Pros and Cons of the Syrian Missile Strike

There is nothing at all uncomplicated about the crisis in Syria—to the point that I find it difficult to say anything meaningful about it. That is to say, I spent a lot of time stopping and deleting what I had written. Below are my thoughts, strewn in a mess, roughly to the effect that I am somewhat frustrated by the general liberal response, but more frustrated by the strike itself. There are plenty of understandable ethical, legal, and political reasons to oppose targeted strikes, in principle and in practice, as well as to support them circumstantially, which is where I tend to fall. Even so, I am put off by arguments that suggest the correct course of action is somehow apparent because of some dogmatic belief for or against targeted military strikes. The circumstances, the long-term effects, and the motivations which surround any strike matter. And so I definitively oppose Trump, May, and Macron’s choice to strike Assad as they have done. Anyway…

Given the lack of clear constitutional authority to use military force, on principle President Trump’s actions are hard to justify. Last year, I argued much the opposite; however, as I’ve thought more about the need for congressional approval of any armed conflict, I’ve become convinced that we as a people have become complacent about the encroaching presidential prerogative to use force in situations which may embroil us in a long-term conflict. For instance, it’s easy to imagine a military strike in Syria going sideways and escalating into war with Russia or Iran, something to which no one person should be able to unilaterally commit the country. Our Founders understood that a president in political jeopardy, or who just hopes to score political points (though I doubt they would have used such a phrase), might work to utilize the glory always attached to war to save or bolster his political career—what may be exactly what’s happening now—which is why they gave the power to declare war to Congress. Furthermore, the authorization of military force given by Congress, in the wake of 9/11 which is nominally used to justify our efforts in Syria, has been stretched beyond meaning, and it is simply disingenuous to imagine it was intended to be used in this way or that its plain text allows it to be.

Additionally, the clear lack of interest the administration and its analogues in France and the UK have shown in seeking any kind of support in the UN is disappointing. Obviously, Russia would veto any kind of authorization of force against Syria in a Security Council vote. But making the case to the UN, even if quixotic, must be done if we are to imagine ourselves as a member of the world community, as opposed to its unreliable vigilante enforcer. And while nonbinding, a vote of support in the general assembly would matter. The US, the UK, and France cannot act like lawless cowboys, if for nothing else than because it offers an implicit justification for other nations to intervene unjustly in like fashion with less moral authority.

At the same time, many arguments I’ve seen against the strike are at times underwhelming. When we talk about the evils of bombing a decently sized country such a Syria, we often forget that these targeted strikes aren’t a wholesale military bombardment. We’re not carpet-bombing their major cities, we’re not engaging in a large-scale operation. And so I wonder if we problematically reduce a whole country to a single imagined point in space, something we can only do from a(n imperializing) distance. That is to say, just as conservative hawks discount the full repercussions of military force—for instance, they tend to undervalue the heinousness of civilian deaths, something I would never want to fall prey to—because they don’t see a foreign, subaltern country as full or worthy of deep thought, liberal doves do much the same work when they talk about how we’re “bombing a people already bombed by its government”. Once we know the extent of civilian causalities (as well as military casualties, whose deaths we also tend to discount), we can better assess these claims, but in the abstract, doves also reduce the country—to its most easily empathized pieces, as though a strike on an abandoned airbase (as was last year’s) were a strike on a hospital. Our sense of scale, from a distance and often aligned with an imperial behemoth, is always askew, and we shouldn’t conflate a strike on an airbase, for instance, a strike against a chemical weapons plant, or a strike against a terrorist camp, with a strike on a refugee camp. At the same time, I’ll be the first to admit that military discourse often does similar work in reverse, acting as though attacks in a refugee camp can, through mental acrobatics, be self-servingly reclassified as an attack on a terrorist cell because a single suspected terrorist might have died among dozens of civilians, and so we have every right to be skeptical. But not to be reductive.

Obviously, people I respect often ask what gives the US, the UK, and France the authority to use force against any country. As I argue above, there is no legal authority to my knowledge, which is a gross shame. At the same time, the quietist position offered here by liberal doves is truly concerning. If Assad were gassing his people by the tens of thousands, would they still argue for inaction? Would the impossibility, due to Russia’s veto, of binding sanction by the UN thus necessarily—and acceptably for them—foreclose any possibility for intervention? The moral authority to intervene to protect innocent people when the (world’s still nascent international) law is unable to do so, even when illegal, bears some consideration. The immediate responding question would likely be, “What innocents do we protect by a random and inconsistent string of military strikes, which themselves cause very little logistical strife to the offending nation(s)?” It’s a question with whose premises I largely agree—our strikes of determent are often more for show to civilians at home and not actually aimed at determent at all. We should be more consistent in our use of force, ideally through the UN but also through other international communities, and we should more heavily inflict logistical consequences—although how to do so without increasing casualties, once again both civilian and military (who are often as much imbricated by political forces against their wills as civilians), is a heck of a question. In an ideal world, our use of target strikes would deter a figure like Assad from using chemical weapons ever again. More importantly, however, it would act to deter other would-be genocidal despots. Because our use of force is inconsistent and often only token, we’ve failed in both parts of that mission—Assad has been undeterred, and likely will remain so going forward, and other human rights abusers know the consequences tend to be small and rarely dealt and thus know they can likely act with (near) impunity. This is a structural failing, by the US, the UN, and the global community. However, if one truly believes in the necessity of avoiding genocides and crimes against humanity, it’s difficult to imagine any alternative than some sort of strong response to the use of chemical weapons, as well as other weapons of mass destruction. The form of that response, when diplomatic and economic tools prove ineffective or equally morally defective (like, is it truly super-duper ethical to endorse the starvation of millions of North Korean civilians due to international sanctions?), sometimes must be military in nature. Otherwise, we implicitly authorize the use of such weapons, both now and in the future.

On the whole, then, I am not in principle opposed to strikes against Assad. The price the Syrian people and the wider world has paid for our inaction is impossible to estimate. Had we intervened at the start of the conflict, no matter how messily, would things have devolved to this degree? It is increasingly clear to me at least that the situation has only worsened with time, and so I wonder how long we can wait until the world is forced to do /something/. Thus far, we have largely demurred, due to the complexities of the problems and the impossibility of any clear, just answer. How long we will continue to be able to do so is anyone’s guess. And while it is totally imaginable that our early intervention could have led to a situation much like Iraq, or that present intervention would also lead to commensurate catastrophes, inaction is not without its own cost. If Iraq has been our dark lesson in overeager action, Syria seems like a lesson in reticent inaction. Dogmatically choosing one strategy to use across time and circumstances, either living as a hawk or a dove, would therefore prove disastrous in the long-term, and so I am opposed to the blanket opposition offered to any and all intervention in Syria no matter the situation or context.

At the same time, due to its ineffectual nature, the disinterest in UN involvement, the lack of constitutional authority, and the presence of Donald Trump as commander-in-chief, in practice this strike deeply troubles me. I do not trust Trump to make these decisions, and the further he implicates us in this predicament, the more challenging the obstacles he will face and the more likely he is to tumble us into deep and lasting war. Consequently, while I am somewhat nonplussed by anyone who imagines that Trump is acting as bellicosely as Clinton evidently would have—which is a common thread I’ve seen online, people mocking that one headline “Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk”, as though Clinton wouldn’t have committed more force to Syria that Trump has (something I, again, would have likely supported her in, with probable qualms)—I agree with the host of people I follow online that Trump lacks the temperament or the capacity to lead us through this crisis. While there is a clear call to action, even had he and our allies made their case to the UN, even had Congress voted to approve targeted strikes, even were the strike more thoughtfully placed, I am more and more and more opposed across the board to Trump’s use of force, even in situations where I might otherwise support it. There is, as I have said, a cost to inaction—one that in general I am loathe for the world to pay. But in this situation, with this American president, I am much more conflicted and much less convinced.

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The Unraveling of Donald J. Trump

The most depressing thing about the careening White House is the way that many Republican lawmakers continue to hope that, eventually, President Trump and his administration will right the ship and return the country to business as usual. What they continue to purposefully ignore, perhaps for their peace of mind or perhaps for their conscience, is that these scandals, these indiscretions, these acts which increasingly border on the illegal—if not the treasonous—are getting worse. They are not getting better.

That is, indeed, Trump’s modus operandi, to up the ante and to increase tension, confusion, or what have you, in order to distract his audience and to complicate the narrative. What’s more, Trump’s recent decisions to fire James Comey and to share classified information with the Russians speak deeply to the President’s inability to act rationally, instead of emotionally. Both decisions indicate the President’s trust in his own gut, optics or strategy be damned, and his need to be the biggest dog in every room he’s in. He fired Comey because Comey refused to pledge loyalty, refused to quiet the Russian investigation, refused to back him up on Trump’s Obama-wiretap claim. A day later, he bragged to the Russians about how much he knows, giving himself credit for the vast and monumental intelligence infrastructure our nation has constructed, only then to prove how much he knows by sharing an incredibly sensitive secret that the Russians had no right to know—a secret we had, as of then, failed to even share with some of our closest allies.

These breaches in our political norms are reaching ever closer to being breaches in our constitutional law. Such a breach, it seems to me, is becoming day by day increasingly inevitable. His actions are, echoing Bob Corker, spinning his administration out of control. And yet, there is no end in sight, and no reason to think such an end is ever coming. It’s only a matter of time until Trump truly goes too far—so far that even the most reticent Republicans will know their damnable place in history if they continue to stand by him.

How I Learned to Start Worrying and Fear the Bomb

A long post describing why some kind of intervention, military or diplomatic, is desperately needed re: North Korea, and why we should avoid conspiracy theories on the subject:

Across social media, I have seen two recurrent themes when people discuss the North Korean debacle. The first is that they do not understand why the White House is escalating things now—i.e., many are unsure what the point is. The second theme is an answer to the first, namely the suggestion that Trump and the administration are racketing up to war in order to improve his approval ratings. This theory tends to point toward Syria, and the suspect (short-term) boost in his ratings—although, in reality, said boost was more like a blip, and seems to have had little lasting power. Regardless, this line of thought suggests that Trump does not actually care about Korea, nor do his generals, nor does his State Department—they are, instead, inventing a crisis for no discernable reason other than self-interest.

I can’t speak to what the Administration is trying to accomplish. Honestly, I’m not even sure they know what they’re trying to accomplish. However, I do want to address and push back against those who do not see North Korea as a crisis point and who are suspicious of the sudden interest paid to them now.

Most of my followers do not remember a time before the Korean War. Indeed, almost all of us have spent our entire lives with the reality of the North Korean dictatorship, to the point that it seems a natural part of geopolitics and world affairs. From movies that make fun of the regime—there have been many—to jokes about the differences between “good” and “bad” or “naughty” Korean, we can see that people have never acknowledge any potent reason for Americans to worry about the situation. Or, rather, we can see that the combination of North Korea’s normalcy (given that we have always been at war with North Korea, but have not paid the price for said war in generations) and the inconsequential stakes (what’s the worst they can do to us, after all) leads to a feeling of disinterested or humorous engagement with the North Koreans.

This laissez-faire mindset concerning North Korea, so thoroughly entrenched in American society for decades, is both wrongheaded and dangerous.

First, I am distressed that many of the same people who have posted so emotionally about the horrors of the Syrian Civil War, the kind of people who post “Never again” with deep earnestness, are now so sure that the Administration could have no reason to despise North Korea’s government. In simple terms, the North Korean government with its dictatorial withholding of basic human rights from its population of over twenty million people is the longest lasting fully authoritarian state in world history and likely one of, if not the single, worst crimes against humanity ever. When we read or see accounts of people living in this truly police state, you must—or at least, I must—realize that this is a degree of dehumanization rarely seen on such a large scale anywhere else in history. The causalities may be lower than those caused by Germany, the Soviet Union, and Japan, I don’t know, but the degree to which the government controls each and every facet of everyday life is chilling and without precedent. There has never been so effective a police state with such a degree of success in operating its authoritarian power structure for so long ever before. We are numb to this fact because it has always been a part of life for us, but when you judge the US for not intervening in World War II sooner, for not attending to the Holocaust, for not stopping whatever pet human rights disaster you happen to be passionate about, realize that we have all accepted and been silent in the face of true and prolonged evil. The United States has allowed the continuance of a corrupt, despotic, demonic state for over half a century.

There have been many pragmatic reasons for doing so, of course. The USSR and China limited our ability to intervene, as did the apathy expressed worldwide and at home during and after our stint in armed conflict. Moreover, since North Korea acquired nuclear technology, we have felt unable to do anything for fear that it might cause imminent and unimaginable destruction in South Korea. These are legitimate reasons for failing to act, I think, but they do not mitigate or erase the immorality of inaction; they should not allow us to feel righteous or accomplished, as we have allowed this denial of basic human rights and basic human needs to continue.

The situation at present, however, is due to change. While North Korea has repeatedly failed in its missile launch attempts, eventually they will have the technology to threaten major cities in China, Japan, and someday the United States. When that day comes, military action will become totally impossible, and diplomatic action even more meaningless. At present, the causalities from an attack by North Korea would be without precedent; in ten or twenty years at the most, such an attack could be worldwide and catastrophic—a word that hardly does justice to the potential destruction. It is not a matter of “if” the North Koreans will develop the technology for long-range nuclear missiles. It is a question of “when”. Moreover, it is not currently within our knowhow to stop such a missile as it approaches—Reagan’s dream of a Star Wars–like system to intercept incoming missiles remains a dream, and it likely will long past the North Korean invent of nuclear ICBMs.

Continuing to avoid action, as the United States has since the end of the Korean War, would be to voluntarily allow such a disaster to come to pass. Because once the North Koreans have the ability to nuke a major US city, the chances of such an attack likely grow toward inevitable the longer our dysfunctional relationship and their governmental instability continue. This is not to mention the risks involved if their government crumbles.

Simply put, we are running out of time to disarm North Korea. Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama have failed us in this key way, and the longer we wait, the greater the chances of nuclear holocaust become. This does not mean I endorse the Trump administration’s actions thus far. But I do think we, the public, misread them when we continue under the assumption that there is no reason to rush a solution on the Korean peninsula.

Indeed, there is every reason.

And so, while I do not trust Trump or his team any more than his worst critics, I do understand the rhetoric used by Tillerson and Trump when they talk about how American patience has run out and when they admit that a largescale war may be coming. Because unless we do something soon, even if that something is indescribably destructive, if we fail to act, someday soon the North Koreans will be able to hold our country and the world hostage. They will have the power to initiate widespread destruction, destruction on a scale inconceivable since the fall of the Soviet Union: Except unlike the Soviets, the North Koreans have proven themselves to be mercurial, unreliable, and—frankly—irrational. Simply put, they will likely go from threatening the security of South Koreans to threatening the lives of billions worldwide.

I don’t know what the solution is. And I’m terrified that Trump and his team seem bent on solving it themselves. But I hope that the next time you share a conspiratorial post about how Trump is simply trying to improve his approval ratings, or the next time you make a joke about North Korea, or the next time you insert a comment about how stupid the Administration is acting, you first take a moment to reflect on the future stakes of inaction. And I hope you realize, as I have come to realize, how complicated the situation is, how terrible the choices before us are, and how worried we all should be.

Temperamental, Not Presidential

When will members of the media give up and accept that a seventy-year-old playboy’s entire personality is not going to suddenly change into George Washington’s?

An important reminder for many. I’ve been disgusted by how fawning many members of the media have been concerning Trump and Syria. I’ve been open about supporting the missile strike, but I also want to be open about how freaking stupid I think it is to say the president is somehow more presidential now because of a military show of force. Did we learn nothing from the leadup to the Iraq War?

When will members of the media give up and accept that a seventy-year-old playboy’s entire personality is not going to suddenly change into George Washington’s? He is who he is, and if anything, his sudden willingness to abandon one of his few consistently held positions just because he saw some pictures of suffering should terrify us. Anyway…

“’Guest after guest is gushing. From MSNBC to CNN, Trump is receiving his best night of press so far,’ wrote Sam Sacks, a Washington podcaster and journalist. ‘And all he had to do was start a war.’

Why do so many in the news media love a show of force?

‘There is no faster way to bring public support than to pursue military action,’ said Ken Paulson, head of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center.

‘It’s a pattern not only in American history, but in world history. We rally around the commander in chief — and that’s understandable.’

Paulson noted that the news media also ‘seem to get bored with their own narrative’ about Trump’s failings, and they welcome a chance to switch it up.”

All of this is made worse by reports suggesting that the driving force behind Tump’s decisions was Ivanka’s own emotional response to the chemical attack.

 

Syrian Strategy or Syrian Tragedy?

Trump does not seem to be racketing up toward war, nor does his administration seem to be signalling any interest in a ground invasion. And so comparisons to the Iraq War, while of course well intended, seem to me increasingly rather asinine.

People continue to speculate on what Trump’s Syrian missile strike means for Trump’s longterm Syrian strategy. What I think many continue to miss, however, is that the administration has signalled little change in regard to their longterm strategy.

What has changed, per Nikki Haley, seems to be the administration’s take on chemical weapons. The missile strike was clearly meant as a limited, symbolic response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. This is obviously the case, given the warnings made to Russia that such a strike was incoming. Thus, we can see that the Trump administration, rather than offering a longterm strategy, hoped merely to signal that there must be no further use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict.

I am distressed by the monolithic thinking that this strike has revealed among many critics of the administration. One missile strike a war does not make. Such a strike, indeed, seems to be as concise and as tactical as countless others taken by the Bushes and especially by Clinton. Trump does not seem to be racketing up toward war, nor does his administration seem to be signalling any interest in a ground invasion. And so comparisons to the Iraq War, while of course well intended, seem to me increasingly rather asinine.

Yes, we still need a longterm strategy in regard to Syria. And, honestly, it needs to be more robust than Trump has hitherto offered and more aggressive, I think, than Obama was ultimately willing to admit. Congress must be consulted. But in the end, it would be a travesty of human rights were we to allow a brutal dictator, who has repeatedly used chemical weapons, to return to power.

For the nonce, however, I hope this will force Assad’s hand away from continued war crimes.

A Just(afiable) Missile Strike?

If you ask me, the use of chemical weapons, by any country, cannot be allowed and must be responded to with due force.

This is a hard post to write.

Many of the same people who posted incessantly about Aleppo as it fell are now suggesting that Trump is in the midst of starting WWIII by blowing up an airfield. This is, of course, the airfield where the chemical attack was staged. The chemical attack, I would add, that broke both international norms and law, as well as insulted fundamental human decency. In short, it was a crime against humanity.

There are many reasons to be skeptical of military actions taken by any president, especially actions taken by the inexperienced President Trump. But, there is no reason to reject out of hand all actions taken by President Trump, especially those which we would welcome, or at least accept, from any other president.

This seems to have been a symbolic, rather than debilitating, response to the atrocious and criminal actions taken by the Assad regime earlier this week. If you ask me, the use of chemical weapons, by any country, cannot be allowed and must be responded to with due force. If anything, because this display of force will hardly impact the Assad war effort, I am slightly underwhelmed.

As I have wrote this post, Trump gave a statement in which he correctly argued that it is America’s interest, and in the interest of all civilized nations, to “prevent and deter the spread and use of chemical weapons.” He expressed clearly and, to be frank, eloquently this solemn truth. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

I don’t know what the impact of this attack will be–I suspect, given its small scale, there won’t be much of one. But it is a message to Assad that if he continues to use chemical weapons, we will continue to increase our military response. It is a message to the world that the United States will not stand for the use of chemical weapons.

I’ve written before about the death of principle-based politics around the world. So many of us have turned to cast our votes not based on which candidate’s vision is most moral or just, but instead on who will help us most economically. As I finish this post, I am bemused to offer praise to the man who has most epitomized that trend for me, one who has now taken much needed moral action in the face of unimaginable horror.

Trump’s North Korea Rhetoric: Instability and/or Insanity

For the first time in my lifetime, the ones driving us toward war on the Korean peninsula are not the North Koreans, but instead our very own government.

I don’t think Tillerson or Trump has any real interest in a sustained war. What they’re probably hoping for, moronically, is that putting active war back on the table will scare North Korea into submission. Trump, no doubt, believes that the only reason the conflict has not been resolved sooner is the lack of sufficient force former presidents were willing to bring to bear on the situation.

For the first time in my lifetime, the ones driving us toward war on the Korean peninsula are not the North Koreans, but instead our very own government.

I don’t think Tillerson or Trump has any real interest in a sustained war. What they’re probably hoping for, moronically, is that putting active war back on the table will scare North Korea into submission. Trump, no doubt, believes that the only reason the conflict has not been resolved sooner is the lack of sufficient force former presidents were willing to bring to bear on the situation.

Maybe they’re right. But if North Korea takes this as bait and commits a military offensive, even accidentally, on South Korea or Japan, it would likely lead to the largest military conflict any of us have ever seen.

People ignore this, for whatever reason, but North Korea has one of the largest armies in the world. Notwithstanding their nuclear weapons, in terms of number of soldiers, any kind of military engagement would mobilize millions on a scale unseen since World War II. Regarding active personnel, North Korea has ~1,190,000 soldiers compared to America’s ~1,492,200 and South Korea’s ~630,000. Other than India, the only other country in the world with as many soldiers is China, another possible participant, at ~2,333,000. When you consider reserve and paramilitary forces, these numbers grow to ~7,679,000 (NK), ~3,364,000 (USA), ~6,604,500 (SK) and ~3,503,000 (CH), respectively.

To put that in perspective, there are nearly as many soldiers already ready for engagement in those four countries alone as there were for the United States and Germany in WWII at their peaks, around 24 million—and that is before any kind of draft, which there would almost assuredly be, or any kind of reactionary large military expansion. Other countries that could become embroiled, moreover, dwarf the complexity of the situation. The war could spread from the Koreas across East Asia, involving Vietnam (with ~4,768,407 ready forces), Russia (~3,364,000), Taiwan (~1,964,000), Indonesia (~1,076,500), Thailand (~698,550), Myanmar (~513,250), Singapore (~504,100), Malaysia (~429,900), and Japan (~315,900), not to mention India (~4,768,407) or Pakistan (~1,497,800) or other countries that could become involved in an intervention, such as the UK, France, Germany, or Canada. In short, the larger region has roughly 41 million soldiers that could be deployed within months or weeks. I’m not saying the war would necessarily spread so far, or that I imagine that it would spread to all of these countries, but am merely trying to sketch what kind of fire the White House is playing with.

So, to recap, even if it were a conventional military engagement, it would likely be on a scale none of us have ever witnessed. And that is, as I’ve admitted, bracketing the fact that the United States, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and North Korea all have nuclear weapons, which could completely trump conventional warfare. Moreover, there are about ~24,213,510 (NK) and ~51,446,201 (SK) people living on the peninsula, meaning that the civilian casualties of any nuclear exchange over such a small area of land (roughly the size of Utah or Minnesota) would be absolutely devastating. Literally tens of millions could and likely would die in any kind of nuclear exchange, just on the peninsula, not to mention in China or if the war were to spread even farther—or if major nuclear powers somehow ended up nuking each other’s homes (i.e., probs causing the end of the world).

So I ask, in case anyone has any clue, what in the world are Trump and Tillerson (and assumedly others) thinking?! As for me, I’m terrified that instead of a steady hand keeping the region from erupting in war, we have a diplomatic neophyte businessman whose only experience with war involved getting deferments from Vietnam.