About a week ago I started to type a post arguing against a large intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but I never managed to finish it because I couldn’t organize my thoughts into one or two coherent paragraphs. By the time I had a better idea of what I wanted to say President Obama had given the world a little bit of time to cool off, saying there was no specific plan for action in Syria. With the upcoming NATO summit and Prime Minister Cameron calling for a unified action against ISIS it seems more and more likely that eventually the US, the UK, and probably some contingent of Western Europe will do something to stem the tide of ISIS. The argument for such an action is obvious, ISIS is doing terrible things like beheading journalists and crucifying people, is stuck in the 8th Century, and has members with American and European Union passports that could easily inflict damaging attacks in Europe and America. I have no argument against stopping ISIS, it does seem like a good idea, my problem is that we don’t actually seem to have much of an attainable goal after that. Let’s assume we can stop ISIS, what then? Iraq and Syria will still be highly unstable and susceptible to another similar organization gaining traction, Iran and Saudi Arabia will still want to fight a proxy war, and the Kurds will still want an independent Kurdistan. Stopping the existence of ISIS as the Islamic State is obviously possible, arguably it won’t be all that difficult, but all that will do is drive the survivors underground where they will start to operate more like a terrorist group and less like a state. That doesn’t improve Europe and America’s chances of avoiding attack at home. The Syrian civil war will presumably continue, so it’s seem likely another jihadist group will rise from the ashes of ISIS because the jihadists seem to attract the most support in terms of bodies and cash. Iraq will remain incredibly unstable, teetering on the edge of civil war it will be susceptible to yet another ISIS-esque push for territory if that occurs. ISIS should be stopped, but we should actually have a plan, and not a Nixon style secret plan, for what we’re going to achieve and how we’re going to do it. There should be Congressional debates, there should be authorization for a specific use of force, and the American people should have to right to decide if the plan makes sense instead of scaring them into support a terrible plan with the possibility of terrorist attacks on American soil. There currently appears to be no plan, so it seems unwise to jump to the action step out of a justifiable disgust of ISIS and their actions. Let’s pause, formulate, and debate a plan before jumping into any unwise intervention.
Iraq, will Obama will start to covertly use drones? The answer is probably yeah, he will. It’s becoming seen as a hotbed for terrorists and terrorist sympathizers so he’ll probably use drones there, just like in Pakistan and Yemen. That’s hardly surprising, regardless of the ethics or utility of such a decision; which are, as with most things, pretty debatable. I get the use of drones, in theory it makes a lot of sense to use precision strikes and avoid full-scale invasions or occupations, but it seems to me that determining the ethics of a practice in real-time is a bad way to reach solid ethical ground. Then there’s the utility of drones strikes, which is a question of the cost versus the benefits. It seems that a lot of the costs are really hard to predict, after all it seems entirely plausible that drones will attract more violence to American territory, plus there’s the questionable benefit of killing someone who doesn’t appear to have a lot of means to pull of an attack. If the United States occupies a country, then all that ire that we build by unjustly, accidental or not, killing, hurting, or harming, socially or economically, will be meted out in that country on the occupying force. Now, I don’t like the idea of American soldiers being the ones that take the hit, I much prefer the dumbass warhawk politicians take the hit, but it’s better for a terrorist to attempt to kill Americans in their own country than someone else’s; especially since that implies, at least a little bit, that the occupying force could leave and solve most of the problems. How do we assess the value of killing an individual terrorist — and the rest of whatever group of people he’s with? Well shit, we have no fucking idea and that’s part of the problem. I guess we could trust the government and intelligence agencies to know what they’re doing, but if you’ve ever looked into the history of the CIA, I recommend Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, then you probably don’t see a lot of reasons to trust the intelligence agencies; long story short, they alternate between incompetence, evil, and evil incompetence. From my point of view, it seems pretty unlikely that there are thousands of terrorists worth killing considering the high potential for blowback in a region that’s already skeptical of American influence, military power, and its support for the Israeli occupation. It’s not as though pulling off a massive terrorist attack is easy, so killing some guy with a radical ideology, the money for ticket to New York, and access to a little bit of explosives doesn’t seem worth it. The chances are pretty high that he’ll be caught, or just be an idiot, and the plan would be foiled without having to risk slaughtering innocent wedding parties. The only explanation of the cost/benefit analysis the Obama administration uses seems to be that they all think about really hard, yes even the president, and then they decide. Great, but thinking about it isn’t necessarily thinking about it correctly. There seems to be a pretty loose definition of imminent, let alone all the other words they use to justify drone attacks. Loose definitions and calls to trust people who don’t explain their thought processes doesn’t evoke much faith.
I had a thought earlier, I breathe a sigh, do you breathe sighs?, of relief every time I hear about something John McCain is doing. Thank fuck we didn’t elect that crazy warhawk as president. Obama may not be perfect, but at least he’s let the awkward deal with Syria happen and hasn’t tried to send troops into there or anywhere else really.
From Aug 30:
I’ve been listening to debate about Syria for the last few days. I heard the debate in the British Parliament on the BBC World Service and I’ve listening to debates in a number of other venues. Syria is a problem I’ve thought about for a while. I created a picture called Masters of War: Syria a month of two ago. I’ve been listening to news about Syria and formulating an opinion on the subject over the last two years. I think the first thing we all need to admit is that most of us were wrong when we argued the U.S. shouldn’t intervene in Syria around the same time we intervened in Libya. At that point it seems like we would’ve had a higher probability of controlling the outcome, but, of course, the issues with Russia, China, and Iran would’ve still existed. Which is probably why the problem has gotten as bad as it has. The problem now seems to be twofold. First, we’re still going to run into international relations problems if we do much of anything in Syria. I doubt anyone is willing to go war over a few rockets hitting the assumed storage sites of chemical weapons, but it seems clear that the Syrian government is probably moving as much as possible away from those locations. If we do much more we’re going to run into resistance from Russia and possibly an Iranian attack on Israel. If that happens, the entire region is going to turn into more of a war zone than it is now. I don’t discount the value of this personally, it seems as though sometimes violence is necessary to create a stable political order, but it’s not something that most other people are willing to accept. The solution seems to be a back-door agreement between the U.S. and Russia. Something alone the lines of a guarantee that the Russian naval base will be allowed to exist regardless of the political outcome of the war. The Russian either convince Assad to hand over his chemical weapons or agree to ignore rocket attacks on the weapons. This solution doesn’t seem particularly likely. The final decision will probably be a display of force that is ultimately pointless and expensive that in the long-term will extend the war. Assad will have no reason to come to negotiations if he assumes he’ll be charged with war crimes. He might as well trust that the geo-political logistics remain in his favor as far as a forced regime is concerned. If weapons survive he’ll probably use them. It doesn’t seem a whole lot worse to use more chemical weapons if you’ve already used them with limited consequences, especially if his regime remaining in power is the only desirable outcome he has left. The instability in the region will probably eventually force the dissolution of Iraq into three states, a Kurdish state in the north that is populated with native Iraqi Kurds and refugee Syrian Kurds, a Sunni state west of the Tigris and Euphrates, and a Shi’a state to the east. The only problem with this is that the Shi’a state would no doubt soon find itself more aligned with Iran than Sunni dominated countries like Saudi Arabia. The fact remains, to my mind, that allowing a little blood letting would probably be useful for stabilizing the region, though so would the dissolution of Israel and that’s even less likely to occur. I think something that isn’t being considered, publicly at least, is the risk an unstable Syria will be to Israel. Hezbollah will probably become better armed as the Syrian regime loses control, they’d rather cede weapons to an aligned interest than the rebels, and as terrorist training ground, a long-term Syrian conflict would train a new generation of Islamic warriors just as Afghanistan did. The other interesting note is that Sunni and Shi’a terrorists don’t find their interests aligning much, but they both support violent attacks on Israel.
From Sept 1:
President Obama announced in the last day or so that he’s going to seek Congressional approval before attacking Syria. As someone that believes the War Powers Act is problematic and the fact that the U.S. hasn’t technically declared war since World War Two is horrifying, I’m pleased with this move. I don’t personally believe it’s the President acquiescing power back to Congress where it belongs, but I’m not particularly interested in the President’s motivations. I believe the President has seen how fruitless a limited attack on Syria would be, but he needs to protect his political position after calling the use of chemical weapons a red line. He can’t take back his red line, but he also sees how pointless a limited attack would be and how unpopular any more than that would be. He’s going to congress assuming they won’t be able to pass a resolution allowing his to take action, leaving him in the political clear. Of course, it seems likely that by the time Congress considers a resolution that the U.N. will have results that might be convincing to the British Parliament and French National Assembly, though President Hollande in France doesn’t need approval to act.
End Note: This is just my fleshing out my thoughts on the situation, I expect that I’ll have come to a clearer conclusion here in the near future.