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William C. Altreuter
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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Apparently Miley Cyrus was provocative during the Video Music Awards, and this has people in a lather. Ron Emkhe has a nice post about it on FB here, and several people have linked to this piece in The Onion. My first thought was that all the fuss was just Silly Season stuff: the news gets slow during the Dog Days of August, and people who have to say something need to say something at all times, so they look for stories about cats chasing dogs, or celebrities doing the stuff that celebrities do and write about that. Ron notes that this particular flap resembles the story (I was going to say "coverage") of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction-- but that was actually an event with long-term legal consequences, and big fines, and serious implications for media in general. I don't think this is that-- I think it is much, much more significant. While people are fuming about an attractive young woman singing a catchy little song weapons inspectors have determined that Syria has uncorked the poison gas, and the President is experiencing increasing pressure to intervene there. (From whom? Hard to say. From John McCain, and his sidekick, Tweedle Graham are two that I know. I'm not sure who else thinks that sending in the bombers would be a swell idea.) Egypt is, as far as I can tell, in a state approaching collapse. Congress has roughly six weeks to stop doing what it has been doing for the past year and is on the verge of plunging the world economy into darkness... I mean, I don't want to be Chicken Little about this, but if Miley Cyrus' twerking is what has our attention, maybe we deserve what we get.

 Oh, America-- why are you so oblivious? Miley Cyrus is the answer to an easy question: What do you think about a pop singer being sexually provocative? Meh, not much. Hard questions, the kind that require serious thought, and actual evidence? Who wants to think about those? Plenty of right-thinking people seem to believe that some sort of intervention in Syria is called for; quite a few more, if we are to believe the polling data, believe that it is best to stay out. Looking past the polls to the arguments is where the challenge lies. Just because we can doesn't mean we ought to, and the place where people start thinking pretty much determines where they end up on the argument. For example, I hear people making comparisons to American intervention in WWII, which impress me as inapt: the Holocaust could have been largely averted if its victims had been given some place to go, but neither the US nor anyone else wanted to admit the refugees. This is not that: the people being gassed in Syria don't want out: they want to take over the country. That goal, however laudable, impresses me as an internal matter, however horrific the means. And, you know, it's not like we have so many examples of international intervention working out so well in circumstances like these. Keep in mind that with very few exceptions tactical bombing is a terrible tool for accomplishing most objectives. I suppose it worked in Libya-- early days yet-- and they say it worked in Kosevo, but those are the only two examples of accomplishing a foreign policy objective in that manner that I can think of. If the goal is to get Halliburton the contracts to re-build, that's one thing. If it is to end the suffering on the ground, and see a government more aligned with US and European interests installed I have my doubts. Bombing the hell out of a place is not a good friend maker.

| Comments:
I do agree with all you have said but the phrase "uncorked the bottle" on the use of poison gas does kind of stop me in my tracks. While the world has yet to condemn us for having used nuclear bombs, they've never been used again. The whole world actually did agree to never use poison gas again after WWI. (Of course, we know science went right on developing such weapons), but now these nutty Arabs have gone and used it and I suspect there will be no turning back from its use. And how, I ask, will we retaliate without ourselves killing innocent civilians anymore than these nutty Syrian factions? Is there no hope for rationality? Are these people, including McCann and Graham and Asaid and Putin really that crazy? Are they so tatally determined to have their own ways that there is no hope of peaceful solution? Looks like...
 
Putin is playing Cold War games, and China is happy to go along, if it will keep resources prices low and the world less focussed on them. McCain just wants attention. Graham . . . probably pretty much the same. Asad wants what dictators always want: to remain in power beyond any reasonable expectation of getting out alive and rich because he thinks he still can.

There are no good options. A No-Fly zone would be pretty much the whole country and wouldn't stop the mortars or the armed auxillaries. Targeted bombings just kill lots of people without them being reliably just the bad guys. A full-on invasion, well, we know where that gets you.

However, Kosovo is pretty much the model here, I think, and not least because of Turkey. Turkey's involvement makes this NATO, not UN, potentially, and nothing says they wouldn't be best positioned to take the lead, except that: our guns, our planes, our tanks, their personnel.

Obama isn't inclined to act and he's probably getting advice to stay out on the basis of there being no reliable options for action that don't just get worse and worse, but we can't say Red Line and then keep redrawing where that line falls. If we want chemical weapons stopped, we're going to have to take a stand on it, leaving aside whether depleted uranium-enriched ammunition counts, leaving aside whether white phosphorous use, leaving aside so many other chemical enhancements we actually use ourselves puts us in an ethical bind.
 
Chemical weapons are the last resort of horrible regimes. I do not see how bombing this particular horrible regime will help anyone. There seems to be some thought that it will "send a message". When sending messages it is best to think it out: who are you sending the message to? Is it to the current regime? Is it to the next horrible regime? What is the message? Is it, "If you use chemical weapons we will punish you? If that is true, why is it that the means chosen actually operates to punish-- kill-- at least some of the very same people that the chemical weapons killed? What effect-- beyond killing some innocent people-- will the message have? Will it convince some people that the existing regime, as horrible as it is, is at least better than being bombed? Will it consolidate support for the horrible regime, which, although horrible, at least never bombed neighborhoods and bridges, and electrical and water facilities? Is the bombing consistent with international law?

People say that there are no easy answers, or good choices. I say, first let's look at what the questions are, and consider that when we say that there are no good choices then perhaps the least bad choice is do stay out of it. The peril of being a hegemon is the temptation to affirmatively act in every and all circumstances. That's not good policy.
 

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