When Idiocrats go to war

Dear V, this is the thingy I want to blow up. U cool w/that? #decisiveaction

Our president, after seeing something upsetting on television, instructed the military to launch a symbolic missile strike against a target in Syria. Admittedly, no one in Trump’s position could have watched the terrifying scenes he witnessed without being moved to action. Horrifying footage of the House Intelligence Committee chairman resigning would stir a response from any leadership figure hoping to conceal their ties to the Russian leadership.

So, after first communicating the details of our planned action to the Russians so the strike would be meaningless (!??WTF??!), Trump cleared the military to put on a fireworks display in Syria. Cable news figures, while struggled to avoid electrocution from drooling into their microphones, described the smoke and light show as “decisive.” What was “decided” remains unclear and utterly irrelevant.

At an abstract level, should the US leverage its overwhelming diplomatic, economy and military power to remove the Assad regime from power? Yes. That answer was clear to the Obama Administration when they proposed to take action in 2013, only to be blocked by Republicans. Why should we do this? Among other reasons, because we will be forced to do it eventually anyway. With every day that passes, that ‘eventually’ becomes more bloody, expensive, and destabilizing. Few places in the world are so inconsequential to global affairs that they can fall into this level of bloodshed without creating meaningful global impacts. Syria is not one of those places.

On a practical level, taking into account the current condition of the US government, can we intervene in Syria toward any remotely positive end? Of course not. We can debate the relative merits of a potential strategy or policy all day long, but it just doesn’t matter anymore. Whether you’re talking about health care, tax reform, Syria, or anything else, all policy questions have been rendered irrelevant by Trump’s win.

The people who govern our country now are fairly good at enriching themselves through corruption, and lousy at almost everything else. Syria is a challenge that would have stumped the most nearly-competent figures in the Bush II Administration. Now Rick Perry will be sitting on the National Security Council. Led by these idiocrats, we’ll be lucky if our bombs fall in the right country.

Syria, like so many other complex policy questions, demonstrates one singular fact – Trump has to be removed from office as soon as possible. There is only one public policy problem that matters in the United States right now, and its name is Donald Trump.

In case it matters someday, here are a few policy pieces on Syria and US foreign intervention. If nothing else, they may help explain why your humble blogger was a Republican for so long.

First, from almost four years ago, why intervention is Syria is practically unavoidable:

“Will the new regime in Syria be worse than Assad? Probably not, but we cannot dictate that outcome. What is definitely worse than either the Assad regime or the regime that might follow is an extended period of ethnic and religious slaughter on NATO’s southern border and Israel’s northern border. The longer the conflict continues, the greater the odds that a new regime will be just as dangerous as the old one.”

A wider look at US interventions, beyond the most flashy and memorable examples:

“Those who deny the power of American diplomatic and military engagement to bring positive outcomes in the world are fighting against the tide of history. Those who convince themselves that American military power is always a positive force are making the same mistake. We need to develop a better sense of what kind of involvement can be successful, what success means, and how to place necessary moral and legal bounds on foreign actions. We’ve only been working on this question for about two hundred years, so maybe we’re almost there.”

And finally, a look at the only truly dangerous foreign policy threat we face as the world’s sole super-power, chaos:

“Terrorism, Ebola, mass immigration of unaccompanied minors – these are all essentially the same problem. Pockets of anarchy created by the collapse of poorly adapted institutions can be the birthing ground of new, freer, more liberal institutions. Or they can become poison factories. For those of us in rising Asia and the traditional West, decisions we make about how and when to intervene in these evolutionary episodes will grow increasingly complex and consequential as the world shrinks and only the hard cases remain to be worked out.”

87 Comments

  1. Let’s say you’ve gotten into a fight with someone a helluva lot stronger than you are. You can’t face them head-on, that would be suicide. Basic strategy demands that if you want to win, you have one of two options: you can either use their own strength against them or you can make it so that they aren’t able to make use of their strength.

    In spite of a bizarro oompa loompa being in the Oval Office, the United States still boasts the single most powerful military force the world has ever seen. This is why terrorists and our enemies seek to undermine us from within, doing all they can to shatter our credibility and isolate us from the rest of the world and our allies. If you can’t beat your enemies with brute strength, tactics and strategy are required.

    Needless to say, when you’ve a brainless monkey that doesn’t understand nor care about strategy leading your enemies, you don’t have to be a quantum physicist to take advantage of that. Trump’s impulsive strike into Syria made pundits swoon and Lindsey Graham and John McCain indulge in their hawkish selves for a few hours, but now the curtain’s been pulled back. Our enemies are calling our bluff.

    Today, Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces came together in a joint statement to say that America had crossed a red line (thanks, Obama) and that any further action on our part will be responded to in force.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/assad-allies-say-us-attack-on-syria-air-base-crosses-red-lines_us_58eaf9dae4b00de141044ea2?71v9zumyd0psc3di&

    So any further action take against Syria, problematic as that would be on its own, will be seen as action taken against both Russia and Iran. An attack on one is an attack on all. If you can’t beat your enemies head-on, use their strength against them (provoke them into an impulsive attack) and make it so that their power is useless (take further action and risk a global conflict).

    Of course we could choose to call their bluff in return, but at what risk? Oh, and never mind that that whole North Korea thing is still going on too.

    Oh yeah, and this hasn’t seemed to make the rounds yet, but you know that pilot that originally launched the chemical attack in Syria? Killed by a bomb planted under his car. Seriously.

  2. One more comment and this is in my opinion only:

    Currently, much of the Republican Party is too quick to use military action and they down grade diplomacy and working with international bodies. They tend to think the only tool available is the military, i.e. the hammer and that makes all problems look like nails. As a consequence, we get into too many wars and there is no planning for post-military operations, i.e. in military lingo “Phase IV”.

    On the other hand, much of the Democratic Party, particularly the ultra-liberal portion, tends to want to avoid almost all military action. Andrew Bacevich and his series of Blowback books is a good representative of that line of thought. The disaster resulting from the Iraq Invasion has given that line a lot of popularity at the moment. I have read all of Bacevich’s books and personnally find them somewhat lacking and shallow.

    To my way of thinking and I think that of most Democrats, we realize that there are situations that do require military force and that the US does have to be forward deployed and respond, otherwise a vacuum will be created. Some unscrupulous actors, who are not friends of the US, such as Putin are all too willing to fill those vacuums. However, when the US does respond and intervene, then the operation needs to be well thought out and all factors of US power need to be deployed. Those factors include soft power, military power, economic power, working within international coalitions and with our allies. Planning for Phase IV operations needs to be implemented early and continue throughout the operation. An example of using this type of approach is the Kuwait Operation under George HW Bush. Hillary referred to this approach as “Smart Power”. Incidentally, that is the approach that was implemented during WWII by Marshall and FDR. Planning for the post-war began seriously during the visit of Churchill and his staff to Washington, DC in December 1941, when the US had just entered the War. Actually FDR and Churchill were discussing it in their correspondence prior to the US entry into the War.

    Syria is a case in point. As most who have commented in this thread seem to agree, the US perhaps should have intervened earlier. Obama could perhaps have taken action unilaterally in 2013, but at that point no one “had his back” including the British. So using the Russian connection was the easiest approach. When Kerry made his remarks prior to Putin hastily arranging the transfer of chemical weapons, those remarks were not accidental. As could be expected, Assad kept some in reserve. The military and intelligence services were aware of that, but that was the situation under the circumstances.

    These are my thoughts, but I do sense that WS Wall, Ryan, DS and others tend to concur with taking a more deliberate approach. I don’t want to speak for them, but their comments have led me to so believe that.

    So Chris do not think that all Democrats are represented by the sentiments of Andrew Bacevich and the others of the no intervention groups. Many and I suspect most Democrats are fairly hard-nosed. We just very tired of the military first approach to intervention and want a more deliberate strategy and we want the international community to “have our backs.”

    I am somewhat encouraged that Tillerson, McMasters and Mattis seem to be in the forefront on the Syrian crisis at this time. Maybe they are outflanking Bannon and his ilk. But his is early and we will have to see how things develop.

    1. I think that any realistic chance at peace is going to have to include some redrawing of borders, in both Iraq and Syria. There’s too much bad blood between the various tribes/factions for them to live together. In Syria no group is strong enough to hold the whole country and In Iraq the various sects have been segregated/ ethnically cleansed from many of the formerly mixed areas. Even though the premise for invasion was BS, the US still have a chance to leave Iraq in better shape, but the occupation was so totally botched, and the damage can’t be undone. Give the Kurds their nation, and figure out where the Sunnis and Shia are going to live.

      1. “Redrawing of borders” by the western powers, many moons ago, all for the love of other people’s oil, is what has lead to the mess we have today in the middle east. History has a way of coming back and biting you in the ass. So no, we should not be screwing around with borders.

        That being said, Russia’s main interest in Syria has always been a military port on the Mediterranean. So if pence and his crew (I am stunned that bannon got deposed so quickly) actually do get into the business of nation-busting, I would not be surprised that Russia’s support for Syria would fade fast if the U.S. promised them the Tartus naval base.

      2. There’s a difference between redrawing borders for oil access, and a redrawing of borders that takes into account who the groups are, where they live, and how well/badly they get along with other groups. In both Iraq and Syria there were minority groups ruling badly and oppressing majorities. That kind of situation needs to be avoided. There’s also a difference if you this time include people from the region in the redrawing.

        I think the borders are going to change- the question is do you want to see it happen via continued war, or at a negotiating table?

      3. I think Fly is roughly correct that the borders will need to be adjusted, but the peoples of the region need to do the adjusting of their own volition. The borders were set entirely artificially by Western powers at the end of WWI. The problem is there are so many ancient hatreds and conflicts in that region that getting the peoples to make those change at a negotiating table is devilishly difficult. There is the Shia-Sunni conflict and the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds to name just two.

      4. Exactly. The US has no business being involved. Why is it so hard for us to understand this? We royally screwed up the process after WWII, and we just can’t seem to understand why we shouldn’t be involved in that process.

      5. Include Israel in that list and then you’ve really got something. The US has no business drawing borders in other countries. As despicable a person as Assad is, other than humanitarian guilt, what is America’s legitimate interest in Syria?

    1. Not to be alarmist, but I read in the last day or so – I can’t recall where – that a carrier strike group has been ordered into the vicinity of North Korea, probably the Sea of Japan. That is normally where US carriers operate since land based support aircraft from Japan are readily available, also the Yellow Sea would needlessly antagonize China. This is certainly just normal show the flag maneuvering to encourage China to put pressure on North Korea. The Reagan is homeported in Yokosuka and the Vinson left San Diego in January for a regularly scheduled Western Pacific deployment. Incidentally, this is all readily available info on the web.

  3. Chris, thank you, thank you for this.

    In a lot of ways 2013 was a good preview of 2016 for me. We were being actually asked to intervene by the people of a country run by a totalitarian who violated international law, and yet we didn’t intervene because American liberals tend to be reflexively pacifistic regardless of mission and American conservatives were reflexively anti-Obama regardless of hawkishness. They coalesced in a perfect line with war-weary moderates suspicious of Iraq-like debacle, and as a good preview of the debates today, Americans actually PRAISED PUTIN for offering to go in and broker an agreement with Assad despite the fact that his need to maintain that entryway into the Middle East was clear.

    It was pure Bizarroworld, liberals calling Russia a peacekeeper and conservatives calling their president a warmonger. And what did we get from it?

    1) Assad continuing his regime of rule by death and terror

    2) ISIS growing in the power vacuum

    3) Putin’s adventurism in the Ukraine starting another civil war

    4) A refugee crisis that

    5) disinterred the rotten fascists from every dusty corner of Europe.

    In fact, the Afghanistan-Syria-Iraq trifecta could in their own way be seen as the perfect examples of when to go to war, when to intervene in a civil war, and when to leave well enough alone.

    But instead we get the worst of all options, and anytime we do throw a punch it’s by a bellicose idiot incapable of strategic or diplomatic thought.

    1. I really would like to see a history text from 100 years in the future. My prediction is that history’s judgement will be very hard on George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et al. for the Iraq invasion, the US press for failing to ask enough hard questions about why that invasion was necessary, and America as a whole for giving in to hysteria. I never much enjoy reading alternative history stories- here’s one I often wonder about- what if FL had gone for Gore in 2000? Personally I think we’d all be in a better place, because at the very least, I don’t see the Iraq invasion happening. Hell, it’s even possible 9/11 doesn’t happen.

      1. Profile photo of EJ EJ

        I suspect that the histories of the future will spend less time looking at individuals and more time looking at broad structural reasons for decline. I also suspect that they will be written in Mandarin.

      2. EJ – Is your linguistic projection based on Chinese demographics, or economic growth, or innovation? It has to be at least one of those. Those are all really, really bad bets.

        The Economic party is over in China. They’re taking down the lights, and cleaning the tables. The Demographic party ended years ago, and it’s projected that the next reunion won’t see many left alive to attend. The innovation Conference and Party was cancelled because somebody lost the mailing list that had been written on a napkin. Pretty much all of this can be blamed on the communist party.

    2. I think you’re being too harsh on liberals 🙂 I’m liberal and I’m not a pacifist. I was absolutely for war in Afghanistan, as were most of the liberals I knew. We were against the war in Iraq because even without access to classified intel, it was clear to most of us that GWB was lying about WMD (what should have been an impeachable offense). If anything, I wish we’d intervene more in Pakistan, and take a much harder stance against Saudi Arabia, the twin sources of much of the terrorism in the world today.

      And I’m against intervention in Syria because no one has explained what our national interest is. Humanitarian disasters can be horrific, but they don’t justify getting involved in another protracted sectarian civil war, especially because the humanitarian crisis isn’t usually improved much by our interventions (cf. the rest of the middle east…).

      Second, relying on Putin to control Assad was not a bad plan *if* we were okay with leaving him in power. But our schizophrenic policy has never decided who’s better: Assad or the guys itching to replace him (like ISIS or al-Qaeda). After all, that’s what we do with N. Korea: we rely on China to keep Kim Jong-un on a leash, implicitly accepting his right to lead the country, despite his human rights abuses, mass starvation, etc. as long as no nukes fly into S. Korea.

      Thirdly, regarding our stance in Syria emboldening Putin in Ukraine? I fail to see it since the Ukraine separatist movement started in 2014. Russia didn’t begin their bombing runs in Syria until 2015.

      1. I think North Korea is somewhat different. Though North Korea today makes the old GDR look like Club Med by comparison, refugees are the problem. Germany could handle reunification. China doesn’t want millions of starving Koreans at their border. The resources to rebuild the country are beyond the South’s means. Unlike Iraq or Syria, a power vacuum is not the issue. Assad is a sweetie compared to the Tubby Tyrant.

    3. Aaron and Fly, I believe that you are both correct. At the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003, I knew it was a mistake and we were getting ourselves into a mess.

      However, one of the problems that America has is that a large portion of the populace has no respect for the nuances of diplomacy or the difficulty of developing a strategic plan and sticking with that plan. Rather they want quick simple solutions, that do not require much effort or cost. Military action can always be portrayed as a simple and easy solution. That is particularly true now that the armed forces are voluntary, are so strong and that relatively speaking there are so few actual combat veterans in the general population. A general mobilization is no longer required. Not incidentally military action appeals to the macho instinct of so many men. Immediately following WWIi when the sacrifices that were required were so fresh, was probably the only time in recent history when people actually favored restraint for a significant period. Even then I recall men who were veterans saying that the US should have moved into Hungary during the crushing of the revolution in 1956, and I was just a boy of about 11. The reaction after WWI was essentially similar and that led to the isolationism of the 1920’s and 1930’s

      Immediately following the de-escalation of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans were very much opposed to further involvement in the Middle East. Hence, the refusal of Congress to support military action in 2013. We have within approximately 3 years already began to forget those conflicts and are susceptible to pro-war hysteria. Video gaming could be a factor in the short memory span.

      I have to very much agree with you, Fly, regarding an alternate scenario had the US not invaded Iraq. My partner says that one of her high school teachers said that we needed to stay out of the Middle East. She graduated from high school in 1962.

      I still believe that a strategy of containing Middle Eastern conflicts, while encouraging the various nations there to develop an organic accommodation is the best approach as discussed below. No external power and certainly not the US is going to be able to resolve the Sunni-Shia conflict. However, a concerted and coordinated effort by the military and diplomatic communities developing from the Syrian chemical attack and the US response might help to defuse the situation for the time being. As such, it would fit into that isolation and containment strategy. Alas, the Trump administration does not impress me as being inclined in that direction. It does seem to be inclined towards what appears to be the simple quick fix. I am concerned that it could lead to further military involvement.

  4. Syrian warplanes have started bombing the town devastated by that chemical attack again today.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/warplanes-return-to-syrian-town-devastated-by-chemical-attack/2017/04/08/38a5d8cc-1bdc-11e7-8598-9a99da559f9e_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-main_no-name%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.67ccfc641042

    Oh, and Turkey’s also calling our attack purely “cosmetic” that did nothing to halt Assad’s ability to massacre his people or even remotely slow him down. Yeah, real strong message our country sent, wasn’t it?

    1. Amen. No wars without some skin in the game. For all my follow nerds, I call your attention to this classic Star Trek episode:

      http://www.tor.com/2015/08/19/star-trek-the-original-series-rewatch-a-taste-of-armageddon/

      The moral of that story is if you don’t have to confront all the horrors of war, you don’t have much incentive to end one. Or to avoid starting one ITFP. We Americans have even less personal risk than the people on those two warring planets, as the odds of any of us getting killed by a terrorist here on American soil (which would be the most likely response to us ramping up involvement in the ME that could actually harm one of us) are far, far smaller than that computer generated death lottery. People who are not serving in the military or who don’t have a friend or relative serving are pretty much risking absolutely nothing. Personally I’d like to see any decisions about going to war be reserved for people like Sen Duckworth, who actually served and shed some blood for this country, and Sen Kaine, who has a son in the military. I recognize that’s not Constitutional, but it is much more moral and logical than giving to choice to a spoiled brat who has never sacrificed anything for anyone.

    1. Col. Wilkerson is affirming Chris’ point that the attack was known in advance by not only the Russians but likely Assad and that the damage was minimal.

      My only question here remains – why not destroy the runways if the point was to send a message AND incapacitate their air capability? I have no trust in anything Trump does which admittedly colors my ability to take his administration’s word.

      The interview was pretty darn straight up and sensible.

      1. Bombing is generally not nearly as effective as our military pr present it to be. That has been very apparent in every war the US has fought that used significant bombing. That was particularly true in Vietnam, where more bomb tonnage was dropped than in WWII.

        Bombing the runways is also not as effective as one would like to think. In WWII our combat engineers were able to build airstrips on the South Pacific islands in a matter of days. Likewise in Vietnam they could build airstrips using perforated plate quite quickly. Bomb craters can be repaired and the air strip made operational quickly. Warplanes like the F16 and the type of aircraft Syria has are designed to take-off and land on less than perfect strips. I am aware that some of the latest generation planes with stealth avoidance technology need shelter from the elements and very sophisticated technology, but that is not the situation with the aircraft Syria operates.

        It has become quite apparent that the US attack on the Syrian airfield was planned more for domestic politics, an international message and potentially enhance the American negotiating position. than anything else. It was not planned to have a significant long term impact on the Syrian air force. Furthermore, the Pentagon is very aware that the damage is not significant, but the public relations people will not admit that.

      2. Well – bombing has come a very long way since Vietnam. Destroying airfields is well within the theoretical capability of the military. The real issues are risk and will. That airfield in all probability was protected by Russian air defense systems. Going head-to-head with these systems is risky. Not only could pilots get killed and aircraft get destroyed, even success has a price. Let’s say for the moment that an attack was successful, and the air defenses were defeated in some manner. That’s effectively handing a potential adversary an important piece of intel you might want to save for a rainy day!

        Of course your central point was that the attack was symbolic, and this is undeniably true.

      3. It has become quite apparent that the US attack on the Syrian airfield was planned more for domestic politics.

        And quite poorly so, we can reasonably assume. When has Trump ever had a remotely decent news cycle that he didn’t almost immediately tear to shreds by his own hand? And, of course, there’s no reason to believe that the drip drip drip of Russia revelations will stop or even slow down. No one seriously invested in this is going to stop just because of a news cycle.

        If Trump wants to pat himself on the back for changing the news cycle for a few days, let him. We’ll focus on winning the war.

  5. Initially, I have limited comments on the immediate Syrian crisis, as I have not been able to really follow the reports. I went to the ocean to do a bird survey and then some recreational birding. Unfortunately, the weather turned bad and we had to leave this morning. The below summarizes my overall thoughts on the Middle Eastern situation.

    For the most part, I think Obama was on the right track towards eventually defeating the Islamic State and ending the Syrian Civil War. I do wish that he had been able to strike Iraq when he wanted to in 2013. But he was placed in a no-win situation by both the British Parliament and Congress. That would have sent a very definite message. Eventually, by using the Kurds and other Middle Eastern forces Islamic State would have been defeated. With that, Hillary might have been able to negotiate a reasonable solution. That could have helped lead to a Sunni-Shia accommodation as discussed below.

    The US could intervene and easily win militarily. But that would lead to another messy occupation and most likely a similar outcome as that in Iraq. The US cannot successfully occupy a land in the Middle East, because of numerous historical reasons, including the western colonialism, particularly following WWI. A major root of the problems in the Middle East at this time is the Sunni-Shia split in the 7th Century. That of course was aggravated by western colonialism, the Cold War and recently by the rise of Iran. Basically the Muslim peoples and nations are going to have to come to some kind of accommodation. The US or no other external nation will be able to impose a solution.

    In the meantime, the best strategy is to isolate the conflicts as much as possible and to keep the various conflicts from unduly impacting other global affairs. However, the issues of globalism, the rise of China, the attempt of Putin to establish a third Russian empire, and the polarization of American politics are seriously complicating the formation of a coherent American policy. The long term de-emphasis of diplomacy in preference to military action has created a dearth of good diplomatic thought approaches.

    I am of the opinion that the best result would be a long, twilight struggle to contain terrorism and other conflicts resulting from the Sunni-Shia conflict. This might have some similarities to the containment strategy as originally envisioned by George Kendall that led to the Cold War. But people like Kendall are dismissed at this time, partly due to the de-emphasis on diplomacy as mentioned above. Certainly, Trump and his gang do not believe in that type of approach. In a curious twist, the top military brass such as Mattis, McMaster and even Petraeus, before he screwed up, appear to have a greater appreciation of diplomacy than almost anyone else.

  6. Trump isn’t the problem, he’s a symptom (and a bad one) of the current state of the Republican party. Thin skinned, living day to day on self-made conspiracy theories, and espousing principles while simultaneously violating them, and playing the American people for vapid goldfish in Republican-made partisan warfare for the past 8.

    The only difference between Trump and not-Trump would be the theatrics. The policy behind him would still be vapid and destructive, because Trump is too lazy to actually do any of it himself.

    1. Almost every problem we face today can be traced to Republican (in)action/obstruction over the past decade. This includes Syria, this includes healthcare, and this includes the Republican decision that they should be the single sole authority to determine who gets to be on the Supreme Court.

      There hasn’t been anything stopping an American response to Syria, except Republicans wanting to blame their own inaction on Obama, who was already pushing the limits of what he could do without congressional approval.

      1. You can add the worsening environment to the list as well, Chris. Think of the time we’ve lost in making timely changes to avert the melting of our polar caps, rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions, etc.

  7. I really like this piece Chris. Its clear and concise. By the way….(can Republicans say WTF?) and I can only find this type of adult discussion here. I agree, it was the most expensive fireworks show since Macy’s did 4th of July on both the Hudson and East Rivers.

    Telling the Russians in advance meant critical aircraft both Russian and Syrian were moved allowing them to bomb Homs today using the exact same airport we hit. If we are going to saber rattle keep it real or don’t do it.

    If we are serious about our concern of the horror inflicted on Syrian civilians we could have saved the missiles and spent that 60 million on Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey. It would have demonstrated some good will to the Syrians and brought relief to Jordan, Turkey and the Kurds. Then announce we are taking another 115,000 refugees maybe even coordinate with Canada and Mexico so the Americas could absorb even more. That would have made Americans proud. Providing some tangible support to actual victims. Why is our first course of action to demonstrate our resolve is to blow stuff up? I’m sure the concrete on runway 1 is pissed…nobody else was effected.

      1. On a general basis, yes. As to specifics, there is no way for me to confirm as he doesn’t corroborate all of his assertions. What I read him for are: current news – he’s Johnnie on the spot; and his gut instinct on politics. Some here don’t agree but I check him daily to see what he’s turned up and how he sees the days news.

  8. “Should the US leverage its overwhelming diplomatic, economy and military power to remove the Assad regime from power?”

    No.

    Not if it risks military confrontation with Russia. Because the US did not act in Syria, Russia decided to. Russia gave the US plenty of time to decide whether to step into that quagmire, but after the US chose not to, Russia did.
    Intervening militarily on the battlefield in support of goals directly opposed by Russia risks the US and Russian militaries getting into a shooting war.
    It does not take an idiot to see this is a bad idea.

    1. From an old military and OSI guy, rest assured that America and Russia aren’t gonna get into any shooting war. All this was is a dog and pony show. We give the Russians and Assad a heads up and then strike a dilapidated airfield. It’s B.S. and NOT the way a real military operation is carried out. Trump and Putin are doing their best to distract Americans.

      1. I feel the same way, Clint. (hello btw!) Where was all the empathy for the Syrian children when Trump made all his comments about keeping them out of America? I think this is more distraction. Assad is a sadist but Trump is a fool.

      2. It’s obviously a dog-and-pony show. What surprises me are Chris’s comments in the main post:
        a) complaining that we told the Russians where the missiles were going to strike
        b) advocating for Syrian intervention because it’s inevitable.

        It’s not inevitable, and it’s not desirable. The Russians broke this one, from a geopolitical perspective, they can keep it.

      1. Profile photo of DS DS

        A couple of points before people run away with this:

        Palmer’s WaPo citation is misleading. That articlenotes that the S-400 is deployed in Syria; it does not speak to its capability. That’s probably because the capability of the S-400 is 1) a matter of speculation, and 2) dependent on the configuration in which it’s deployed.

        So, why didn’t the Russians shoot down the missiles? Let me lay out a few scenarios that are at least as plausible as ‘wag the dog’:

        1) shooting down US missiles would be seen as a serious escalation. Putin’s lost control of his boy in Syria, and isn’t looking for this level of confrontation yet. He removes his troops to avoid casualties, and, having saved sufficient face, goes to the bargaining table with an administration that presumably also doesn’t really want to be involved in Syria.

        2) The system is capable of taking down Tomahawks, but wasn’t properly equipped to do so, or couldn’t handle the volume. Putin bides his time a bit in order to properly set up the system, and holds back on revealing its precise capabilities until a more opportune moment. Russia and the US enter into a series of escalating incidents until one or the other decide they’ve had enough, and somebody negotiates or completely capitulates.

        3) The system doesn’t live up to the hype. It’s been shown to take out missiles in testing, but it’s never been up against a threat as sophisticated as a Tomahawk. International arms sales being an important part of Russia’s economy, the Russians hold their fire to maintain the reputation of the system. After all, they just hawked one of these babies to India for $6 billion. Again, they need to seek a negotiated solution.

      2. All fair points, DS, but they were there and they weren’t deployed. But if they had been, what then?

        Also, as more information is coming out, it appears that there was much less damage than we were led to believe. The runways were obviously functioning and their aircraft able to be deployed. What exactly did we do except spend $60m and make a lot of smoke and break a few unimportant things?

        Is this what a “targeted” response is in warfare lingo? “Look” like you did a lot of damage but you know and the enemy knows that you really didn’t do much at all?

      3. Profile photo of DS DS

        I’d call it a ‘calibrated’ response. We’re not going to do a lot of damage, but we’re going to get your attention. My understanding is that the Russian s received a 1 hour ‘You should probably get the hell out,’ which is, in my view, consistent with making a statement. It’s enough time to avoid casualties and the most serious damage, but not enough to avoid all of it.

        This strike should be viewed in a diplomatic context, rather than a military one. This is about the most polite way of expressing seriousness available to the US that was likely to be paid attention.

    1. 50 some-odd missiles at millions a piece expended-nice bang for the buck!!!

      Brian Williams and Fareed Zakaria are singing Trump’s praises, and the alt-right is pissed at him. WTF?? I haven’t even started drinking yet.

      No Fareed, he’s still very a cancer. Blowing shit up doesn’t change that.

    2. Chris-
      What would you suggest we have done then? I don’t mean to say Trump was right, just curious what you would have done (“nothing” is an acceptable answer).

      Also, I don’t agree that it’s inevitable that we get dragged into the Syrian conflict. Nothing is inevitable (ask Hillary how arguments based on inevitability go…).

      What are our national interests in Syria? Basically, we want Assad to fall, but we don’t want the rebels fighting him (i.e. ISIS) to get too strong. So we fund rebels to fight Assad (i.e. ISIS and those allied with them), then fund rebels to fight ISIS (i.e. rebels allied with Assad, along with al-Qaeda), then turn a blind eye while Turkey fights the only actual effective fighters in the region battling both Assad and ISIS, the Kurdish Peshmerga, so that they will allow us to use their bases.

      Our policy is so messed up that essentially we’ve been funding *every* group there to fight each other, then wonder why the country has descended into chaos. If intervention in Syria is inevitable, it’s because we’ve done our damnedest to make it so. As much as I hate Putin, the truth is he’s actually made significant inroads against ISIS, because his agenda is clear: support Assad. If only we had an objective with anything close to that clarity.

      1. WX Wall – Speaking out of turn here, but what I would have done was to at least disable the runways so that Assad’s planes wouldn’t be able to function. That would have been targeted AND acccomplished something meaningful. Instead, these planes took off and bombed HOMS within hours.

      2. Profile photo of DS DS

        Mary,

        I suspect the reason this was not done is that doing useful damage to runways is the province of munitions that would need to be to be dropped by aircraft. While the vulnerability of Tomahawks to the S-400 is questionable, the vulnerability of aircraft is not. Before you launch manned airstrikes, you’d want a concerted campaign to knock out air defense. That campaign is definitely going to kill Russians.

      3. Outbuildings – no runways – and we have the “word” that 20 planes were destroyed but no proof. Show me proof and I’ll quit complaining. We do know there were sufficient planes mobile to make another strike on HOMS.

        I want more proof as to damage inflicted. I don’t trust Trump or those surrounding them and we both know this attack was not one of deep conviction or long-term planning by Trump. In fact, he has shown zero interest in helping the Syrian situation at all. We may have to agree to disagree on this until there is incontrovertible proof of the damage assessment.

  9. If this strike were authorized by President Hillary Clinton, the Russians would not have advance notice.

    There is another problem with this strike. It carefully avoided bombing the section of the airport that stores Russian planes, maintenance supplies, and the two major runways they use. It will be very easy for Russia to help the Syrians repair the potholed runway to get their airforce up and off the ground.

    Finally, I have read that the US Constitution requires the President to have Congressional authority before launching any strike on another country which has not struck the US homeland or its foreign interests or forces abroad. Where is the declaration of war?

    1. Profile photo of DS DS

      “If this strike were authorized by President Hillary Clinton, the Russians would not have advance notice. ”

      “There is another problem with this strike. It carefully avoided bombing the section of the airport that stores Russian planes, maintenance supplies, and the two major runways they use. It will be very easy for Russia to help the Syrians repair the potholed runway to get their airforce up and off the ground.”

      I think both of these statements miss the point. In a normal foreign policy environment, the intent of this strike is to signal strategic intentions. The message is “We intend to use force to protect our interests in this theater.” Killing Russians is a serious escalation in a way that killing Syrians and destroying a Syrian military facility is not (yes, I recognize how that sounds, but it reflects reality). Giving the Russians advance notice gave them an out; no Russians were killed, therefore there’s no imperative to immediately respond militarily.

      With respect to legality, that ship sailed a long time ago. The executive branch has, in bipartisan fashion, encroached on legislative prerogatives on war and peace for a long time now.

      1. How do you explain the Russian destroyer that is steaming towards this area? And, what, exactly are America’s interests in this area? From a human rights standpoint, this is a horrible situation, but America’s interests?

        It is more the hypocrisy of the action by Trump that gauls me as well as the hypocrisy on inaction by MoC who were all over Obama for what they termed “executive overreach” while failing to respond to his request for a declaration of war. There is no season on hypocrisy in politics.

      2. Profile photo of DS DS

        Mary,

        My somewhat narrow point on this is that informing the Russians of the strike is part of a valid and prudent strategy of escalation. The destroyer is part of the posturing that is likely to follow. This is all part of a normal framework of international relations, not some conspiratorial ploy. As far as American interests are concerned, I’m not even going to begin to take a stab at what those might be; the point I was making when I used that term was purely about signalling.

        With respect to hypocrisy, I agree. Be as angry as you like about that, but it’s unsurprising given the current degeneracy of the Republican Party.

        Look, I have real concerns about whether this is appropriate, and where it’s all heading. I’ve been supportive of intervention in Syria since the first use of chemical weapons there, and intensely critical of the previous administration’s policy in the region. That said, I recognize that there are both regional and global consequences that need to be considered.

        What I’m saying about Syria is that, without regard to the broader consequences, this response was both logical and professional, a fact that we should be grateful for given the current Commander in Chief. Trump is emotional and ego driven, and it’s not clear to me that he’s truly capable of long range, goal oriented planning. The good news is that this response seems to have been formulated by the ‘better angels’ of the Trump Administration, namely McMaster and Mattis. My hope is that their thinking prevails over the likes of Bannon and Conway.

      3. I don’t disagree with most of what you said, DS, I just don’t trust anything Trump does. Regardless if he has done the “right” thing given the atrocious action of Assad, he has probably done it for the “wrong” reasons. As you noted, we can be thankful for the steady hands of Generals Mattis and McMasters.

        The only person I trust less than Trump is Putin. I cannot reconcile the logic nor the long term plans surrounding these two men. Something is rotten there.

  10. Did I miss it or has anybody been the least bit interested in the fact that our friends the Russians are enthusiastically commingling with Syrian military personnel in an area used to arm warplanes with sarin?

    And, a measure of how far we’ve fallen as a country: we’ve gone from a 6 million dollar man to a 50 million dollar squirrel. But, as we’ll no doubt soon hear: no cost, not even removing those sanctions on Russia, is too great to be born to achieve world peace.

    Thanks Chris, crisp, incisive, informative and way, way up there on the sphincto-meter, as usual.

  11. I remember that discussion about Syria almost 4 years ago quite well. I remember being one of the ones against getting involved, and even as bad as things are there I can’t say I’ve changed my mind. Any military operations that would have any hope of making a difference would have to involve invading with overwhelming force and occupying the place for a few decades to keep order, train up some youngsters to govern, and possibly redraw some borders if the various tribes couldn’t let go of grudges (which is also what we should have been prepared to do with Iraq). Assad is scum, and I have no objections to ousting him, provided someone has an actual plan for who replaces him. Assad isn’t even the worst scum in this toxic, complicated mess.

    Dropping bombs and arming various factions just prolongs this horror.

    1. The great contradiction is Trump’s rhetoric about Syrian refugees when he was campaigning and his new-found horror at the tragedy this week. Was he so uninformed about what these people are fleeing that he couldn’t understand, or, was it just more posturing on the immigration issue? This old ad puts things into perspective. Even a fool can do the right thing every now and then, but it’s all the other mistakes they make in between that are so dangerous.

      https://youtu.be/Pw0SeXhAKME

  12. Mr. Ladd, sir: While I suspect some of what you have written required you to work around the tongue firmly planted in your check, you have once again painted an accurate picture of Trumpland. I don’t agree with military strikes; but I understand the logic of them at times. What I don’t understand is tipping off Russia, acting to distract us from the implosion in the White House, and slamming Obama in 2013 for the same action now taken almost absent-mindedly by Mr. Trump. I continue to read and enjoy the point of view of our Political Orphan extraordinaire. Thank you, sir.

    1. I was struck by the same contradiction – except Obama was warning America’s friendlies before the strike in (Mosul?). In this case, Trump tips off our arch-enemy, Russia? And, NO ONE in the GOP makes a “peep”? Truly, we live in very scandalous, dangerous, impossibly convoluted times.

  13. Profile photo of DS DS

    “So, after first communicating the details of our planned action to the Russians so the strike would be meaningless (!??WTF??!)”

    Respectfully, Chris, this was the right course of action for an initial strike. Though it undoubtedly mitigated the damage to Syrian forces, it also avoided the possibility of Russian casualties that could have lead to broader escalation than desired. The military value of the strike was limited, but this was not meaningless; it represents a significant shift in US policy in Syria.

    Whatever you may think of Trump, this was well handled, and clearly has Mattis and McMaster’s collective hands all over it. If he continues to accept their input and advice, you could see a real improvement in US policy in this area. The question is whether he’ll be able maintain the sustained focus required to bring events in the region to a reasonable conclusion, or if that’s even the goal.

    1. Is it a good idea to notify the Russians of your plans in Syria? Well, yes if you’re doing it for show and you want to avoid any escalation. If your intention is to constrain the actions of the Assad regime or even topple it, then you have to do one of two things about the Russians:

      1) Persuade them that you are serious and get them to withdraw their support of the regime, or

      2) Attack Syrian troops with full knowledge that it will lead you into conflict with Russian troops.

      There aren’t any other choices unless you’re content to put on a purely symbolic fireworks display for CNN. Both of those options would be extremely difficult, but that’s all there is. Trump chose to put on a show for the cameras. Assad will probably put the gas away for a month or so, then resume, knowing that no one will stop him.

      If by “well-handled” you mean “unlikely to produce any consequences of any kind,” then I agree with you. It was pure theater. Thank God (Mattis) for that. No one was hurt. Trump got his opportunity to change the subject for a 24-hour news cycle. It’s a win-win.

      1. Profile photo of DS DS

        Diplomacy is theater. The administration has signaled it’s intentions and followed through with concrete actions to establish credibility. Could this be intended as a news cycle distraction? Sure. It’s also a very reasonable first step in escalation of force.

      2. What action did this administration execute that establishes any credibility? What does “credibility” even mean here? He didn’t do anything. Nothing. He launched some missiles at a target that had been warned that the attack was coming. He might as well have dropped them in the sea.

      3. Profile photo of DS DS

        Those missiles didn’t hit nothing. They’ve damaged a Syrian military installation, by some accounts, almost destroyed it. But, ultimately, that’s beside the point. The Administration demonstrated that, at least in theory, they’re willing to commit to military action against the Assad regime; that’s a reversal of years of US policy, and improves our position at the bargaining table. The Russians operate in Syria only as long as we permit it. Putin knows that, and this is going to force him to consider his options a little more carefully.

        The Russians have shut down the channel that was used to notify them of the attack. If the Administration is, in fact, interested in escalating in Syria, they may choose to launch strikes without warning, but with a low probability of Russian casualties, then with higher probability, etc.

        I doubt very much that the President has much notion of any of this, but the Administration is more than just one man. If he’s willing to continue to indulge Mattis and McMaster, or if Kushner or Ivanka choose to take up the issue, I think it’s plausible you’ll see continued engagement.

      4. Bullshit. When this administration takes an international action without first taking action to protect its senior partners in Moscow, I’ll take an interest. Frankly, I’m grateful at this point that he won’t do anything without consultations with Moscow. At least Putin might keep him from doing something truly catastrophic.

      5. Profile photo of DS DS

        Well, I’m sorry you see it that way.

        If this strike had been conducted by President Hillary Clinton, it would be seen as a fundamentally normal policy response. The strike was targeted in such a way that it would get attention without necessarily committing the US to anything further. Warning the Russians was prudent, and provides a way for them to save a little face without resorting to a dramatic response. That limited the tactical value of the strike, but the strike was strategic, rather than tactical.

        Much now depends on the follow-up. Once again, if Hillary Clinton were President, this small show of force would lend credibility to threats of further US action, which could be leveraged into some sort of negotiated settlement with the Russians. We have the capability to evict the Russians and the Assad regime tomorrow, if we so desire. Putin, for all of his swagger, is aware of this. His only recourse is to his nuclear deterrent, and he’s not going to the mat with nukes over Syria.

        Unfortunately, at the moment, the Administration is muddying the waters by disclaiming any broader policy change on Syria. Now, that could mean that you’re right, and that this is all just a show. It could be the Administration telegraphing an openness to more favorable terms for Russia in a potential agreement. It could be that the right hand doesn’t talk to the left (because that would be totally shocking in this White House).

        Regardless of what the case proves to be, this is a refreshingly normal act, as far as international affairs are concerned. I get the shady Russia angle on this administration, I really do (though I tend to take Mark Cuban’s view of the situation). But attributing every single action taken by this administration to those shady connections is the wrong take.

      6. >] Those missiles didn’t hit nothing. They’ve damaged a Syrian military installation, by some accounts, almost destroyed it. But, ultimately, that’s beside the point. The Administration demonstrated that, at least in theory, they’re willing to commit to military action against the Assad regime; that’s a reversal of years of US policy, and improves our position at the bargaining table. The Russians operate in Syria only as long as we permit it. Putin knows that, and this is going to force him to consider his options a little more carefully.

        The Administration demonstrated that they’re willing to commit to military action? It improves our position at the bargaining table? What in the world are you talking about?

        You don’t showcase your strength by doing little to no serious damage to a military installation and having Syrian warplanes take off from it the very next day. That’s a slap in the face, saying to us that if that’s the best we can do, we might as well not even try. Do you stop an attacker by giving him a half-assed punch in the face? No.

        And as for our position, with all respect, you’ve got it completely backwards. In the best case scenario, Russia wasn’t behind this, Trump saw a genuinely horrific scene on TV (that completely contradicts everything he said about Syria for years under President Obama, mind you) and felt compelled to act. As always, he acted on the impulse of the moment and authorized an attack that fell flat with Syrian slaughter continuing unabated.

        No one stopped anything. No one destroyed anything of significance. Unless you’re brought to your knees by the sheer presence of American military power, regardless of actual consequences, why would you be intimidated by that?

        That said, in the worst-case scenario, Russia actually was behind this, Assad knew this was all just a farce and Trump was used like a puppet on strings to change the topic of conversation for a few days. Needless to say, any potential positives are nonexistent in such a scenario and not even worth considering.

    2. I gotta agree with DS on this one. I don’t support intervention in Syria (maybe in your eyes, that disqualifies me from the start :-), but *if* you support intervention, this was a controlled escalation. I agree there might be better ways to escalate, e.g. have a serious policy speech by Tillerson or Mattis that indicates a new aggressive policy in Syria, followed by a formal Congressional authorization of force. That would signal our change in policy to the Russians pretty clearly.

      But if you wanted a show of force that didn’t escalate, and still left room for normal diplomacy instead of all-out war, then informing the Russians was smart. Imagine the opposite scenario: we don’t inform them, and our bombs kill a few Russian soldiers. Putin’s not stupid enough to go to war with us over a few soldiers, but his voters probably won’t be so forgiving. That pressure from his electorate to “do something” to avenge those fallen soldiers would severely constrain any possible diplomatic settlement, and increase the chances of an all-out confrontation in Syria. What if, as a tit-for-tat, Putin “accidentally” strafed a U.S. supply line, killing several U.S. soldiers. Now both countries’ citizens would be calling for revenge, and next thing you know, Syria will be the least of our problems…

      Of course, Trump is unlikely to be capable of this type of reasoned analysis and long-term planning. He’s just as likely to go back to tweeting about SNL after “solving” the Syria problem. But one can hope this was the action of the slightly more sane elements of his administration…

      (P.S. Did you actually call Bush II’s foreign policy group mostly competent?! The same group that presided over the largest national security failure since Pearl Harbor, then proceeded to get us into a quagmire in Iraq over false pretenses of WMDs? And that doesn’t include “minor” things like blowing up the Isreali-Palestinian peace process or pushing NATO expansion so aggressively that Russia became hard-line expansionists again…

      I do wish for the days of the very competent foreign policy teams of Bush I and Clinton though…)

      1. For it to be a controlled escalation, there has to be some semblance of a plan or priority in mind. There isn’t. Assad unleashed a chemical attack, Trump saw it on TV and authorized a strike because that’s what that impulsive oompa loompa in the Oval Office does. He doesn’t think about things and just acts.

        This is the same guy who got bored with healthcare within a few days and just decided to say “screw it”. Anyone who expects anything even remotely resembling a coherent foreign policy with an intricately complicated situation like the kind we have in Syria is stupid to the point that words alone couldn’t accurately describe it.

      2. Ryan- I agree with everything you say about Trump’s ability to formulate a coherent foreign policy. And like I said, I’d have favored getting an AUMF from Congress as a message.

        But if bloodthirsty Republicans are itching to get involved in Syria, it’s far better that they informed the Russians and did something inconsequential. Trump found have easily ordered a strike on a real target. For all we know, he did and was talked down by his advisors.

        Let’s narrow this complex problem down to one aspect: whatever strike that Trump ordered, was it better or worse that he informed the Russians? Chris would argue worse, that if we intervene, might as well *really* intervene. I’d argue better: killing a few Russian soldiers will not help our cause, either diplomatic or military.

      3. That only matters insofar as we’ve an actual goal we want to accomplish, with a plan to get there. What you’re saying, effectively, is thank goodness Trump’s stupidity didn’t escalate us into a full blown war, so now there’s a chance for diplomacy and such; never mind the fact that the currently understaffed and incompetent men in the White House (McMaster and Mattis excluded, of course) aren’t in the least bit prepared to take that kind of diplomacy on.

        If so, I agree with you. That said however, if Russia was the one behind this so as to try and change the subject to help Trump, well…

      4. “thank goodness Trump’s stupidity didn’t escalate us into a full blown war”

        Yes, that’s basically what I’m arguing 🙂 But I’m also arguing that there are levels of escalation and even in the hands of a competent team, I would rather that (for this specific action, not every action of course) they inform the Russians. FWIW, I think Trump’s team skipped a few steps. Here are the range of steps I think were available, in increasing levels of escalation:

        1) A strong speech by McMaster or Mattis (Someone the rest of the world respects i.e. not Trump) outlining a new, more interventionist American policy on Syria, with specific lines in the sand (e.g. use of chemical or bio weapons).

        2) Getting our allies to back up our policy with speeches of their own.

        3) Talking to Russia through back channels to get them to control their guy (i.e. Assad) or else [increased sanctions / more pressure on their Uraine proxies / UN resolutions / other options]

        3) Moving military assets into a more aggressive posture e.g. repositioning aircraft carriers, or basing more jets in Turkey, etc.

        4) Getting an authorization for use of military force (AUMF) from Congress

        5) Hold joint training exercises with Turkey simulating attacks on Syria.

        6) Trump’s action

        7) Trump’s action without informing the Russians

        8) Attack an actual significant Syrian asset

        9) Attack multiple significant Syrian assets

        10) Ground war

        The bottomline is that I agree with Chris and you that this was a message, not an actual military action. I disagree that (at this stage) that’s a bad thing, both because I shudder at the thought of a real war led by Trump, and because messages can be useful. If anything I’d argue we should have used a softer message (i.e. speeches, getting allied support, getting an AUMF which is actually a big deal) before dropping bombs.

        Was this message useful? It’s too early to tell although if Assad is actually stepping up his attacks, then in hindsight I’d have to consider it a failure. Although it might have failed because it was *too* aggressive: it left no face-saving option for Assad except to increase attacks to show his supporters that the bombing didn’t hurt him…

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