The Washington Post's Frivolous Call for War in Syria

By Conor Friedersdorf
syria arming rebels.jpg
Reuters

The Washington Post titled its Wednesday editorial "The U.S. should examine allegations of chemical attack in Syria." But that is hardly where its argument ends. If it turns out that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on rebels, the newspaper wants America to respond with war.

Or to quote the euphemisms they used (emphasis added):

A White House statement issued Wednesday did not repeat the president's vow of no tolerance. Instead, it said that "those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable," as if the matter could be handled by a criminal investigation. The administration urged the Syrian government to cooperate with a U.N. team that is already in Damascus to investigate previous chemical weapons incidents. It would be unprecedented for the Assad regime to comply.

The United States should be using its own resources to determine, as quickly as possible, whether the opposition's reports of large-scale use of gas against civilians are accurate. If they are, Mr. Obama should deliver on his vow not to tolerate such crimes -- by ordering direct U.S. retaliation against the Syrian military forces responsible and by adopting a plan to protect civilians in southern Syria with a no-fly zone.

Directly attacking Syrian troops, bombing Syrian air defenses, and grounding Syria's air force is war. Set aside the unsurprising fact that the newspaper didn't call on Congress, the branch vested with the power to declare war -- how quaint and provincial to imagine it might work that way!

What I want to focus on is the frivolity of this particular call for war. It isn't that any call for war against Syria would be automatically frivolous. As much as I would oppose American involvement, civilians in the country are suffering horribly. I recognize every outcome is sure to be awful. 

There are hawkish cases I can respect even if I disagree with them.

At the same time, waging war is the most serious thing a country can do. How to advocate for one responsibly? Well, call it by its name, to start. And rather than ending your argument with retaliate and establish a no-fly zone, as if that would be the end of the matter, a responsible argument would grapple with the consequences of the course of action being breezily recommended.

What would happen as a consequence of the U.S. directly attacking Syrian troops? Does the Post editorial board have any idea? Do they somehow find the question irrelevant? I don't get it.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says a no-fly zone in Syria could cost $1 billion a month, and that the risks "include the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces. It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires -- mortars, artillery, and missiles."

He went on to warn:

We have learned from the past 10 years... that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime's institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.

The Post didn't deem the costs of war, the risk to the Americans who'd wage it, whether it would improve things on the ground, the likely long term effect on Syria, or the risk of being drawn into a quagmire worth addressing. They didn't even tip off readers that these are concerns. Nor did they treat war as something to be debated and voted on by the people's representatives.

They treated war as something to tack onto the end of an editorial for a bit of oomph in the last lines; as something quickly and easily undertaken -- that doesn't demand that implications be carefully considered.

An editorial board should never treat war so frivolously.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/08/the-em-washington-posts-em-frivolous-call-for-war-in-syria/278939/