Public to White House: You Can Go It Alone, but You Shouldn't

Make the case to Congress, and make them vote.
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This is a last-for-now recap of Syria reactions from readers and the world. 

1) 'We don't know war.' Yesterday I quoted a very hostile response, from a serving U.S. military officer, to another reader's previous pro-intervention argument. That pro-intervention argument included the assertion that "we don't know war," modern American life being so far removed from the era of massive conscription and world war. Many readers who have served in today's war theaters wrote in to complain.

The original pro-intervention reader, who has said that I should use his name, Tim Russo, asks the right of reply. Here is his response:

As the target of your quoted officer, I find being told to "shut up" and "fuck you", a fine summation of the entire anti-intervention position.  Americans at large (the "we" I refer too) in fact do not know war. That members of the armed forces and their families are the only Americans who do is part of my point.

Further, if you were able to reach into the grave and inform a World War I victim of mustard gas, that a treaty would be concluded in 1925 against the use of chemical weapons to forever prevent a repeat of his hideous death, and that almost 100 years later, a member of the military that treaty was created to protect, would hide behind George W. Bush's incompetent framing in Iraq to argue against its enforcement by telling others "Fuck you", that doughboy would weep.

It is another cost of the Bush lies that chemical weapons killing children against every value, treaty, and international norm to which we are signatories, are met with nothing but regurgitations of Bush's logic, even to the sublime irony of being told to shut up.

Do you not see how enslaved this argument is to Bush's? Every argument you make against intervention is how Bush built his lie. Must have proof. Must have "slam dunk" even. Must have UN. Must have Britain. Every one else shut up. Bush had, and did, all that. And it was a lie.

If the lie is no longer there, why are you arguing within its entire framework? Why not argue this case on its own merits, instead of saying "shut up" and "fuck you", requiring us to cross the same fraudulent thresholds Bush set up for himself to tick like boxes on a checklist?

We have an opportunity with Assad to reclaim the moral authority our country built over two centuries which Bush squandered in Iraq. We should take it.  The Syrian people are begging for it.

2) Shut Up, He Explained. More on the lovely Ring Lardner line:

I have a fondness for the full paragraph.
"Are you lost, Daddy?" I asked tenderly. "Shut up," he explained." 
― Ring Lardner, The Yong Immigrunts

3) "More Appropriate Comparison is Kosovo." A pro-intervention case from a reader in Europe:

I live in Germany but was born and raised for the most part in America. I left the states in 2005 for [a UK university] and have been living abroad ever since. So its an interesting debate, .. particularly since I am now living in a country paralyzed by their own military history--so dubious about the prospect of military conflict, they´d rather buff the heels of China and Russia than get involved.

You can examine the number of refugees and displaced people,  the number of whom are children,the number that have died. You can look at the images, the live videos--listen to pleading on the radio... But for those who don´t dampen to sensationalism, I can understand how the thought of being dragged into another war is enough to turn their ears and eyes off---at least this time around.

But in arguing for intervention, I think its short sighted to associate Syria as similar or the same as Iraq and Afghanistan--a grouping that has little reality to the situation and more to do with the simple fact that its in the "Middle East". A word and place that is permanently warped in the American psyche to reflect the wars we have recently fought there and the terrorist attacks leveled against us on our own soil. Iraq was not in the middle of a violent and destructive civil war (that had already happened ten years earlier), like one of your respondents pointed out, Iraq, like other countries in the region, was stable albeit a dictatorship...

A more appropriate comparison would be the wars of the 1990s in Bosnia and Kosovo, which were both cases where civil wars were occurring and where US intervention was strategically similar to the air strikes that Obama references now. [JF note: See Chuck Spinney on the limits of this comparison.] Neither Bosnia nor Kosovo provide outstanding examples of political transformation, Kosovo which I have visited is propped up by an omnipresent international guard and ethnic tensions in Bosnia-Herzegovina remain real. However, the grave injustices that were occurring there (genocide and mass rape) were extinguished as a result of intervention....

With refugees and stories infiltrating communities around the world, I feel that there is a distinct responsibility for the global community to act. 

4) When has "signaling" worked? The aforementioned Chuck Spinney notes this passage, as I did, from President Obama's interview about Syrian options, with the PBS Newshour:

"If, in fact, we can take limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict -- not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about -- but if we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, stop doing this, that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term," the president said.

That would send the Assad regime "a pretty strong signal, that in fact, it better not do it again."

Spinney responds, in an email:

Now ask yourself three questions: 

(1) When was the last time this type of signalling worked? (hint - begin with Vietnam)  

(2) Given the twin failures of five-years of Obama's "limited tailored" approach to the drone wars to (a) alter the behaviour of our adversaries in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia: and to (b) extricate the United States from a strategic decision-making process that is driving up deeper into the state of perpetual war launched by his predecessor;  how can the President really believe what he is saying?

(3) If he does not believe what he is saying, what political pressures (including home grown pressures) are driving his march to folly?  (hint: these pressures do not include public opinion, which is decidedly against intervention)

5) OK, Mr. Wise Guy, what's your idea? I don't know the answer to Spinney's last question. But if I am going to be critical of the rush to intervene, what's my plan?

As noted from the start, every choice about Syria is bad and tragic. By standing aloof, the U.S and the Western world have overseen the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocents. By getting involved, we might make things even worse. The reason U.S. presidents look a generation older when they leave office than when they arrive is that they face an endless string of impossible choices like this. Any decision the U.S. makes will leave death and disorder in its aftermath.

But if I have to be "for" something, what would it be? 

  • A crystal-clear argument from the White House that what is different now is the (apparently) deliberate use of chemical weapons on civilians. That, and that alone, is the reason the U.S. is considering something now it had ruled out before. The slaughter in Syria is horrible, but the U.S. and Britain decided long ago that it was not a casus belli. Defending this "international norm" is the pure case the president should make.
     
  • Since any "defending norms" action would be punitive rather than immediately preventive, there is no reason to rush.  This frenzied DC talk about "will it happen over the weekend?" or "the ships are in position and ready to strike" reminds me overwhelmingly of the mood in January and February 2003. We've got this big force ready to be used: Let's go! Punishment, like revenge, is best administered with cold deliberation, not in a panicky rush. 
     
  • Make the case to Congress. In case that is not clear enough, MAKE THE CASE TO CONGRESS, AND MAKE THEM VOTE. 

    Today's Congress is dysfunctional, polarized, and showboating. But it still is, you know, one branch of government, and the one that theoretically has the power to declare war. I recognize the difference between quick, limited engagements, for which a president needs latitude, and multi-year land wars. But Senator Obama, and constitutional-law lecturer Obama, were well aware of the danger of the post-World War II drift toward endless, undeclared, Presidentially ordered hostilities around the world. Since there is no reason to rush, the President has everything to gain by formally involving the legislative branch.
     
  • Everything to gain? Yes, everything. Something about this undertaking will go wrong, even if overall it succeeds. People will die; blunders will occur; fingers will be pointed (Benghazi); investigations and denunciatory speeches will ensure. Since all choices about Syria are bad, force the Congress to face those choices. Make them share the responsibility. Obama the citizen/scholar would understand why this is wise. Obama the politician presumably does as well.
     
  • What if Congress votes it down? Then they vote it down -- and we shouldn't attack. This is how a democratic republic is supposed to work. If an Administration cannot convince the public and their representatives that we should use military force, then we shouldn't use it.
     
  • Simultaneously make and keep on making the "international norms" case to the rest of the world. Russia will never go along, nor China as well. But if we demonstrate that we are being deliberate in our decisions, and spell out exactly the grounds and limits of what we have in mind, we have a far better choice of amassing and maintaining a coalition for the goals we care about, than if Obama "goes it alone."  This guarantees that the international subject of debate will become a "false equivalence" balance between the excesses of Assad and the excesses of the United States. 

I write the list above in full confidence that Barack Obama, 12-dimensional chess player, has already thought through every move far more quickly and thoroughly than I have. Thus I am left with this puzzle. Why is he doing this? The leaking of the counter-attack plans, the hemming himself in with the "red line," the "who cares about the Congress, I'm going ahead!" all suggest a recklessness and, frankly, a foolishness that I don't associate with Barack Obama even in his least effective phases:

 To go into even "limited" war purely on his own authority, with no engagement from the Congress, in the teeth of U.S. public opposition, and after a (democratic) decision the other way by his major ally -- this is unwise in general and completely puzzling from Obama. Let us hope he reconsiders while he can.

UPDATE After the jump, another reader's view.

A reader not originally from the US writes:

These pro-intervention responses (likely not representative of the whole country, granted) are indicative to me of a country still not yet at ease with its role as a superpower (~50 years isn't very long, granted). The idea of firing missiles on a country for the sake of one's own credibility is inward looking, and smacks of insecurity. The idea of one sovereign nation 'punishing' another equally so. 

There is only one good reason to intervene in Syria: to prevent more innocent civilians from being burnt and gassed to death in their own homes - one can only imagine the true horror. And while that is a fine reason for wanting to intervene, it doesn't change the essential fact: none of the options laid before us will likely be effective in achieving that long term. 

While hundreds of nations across the world would like to ease the suffering, they know implicitly that they don't have the capability to do so effectively, and so the debate never even begins. While in the US -- the world's 'only' superpower -- we wrestle with arguments of why and how, because we can't see the elephant in the room: we're powerless to help! (1). As a superpower the US cannot concede this explicitly. If strikes are launched, it will show that the US cannot concede this implicitly either. 



(1) caveat: The US could of course launch a full scale invasion and win comfortably, but as we know from Iraq, it would not ease civilian suffering in the short and medium term, and the loss of life to them and us is too great.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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