Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Nobody's screaming! The muted debate over Syria

Posted By on 09.10.13 at 10:47 AM

Pundits opinions of President Obamas proposal to intervene in Syria are all over the map, but theyre all noticeably indecisive.
  • AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
  • Pundits' opinions of President Obama's proposal to intervene in Syria are all over the map, but they're all noticeably indecisive.

Since I’m still trying to decide whether I support sending cruise missiles into Syria, I’m grateful to Eric Zorn and Mary Schmich for saying they’re not sure either. And to Paul Krugman, too. Zorn wrote Sunday, "If 'undecided' is good enough" for more than half of Congress, "then it's good enough for me." Schmich, in the same edition of the Tribune, agonized and finally offered, "If the pollsters asked me about Syria, I'd hesitate, and then, in the belief that violence always breeds violence, I'd say no. That would be my guess and gamble . . . "

And Krugman, commenting in passing in the New York Times that Senator John Barrasso's Republican address Saturday ignored Syria, "presumably because his party is deeply conflicted on the issue," added parenthetically, "for the record, so am I."

I've noticed other pundits making it easier on themselves by framing the question in terms of President Obama. Which is fair enough. "Maybe he will get Congress and some allies to go along in the end," said the Tribune editorial page Sunday. "If so, it will come in spite of his own failures of imagination and leadership." In the Friday Tribune syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg said Obama was behaving in a way "you don't have to be a pan-Arab autocrat to think is incredibly stupid." John Kass wrote Sunday, "Obama's plan for Syria is almost like Obamacare: We're not supposed to know what we're getting until after he gets the votes." Kass did declare himself, I think. 'America does not want to pick sides between two groups in Syria that hate us," he went on. "America doesn't want any part of this one." Apparently neither does Kass. The Tribune's Steve Chapman was far from alone in wondering, in light of the president's limited means and limited ends, "whether what Obama has in mind will do any good beyond salving some American consciences."

Pundits taking the president's side seemed to do so for reasons that were ultimately philosophical—or temperamental. "As another far-off war worsens, Americans are loath to take sides, even against a merciless dictator, even to the extent of sending weapons," wrote the New York Times's Bill Keller, in an op-ed whose headline—"Our New Isolationism"—made it immediately clear where he was coming from. Steve Coll argued in the New Yorker that an international taboo is at stake, one whose violation will cost us all. "Assad's forces have already killed tens of thousands of civilians with conventional weaponry. But chemical warfare is a step beyond," he tried to explain. "Since the Second World War, governments and armies have gradually forsworn weapons that do not distinguish between soldiers and civilians. These include nuclear, biological, and chemical arms, and also land mines and cluster munitions. The treaties that ban such arms are building blocks in a decades-long campaign by human-rights activists to insist that warfare be subordinated to international law."

The Times's Nicholas Kristof allowed that "skeptics are right about the drawbacks of getting involved, including the risk of retaliation. Yet let's acknowledge that the alternative is, in effect, to acquiesce as the slaughter in Syria reaches perhaps the hundreds of thousands or more." And the Sun-Times's Steve Huntley, no admirer of Obama, said the president has a "legitimate case" that chemical weapons are too abhorrent to tolerate, and spoke of the importance of "preserving the world's trust, confidence and faith in the reliability of America's word." Huntley made no promises that the missile attack would change the course of Syria's civil war; nevertheless, "it's a national imperative for Congress to give Obama what he wants."

What we face, it seems to me, is a set of alternatives it's difficult to write about with any conviction because whatever America decides to do, there's a good chance the story will end badly. And how it ends in the short term and in the long could easily be two very different things. The show of American resolve Huntley calls for could matter far down the road, even if in the next few months Assad suppresses the insurrection against him anyway; or, inspired and abetted by American arms, the rebels could prevail in Syria but then the Islamists gain the upper hand; or whatever happens in that war, with or without American participation, the U.S. could go on being just as loathed, feared, and respected in the Middle East as it is today—for as Chapman remarked in an earlier column, "We spend more on defense than the next 13 countries combined. Yet we are told we have to bomb Syria to preserve our credibility in world affairs."

It's hard to argue loudly that you're right and they're wrong when you know in your heart there's a good chance you're just as wrong as they are. Sometimes such situations find everyone screaming past each other, but this isn’t one of those times.

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