Casting Stones

 

Saw another fella talking on the TV show

Trying to tell me how to live, and just how I should vote

He says he believes in the sanctity of life

A hundred thousand died, tell me are you sanctified

Now you without sin, pick up that stone

You without sin, pick up that stone

            —Hootie and the Blowfish, The Killing Stone

 

I will say this: at least he’s gone to Congress.

The Obama administration continues to press its case for Congressional authorization to launch some kind of strike against the Assad regime in Syria for its alleged use—now two weeks ago—of chemical weapons in the civil war there.  In an attempt to distance himself from the criticism that this is all about his saving face after painting himself into a corner by issuing his “red line” ultimatum last year, the President now swears up and down that this isn’t about his credibility, but about global credibility if the international community doesn’t enforce its own international norm:

“I didn’t set a red line.  The world set a red line.  The world set a red line when governments representing 98% of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.  Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty.  Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for.  And so, when I said, in a press conference, that my calculus about what’s happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn’t something I just kind of made up.  There was a reason for it.  That’s point number one.  Point number two, my credibility is not on the line.  The international community’s credibility is on the line.  And America and Congress’ credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.”

Oh, so this is all about standing up for international “norms” against this kind of behavior?  As an interesting aside, almost simultaneously with the President denying he had set any red lines himself, his Secretary of State was in front of the House Foreign Relations Committee attempting to deflect questions about why act now and not in response to earlier chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime in part by saying the earlier attacks happened before Obama drew “his red line” [RDW Note:  sorry, I don’t have a link for that, just happened to catch him saying that live]

I guess Secretary Kerry didn’t get the talking points memo.

I’m not sure what “international norm” the President thinks is enforceable in Syria.  If he’s referring to the Chemical Weapons Convention signed in 1992, and which the U.S. ratified in 1997, Syria has never signed that.  If he’s referring to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, while Syria has acceded to it, there is considerable debate whether it applies to internal civil conflicts.  Neither situation poses a clear international mandate for unilateral U.S. action, and query why it’s taken them two weeks to come up with this explanation.

The President’s effort to shift responsibility for the “red line” drawing onto Congress by citing the Syria Accountability Act is a nice try at establishing a domestic mandate, but misses the mark.  The SAA was passed in 2003, seven years before the Syrian civil war began, and thus obviously was not meant to deal with Syria’s conduct in that conflict.  Moreover, it had little to do with Syria’s use of chemical weapons, but was instead was almost entirely directed at Syria’s support for Hezbollah as an exporter of terrorism, and getting Syria out of Lebanon.  The chemical weapons concerns cited in the Act were tied to Syria’s development of ballistic missile delivery systems—that was the WMD threat to American interests: the idea that Syria was developing the capability to deliver those weapons over some significant distance (read: Israel).   Moreover, the SAA did not authorize or even mention the use of military force in Syria; it talks about import/export embargoes and diplomatic restrictions, not F/A-18s and cruise missiles.

The President wants to wrap himself in the cloak of universally-recognized “international norms,” but it’s very difficult to claim that moral high ground when the international community is universally against you on the subject of making a retaliatory strike.  The UN is against it.  Obviously our rivals are against it.  Even our allies—to the extent we have any left—are either against it, or not willing to participate.  It is a strange champion of “international norms” indeed who goes on a violent crusade with the support of almost literally no one on the planet.

We’re rightly horrified at the indiscriminant killing of civilians; war is an ugly, ugly business.  But if we’re honest with ourselves, our own history over the last half century leaves us little moral currency with which to insist upon donning the Lone Ranger’s white hat on that count.  Chemical weapons?  How about the 20 million gallons of Agent Orange sprayed by the U.S. military in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, more than a little ironically as part of us injecting ourselves into someone else’s civil war.  Our use of Agent Orange resulted in an estimated half-million killed or maimed, as many as a million with permanent health problems, and up to 500,000 children born with birth defects.  True, Agent Orange was intended as a defoliant to get rid of jungle hiding places, but it was a chemical nonetheless.  And dead is dead; does it really matter whether we killed them with a nerve agent, herbicide, high-explosive, bullet, or a pointed stick?

You want something more recent?  How about drone strikes?  Since 2004, U.S. drones have killed between 286 and 1500 civilians in Pakistan alone, and we’re not even at war with (or in) Pakistan.  Add to those the tens of thousands of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have a non-combatant body count over the last eight years that would rival anyone, and we’ve done it all in other peoples’ back yards.  How many civilians in other countries have the Russians killed in the last 8-10 years?  How many countries have they bombed?  How about the Chinese?  Hell, even the Iranians haven’t been doing that.

We can debate the national security necessity and unavoidability of these things; that’s not my point.  My point is if the issue is international outrage over the random and large-scale killing of innocents, however that is achieved, we don’t have clean hands.  Our presuming to lead the chorus of righteous indignation over Syria—particularly when there’s no choir backing us up—should raise more than an eyebrow or two.

Before we claim not only the right but the moral obligation to take unilateral violent action in another country to enforce an “international norm” on behalf of an international community that has neither asked us to do so nor supports us doing it, maybe—just maybe—we should consider the glass house in which we sleep. 

What goes around . . . 

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Questions About Syria Remain

Julien:            After much deep and profound brain things inside my head, I have decided to thank you for bringing peace to our home.  And to make you feel good, I’m going to give you this lovely parting gift.

Alex the Lion: No, I couldn’t.  Really, I can’t take your crown.

Julien:            Oh, that’s OK.  I’ve got a bigger crown.  It’s got a gecko on it.  Look at him shake!  Go, Stevie, go!

            —Sacha Baron Cohen as the voice of King Julien, and Ben Stiller as the voice of Alex the Lion in Madagascar

 

While President Obama continues to work through the machinations of his considerable intellect (read: ego), I remain sorely troubled about our potential action in Syria.

Over the last couple of days, the administration has trotted out Secretary of State John Kerry to make a speech, and has released a report from the “Intelligence Community” purporting to make the case that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in a rocket attack on August 21 outside Damascus.  As an initial point, why is it John Kerry that’s addressing the American people on this issue, and not the President?  This is a big deal, and a leader needs to lead, not send out his lackeys.  And if the case is as strong as they claim it to be, then a great lawyer/scholar/orator like Obama should have no problem wrapping himself up in it before the American people.  That he isn’t in itself casts doubt on the whole thing.

Further, while the intelligence report and Kerry’s speechifying appear to make a strong case that Assad used chemical weapons, that case still remains a matter of taking their word for it.  They claim to have reports, and videos, and eyewitness accounts, and intercepted communications,  but they haven’t actually shown us any of it.  If it’s all as damning as they say it is, why not lay them out for all the world to see?  Surely if there is a universally-recognized “international norm” against the use of chemical weapons, if the evidence is as good as they claim there would be an immediate global consensus for taking action against the Assad regime.  Surely if the case is as iron-clad as they tell us, they would have no trouble getting authorization from Congress to take that action.  Surely if they have Assad as dead-to-rights as they are advertising, they would easily persuade the American people to support an attack.

All of which begs the question: why haven’t they put their actual cards on the table?

Unfortunately, the intelligence brief suggests a troubling possible piece to that puzzle.  Part of the supposed case against Assad includes evidence of preparations of chemical weapons in the days prior to the attack:

“We have intelligence that leads us to assess that Syrian chemical weapons personnel – including personnel assessed to be associated with the SSRC – were preparing chemical munitions prior to the attack. In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack.”

This is part of the logical case that (a) we know we have these weapons, (b) we know they prepared these weapons, (c) we know they used something, and (d) the aftermath was consistent with the use of chemical agents.  But notice something here.  The intelligence community doesn’t say they obtained evidence of preparations after the fact; they say “[i]n the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack.”  In other words, taking the report at face value, we knew the Syrians were getting ready to use chemical weapons before they actually did it.

Now, if it’s as critically important to stop the use of these things as we’re being told, it is criminally inexcuseable that the administration had this information before the attack and did nothing to prevent it.  There was no pre-emptive strike.  There was no leak to the New York Times.  There was no phone call to Damascus or Moscow.  There was no warning to the rebels on the ground.  You can be sure that had there been, the administration would be beating you over the head with it.  Their silence on this count is deafening, and damning; they aren’t even attempting to lie about it.

Further, even if we give the administration the benefit of the doubt and indulge in the assumption that Assad deliberately used chemical weapons, there remains the enormous issue of what business that is of ours.  We’re told it’s all about enforcing “international norms,” but if that’s the case, there’s a strange absence of anyone in the international community standing with us.  Not Germany.  Not Canada.  Not Australia.  Not even the Brits.  The French might or might not support us, but no one has much cared what the French do or say since about 1940.

One suspects the Israelis would just as soon we didn’t attack Syria, but they’re too busy preparing for the retaliation from Damascus and Tehran to comment right now.

Then there’s the matter of the bizarre dilly-dallying and the constant leaks of everything about an attack except the exact moment and location.  If this were truly about protecting some legitimate American interests, how can you explain waiting what is now eleven days and counting before responding? 

We’re probably going to hit you.  Really.  Maybe.  We really mean it this time.  Sort of.  But if we hit you, it’ll only be once.  Lightly.  We’re not kidding.  We think.

By now, Assad has had plenty of time to secure anything of consequence and take himself and his family on a vacation out of the country.  And he knows that if we attack, it’ll only last a day or two, so he knows that once we stop it’s over and he’s safe to come back and return to business as usual. 

It isn’t apparent to me—and the administration hasn’t articulated—what, exactly, a strike in Syria would accomplish at this point.  They swear it’s not about regime change, and if they keep their word that any strike would be short-term and limited it’s doubtful that it would achieve that.  If it were about significantly weakening Assad’s ability to wage war, the delay and leaks have all but eliminated any potential for achieving that.  I don’t see it as being any sort of meaningful punishment, and I’m not sure it sends any kind of message to Assad or to Iran, particularly the longer we take to send it.  There’s no argument that launching an attack is going to make the situation in Syria or in the region better.  What is certain is that it will result in yet more dead people.

At the end of the day, I fear this is all about Obama’s internal tension between his political sensibilities and his gigantic ego.  At his core, he’s loathe to use any kind of military force; it’s just not in his DNA to fight.  But he shot off his mouth by issuing his galactically stupid “red line” ultimatum, and now having been called on it (so we’re told), he’s painted himself into a corner.  This is why it’s taking him so long to make a decision; he can’t bring himself to launch an attack, but he now has little choice if he is to save face.

This is what happens when you hand the keys to an amateur.

****************************

BENGHAZI NOTE:  It’s been 355 days since a military-style attack on sovereign U.S. soil killed four Americans, and there has yet to be any response from this administration.  There’s been no missile strike, no bomber attack, and still no address by the President to the American people.  Yet it’s critical that we take military action to respond to an attack in Syria by Syrians against Syrians.

Who’s Who In Syria?

 

You love me, but you don’t know who I am

I’m torn between this life I lead and where I stand

And you love me, but you don’t know who I am

So let me go, let me go

            —3 Doors Down, Let Me Go

 

Consider this as the Obama administration is preparing to begin military intervention in the civil war in Syria.

Last week the New York Times published a piece telling the story of Matthew Schrier, an American free-lance photojournalist imprisoned for seven months in Syria.  Schrier was attempting to travel to the city of Aleppo when his cab was stopped and he was taken into custody.  He was told he was on trial before an Islamic court, but was not told what the charges against him were.  His prison guards looted his bank accounts and shopped in his name on eBay.  They hacked his email account and sent messages to his mother.  They beat him so badly he could not walk, and he could regularly hear the screams of other prisoners being similarly beaten.

Rusty, isn’t this why we have to go in and get rid of Assad?

The problem is, Schrier was a captive/victim of rebel forces, not the Assad regime.  And his story highlights the basic problem with the administration’s blindfolded and naive policy in the Middle East:  it’s a dangerous game to go picking winners and losers when you don’t really know who the combatants are, because it’s nearly impossible to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.  Yet the administration has for some time verbally supported the rebels in Syria, even if it doesn’t know exactly who the rebels are or what (if anything) they represent. 

But the current positioning of naval assets to launch strikes into Syria represents a new escalation of involvement.  Ostensibly, any strikes would be in retaliation for what we’re told is Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

Haven’t we heard the whole crusade-against-WMDs tale before?

The administration assures us that it’s virtually certain that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons last week, killing between 300 and 1300 people, depending on who you ask.  Of course, we’ve previously seen dubious and even false claims of this nature before.  Secretary of State John Kerry—he of the “seared—searedin me” memory† of being in Cambodia in Christmas 1968, except that it didn’t happen—tells us it is “undeniable,” but offers no proof other than his say-so.  And, conveniently, we’re already being warned that the actual evidence to support the allegation that (a) chemical weapons were used, and (b) it was Assad’s forces that used them may have been destroyed.  So we’re left to accept on faith this administration’s claim that military intervention in someone else’s civil war in which we do not know who the combatants are is justified because the administration says one side has used WMDs.

At least Bush 43 made some attempt to demonstrate his case for moving into Iraq.

You’ll forgive us if we’re just a wee bit skeptical at this point of anything anyone in this administration says:

  • It has yet to tell the truth about Benghazi, and has gone to some lengths to stonewall, obfuscate, and outright cover it up;
  • It has yet to tell the truth about Fast & Furious, and has gone to some lengths to stonewall, obfuscate, and outright cover it up;
  • It has yet to tell the truth about NSA spying, and has gone to some lengths to stonewall, obfuscate, and outright cover it up;
  • It has yet to tell the truth about the IRS being deployed as a political weapon against conservative groups, and has gone to some lengths to stonewall, obfuscate, and outright cover it up;
  • It lied about the practical and fiscal effects of Obamacare (“if you like your coverage/doctor you can keep it,” “I won’t sign anything that adds one dime to the deficit,” “premiums will go down under Obamacare”).

For those of you true believers, recall that Obama promised you he’d end the war in Afghanistan, and close Guantanamo Bay, neither of which has come to pass.  In fact, I defy you to give me a single example of anything over the last six or seven years on which this administration has told the truth or kept its promise, other than the promise to enact “fundamental change,” (and notice they never told you what that change was going to be).  And now Obama wants us to take him at his word that new military intervention in Syria is justified.

Trust me.

The fact of the matter is this administration has been consistently and spectacularly on the wrong side when it comes to sticking its nose in to pick winners and losers in the rash of civil wars in the Middle East.  The situation is not better, and U.S. interests are not more secure as a result of Obama’s support of rebels in Libya and Egypt; Libya turned a relatively benign but stable regime into a chaotic maelstrom of fundamentalism, ultimately costing the lives of four Americans in the military-style assault on our diplomatic compound in Benghazi, and in Egypt a stable and pro-U.S. regime was replaced with an unstable soup of military control and Islamist extremism.  In both instances, the administration seems to have been woefully ignorant as to just what they would be getting as a result of regime change.  And in the one instance where there was a clear “bad guy” to remove that would have resulted in real and positive change for American interests in the region—Iran 2009—the administration did . . . nothing.

Obama has made no case for intervention in Syria.  He has offered no explanation as to what risk of harm the Assad regime posed or poses to American interests or those of any of our allies;  Assad never threatened the U.S. or Israel.  Indeed, I don’t recall that Obama’s made any effort at all to communicate to his employers—the American public—what’s going on, why it matters, and what he proposes doing.  It is impossible for this administration to make an intelligent choice in taking sides, because when it doesn’t and can’t know who the players are or what they represent, it can’t know on which side U.S. interest—if any—lies.

I hear the human rights argument.  But it is not our business—nor is it a legitimate function of the federal government under our Constitution—to be the world’s policeman, particularly if it’s going to involve the expenditure of vast amounts of taxpayer money or cost so much as a single American life.  Otherwise, why aren’t we also deploying to Sudan, Somalia, Burma, the Philippines, Kashmir, Balochistan, Nigeria, Yemen, and the many other places around the globe where there are ongoing armed domestic conflicts?

And the stakes are much, much higher this time.  Nobody was really all that bent over American involvement in Libya and Egypt.  But Syria’s different.  They are a client state of Iran, and pretty chummy with Russia.  One suspects Vladimir Putin is itching for a chance to assert himself on the global stage, and you know he’s morally certain that when push comes to shove, our Commander-in-Chief is a pussy.  Iran and Syria have both made clear that they will respond to a U.S. attack by retaliating against Israel.  All three of them know perfectly well that the American public does not have the stomach or attention span for a fresh military engagement in the Middle East.  This isn’t the time or place to be provoking either the Russians or the Iranians, especially with so little U.S. upside, if any.

At the end of the day, the conflict in Syria is a civil war.  It’s their fight, and they need to be left to fight it, particularly when we can’t possibly have enough information to take sides.

_______________

† Ironically, when Kerry said this in 1986, he was giving a speech denouncing U.S. military involvement overseas when the White House wasn’t—in his view—telling the American people the truth about it.