Bill Keller's Absurd War Metaphors as Hawkish Propaganda

In a column advocating for intervention in Syria, he implies doing so might resemble choreography and a symphony.
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Bill Keller thinks a symphony is a credible metaphor for global diplomacy. (Reuters)

Former New York Times editor Bill Keller, who regrets having supported the Iraq War, warns us in his most recent column that we shouldn't let that experience prevent us from intervening in Syria.

What does he suggest?

The United States moves to assert control of the arming and training of rebels -- funneling weapons through the rebel Supreme Military Council, cultivating insurgents who commit to negotiating an orderly transition to a nonsectarian Syria. We make clear to President Assad that if he does not cease his campaign of terror and enter negotiations on a new order, he will pay a heavy price," he writes. "When he refuses, we send missiles against his military installations until he, or more likely those around him, calculate that they should sue for peace. All of this must be carefully choreographed and accompanied by a symphony of diplomacy to keep our allies with us and our adversaries at bay. The aim would be to eventually have a transition government, stabilized for a while by an international peacekeeping force drawn mostly from neighboring states like Turkey.

I don't pretend to be a foreign policy expert.

But this reads like it's written by someone who should stop pretending to be a foreign policy expert.

Elsewhere Keller specifically says he doesn't favor putting American troops on the ground. So how would we "assert control of the arming and training of the rebels"? After a decade in Afghanistan we couldn't prevent soldiers in the army we were training from turning their guns on us. But we're going to send weapons into Syria, and it's all going to turn out okay because we'll have made sure to cultivate "insurgents who commit to negotiating an orderly transition to a nonsectarian Syria"? Let's be real. If we funnel weapons to insurgents in Syria, they may well end up being used in sectarian violence, or find their way into the hands of Islamist radicals. And the people funding the Islamist rebels aren't going to stop doing so as a courtesy to us. 

If Keller wants to argue that's a risk worth taking, fine. All alternatives are admittedly bleak. But all this talk of "control," cultivation, "choreography" and "symphonies" is misleading nonsense. Upon sending weapons into a civil war, the sender cedes control of them. Insurgents aren't cultivated. They are who they are, and we won't improve them, least of all without even being in their country. Sending guns into a civil war, threatening another country's leader, and bombarding his army with missiles might be usefully described by a lot of metaphors, but choreography, in which every movement is planned, predictable, and precisely executed isn't one of them.

And a symphony of diplomacy? Pray tell, who is the director leading all the musicians, who obey every subtle shift in his baton? This advice serves no purpose except to obscure the nature of what intervening in Syria would actually entail: a tremendously complicated gamble where the payoff and the potential losses are both unknown, the rules are unknown, the people with whom we're betting may turn on us at any moment, and aren't actually forced to bet.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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