James Fallows

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.

James Fallows: Military

  • Ukraine and Malaysia Airlines: Why Cable News Should Be on a 24-Hour Delay

    The best reactions to breaking news are rarely the first ones.

    Malaysia Airlines 777, at Kuala Lumpur airport ( Wikipedia photo )

    I have been offline most of these past few days and thus not weighing in on daily developments. But let me mention three items whose similarity concerns cast of mind.

    1) Adam Gopnik on Crimea. This is several days old in The New Yorker but very much worth reading if you have missed it. For instance:

    With Ukraine and Crimea suddenly looming as potential [WW I-style] Sarajevos, the usual rhetoric of credibility and the horrors of appeasement comes blaring from the usual quarters. People who, a week ago, could not have told you if Crimea belonged to Ukraine—who maybe thought, based on a vague memory of reading Chekhov, that it was Russian all along—are now acting as though the integrity of a Ukrainian Crimea is an old and obvious American interest. What they find worse than our credibility actually being at stake is that we might not act as though it always is.  

    As the years go by, I am more and more convinced that the immediate, fast-twitch talk-show responses on what we "have" to do about some development are almost always wrong, and the calm, day- or week-after reflections about proportion, response, and national interest are almost always wiser. If I could, I would put all cable-TV discussion of breaking-news crises on a 24-hour delay. Maybe there has been a case in which immediate reflex-response to big news has seemed wise in the long run. Right now I can't think of any.

    Naturally this reminds me of an adage from the piloting world: In most emergencies, the crucial first thing to do is ... nothing. Take a deep breath, calm down, steady your nerves, count to 10, and then "fly the airplane" as you begin applying knowledge rather than panicked instincts to the options at hand. Which brings us to:

    2) Patrick Smith on Malaysia Airlines. At Ask The Pilot, airline pilot and aviation writer Patrick Smith makes the frustrating but unavoidable point about the still-missing Malaysia Airlines flight: We have no idea what happened, and it may be a long time (if ever) before we do.

    Here are the tactical points involved in this argument:

    • Commercial airline flight is now statistically so safe that when something does go wrong, the causes are often mysterious by definition. That is because the non-mysterious risks for airlines have been buffed away. The most famous recent exception was the Asiana crash at SFO last year. It looked from the start like a simple case of pilot error, and that is where all subsequent evidence points. But many other tragedies have taken months or years to sleuth out. 
       
    • The first reports after a crash should be viewed with great suspicion, because experience shows they're probably wrong. What the NYT says in its current headline about Malaysia Airlines applies to most disaster coverage:

      For this reason it  would be great to have a 24-hour tape-delay on most disaster coverage as well. 

      This goes in spades for any coverage on the lines of, "This latest tragedy proves that [theory X] is true." Most instant-analyses of this sort I can think of were grossly wrong; when they're right, that's often due to luck rather than insight. This principle applies not only to air crashes but also to mass shootings, bombings, episodes of suspected terrorism, and similar tragedies for which people crave an explanation.
       
    • Might the Malaysian plane have broken up in flight? Yes. Might it have been hijacked? Perhaps. Might both pilots have conked out? Maybe. Could there have been an on-board bomb? Perhaps. Does this show a problem with the Boeing 777? Likely not. Does it have anything to do with the Asiana 777 crash in San Francisco? Hard to imagine how it could. Did the stolen passports matter? Conceivably. Might the plane have been hit by a meteor? Or undone by pilot suicide? I suppose anything is possible. But these are all in the realm of "would King Kong beat Godzilla?" until there is more evidence, which can take a long time.

    The strategic point is: We do crave explanations, especially for bad news. Pilots are more prone to this tendency than anyone else. If you pick up an aviation magazine, you'll see that half the stories concern disasters, usually with the theme: Here is why bad things happened, and how to keep them from happening to you. But sometimes bad things happen for reasons no one can explain. Let's hope there is at least an instructive explanation, eventually, for this one. 

    Update: I am sorry to see that the usually excellent Foreign Policy has gone in for speculation-ahead-of-facts in a big way, e.g. here and, with the caveat that it is reporting on speculation, here.

    3) Jim Sleeper on the New Cold War. In an item about Leon Wieseltier for The Washington Monthly, Jim Sleeper gives another instance of what I'm suggesting is a larger point: that rushing, quickly, to larger self-confident, self-righteous stands is usually a source of error. He reminds us of what a group of "strategists" told the public a few days after the 9/11 attacks:

    [E]ven if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.

    People who react this way have the right temperament for cable talk shows but the wrong one for decisions about the national interest. Cable pundits are in business to say, "The evidence is not yet in, but we know this means [xxx]." Give us leaders (and accident investigators) willing to say, Calm down. Breathe. Let's wait a minute, and think.

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  • John Boyd, From US News

    Appreciating "a towering intellect who made unsurpassed contributions to the American art of war"

    US News appreciation of John Boyd, 1997 (Pages photocopied from University of Miami library)

    I mentioned last week that among the contents of its pre-2007 archives that US News had irresponsibly eliminated, without warning, was a short essay I wrote when the military strategist John Boyd died. I met Boyd in the late 1970s, described him in (and was guided by him for) my book National Defense, and stayed in touch until his death in March, 1997. 

    Somewhere in the attic I have my physical copies of US News from that era, when I was its editor. But I am not there to go pawing through the boxes, so I am grateful to Bill Tallman of the University of Miami, who went to the library, found that issue, and made a photocopy of the page. 

    Below you’ll see the page layout with a picture of John Boyd in his Korean War-fighter pilot era, followed by the text of the article. I post it here partly in thanks to Mr. Tallman; partly to give this account of Boyd’s life and influence some continuing online existence, now that it has been zapped from its original home; and partly because the latest Pentagon budget (including the decision to discontinue the A-10 "Warthog" airplane) is the kind of thing Boyd would have had a lot to say about. 

    More on the substance later. For now, I give you John Boyd ca. 1997, from back in the era when Dick Cheney was among the "military reformers."



    A Priceless Original

    True originality can be disturbing, and John Boyd was maddeningly original.

    His ideas about weapons, leadership, and the very purpose of national security changed the modern military. After Boyd died last week of cancer at age 70, the commandant of the Marine Corps called him "a towering intellect who made unsurpassed contributions to the American art of war.'' Yet until late in his life, the military establishment resisted Boyd and resented him besides.

    Boyd was called up for military service during the Korean War and quickly demonstrated prowess as an Air Force fighter pilot. More important, he revealed his fascination with the roots of competitive failure and success. U.S. Planes and pilots, he realized, did better in air combat than they should have. In theory, the Soviet-built MiG they fought against was far superior to the F-86 that Boyd flew. The MiG had a higher top speed and could hold a tighter turn. The main advantage of the F-86 was that it could change from one maneuver to another more rapidly, dodging or diving out of the MiG's way. As the planes engaged, Boyd argued, the F-86 could build a steadily accumulating advantage in moving to a "kill position'' on the MiG's tail.

    Boyd extended his method--isolating the real elements of success--while maintaining his emphasis on adaptability. In the late 1950s, he developed influential doctrines of air combat and was a renowned fighter instructor. In the 1960s, he applied his logic to the design of planes, showing what a plane would lose in maneuverability for each extra bit of weight or size--and what the nation lost in usable force as the cost per plane went up. Within the Pentagon, he and members of a "Fighter Mafia'' talked a reluctant Air Force into building the F-16 and A-10--small, relatively cheap, yet highly effective aircraft that were temporary departures from the trend toward more expensive and complex weapons.

    Warrior virtues. After leaving the Air Force as a colonel in 1975, Boyd began the study of long historical trends in military success through which he made his greatest mark. He became a fanatical autodidact, reading and marking up accounts of battles, beginning with the Peloponnesian War. On his Air Force pension, he lived modestly, working from a small, book-crammed apartment. He presented his findings in briefings, which came in varying lengths, starting at four hours. Boyd refused to discuss his views with those who would not sit through a whole presentation; to him, they were dilettantes. To those who listened, he offered a worldview in which crucial military qualities--adaptability, innovation-- grew from moral strengths and other "warrior'' virtues. Yes- man careerism, by-the-book thought, and the military's budget-oriented "culture of procurement'' were his great nemeses.

    Since he left no written record other than the charts that outlined his briefings, Boyd was virtually unknown except to those who had listened to him personally--but that group grew steadily in size and influence. Politicians, who parcel out their lives in 10-minute intervals, began to sit through his briefings. The Marine Corps, as it recovered from Vietnam, sought his advice on morale, character, and strategy. By the time of the gulf war, his emphasis on blitzkrieglike "maneuver warfare'' had become prevailing doctrine in the U.S. military. As a congressman, Dick Cheney spent days at Boyd's briefings. As defense secretary, he rejected an early plan for the land war in Iraq as being too frontal and unimaginative--what Boyd would have mockingly called "Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle''--and insisted on a surprise flanking move.

    John Boyd laughed often, yet when he turned serious, his preferred speaking distance was 3 inches from your face. He brandished a cigar and once burned right through the necktie of a general he had buttonholed. He would telephone at odd hours and resume a harangue from weeks before as if he'd never stopped. But as irritating as he was, he was more influential. He will be marked by a small headstone at Arlington Cemetery and an enormous impact on the profession of arms.

     

  • George Wilson

    A military reporter for whom combat was never an abstraction

    George Wilson

    I was sorry to learn today that George C. Wilson, a longtime and highly respected reporter on defense matters, had died at age 86. I knew him slightly, mainly during the years he worked at our sister publication National Journal, but I always admired the honesty, realism, and irrepressible and irreverent humor with which he covered questions of war-and-peace. He was also tremendously generous as a person and, to use a term you don't hear about a lot of writers, self-effacing—in the good sense, not wanting his personality to get in the way of the truths he was trying to tell.

    Our mutual friend Chuck Spinney has written a wonderful appreciation of George Wilson, which I hope you will read. It captures this side of his character. For instance:

    George Wilson was one of the great reporters and a friend...His call sign when phoning, at least among my group of friends in the Pentagon, was Captain Black.

    Captain Black always identified with the troops and low rankers at the pointy end of the spear, either on the battlefield or in the bowels of the Pentagon.  And he always did it with humor, modesty, and grace ... and occasionally indignation, especially when the troops were being hosed, but never with any sense of self - importance.  Captain Black did some great reporting on some really big serious issues, and he was at home in the General's offices and on Capital Hill.  But he also loved to walk the halls of Pentagon and pop in unannounced to shoot the bull and gossip -- always laughingly -- about the lunacy in the Pentagon.   It was this unprepossessing humor coupled with Captain Black's ability to skewer the high rollers that I remember the most.

    George Wilson spent most of his career with the Washington Post, which has run an extended and very good obituary by Martin Weil. It includes a photo of George Wilson in Vietnam that I would love to use but to which we don't have the rights. Check it out. 

    Also check out this story by George Wilson in the National Journal, about a Republican congressman from North Carolina who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He later felt that the war, and his vote, had been terrible mistakes and wondered how he could "atone" (the Congressman's own word). As Chuck Spinney points out, George Wilson -- who had served in the Navy and been a combat reporter in Vietnam -- always, always converted discussion of military policy to what that would mean for people on the battlefield. This is a rarer and rarer trait in a political/media world in which people blithely talk about "kinetic options" and "surgical strikes," and it is one of many reasons to note George Wilson's passing and highlight the example that he set.

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  • Our New Champion in Self-Defeating Soft Power: Japan

    Only one step could have made conditions worse among Japan, China, and South Korea, with spillover effects on America. That is the step Japan's prime minister has just taken.

    Main hall of Yasukuni Shrine, via Wikipedia.                 

    At first I didn't believe the news this evening that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. I didn't believe it, because such a move would be guaranteed to make a delicate situation in East Asia far, far worse. So Abe wouldn't actually do it, right? 

    It turns out that he has. For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it's close.

    Prime Minister Abe going to the shrine today,
    via Reuters and BBC.

    Yasukuni -- which simply as a structure is quite beautiful and reverence-evoking -- is the honored resting place of Japan's large number of fallen soldiers. Unfortunately these include a number of those officially classified as war criminals from WW II. Government leaders and members of the general public in China, and to an only slightly lesser degree South Korea, view Yasukuni as a symbol of Imperial Japan's aggressive cruelty. As a bonus, Americans who visit the "historical" museum at the shrine (as I have done) will note its portrayal of Japan being "forced" into World War II by U.S. economic and military encirclement.

    In short, there is almost nothing a Japanese prime minister could have done that would have inflamed tempers more along the Japan-China-South Korea-U.S. axis than to make this visit. And yet he went ahead. Last month, I said that China had taken a kind of anti-soft-power prize by needlessly creating its "ADIZ" and alarming many of its neighbors. It seems that I was wrong. The prize returns to Japan.

  • Thinking About Iran in 2013, by Thinking About China in 1971

    No historical match-up is neat or perfect, but this one is usefully close.

    Nixon in Beijing, 1972, via Wikipedia

    What follows has no seasonal relevance, unless you consider this the time of Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men. For your background processing during family gatherings and holiday observances, you could try this concept:

    When considering the next steps with Iran, we should think less about Nazi Germany (the frequent P.M. Netanyahu parallel) or North Korea (a parallel often made by opponents of a deal), and more about the China of Chairman Mao. 

    Other people have made this point, but let me lay out the train of reasoning:

    • What happened in 1979. For nearly 35 years, Iran has been at odds with most of the developed world, and China has been interacting with the world. Within the space of a few months in the surprisingly fateful year of 1979, Iranian extremists under the Ayatollah Khomeini took over their country in rebellion against the Shah, his U.S. sponsors, and the West — and Chinese pragmatists under Deng Xiaoping began the series of modernizations whose effects we know so well. These followed the opening of Chinese-U.S. relations that Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong began in the early 1970s.
       
    • The damage of isolation. Iran’s estrangement from the rest of the world has been bad principally for its own people. But it has also been bad for the United States, for world stability in general, and for Israel. Arguably the only beneficiaries, apart from Iran’s governing group, have been Iran’s regional and religious rivals, starting with the Iraq of Saddam Hussein and the current Saudi Arabia.
       
    • The benefits of integration. The world is far better off because of China’s integration rather than exclusion, notwithstanding all the serious frictions that remain. Strictly for reasons of scale, Iran’s re-integration would not be as world-changing as China’s has been. But it would be very important — much more, say, than Burma’s recent switch, or Cuba's eventual one — and on balance would have a positive overall effect on the world: economically, strategically, culturally, and in other ways.

      Because there is no evidence that Iran’s population has been brainwashed into extremism through its outsider era — much less so than with China’s, where the Cultural Revolution had barely wound down when the U.S. re-established relations — Iran’s re-integration with the world would likely be faster and easier than China’s. 
       
    • Regional winners and losers. Although America’s rapprochement with China was clearly beneficial overall, it wasn’t good, or seen as good, for all parties. Even apart from its intended cornering effect on the Soviet Union, it was surprising and threatening to America’s main ally in the region, Japan. (The Nixon-to-China move was one of several “Nixon shocks” that gravely alarmed Japanese leaders.) It was also surprising in South Korea, where U.S. troops were (and are) still stationed along the frontier with China’s main client state, North Korea. And it was seen as nothing less than a life-and-death threat by the Republic of China in Taiwan, since establishing relations with the government in Beijing necessarily meant breaking them with the one in Taipei.
       
    •  “Nixon goes to China.” Because the U.S.-China deal overturned everything that America’s long-dominant, Taiwan-favoring “China Lobby” had stood for, making the deal required sophistication in both domestic and international politics. The cliche about Nixon going to China underscores the importance of Nixon’s anti-Communist reputation. But before the deal he tried to soften up the China Lobby as much as possible — and then he and his successors, Presidents Ford and Carter, overcame it when necessary, especially using business allies to argue that what had been good for the old China Lobby was not necessarily the best course for the United States. 

      In the end, 35 years ago this month, Warren Christopher, as the Carter Administration’s deputy secretary of state, was sent to Taipei. There he was mobbed by enormous angry throngs as he prepared to deliver in person the news that the United States was taking a step that the Taiwan government considered betrayal and that its China Lobby allies in the U.S. had bitterly opposed.
       
    • Bringing this back to Iran. Thus the obvious parallels. With a potential re-engagement with Iran, the United States has a chance to correct a distortion that, if not as harmful as the one with China, has gone on longer. (The U.S. and Mao’s China had been at odds for just over 20 years when Nixon took office, vs. the impending 35th anniversary of the revolution in Iran.) But while an end to the U.S.-Iranian cold war would clearly be beneficial for both those countries and the world at large, it does not immediately help everyone.
       
      A rise in Iranian influence could objectively be threatening to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, as Saudi representatives have not been shy in pointing out. And the current government of Israel has — utterly wrongly in my view, but they’re not asking  — declared the prospect of a deal to be a huge “historic mistake.” Benjamin Netanyahu has every right to see things that way, but the United States has every right to disagree with him and move ahead.
       
    • The next steps: the varying interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. Of course it’s possible that negotiations with Iran will break down. It was never certain that the U.S. and China would be able to paper over their economic, political, and strategic differences well enough to re-establish relations. But it is overwhelmingly in American interests that negotiations succeed rather than fail — and, as Robert Hunter argued in a piece I’ve cited several times, the very fact of the negotiations represents an important step.

      Because American interests lie with the continuation rather than interuption and failure of the negotiations, the poison-pill legislation now being introduced in the Senate should be considered reckless. It is comparable to lumbering the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations with a number of negotiating guidelines known to be unacceptable to the government in Beijing -- which did not occur. And its military provision is quite strikingly different from the guarantee made to Taiwan. Different how?
       
    • The crucial difference in military commitments. A main ongoing source of rancor between the U.S. and China is the Taiwan Relations Act. It is the principal law governing America’s shift from recognizing Taiwan to recognizing mainland China — and, significantly, it was not enacted while the early negotiations were underway. 

      The TRA guarantees that the U.S. will resist any military takeover of Taiwan (obviously by China), and toward that end promises that the U.S. will continue to provide arms to the government in Taipei. Each time this happens, the government in Beijing complains bitterly. But here is the crucial part of that law:
    It is the policy of the United States …
    (4) to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States;
    (5) to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and
    (6) to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.

    (5) if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence;

    • To spell it out, the Taiwan act promised arms of "a defensive character" to protect the island, and said that the United States would resist any resort to force. The Nuclear-Weapon Free Iran act says that if Israel is the first to use force, it will bring the United States along with it. I know of no precedent in U.S. foreign policy for our delegating a war-or-peace choice to some other government. Our NATO and other mutual-defense pacts, and the treaty with Japan, commit the U.S. to defend a country under active attack. This is something different.
       
    • The use and misuse of history. Any historical analogy is imperfect. Usually people cite "lessons" of history to reinforce what they already believe. But because discussions of Iran, Israel, and the nuclear question so often lead to analogies and lessons from Neville Chamberlain and Nazi Germany, it is worth considering this more recent and much better-matched factual case.

      Modern Iran will resemble Nazi-era Germany when it is invading its neighbors one after another, which it has not done; when it is developing the most fearsome attack-oriented military in the world, which it does not possess; and when it has set up a horrific system of internal mass extermination, which it is not doing. The one point of resemblance -- an important one, but one that should not paralyze further reasoning -- is the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric coming from some Iranian leaders, as it had come from the Nazis. That is one similarity; the differences -- in capability, world situation, regional balance of power, and possibility for negotiation -- are more striking and profound.

      And  Hassan Rouhani's Iran will resemble Mao's China in ... well, in the ways mentioned above. The situations are different, but the opportunities and stakes are closer to those Richard Nixon considered in the early 1970s than to those Chamberlain misread in the 1930s. 

    So over the holiday season, reflect on the opportunities and dangers of this moment -- and also the historic mistake that Congressional or other efforts to block the deal might entail. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas to those celebrating tomorrow, and upcoming Happy New Year all around.

  • Another Set of Questions About Syria

    So that Errol Morris does not have to follow his documentaries on McNamara and Rumsfeld with one on the Obama team.

    A few minutes ago I posted the six-step pattern of pro-escalation rhetoric that Eric Martin laid out two years ago. That followed William Polk's lengthy and important 13-question examination of a strike on Syria. 

    Now on the Foreign Policy site, Tom Mahnken has listed six more questions about the administration's rationale and plans. Here's the importance of his list:

    Before Congress approves an attack, it should be sure the administration has a clear answer on each of these points. The public should expect comprehensible answers from the administration too. Not perfect or irrebuttable answers: especially in combat, things develop in unforeseeable ways. But the president should show that at a minimum he and his team have thought through, and can explain, each of these aspects. Mahnken's list:

    1. What objectives does the administration seek to achieve in Syria?
    2. How does it anticipate that the use of force will lead to the fulfillment of those objectives?
    3. What is the administration's theory of victory?  That is, what are the assumptions that link the use of military force to the achievement of victory?
    4. How does the administration believe that Syria will respond to the U.S. use of force?
    5. What does the administration believe could go wrong?  What unexpected things could happen?
    6. And finally, how does the administration anticipate that this will end?

    Now a related note, with bonus Donald Rumsfeld clip, from a reader who until recently worked at a DC organization that is generally pro-intervention in the Middle East. He raises a longer-term concern about what Rumsfeld used to call the "known unknowns":

    Assuming we do decide to intervene in Syria, and we do not destabilize Assad--the White House has explicitly ruled out regime change as a goal of intervention--the best we can hope for is a situation similar to Iraq from 1991-2003. In such a scenario--heavy sanction, regular weapons inspections (which ended in Iraq in 1998), and a no-fly zone--we'd probably have a tenuous 'peace' thru the end of the Obama administration, but there's no guarantee that the next president would support a system that leaves in place a brutal dictator who has shown himself unafraid to use chemical weapons on his own people and has been known to pursue nuclear weapons. The temptation to 'finish the job' might prove too much to resist, particularly if Assad decides to do something like take a shot at one of our jets patrolling the no-fly zone.

    It might sound far-fetched, but mission creep should be a very real concern. I encourage you to take a look at this clip from Errol Morris's new documentary to see how speculation, distrust, and misinformation turned the Iraq sanctions into the Iraq War. It's not hard to see how it could easily happen again.  

     

    Again, it's good for the country, and for the president himself, that he is taking this case to the Congress. Let's hear him answer questions like these, so that Errol Morris does not have to follow his "how did we get this so wrong?" documentaries about Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld with one on Obama and his team.

  • Your Labor Day Syria Reader, Part 1: Stevenson and Lofgren

    "Attacking Syria is simply not in the U.S. national interest; and absent an objective assessment from a neutral inspection team, and absent a UN resolution, the U.S. has no legitimate authority under any law or treaty to act unilaterally. Period." 

    In the wake of President Obama's (welcome) decision to seek Congressional authorization before striking Syria, long-time Congressional defense-policy expert Charles Stevenson offers these guidelines about what Congress should actually do:

    President Obama's request for congressional authorization for retaliatory strikes in Syria creates tough choices for members of Congress. Do they want to assert their constitutional role in war powers by taking decisive action, or do they want to play political games? Does a majority want to support action, oppose it, or try to set limits and conditions?

    The best model for congressional action is the law they passed in 1983 authorizing participation in the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, the only time Congress specifically authorized force under the War Powers Act. Public Law 98-119 has several features that should be part of any measure on Syria:

    • It declared the action is part of the War Powers Act process, thus reasserting that mostly ignored law as a proper basis for action.
    • It limited U.S. military participation to a peacekeeping mission as President Reagan had promised -- that the U.S. forces would not engage in combat.
    • It provided expedited, no filibuster rules for considering subsequent amendments to the law.

    The best test of the Obama policy would be a simple up-or-down vote on a joint resolution authorizing the attack but limiting its purpose and scope.  If that is not enough, if some members want to promote a policy of military aid to the Syrian opposition or a no-fly zone, let them vote on that and abide by the results. If it's too much, let them vote that way and deny the President the support he seeks.

    If Congress can't come together and agree on a common policy, they will forfeit their claims to war powers.

    Another long-time Congressional defense- and budget-policy expert often quoted here before, Mike Lofgren, adds these thoughts:

    1. The administration's declassified intelligence summary of the chemical weapons incident  reads like a White House lawyer's advocacy brief rather than a neutral assessment of evidence. Some of it is just circular reasoning, asserting as fact that which ought to be proven. Also, it uses up a paragraph refuting a hypothetical which was never a significant issue: no serious person, to my knowledge, ever asserted that a gas attack never happened....  Otherwise, the paper says, in effect, "we have the intelligence back-up, but you, the public can't see it. Trust us." That really worked out well in the past, didn't it? 
     
    2. There is at least a non-negligible chance this is a false flag operation (cui bono, of course); also a non-negligible chance it occurred because of a break-down of command and control during a vicious civil war, or because Assad cannot control the actions of some of his allies like Hezbollah. But so what...

    Attacking Syria is simply not in the US national interest; and absent an objective assessment from a neutral inspection team, and absent a UN resolution, the US has no legitimate authority under any law or treaty to act unilaterally. Period. The US Government claims it is upholding international norms; but in so acting it is violating those very same norms. The US has in the recent past violated international norms on aggressive war, torture, rendition of POWs, assassination, use of chemical weapons (phosphorous, napalm, etc.), land mines, ad infinitum. The US acting in this manner is like a serial wife beater judging a case of spousal abuse.

    3. Obama appears to believe he can replicate Bill Clinton's "drive-by shootings" with cruise missiles during the 1990s. They didn't really achieve much, but they did allow the commander in chief to "act presidential," etc. But we know Hezbollah is in Syria, and a US strike could result in Hezbollah's launching missile attacks against Israel. That is a very thinkable scenario, and would automatically transform a limited strike into a very messy regional crisis. Once you cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, the notion of careful calibration is amateurish.
     
    4. Many have criticized Obama's "red lines" statement as poor policymaking, like writing a post-dated check and not worrying whether someone would cash it. Obama was buying time, while simultaneously narrowing his future options. His domestic negotiations proceed exactly like that: he accepted the sequester he didn't want to buy time for the debt limit increase. Obama negotiated with himself on the fiscal cliff deal, and thereby retained the vast majority of the Bush tax cuts when they would have expired anyway.

    Placing the Syria decision upon Congress is wise, given the alternative, but it also amounts to buying time... It only remains to be seen whether Obama is really such a poor politician who can be driven to results he doesn't want (which raises the question of how he won two cut-throat presidential elections campaigns); or, alternatively, if the foreign and domestic political outcomes of the last five years were outcomes he actually wanted.... 
     
    5. There is something troubling but difficult to define at the heart of Obama's performance in office. It was epitomized by his rhetorical display during the March on Washington, at the precise moment his administration was announcing, "we're going to bomb Syria, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop us." And yet there Obama was, trying to gain moral capital by associating himself with Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence, who denounced the Vietnam war in harsh and specific terms.... Perhaps, like Louis Napoleon, Obama is "a sphinx without a riddle," but at all events he is baffling.

    To address Lofgren's question #4: I don't think these results -- sequester and serial debt-ceiling emergencies, Afghanistan surge, Syrian involvement, etc -- were the outcomes Obama was hoping for. So how has he ended up here, despite the skills shown in two presidential-election victories?

    In large part I think it is because of the often-discussed reality that current GOP positioning makes it harder for them to win national elections, but easy to have an outsized obstructionist impact in Congress. "Outsized" through the combination of gerrymandering in the House (Democratic House candidates, as a group, got more votes than Republicans overall, but the Republicans have a big House majority) and filibustering in the Senate. "Obstructionist" because the only perceived threat to most GOP incumbents is from the right. Obama's political skills and instincts are skewed in a similar way: better matched to national elections than to the day-by-day trench warfare of dealing with this kind of Congress. He is strongest where the GOP is weakest, and vice versa.

    Later today, a very detailed overview of Syrian prospects by William Polk -- plus even more from Holland, Michigan! 

  • A Very Wise Decision by Obama

    He moves himself, and the country, out of a corner, with two important choices.

    [Please see hour-later update below. The first part was from real time during Obama's speech.]

    The two crucial parts of his announcement just now:

    1) No rush about doing whatever needs to be done with Syria. This is a punitive rather than a preventive action, which should be undertaken with deliberation and -- if and when it happens -- by surprise.

    2) Recognizing the higher wisdom -- for himself, for the country, for the world -- of taking this to the Congress.

    This is the kind of deliberation, and deliberateness, plus finding ways to get out of a (self-created) corner, that has characterized the best of his decisions. It is a very welcome change, and surprise, from what leaks had implied over the past two weeks.

    When there is a transcript, will do a brief annotation. To appreciate how far we have come, consider the lead front-page headline from the WaPo just yesterday.


    Update: I got a transcript, I spent half an hour going through it all with notations, then our blog system had some kind of glitch and everything disappeared. Dammit. I can't stand to re-do that, so I'll mention a couple of key sentences:

    "The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs [known not to be enthusiastic about another engagement] has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. [Yes! An avoidance of the apparent rush; a recognition that in a punitive raid the advantage of time, and surprise, is on his side.] Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. [The structure of this sentence implying an ellipsis and leaving room for, "or whenever after that."]

    But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I'm also mindful that I'm the President of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. [This and the preceding paragraph, back to back, were the signal that Obama had made the two crucial choices. 1) There's no rush, and 2) involve the Congress.] I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that's why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress. [I stopped listening super-carefully at this point, because the big news was in.]

    Over the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. [And of course Obama understands that even many of those people, plus most of the rest, were actually hoping he would ignore them. That way they could complain about his arrogant imperial overreach now, and meanwhile avoid casting what can only be a difficult vote.] I absolutely agree. [Don't throw me in that briar patch!] So this morning, I spoke with all four congressional leaders, and they've agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session.... And all of us should be accountable [see above. Every single Representative and Senator will either have to vote to support the Administration, or have to explain a No vote the next time Assad gasses someone] as we move forward, and that can only be accomplished with a vote.

    I'm confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors. I'm comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable. [A brush-away that is simultaneously off-hand, polite, reasonable-sounding, and utterly dismissive of the Security Council's uselessness in cases like this. And yet, as a reader pointed out, there is that significant "so far," allowing for the conceivability of a Russian or Chinese change.] ...

    Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. [This sentence deserves lapidary examination. The "I believe" / "I know" pairing, the assertion of presidential prerogative as a segue to requesting Congressional approval, the appeal to the high road. Nicely done.

    We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual. And this morning, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell agreed [When have we seen those ten words in that order? Or will see them again?] that this is the right thing to do for our democracy.

    If we ever resurrect the lost annotation, I'll rework it. The leitmotif was invoking several previous times in which Obama had shifted from lackluster and puzzling to being in command of his powers. Eg politically: the disaster of his first debate against Romney, versus his comeback in debates two and three. Strategically: falling for the Afghanistan surge argument in 2009, and then correcting course and reversing the policy by 2011. And now this: a ten-day period in which he seemed out of control, leading to what is strategically and politically a much wiser course.


    Also, from my friend Charles Stevenson:

    I don't think it's just a coincidence that Obama's request for congressional authorization for force came when, for the first time ever, all four statutory members of the National Security Council were former Senators.

    He is talking about Obama, Biden, Kerry, and Hagel.  

  • Syria: Some Arguments for Intervention, and a Response

    "It is easy to talk ourselves into an exaggerated sense of our own purity."

    Please read the American Futures post I put up late last night, with an intro (and beer reference) here. Then ... back to Syria. Here are a few of the pro-intervention messages that have come in, some of them in the spirit of the man at the right. I'll quote them as is, then make a brief reply at the end.

    1) Five Points Everyone Gets Wrong. That was the subject line on this message from a reader:

    Obama didn't draw the "red line," the world did.
         The entire civilized world has long drawn a red line against using chemical weapons. Obama was merely repeating what the world has already decided. If we attack Syria, it won't be to defend America's (or Obama's) credibility. It will be to defend the entire world's credibility in saying that chemical weapons are  absolutely unacceptable. If we don't respond, it will be open season with chemical weapons anywhere, anytime.

    It's just as important to know what people thought about the First Iraq War as the Second.
         Just as the opinions of hawks who argued for the Second Iraq War are discredited, so are the opinions of doves who argued against the First Iraq War. I've rarely been more embarrassed by my fellow liberal Democrats as when they opposed such a slam-dunk case for going to war. They turned out to be just as wrong as the hawks (liberal and conservative alike) who got us into Iraq. The people I want to listen to are the ones who aren't reflexively pro- or anti-war, but those who look objectively at the facts of each case. Remember, the whole idea of opposing "dumb wars" is that not all wars are dumb.

    We're talking about an "act of war," not "going to war."
         As sympathetic as I am to the military wife who's tired of her husband being sent to fight dumb wars, it's irrelevant. Absolutely no one is talking about boots on the ground. While it's true that acts of war can easily spiral out of control, the situation in Syria is just as likely to spiral out of control without any American intervention as with it.

    Great Britain doesn't decide our foreign policy.
         Frankly, I'm glad that Cameron was embarrassed by his Parliament. He was trying to rush his country to war just as Tony Blair did. But that should have absolutely no affect on our own decisions. If attacking Syria is the right thing to do, it's just as right with or without Great Britain at our side. 

    "Signalling" is the dumbest act of war at all.
         Using military action to make a point is a longstanding bad habit of American presidents of both parties. Assad is not going to be swayed by symbolic actions. If we're going to attack Syria, it should have a true military impact. The best case I've read is to put their airfields out of service, not only so they can't use air power against the rebels but so they can't receive new supplies from Iran. That can't be done with a missile or two, but with a serious effort that is maintained over time.

    2) "We will have lost our moral compass." Another reader:

    I'm totally with you on avoiding dumb wars. I'm no fan of war.

    Yet...

    Do we do nothing when a government uses chemical weapons against its own population?

    If about 1,500 civilians died horribly from sarin or some such equivalent, would taking out a few expensive jet fighters really be that bad?

    The goal: to make chemical-weapons use "not worth it" in Assad's head.

    If the US does nothing, I'll feel we've lost our moral compass in the world.

    So, if there's a good alternative to a limited strike of some sort, I'm all ears! 

    3) And, on "credibility": 

    I don't know about you, but I've been impressed by poli sci arguments that "credibility" is myth. Here is, I think, an important counter to the reading of that research from Jon Western, an academic:
     
    It's pretty clear that the primary objective here is to punish the Syrian regime and deter a future chemical weapons attack in Syria. The Obama administration is focused on a very limited strike and doesn't want to see an outright rebel victory. The logic of this strategic objective makes sense to me.

    I am persuaded by Daryl Press and Jon Mercer's respective works that precedent effects, reputation, and credibility concerns are often overstated. But, their works look at how third-party leaders infer or read other actors' responses elsewhere -- not at how actors respond to bluffs in a particular case. It seems pretty clear that if the U.S. does not punish the perpetrators of this attack, these same perpetrators almost certainly will calculate that they can act again with impunity. And, as we've seen in the past week, the use of chemical weapons quickly changes the international political dynamics.

    In other words, if there is no action now, there will almost certainly be events on the ground that provoke international action later. It's probably not a question of whether, but when, the international use of force happens.  

    Let me respond to the main theme that runs through the "we must draw a line" / "the entire civilized world agrees" contentions. Their premise is that the use of chemical weapons is so heinous and unprecedented that, if allowed to go unpunished, it will change world relations in a disastrous way.

    Minor response: If this is so clearly true, then presumably someone outside the U.S. Executive Branch will agree. Starting with: the U.S. Congress, the U.S. public, NATO, the Brits, the Australians, the Canadians, the European Union, the Arab League. Someone in the civilized world. 

    Major response: The United States has not acted previously as if chemical-weapons use was an end-of-history, line-drawing occasion. Study carefully, please, these recent CIA documents demonstrating -- apparently in a non-disputed way -- that during the Iran-Iraq war of the late 1980s, the U.S. knew that Saddam Hussein was using nerve gas on civilians and did nothing in response.

    Nerve gas was hideous then. Chemical weapons are hideous now. America and other nations should use their enormous might and influence to deter, discourage, and punish their use anywhere. 

    But the idea that in Syria we face an unprecedented challenge to a previously unbroken "norm" -- and therefore have a moral duty to plow ahead regardless of Constitutional procedures, strategic prudence, or the value of assembling international support (as in the first Gulf War) -- that idea just not does stand up to historical examination. I am not introducing a view of the United States as always scheming and hypocritical. I am suggesting some caution about this moment's black/white, "where is our moral compass?" views.

    I have learned to be wary of American international policy in its "we alone must teach the world a lesson" moments. Overall our country has been an enormous force for good, but it is easy to talk ourselves into an exaggerated sense of our own purity. Proceed with caution.

  • The Military as 'Abusive Parent': The View Toward Syria From an Exhausted Army

    "We have continued to face real physical, psychological, financial, social and spiritual consequences for decisions exactly like this one."

    I am violating my normal rules for frequency of posts (average one per day) and variety of subject (have some) because the Syrian news is happening in real time, and because so much response has come in. Here is the background to the very interesting note below.

    1) A reader whose name turns out to be Tim Russo argued for intervention, and said "we don't know war." 2) A serving officer wrote back bitterly. 3) Russo responded to that.

    I won't make this an open-ended back and forth, and you can read Russo's continuing views on his own site. But the note that follows is not personalized, and I think is very much worth reading as we consider another engagement of armed force. (Image of "Exhausted Army" from this site.) A reader writes:

    As an actively serving officer’s wife, I would like to offer a short explanation/response/defense for the frustrated officer (presumably NOT my husband!)[JF note: correct, NOT]  that Mr. Russo responded to.

    I think that the frustration the officer expressed about the clueless “We don’t know war” stems from a general “last straw” feeling in the military community.  Undeniably, any sort of military option in Syria exponentionally increases the risk that we are going to have  a prolonged or extended military action/presence there. The current administration (and Congress, to fairly share the blame) treats service members like disposable minions.

    As Mr. Russo acknowledged *WE* (service members and their family) are the ones who have “known war” but he seems to gloss over that *WE* are the ones who are actually putting lives on the line and families on the backburner to carry out this adventure. Mr. Russo’s initial statement was abrasive in that it echoes the acts (though not the words) of the President and Congress in ignoring the fact that the military members are living, breathing people with mortgages and babies and retirement dreams who have actually faced and continue to face REAL physical, psychological, financial, social and spiritual consequences for decisions exactly like this one.

    Those who don’t follow the Army Times or have active involvement with the military can’t fully appreciate the feelings of frustration, disillusionment and despair that service members feel about everything that is going on, taken as a whole. To sum up everything that I am about to type below: “After everything you are putting us through, why should we go risk our lives for you AGAIN?”

    1)      We have been constantly at war for more than a decade. My own husband has been deployed seven times and is currently getting ready for his fifth trip to Afghanistan (three of his previous deployments were to Iraq). He is not alone (and, frankly, he’s one of the lucky ones who tends to have a year or more in between deployments.)

    2)      During the build up/surge, recruitment needs were such that standards dropped to serious lows. Waivers were granted willy-nilly. As a result, the service ended up with a lot of shiftless thugs who have now served long enough to be in leadership positions (or at least positions where they can be obstructionist and demoralizing).

    3)      The military does everything in its power to keep soldiers deployable, including ignoring injuries and mental health problems. Soldiers basically get two options: quit (and give up your years toward retirement so that you can go in an endless queue and hope that the VA processes your case and gives you treatment) or soldier on in pain.

    4)      The military uses semantics to evade its promises. We are told that troops are being withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. In reality, soldiers are still being deployed and endangered, we just call them “peacekeepers” and “instructors” and “trainers” now.

    5)      Service members are being used as a pawn in the budget fiasco. Troops currently being deployed (for the fourth, sixth, ninth, etc. time) are being told that their tours may stretch one indefinitely due to “lack of funds to train replacements”.

    6)      The Army’s response to budget cutting is to weed out the older/more expensive soldiers before they can retire. Yes, physical fitness standards are important, but the move toward “tightening up” the standards (basically taking away the lower performance requirements for older soldiers) is a sneaky way to screw someone who has fought for the country for eighteen or nineteen years out of his or her pension (in most cases, you don’t get anything if you are even a day short of 20 years).

    7)      Proposed/rumored changes to pensions are extremely worrying. For soldiers in their late 30s and beyond, it is too late to earn a full civilian pension if the Army fails to follow through on its promises.

    8)      Cutting back (or perhaps even eliminating) commissaries, on-post schools and MWR is all on the table (budget-wise), as is lowering the amount of BAH that soldiers get (and don’t forget the proposal to lower the cost of living increase). Tuition assistance is being abolished or curtailed. Also, the furloughing of civilian DoD workers, in most cases, just means that the soldiers put in extra hours to make up the difference. Tricare is being modified to require co-pays. There is a rumor (I haven’t seen this confirmed anywhere) that spouses and children are going to  be kicked off Tricare and forced to purchase their own coverage through the health care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. 

    9)      The civilian hiring freeze makes it next to impossible for military spouses to obtain jobs when we are moved to new posts (trust me- I’m a professional. Moving every three years (sometimes to jurisdictions where my license won’t transfer) has been devastating on my career. I credit divine intervention for landing my current job when we PCSd from Texas. It used to be that well-qualified spouses would sign up at the employment liason office and move smoothly from an office on Fort Wherever to Fort Wherever else- but now we can’t), this puts even more financial pressure on military families.

    All of that being said- Yes, it is a volunteer Army. My husband knew what he signed up for and his commitment to the service is unwaivering. I don’t mean for this to come off as whining (and my husband would probably die if he knew that I sent this e-mail, so please don’t quote me by name)- but all of this, taken together, still leads to a great deal of frustration and wondering whether or not your loyalty is displaced. A very good career officer friend of ours once referred to the Army as an abusive parent. No matter how many times they hurt you or let you down, you still love them. That description feels very apt

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

    Make the case to Congress, and make them vote.

    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.

    More »

  • 'Shut Up, He Explained': More on Syria

    "Credibility is a fraud," and other reader views.

    For those joining us late: I have run a whole skein of posts expressing my own deep skepticism about US/UK military action as a proper signal, punishment, solution, or response to the Syrian disaster. Then I quoted many readers who had a similar point of view. Then a few hours ago I quoted a group of readers making what they considered strong rebuttal cases in favor of intervention. [In keeping with the theme, that's U.S. gas-mask gear from WW II.]

    Let's go for at least one more round.

    (1) I can't resist beginning with a note from a U.S. military officer who has served during the Iraq and Afghanistan eras. He answers reader #8 in the previous batch, who argued that we had to get over the idea that all wars would turn out as badly as the one in Iraq. From the officer:

    In response to the guy who says, in bold
     "We do not know war."
    please let me be the first to say, Fuck you.  We do, in fact, know war.

    (2) About the claim that American credibility over the "red line" is at stake, and will be lost if the U.S. does not respond, a reader writes:

    Here's one obvious question to ask those who claim "credibility" is a reason to intervene in Syria.  When we intervened in Libya, did that have a positive impact on our credibility?  If so, why did Assad decide to use chemical weapons?  Why didn't the credibility from intervening before cause him to refrain?

    The obvious answer is that credibility is a fraud.  Failing to go to the aid of an ally who has been attacked would be a different story.  But simply not acting in a country when you have neither treaty obligations nor real and obvious national interests is not going to do anything.  Except, perhaps, convince the rest of the world that you are daft.

    3) From a reader in Chicago, about the pro-intervention arguments as a whole:

    It seems none of the "for striking Syria" arguments addressed the "anti-strike" side:

    1. America lost its 'credibility' not by taking 'no action' over the past 12 years, but through an ill-advised aggression in Iraq, prolonging a deadly war in Afghanistan and backing Israel right or wrong against Palestinians. Obama drew a dumb line on chemical attacks, but urging him to bomb Syria to restore American 'credibility' by taking yet another non-strategic, military action in the ME is laughable.   

    2. None seriously looked at the potential 'mess' that a strike could cause.  If you think Iraq was a mistake, you have the obligation to carefully weigh arguments the opponents of intervention in Syria make:  intensification of the war, sectarian strife, rataliation against Israel, retaliation against US troops and civilians, massive refuge upheavals in neighborint states, that Hussein was severely isolated in Iraq but Assad still has many followers, etc.

    3.  None addressed the intercept released by the WH in which a commander is outraged at his underling for allowing the massive chemical attack to happen. That doesn't mean the Syrian government is innocent, but it does mean there are question of who ordered the attack, whether it was a rouge act or part of Syrian strategy, etc.  If there is any doubt on these issues, that is reason enough not to attack.  The US puts the entire region at more risk with an impetuous response. 

    4.  Unlike Libya, the Arab League, the UN and general global opinion is against a strike.  The President has no intention of submitting the question to Congress.

    5.  None addressed the historical results of past interventions, from Iran in 1853, Vietnam, as well as above.  The shame of Libya intervention is that we will never know how many lives were saved from Hillary Clinton's potential 'genocide' vs. what the body count was a year after the strikes.

    4) And a constructive suggestion:

    This is what I think about Syria.

    The US can't afford another war.  Can anyone really, given how in debt most countries are these days? 

    However, if this is so unacceptable as to warrant some action and countries are willing to put up money to back said action; it shouldn't be war.  Getting involved in the Middle East has currently been more trouble than was originally thought.  War is not going to solve the problem, it might actually open more opportunities for using the very chemical weapons that are unacceptable.  The main concern is the health and safety of Syria's civilians.  Would it not be better to spend the money on evacuating, helping and protecting it's citizens? 

    Intervening because chemical weapons have been used on civilians (by either side), is intervening for the civilians; it is taking over responsibility for their welfare because their own government cannot, at this moment, provide it.  I think it would be easier to just remove those civilians from the war zone until their government can provide for them better.  It would make more of difference to those people and it would be safer for countries getting involved.  

    I will wrap it up for now by saying that, like this last reader, I am struck that the range of "serious" options under discussion seems to begin and end with bombers vs cruise missiles vs drones,  and not touch on the vast array of other means -- aid, diplomacy, pressure -- through which most of the world's dealings are carried on. (As for this post's title, it is of course an allusion to Ring Lardner, in appreciation of the edge in the officer's response.)

  • Readers on Syria: The Case for Intervention

    "This debate is shameful cowardice based on assuming all men are George W. Bush."

    Obviously I am very skeptical of U.S. military action in Syria. Yesterday I invited readers who held the opposite view to make the case. Here are the results for now, plus some items worth considering from elsewhere.

    1) Ignatius on credibility. David Ignatius, a close friend of mine through most of my life, argues in the Washington Post that "U.S. credibility is at stake" and therefore Obama must make good on his threats. Eg:

    What does the world look like when people begin to doubt the credibility of U.S. power? Unfortunately, we’re finding that out in Syria and other nations where leaders have concluded they can defy a war-weary United States without paying a price.

    I don't see it that way, for reasons I'll elaborate another time, but David Ignatius knows a lot more about the Middle East than I do, and in assessing the situation you should check out his argument.

    2) The chem-bio "norm" must be enforced. From a lawyer:

    If we allow Assad to use chemical weapons without painful military retaliation, he will use them repeatedly. Will the Saudis just stand by or will they arm their Sunni brethren in Syria with chemical weapons too?   What if Assad uses biological weapons?   

    I absolutely oppose American involvement in Syria in any other situation except Assad or any one else's use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Assad must not be given tacit permission by our inaction to use them as a routine, accepted weapon of war. If chemical weapons are acceptable for Assad to use, they could easily become "conventional" weapons of war in the Middle East and elsewhere.

    Will chemical warfare then leak over from Syria to Iraq? And Lebanon? Afghanistan? The Caucasus? 

    3) Similarly on line-drawing and credibility from a reader in the Midwest: 

    Maybe bombings and missile strikes won't cause Assad to change his behaviour one bit, or diminish his military capability, or loosen his grip on power.  But I agree with [Eugene Robinson of the WaPo] that "The president was right to make chemical-weapons use the 'red line' that Assad must not cross."

    And here's the thing: even if you don't believe Obama was right to declare that red line, he did declare it.  That now means his credibility, in front of the whole world, is on the line.  So if military intervention in response to a chemical attack is not a wise policy, the mistake was made when the president made that "red line" declaration.  Now, he has to follow through.

    4) Get real. This is a limited operation. From a reader in Vermont:

    If the Obama administration is proposing to intervene militarily in the war in Syria itself, I haven't heard about it.  All the very well-reasoned cautionary pieces you link to and emails you've published lay out why that would be a terrible idea.  Good.  I agree.

    However, there's no indication whatsoever that that's what the Obama admin. is proposing to do.  In other words, seems to me you all have been doing a splendid job of demolishing a strawman.

    What's actually being discussed in Washington is whether or not to do a punitive strike in response to the use of chemical weapons, and if so, how "robust" it should be.  That's it.  Whack whatever part of Assad's military infrastructure can be whacked with cruise missiles and maybe Stealth bombers without incurring too many civilian casualties, then quit.

    Could we please discuss the pros and cons of that, instead of the pros and cons of something that nobody (except maybe Bill Kristol) is contemplating?  It seems like a good idea to me, but I'd like to hear a sensible discussion of why it might or might not be, and I'm not finding it.

    (I was utterly opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning for all the usual reasons.  I was absolutely in favor of taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan, but then I thought we should get out, leaving behind a stern warning, and let the object lesson stand.)

    5) Geo-strategics, and defending norms. From another reader:

    As a Political Science grad with an emphasis on International Relations, I have two principle reasons for supporting a strike on Assad.

    (1) It is in the material interests of the United States that the war continue.  Assad is a client of Iran and Russia, both of whom have clearly staked out anti-American positions.  At the same time, the majority of his direct opponents are jihadi extremists, imported from Wahabbi hotspots around the globe.  It is in our interest that they continue to kill each other.

    Unfortunately, the decisive intervention of Hezbollah (under orders from Iran) has turned the tide for Assad.  Coupled with his continued air superiority, it won't be long before his forces are victorious.  As mentioned before, this is detrimental.

    (2) The norm against chemical weapons is incredibly important.  Chemical weapons are materially different than conventional weapons for the continued dangers that they pose to seeming survivors of attacks and on those who aid them.  It is comparable to both targeting medics and using radiation packed rounds.  It is in America's self-interest to prevent the normalization of these weapons.  There is, as of yet, no global government.  Only the collective self-interest of nation-states (however hypocritical) can build positive norms.  Failing to enforce them will lead to their breakdown, as has already happened.  Our previous failures, as with Saddam's Iraq, have led to this.  No further.

    Nowhere have I mentioned civilian casualties.  Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent civilian casualties in a war.  People in war zones get killed.  The seeming targeting of a civilian population in the chemical attack is terrible, but not so different, in terms of targeting, then the firebombing of Tokyo or Dresden.

    To be clear, I am not advocated a massive intervention in favor of the rebels.  In fact, that would be against our interests.  We have no idea what the results would be.  The best case, Tunisia, looks both incredibly unlikely and not terribly impressive.  I only advocate for a limited intervention that (1) gives time for the anti-Assad forced to regroup and prolong the war and (2) punishes the regime for its violation of international norms.

    6) Credibility with Israel.  A reader in the U.S. military writes:


    You can imagine that the situation has been extensively discussed hereabouts... A senior officer points out that... "credibility" is about making sure Israel doesn't bomb Iran (where we've been told about "red lines" too). The question is, if a token cruise missile strike in Damascus lowers the imminence of an Israel-Iran war even a little, is that worth it?

    Maybe. I hate the question because it seems like there were better opportunities -- maybe in Egypt -- for the US to flex its muscle in the Middle East. And I think that there's a non-negligible chance that al Assad will try to draw in the Israelis if we strike..
     

     In the same vein from another reader:

    If the President is shown to be bluffing on chemical weapons in Syria, how does this effect, if at all, the Iranian's calculations on the nuclear issue and the President's ability to walk away from his previous statements - which if I recall correctly you hoped he was bluffing, as do I.

     I'm personally more concerned about military action in Iran than a few days bombing Syria to prove a point. Even though I prefer neither happens.

    7) "A half-hearted defense." That was the subject line from this reader, with military experience: 

    I agree that war is messy, it's terrible, and that we should move methodically before committing to it. I agree Congress - the entire body - should have a decision making role in whether or not we go. I agree Iraq was utterly mismanaged, and Kosovo was a mess too. While I believe Afghanistan was justified, and I think we truly have done some good there, we've also flushed a lot of lives and resources away there.
     
    But there is Libya - Obama's other intervention. Yes, it wasn't particularly pretty. And Congress ought to have said something about it. And the result wasn't exactly as we desired. But at the same time, we were a part of a true international coalition, we played a limited role, we made clear objectives, achieved them, and then backed off. That is how intervention can and should happen. And it did. It still wasn't clean. It can be messier, and I fully expect it will in Syria. But it was done well.
     
    Now as to why Syria? IF we are a part of a partnership of shared resources, but with clear roles and a clear chain of command (with a Supreme Allied Commander), AND our President receives Congressional approval, I think the motivation to act should exist for two reasons:
     
    1) It is in the United States' national interests to prevent use of NBC weapons
    2) It is morally the right thing to do to prevent an army from massacring a civilian population
     
    Number two needs little explanation, with only the determination of "what makes Syria different from Egypt/Rwanda/etc.?" And the answer is partially NBC weapons - nuclear, biological, chemical. Why does that make it in the United States' interest? Because with conventional weapons, the US has a strategic advantage. With NBC weapons that advantage is considerably less. And so we make them taboo. And we enforce that taboo in an unstable country surrounded by other unstable countries to prove that we will not tolerate their use.
     
    Obviously, I want a lot of things to happen. In addition I'd like it if funding and manning were put in-line with mission requirements (which isn't going to happen with the current Congress). I think that ought to be a pre-requisite to going to war - deciding how you plan to fund it and the rest of the government.
     
    But I don't think it's unreasonable for us to go to war in Syria. I am cautious, I am skeptical, but I am open to it.
     

    After the jump, a more whole-hearted case for intervention, and a sarcastic one. 

    More »

  • Readers on Syria: Stay Out

    A different red line President Obama could draw.

    We'll get back to our ongoing American Futures journey later today. [Please check out the latest installment, this morning from Rapid City, SD.]

    I'll confess that in our stopover in DC, after three weeks away, the most startling change has been the sudden taken-for-granted assumption that it's time for another war and the only questions are the details, as reflected in this post today by my Atlantic colleague Garance Franke-Ruta. Yes, I'm aware of the chemical-weapon news that triggered this shift, and of President Obama's unwise earlier declaration of a "red line" necessitating attack. But America's strategic interests haven't been turned upside down in a handful of days, nor its economic and budgetary challenges, nor the can of worms inevitably opened by any war-of-choice.

    In recent installments I've argued that "surgical" or "standoff" strikes never are as neat and clean as planned; that the people stumping hardest for attack are the very ones whose track record should disqualify them for further public comment on national-security judgment calls; and that it is the height of both strategic and political folly for President Obama to take this step without involving Congress. Now, from the readers.

    First, from a businessman in the Midwest:

    I confess to being a staunch opponent of both our Afghanistan and Iraq wars, so I come with bias.  Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me (a small but very well-traveled international businessman with no formal training in international policy) that US intervention in Syria will exponentially increase all the bad will we have carelessly spread world-wide for the past decade.

    You can trust me when I tell you I get an earful every time I travel in Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and virtually anywhere where educated people wonder what the hell the US was thinking during the Cheney Administration (intentional sic). [JF note: I trust you. This is my experience in those countries too.]

    Thanks for telling the idiots to cool it.  We can do no possible good in Syria, but we can certainly do a hell of a lot of bad if we get involved.

    Now, a reader in California:

    It seems like the perfect time for Obama to make another heart-felt soaring speech about why he is NOT going to interfere in Syria.  That's the red line he should draw. 

    He needs to say that we keep being pulled into conflicts in the Middle East and it's not going to solve anything and in fact is likely to make things worse, there and here.... It seems to me we have this military so we keep using it. 

    Another reader in the Midwest:

    In addition to declaring war, the Constitution also relegates another power to Congress:

    "The Congress shall have power... To define and punish... Offenses against the Law of Nations... To declare War... To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces..."

    The "define and punish" part is quite interesting, I think. That's exactly what we're talking about here, no? The “define” step is already completed, with the U.S. as signatory to the Geneva Conventions and other conventions on use of chemical and biological weapons, but the “punish”? That's not defined in any meaningful way and that should be precisely Congress's role here...

    While I agree that Obama’s “red line” statement was critical to where we find ourselves now, I really am not sure that he had a better option at the time. Yes, he had other options, e.g. not saying anything, but were those better options? Imagine if he had not said anything about attacks with unconventional weapons by the Syrian government forces.

    Can you imagine the outcry from the bulldog right after the recent attacks? Because I sure can: “Obama’s silence enables and encourages tyrannical and oppressive government to kill and suppress their people!”... This isn’t to say that I think the “red line” comment was well advised, but I don’t think it’s quite as poorly advised as it may seem without looking at the possible negative scenarios.

    A reader in the Southwest said that I cited Eisenhower but, "for younger or non-history buff" readers, I should have spelled out what I meant. Here goes:

    As the five-star Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, Dwight Eisenhower led what was then the strongest military force in world history. As president, he was extremely cautious about where and when he committed U.S. troops -- a kind of precursor to what, before Iraq, we thought of as the Powell Doctrine. Thus Eisenhower:

    • declined to rescue the French, at Dien Bien Phu in 1954;
    • declined to rescue the British and French and Israelis, in Suez in 1956;
    • declined, in the most heartbreaking case, to rescue the Hungarian Freedom Fighters before the Soviets crushed them, also in 1956;
    • declined to send troops to resist Fidel Castro's rebels in the late 1950s;
    • was chary of big U.S. commitments in the former French colonial territory of Vietnam and Laos.

    Of course his record, like everyone's, was complex. In 1958 he sent a sizable U.S. troop deployment to Lebanon for three months, to shore up a pro-Western government. And it was under Eisenhower and his CIA director Allen Dulles that the U.S. engineered the famous anti-Mosaddegh coup in Iran 60 years ago this month -- as the agency has finally confirmed.  Still, Eisenhower was no one's idea of a modern neocon, or liberal hawk. When in doubt, he declined to intervene.

    This same reader makes a political point:
    A very bad decision and a mess will terminally impact both Biden and Clinton as successors to Obama.
     
    A candidate to Clinton's left will attack her lack of engagement and process in the Middle East during her tenure as fecklessness.

    One more long reader-message after the jump, and then an invitation.

    More »

  • Here's a Wild Idea About Syria: Make the Case to Congress

    It would be better for America if Congress had to consider the arguments for military action. It would be better for Obama too.

    Now that I think about it, I kind of see how that could happen. You bomb a country, and the next thing you know you are pulled into a war. Good thing we have experts to help us connect the dots. 

    (Actually, apart from the Onion-esque headline, the contents of this front-page piece from today's WaPo are excellent, based on interviews with real military experts about the unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences of "limited" and "surgical" military actions.)

    Here's a note just now from another genuine expert, my friend and one-time teacher Charles Stevenson, long of the National War College and the Senate Armed Services Committee staff: 

    I share your concerns about the consequences of punitive strikes against Syria -- too weak to change the military situation yet making America militarily involved with all manner of risky consequences.
     
    I don't believe the President really needs congressional approval for a deliberately short and limited set of attacks on Syria, though he obviously should consult with congressional leaders. I also doubt that the current Congress could give advice and consent in a timely or coherent way, given the hyperpartisanship there and its failure to do more than bluster at the time of the Libyan raids.
     
    On the other hand, I'm pleased that Britain, which lacks our explicit constitutional provisions for war powers, is still going to have a parliamentary vote on the issue. I wish we would do the same.

    To Stevenson's proposal in the third paragraph: No kidding. And Obama himself should be the first to grasp the point. Completely apart from the procedural nicety of involving the rest of the government in authorizing the use of force, he has a compelling political interest in spreading the responsibility for this decision.

    Even if Obama has already made up his mind to launch a strike, and even if that operation goes perfectly, something about it will go wrong. Messages will get blurred and bungled; the fog of war will interfere; innocents will be killed. How many people planning the bomb-Serbia campaign in 1999 imagined that it would create a crisis between the U.S. and China, because of the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade?

    Obama can't know what exactly will happen if he launches a strike. But he should know, for sure, that even the cleanest intervention will bring mistakes, tragedies, and eventual blame. Therefore it should be 100% in his interest to share responsibility for the decision before it is solely his. As Charlie Stevenson points out, the Brits don't have to do this, but the Cameron government is bringing it to a vote. Of course that works more easily in a Parliamentary system, where he can rely on a disciplined majority, than in our current dysfunctional mess. But it makes sense in any democracy, even ours. 


    UPDATE: Please also read William Pfaff's analysis of the terrible trap Obama created for himself with his "red line" statement last year. Heart of the argument:

    When Barack Obama foolishly remarked last fall that if the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria made use of chemical weapons... it would cross a “red line” so far as the American government was concerned. His statement implied that the United States is in charge of international war and peace.

    The obvious threat was that the United States would intervene in the war. How it would intervene, with what means, to what objective, he did not say.... 

    One assumes that in speaking so casually and recklessly about a red line in Syria, President Obama failed to grasp -- how could he have done so? – that he was handing his Republican and neo-conservative opponents a primed bomb with which, as they certainly instantly understood, they could destroy him politically if there were a chemical attack and Mr. Obama did not go to war in Syria.

    He was doing something else. He was giving the same bomb to any other international actor who might seek advantage in an American intervention in Syria that would spread the war, possibly to President Assad’s regional allies, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, already active clandestinely.... 

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