan. Not every despot can stay in power for good. When the tide shifts so do the world powers. They are just jockeying for position for when the next one comes into power.


                • 😆 Don’t kid yourself, T4T. The Major Powers don’t normally sit back and allow friendly or useful despots to be deposed and, more often than we might like, the tides do wait for some men.

                  Hence, it seems self-destructive and very odd for Obama to be so lackadaisical about supporting regimes that are in our benefit and even backing those who would destroy them.


                • In reality Obama hasn’t done anything yet. Assad is still in power and the powers that be are jockeying. It is a very similar picture that I see, one that I have watched my whole life.


                • @ T4T & jonolan,

                  A CBS 60 Minutes segment tonight will air a theory from the CIA’s recently-retired #2 man who will say that it is not in America’s interest for either side in Syria’s civil war to win. He thinks the best outcome would be stalemate and a negotiated cease-fire. It sounds right to me. It is a religious war in which any victor will feel ethnic enmity toward us, regardless of what help we give them. Also, the rebels are gaining al Qaeda rapidly and those are the best-trained and most-strongly motivated of all. Assad is a Russian puppet and an ally of Iran and Iraq. Remember Iraq? That’s the marvelously stable democracy we created through military intervention and Texas diplomacy.

                  Obama is being excoriated for being indecisive and going to Congress for this, but it’s looking to me like the result just might be the best one of not very good choices. Wouldn’t that be something?


                • Yeah, and Im going to really, really trust what a CIA person has to say on the middle east. Really? lmao.


                • I’m not one of the ones excoriating Obama for “being indecisive” and seeking Congressional approval. In point of fact, my only complaints with his doing so are that he has maintained that he could attack Assad even if they so no and that he sought foreign permission first so as not to have to, in his mind, go to Congress.


                • T4T – I’m with you on the CIA. The things they’ve missed over the decades . . . Cuba 1960, Tet offensive, the breakup of the USSR, 9/11 and so so many more.


                • @ Moe and T4T,

                  Don’t throw the CIA baby out with the bathwater, you two. Their major screw-ups came about because their customer failed to ask the right questions, seems to me, questions that could have been asked by not only the presidents but almost any of their advisers and Secretaries of State. For example:

                  1. Bay of Pigs. Castro has how many troops? You’ve got 2% as many? What evidence is there that the Cuban people will revolt? What kind of training have the invasion force had and what does the Pentagon think of it? Is the Pentagon fully on board with support forces for the amphibious landing (something well known to be among the riskiest of all types of military operations)?

                  2. Iraq War. Where are the actual WMD’s? Who exactly has seen them? What is the present nature of Iraq’s internal politics and who will we want in charge when the fighting is over? What parts of the present Iraqi military should be retained after the fighting, and if none, what personnel are there who will know how to re-build the infrastructure?

                  From what I’ve read of the CIA, these kinds of questions are their forte’. But, they didn’t get asked.


                • Jim – I wasn’t referencing the Bay of Pigs,, but rather Castro’s 1960 take over. Another one they missed was the 1979 Islamist take over of Iran itself of course, blowback from our 1953 overthrow of their democratic governement – another CIA operation.


              • So what? Where’s the evidence? Golden rice has studies to back it up, but where’s Rachel’s evidence that it’s worthless?


              • @T4T,

                The Anonymous reply was me – my iPad apparently wasn’t signed in.

                The Wikipedia page on Golden Rice has a paragraph on “Controversy” about halfway down the page and for each challenge the GMO opposition has thrown up against it, there is a documented study refuting the assertion. When Rachel and others get some science behind them, I will pay attention but for now all the evidence is that the stuff would do enormous good.


              • Rats. Try this sign-in.


    • How very prescient ojmo – here we are almost two weeks later and that’s exactly what is happening. At least the start of it.


  13. You guys are getting confused over the oil issue here. Yes, stability of the Middle East oil supply is still huge and still the prime reason for our involvement in the region, but the poison gas matter is separate from that. The proposed cruise-missile punishment can’t be seen as helping stability. It’s more likely to hurt it in the short term. In that regard, jonolan is right, if we only wanted stability, we would be backing Assad because just like Saddam Hussein, he promotes stability through terror and fear.

    Obama’s motive is not to prove his manhood, it’s an attempt to assert a superpower-enforced limit to all nations’ weapons of war, a precedent for all time. It’s historic. And I’m not sanguine that it will succeed because of the lack of international support and of political support here at home. Kinda makes me think of Woodrow Wilson and his League of Nations.


    • Jim,

      Obama’s insecure dick waving and the idea of his wanting to assert a superpower-enforced limit to all nations’ weapons of war aren’t motives in conflict with each other. Especially when dealing with Muslims, “dick size” matters and strength, as displayed by violence, is just about the only thing that they respect.

      The thing is that Obama sucks at it. He’s by nature weak and, when pushed to use force, makes poor decisions. He’s trying to prove to the Muslim World that “he’s got a pair” after totally and abjectly failing to handle any part of the “Arab Spring” or its aftermath.

      And, before you go on about it, by handle the “Arab Spring” I mean either shut up and let it happen or pick sides to fully back in each theater.


      • @ jonolan and ojmo,

        The bravado and machismo in your language is characteristic of the cowboy diplomacy that resulted in past military disasters, most notably Vietnam and the Iraq wars. The only “hegemonic goal” that I see the U.S. pursuing is the protection of an economy that is still dependent on Middle East oil, something that affects not just the VIP’s but the little people as well. We are fortunate to have a president who refuses to react to such rhetoric.

        As for choosing sides in this puzzle, jonolan, I posted my thinking on that in a comment on my own blog earlier today. If you are interested, of course.


        • The bravado and machismo in my language is characteristic my having living in the Middle East and North Africa for several years, working with their governments such as they were.


    • In the mainstream press the two issues raised regarding US intervention in Syria are 1) the gas attacks, and 2) Obama’s credibility. His fucking credibility–as if any nation on the planet has the slightest doubt Obama is more than willing to unleash attacks on anybody, anywhere in the world, at any time, and for any reason, as long as they can somehow be placed under the rubric of “terrorism.” Yet history will judge him a wimp if he allows Assad to “cross the line.” So yeah, Big Swingin Dick.

      Moreover, the “historic” and lofty principle you uphold, “a superpower-enforced limit to all nations weapons of war” means in practice nothing more than the freedom of that superpower to deploy weapons of war when it chooses and on whatever target it chooses, with zero accountability and zero consequences to itself. And then you actually bemoan “the lack of international support and of political support here at home.” Gee, I can’t imagine why! Do you honestly believe the rest of the world, and many Americans, are oblivious to US hegemonic goals?


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