Over the last couple of days, I’ve been gob-smacked by the number of ostensibly liberal think-tankers and supposedly unbiased media members who have been willing to gloss over all the “known unknowns and unknown unknowns”, to borrow old Donnie Rumsfield’s formulation, in order to join the charge for US and western military intervention in Syria’s civil war. The press and think-tank elite in D.C. are gathering around a narrative that ends with “we don’t wanna say this but we gotta bomb Syria” despite all the outstanding questions and holes in the narrative.
Pat Lang, not a know-nothing, says we mustn’t drink the koolaid again as we did on Iraq.
Where is the proof that the Syrian government killed all these people in the eastern suburbs of Damascus? Where is the proof? Show us the proof. The Obama Administration says it has no doubt. This is a matter of war and peace, of life or death. Show us the proof. Senator Corker stated this weekend that all the social media indicate that the Syrian government is guilty. Is that the proof? Social media?
“Based on photographs, videos and witness accounts
that emerged last week, U.S. officials said they have“little doubt” that Assad’s forces carried out the attack.” (Washpost)
Is that the “proof?”
We can’t be shown the proof because of “sources and methods?” BS. The USG was eager to display satellite photography before it invaded Iraq. Let’s see the incriminating pictures. Do they have SIGINT indicating a command to use to such weapons? Issues of war and peace require the disclosure of intelligence secrets. Do the rebels say that the government did it? That would be interesting.
Lang is correct – many of the “known unknowns” center around the narrative that the attack used sarin and was mounted by Assad’s forces. Cheryl Rofer’s done some great work on this recently and is not at all convinced (or unconvinced) by the available evidence. Perhaps the UN’s inspection team can shed some more definitive light – they’re on site today and taking samples. However, there are two counter-arguments already prepared if they find nothing consistent with a regime attack using sarin: the rebels are gearing up to say, in that case, that the regime must have tampered with the UN’s evidence while the US elite are preparing a tale that says Assad’s delays and shelling must have destroyed all the evidence – despite the downgrade products of sarin being present in blood for weeks after exposure.
Even if we assume that a regime attack using sarin took place, there are other “known unknowns” to consider about a US-led attack. Kevin Drum puts those into a couple of paragraphs.
The case against is pretty straightforward: air strikes won’t change much of anything; there will be civilian casualties; and it’s almost certain to lead to escalation. That’s a pretty good case! …. [The argument for air strikes boils down to] air strikes will deter future chemical attacks. The problem is that I don’t believe it unless the strikes are absolutely devastating. Assad is plainly in a fight for his existence, and under circumstances like that nothing is likely to stop him except the certain knowledge that U.S. retaliation would make his position worse than if he had done nothing in the first place. Air strikes might be defensible if we’re willing to act on a scale that large, but make no mistake: we’d basically be committing ourselves to full-scale war against Assad.
It’s possible that enforcing international norms against chemical attacks is important enough to make that worth it. But that’s the question we should be asking ourselves. A “punishment” air strike is a joke, little more than a symbol of helplessness to be laughed off as the nuisance it is. If we want to change Assad’s behavior, we’ll have to declare war against him.
The editors at the UK’s Independent newspaper are among the few not joining the race to war and point out yet another of the “known unknowns” – the aftermath.
Russia will be furious that the West is against plunging into the Middle East without international agreement, and just as the regime said it would allow UN inspectors access to the site in question. But even assuming Russia’s anger is contained, or that Iran can be kept out of a field in which it feels a direct strategic interest, a bigger question is what military action can now hope to achieve in Syria, where war has been raging for the best part of three years with no end in sight.
Presumably the hope in Washington, London, Paris, Ankara and Jeddah is that the rebels will redouble their assaults on Damascus and finish Mr Assad off once they see the West finally show its teeth. The problem is that we still don’t know who “they” are. Now, more than ever, the rebels are united only in detesting Mr Assad. Beyond that, they remain hopelessly split between jihadist warriors who view supportive Westerners as useful idiots and mainstream Sunni opponents of the Alawite-dominated regime, all of which raises the question of how the US, Britain and France intend to help the rebels they prefer over those they fear.
It is also disturbing that none of those advocating the use of force to expedite the fall of the Assad regime seems to have given much real thought to what kind of society they expect to replace the one that has been in power for several decades.
The Prime Minister should beware the example of Tony Blair, who seriously thought that if he and the Americans got rid of a hated dictator they could install democracy in Iraq. We all know what happened there. If the plight of ordinary Syrians is worsened as a result of any new Western military adventure, undertaken for much the same reasons as the war in Iraq, Mr Cameron will have to accept his share of the blame.
All of these “known unknowns” – to say nothing of those “unknown unknowns”, the unexpected consequences of which we know only that there will be plenty and they’ll be mostly unpleasant – should lead western press and experts to caution western leaders against charging in, but it’s quite the reverse. Instead they’re falling over themselves to find a plausible legal-ese justification for war when a UN mandate is not forthcoming.
Secretary Kerry is due to make an official statement about Syria this afternoon. I might be surprised, but I’m betting that he’ll say “all options are on the table” and again suggest that the US is holding Assad responsible for nerve gas attacks without showing any proof of that accusation. It’s all just a part of the formalities.
Then, a couple of days from now, Obama will give a speech, and after that the missiles will launch. Not a damn thing will have been learned from the last decade of wars on pretexts, wars that go by without authorization from a lapdog congress and wars justified by bending UN resolutions out of shape. Not a damn thing – not even, or especially, by democrats, by the press, or by left-leaning think-tanks.
At which point, to the delight of many, I may permanently hang up my blogging pen in depressed disgust.
Update: Kerry does as expected.
Update 2: Robert Dreyfuss:
The horrific incident, reported in detail by Doctors Without Borders, demands action. But the proper response by the United States is an all-out effort to achieve a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war. It’s late in the game, but it can be done. The first step would be for Washington to put intense pressure on Saudi Arabia, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and Turkey, to halt the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, while simultaneously getting Russia and Iran to do the same. A concerted, worldwide diplomatic effort along those lines could work, but there’s zero evidence that President Obama has even thought of that.