Montana Politics

An Irrational ‘Red Line’

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Much has been made of Obama referring to chemical weapon use in Syria as a ‘red line‘ that, if crossed, would invite intervention. Much has been more recently made of that intervention not materializing.

Ultimately, Obama has made a grave error here, which was rhetorically tying US policy to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. First of all, it continues acting as thought the category of ‘WMDs’ means anything, suggesting that chemical weapons are somehow comparable to nuclear ones. This is clearly false. Nuclear weapons have been used in one war, twice, in their entire history. Chemical weapons have been used hundreds if not thousands of times even since being putatively outlawed. From a geopolitical perspective, they are hardly decisive – from Flanders to Iran to Yemen, they have been used but without impacting the outcome of war. Morally, although they are horrific (Dulce et Decorum Est!), the last fifty years have been ample demonstration that high explosives and heavy weapons are at least as effective in killing civilians as chemical weapons.

However, Obama is correct in not, so far, reacting to news of chemical weapons used in Syria by preparing for any kind of intervention. First, there is no conclusive evidence that the Syrian government is mainly or exclusively responsible for using chemical weapons; even if there was conclusive evidence of widespread chemical attacks, there is a non-trivial chance they were used first by anti-government forces.

More importantly, however, Syrian chemical weapons do not have any effect on the overall situation. They are unlikely to substantially influence the course of the war or greatly increase the casualty toll. And their presence doesn’t do anything to consolidate the anti-government forces into something resembling an organization capable of governing Syria (or desirous of doing so in line with American ideals and interests), nor does it greatly increase the chance of the Syrian government collapsing quickly. Indeed, chemical weapons make a terrible Red Line because the major obstacles to a successful intervention in Syria are absolutely unaffected by their use. It’d be far more appropriate for US policy makers to be rhetorically honest – we will not intervene in Syria until the there is a real chance of the our intervention resulting in the removal of the Assad regime and the establishment of a government allied to the United States and respectful of human rights and democratic and human rights norms. Any other artificial line or trigger laid down will either be a another line crossed uneventfully, reducing US credibility, or (far worse) a source of greater pressure to intervene before doing so is advisable.

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The Polish Wolf

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  • I like how you talk about the need for rhetorical honesty, then tack on “respect for human rights” like that’s part of the honest motivation for arming terrorists to overthrow Assad.

  • Hey PW – I think this piece is of high enough quality to appear in WaPo or be read aloud on NPR. Just a few considerations:

    1. Nuclear weapons were used at a time when only one nation had them, as a message to the others. The blowback was that the Soviets, aided by their own Nazi scientists, soon caught up. In today’s climate, they are an albatross. We are stuck with them as no one nation can dismantle them or trust another to do the same.

    2. “…from Flanders to Iran to Yemen…” you might add “Vietnam” to that list. The US coated the jungle of Vietnam with Agent Orange, or DDT. (Also, is white phosphorus considered a chemical weapon?) I know that you’ll acknowledge this, but the interesting thing is that it does not occur to you when you are writing.

    3. I realize that you have trust and affection for Obama, but to refer to him and his red line is reductionist. He is the public voice of the executive, a massive organization with many elements, hardly any under his control. Public statements from that entity are weighed and calculated. Since the US itself has used chemical weapons, their use in Syria cannot possibly be the true reason for the ultimatum.

    4. The whole world, outside our US bubble, knows that the “rebels,” referred to as “terrorists” when serving other purposes, are funded by Israel, the US, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar and NATO. It appears by recent border bombings that these agents are trying to draw Turkey in as well, that is, to active combat.

    5. The knowns: Obama’s “red line.” The Britam leaks where it was proposed by the Qataris to stage a false flag chemical incident blaming Syria, with big money awarded and DC approval. The unknowns: Russia and China’s response, the real situation at ground zero. If The Russians draw a line, then it is a game of chicken, unfortunately with one side in the game irrational, and it is not the Russians.

    As Lizard mentioned, your reference to American ideals is the stuff of fairy tails. Even if they are just window dressing, they are no better than Irish lace in that regard.

    Good writing, however. I just think that you are a housebroken Democrat. MT

    • 1. The point is that nuclear weapons are a deterrent that restricts future military options. Chemical weapons, not so much.
      2. I could add a lot of countries, but that would be tiresome. The likely goal and utilization of any chemicals used in Syria is most like their use in Iraq or Yemen; very little like the goal in Vietnam (the point is that chemical weapons are not super effective at killing people in battle. As toxic tools for destroying an ecosystem on a large scale, in war or otherwise, their efficacy is tragically well demonstrated). It is almost worth pointing out that the US has in fact encouraged or at least tolerated the use of chemical weapons in the Middle East before, but it’s not really relevant to the main point, which is that chemical weapons don’t win wars.
      3. Indeed, I was imprecise. Obama publicly proclaimed the ‘Red line’, but I should have noted it was US policy makers who have thus far not acted upon it. But the words themselves, written by speech writers but ultimately delivered by and the responsibility of the president, have an impact – the mistake really was not with the policy, but with declaring a Red Line (similar to the much larger mistake committed in assigning Iran to the ‘Axis of Evil’ while the practical policy was still relatively cooperative.)
      4. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the US and NATO, no doubt. Libya and Tunisia, likely as well. I’m less sure that Israel is really benefiting from the unrest in Syria, and unsure they would risk supporting it. The most likely government to form in Syria if Assad falls will very likely resemble Hamas in make up and ideology. The overall scene for Israel is getting worse; their three most dangerous neighbors long had competing ideologies that preventing them from cooperating as they had before Sadat – Sunni Hamas, Shi’ia Hezbollah, and secular Egypt. If Assad falls, Israel will be surrounded by populist Sunni governments largely allied to one another. I doubt they are putting money on that future.
      5. This part makes less sense. Indeed human rights are not the reason for supporting the rebellion, but again, I never claimed that. The US cannot, however, afford to intervene in support a new regime that doesn’t pay lip service to Western democratic norms, nor will we risk an intervention if the people we put in place are going to turn around and commit atrocities once in power or fail to honor an alliance with us. No doubt some elements in government want to see us go to war, but so far they do not have the upper hand. Other Sunni states want to see Syria fall on the theory that it will weaken Iran, but don’t want to be directly involved, so they ratchet up the pressure for the US to take the lead. Cooler heads, however, seem to be in charge. Hopefully, it stays that way, but that will require doing away with tiresome and unenforceable ultimatums.

    • Nukes, for a small states, are credible deterrent.

      (peaking of CW’s) “… their efficacy is tragically well demonstrated… ”

      Interesting that you are in passive voice there.

      “Chemical weapons don’t win wars.”

      The US, for internal propaganda purposes, capitalizes on them. You don’t seem to realize that the Obama Administration is merely replaying the 2002/03 Bush Administration gambit. That’s the Red Line, playing up chems as casus belli. Worked then, did not work (so far) this time, as the “event” turned out to be the “rebels” using them.

      Think of Israel as the USS Israel and things might make more sense. They threaten the region, and so might bring destruction on themselves. But they have never sought peace.

      “Indeed human rights are not the reason for supporting the rebellion, but again, I never claimed that.”

      You claimed exacty that.

      “The US cannot, however, afford to intervene in support a new regime that doesn’t pay lip service to Western democratic norms, nor will we risk an intervention if the people we put in place are going to turn around and commit atrocities once in power or fail to honor an alliance with us.”

      What planet … Do you reside on?

      • “Interesting that you are in passive voice there.”

        Indeed, as their efficacy is the subject of the sentence and the primary topic of conversation, not the US Army Corps of Engineers, which I believe first effectively demonstrated the power of chemicals in ecosystem alteration.

        “replaying the 2002/03 Bush Administration gambit. That’s the Red Line, playing up chems as casus belli.”

        Actually, that is exactly what I was trying to say – that conflating chemical weapons with nuclear weapons under the category of WMDs is attempting to make a causus belli where there is no rational one. Fortunately, this intended trigger seems to have come and gone. This is wise, and hopefully this policy continues.

        “You claimed exacty that. ”

        Never, in fact, did that happen. I merely said that unless we can foresee an improvement in the human rights situation, we should not and will not directly intervene. US policymakers undoubtedly want a strong, secular dictator in Syria, like Assad but allied to us (Essentially, a new Hosni Mubarak). But while we could put such a person in power, neither the US public nor the international community would support them. Which is what I mean by we need someone with at least a nominal respect for democracy and human rights. If that seemed a likely result of the current insurgency, NATO would quickly dispose of Assad. As it is, they have no guarantee they will like the replacement better, so they keep Assad on the ropes and wait. Unfortunately, this is the wisest policy to pursue at this point.

      • These exchanges are usually futile, but I do try to get an overall impression of your mindset. I think our only important difference is the degree to which each of is is invested in American propaganda. I don’t buy any of it, while you seem to flirt with ideas like human rights and the good intentions of the executive. You often refer to American public opinion as something that leaders heed rather than merely control. When challenged, you become dodgy. That leads me to believe that you are a bit Pollyannish. I don’t mind that and am not castigating you. It’s just a description of our difference.

        I believe in human goodness, that we are mostly a cooperative socialist species, and not a cutthroat capitalist lot. But I also know that power cedes to those who want power. Good people cannot outmaneuver the calculating ones who are drawn to power for its own sake. This is our resident evil, our “deep state” or “shadow government.” They are 5% or 2% or 8%, estimates vary – that part of our species who are born without emotional baggage. People talk about “conspiracy theory” but it is merely a division of people with empathy and good will, and those without, who have a natural advantage – they understand us, while we do not them. As was said in Spaceballs, “evil always triumphs over good, because good is dumb.”

        You might call that cynicism. But attitudes do not define reality. Unchecked power is dangerous. The matter of concern is not east or west, or culture. Arab or Muslim does not matter anymore than “Serbian” did in 1999 or “Cong” in 1967. It’s about the balance of power, nothing more. Our military-industrial complex, which is indistinguishable from those of the UK or Israel or NATO, is now seeking to eliminate the remaining pockets of Soviet influence, and replace it with the Wall Street/London Axis. Somehow they are threatened, as they are risking a global confrontation. The Russians that are in the way. Russians play chess, never announce in public what they are doing behind the curtain. So we don’t know much of the real game in Syria, Iran and Lebanon.

        Public pronouncements, like “red line” are a clue – that tipped me off that there was going to be a chemical event in Syria used as casus belli. This was exposed in the Britam hacking. Fortunately, the Russians headed them off, the chemical event was pinned on the terrorist forces, and the Syrian people were spared a massacre. But it ain’t over by any means. Just a reprieve for the poor schmucks.

        Obama does not matter any more than W did in these matters. Nothing personal about him, but the presidency is just a reflecting pond for the American people.

  • These exchanges are usually futile, but I do try to get an overall impression of your mindset. I think our only important difference is the degree to which each of is is invested in American propaganda. I don’t buy any of it, while you seem to flirt with ideas like human rights and the good intentions of the executive. You often refer to American public opinion as something that leaders heed rather than merely control. When challenged, you become dodgy. That leads me to believe that you are a bit Pollyannish. I don’t mind that and am not castigating you. It’s just a description of our difference.

    I believe in human goodness, that we are mostly a cooperative socialist species, and not a cutthroat capitalist lot. But I also know that power cedes to those who want power. Good people cannot outmaneuver the calculating ones who are drawn to power for its own sake. This is our resident evil, our “deep state” or “shadow government.” They are 5% or 2% or 8%, estimates vary – that part of our species who are born without emotional baggage. People talk about “conspiracy theory” but it is merely a division of people with empathy and good will, and those without, who have a natural advantage – they understand us, while we do not them. As was said in Spaceballs, “evil always triumphs over good, because good is dumb.”

    You might call that cynicism. But attitudes do not define reality. Unchecked power is dangerous. The matter of concern is not east or west, or culture. Arab or Muslim does not matter anymore than “Serbian” did in 1999 or “Cong” in 1967. It’s about the balance of power, nothing more. Our military-industrial complex, which is indistinguishable from those of the UK or Israel or NATO, is now seeking to eliminate the remaining pockets of Soviet influence, and replace it with the Wall Street/London Axis. Somehow they are threatened, as they are risking a global confrontation. The Russians that are in the way. Russians play chess, never announce in public what they are doing behind the curtain. So we don’t know much of the real game in Syria, Iran and Lebanon.

    Public pronouncements, like “red line” are a clue – that tipped me off that there was going to be a chemical event in Syria used as casus belli. This was exposed in the Britam hacking. Fortunately, the Russians headed them off, the chemical event was pinned on the terrorist forces, and the Syrian people were spared a massacre. But it ain’t over by any means. Just a reprieve for the poor schmucks.

    Obama doesn’t matter any more than W did in these matters. Nothing personal about him, but the presidency is just a reflecting pond for the American people.

  • These exchanges are usually futile, but I do try to get an overall impression of your mindset. I think our only important difference is the degree to which each of is is invested in American propaganda. I don’t buy any of it, while you seem to flirt with ideas like human rights and the good intentions of the executive. You often refer to American public opinion as something that leaders heed rather than merely control. When challenged, you become dodgy. That leads me to believe that you are a bit Pollyannish. I don’t mind that and am not castigating you. It’s just a description of our difference.

    I believe in human goodness, that we are mostly a cooperative socialist species, and not a cutthroat capitalist lot. But I also know that power cedes to those who want power. Good people cannot outmaneuver the calculating ones who are drawn to power for its own sake. This is our resident evil, our “deep state” or “shadow government.” They are 5% or 2% or 8%, estimates vary – that part of our species who are born without emotional baggage. People talk about “conspiracy theory” but it is merely a division of people with empathy and good will, and those without, who have a natural advantage – they understand us, while we do not them. As was said in Spaceballs, “evil always triumphs over good, because good is dumb.”

    You might call that cynicism. But attitudes do not define reality. Unchecked power is dangerous. The matter of concern is not east or west, or culture. Arab or Muslim does not matter anymore than “Serbian” did in 1999 or “Cong” in 1967. It’s about the balance of power, nothing more. Our military-industrial complex, which is indistinguishable from those of the UK or Israel or NATO, is now seeking to eliminate the remaining pockets of Soviet influence, and replace it with the Wall Street/London Axis. Somehow they are threatened, as they are risking a global confrontation. The Russians that are in the way. Russians play chess, never announce in public what they are doing behind the curtain. So we don’t know much of the real game in Syria, Iran and Lebanon.

    Public pronouncements, like “red line” are a clue – that tipped me off that there was going to be a chemical event in Syria used as casus belli. This was exposed in the Britam hacking. Fortunately, the Russians headed them off, the chemical event was pinned on the terrorist forces, and the Syrian people were spared a massacre. But it ain’t over by any means. Just a reprieve for the poor schmucks.

    Obama does not matter any more than W did in these matters. Nothing personal about him, but the presidency is just a reflecting pond for the American people.

  • @lizard19
     Again, I didn’t actually do what you think I did.  I merely said that
    until there is a good chance that Assad’s replacements do not repeat his
    atrocities, we cannot support them.  Not because our policy makers
    particularly care, but because they have to sell this war somehow, and
    Syria is demonstrable not a threat to the US or anything Americans care
    about, except human rights.  I said nothing about human rights being a
    reason for the current efforts at removing Assad, because frankly no
    human rights excuse is politically necessary for an indirect action of
    that sort.  But I would like to point out that it’s interesting that you
    would call those looking to overthrow Assad terrorists, but I don’t
    recall you using the term to describe those attempting to overthrow
    Maliki or Karzai, nor do you use the term terrorists to describe those
    forces (also un-uniformed and unofficial, in many cases) defending the
    Assad regime, or those who defended Gaddafi, when each group is roughly
    equivalent in make up and action.   Do you see how mirroring media bias
    does not make you unbiased?  You even embrace their same
    inflammatory and fallacious language, just applying it to the other
    side!  ‘Terrorist’, if the word can claim any meaning at all, ought to
    refer to those groups intentionally and primarily targeting civilians
    in  country otherwise at peace.  Otherwise, the term ‘terrorist’ and
    ‘soldier’ become indistinguishable, as every army attempts to use fear
    (among other tools) to control populations and every conflict involves
    civilian deaths.  Just because warmongers have decided it to apply to
    any armed resistance to American goals doesn’t mean it is appropriate to
    reverse the term to apply to any armed group advancing (indirectly) the
    same.

  • @Tomato Guy Since you don’t actually degree with the gist of what I’m saying here, I’ll engage you on your favorite topics of conversation.  Here’s where I see we disagree – 
    1.  The degree to which US foreign policy goals are monolithically those of the military industrial complex.  There are quite clearly multiple points of view exercising power in US policy; during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, these seemed largely to be acting in concert.  Currently, this is not the case – US action has been largely reactive and at times indecisive, acting in response to changing situations rather than unfolding a premeditated plan regardless of the strategic or diplomatic situation.  This is understandable, as some powerful people would gain, and others would lose, from a US intervention in Syria, particularly one done badly.  
    2.  The extent to which elected officials are among those groups of powerful people.  Obviously the president and congress are under immense pressure and are not free to act, but FP is remarkably still reflective of who is in power.  Both Clinton and Obama have pursued multi-lateral, reactive, and cautious policies towards military intervention.  Bush II, on the other hand, oversaw the implementation of a plan whose origin goes back to the last time his chosen advisers were in power.  As the president reflects the preferences of the American people, it seems only rational that he has some impact on the tenor and probably content of foreign policy.  
    3. The balance between shaping public opinion and being constrained by it.  I have no doubt that public opinion can be shaped, but only very slowly.  Various actions can be ‘sold’ by presenting them through very specific filters (WMD being the prime example; also, terrorism), but those filters don’t come out of the blue.  WMD is largely a conflation of chemical weapons, which few Americans would have cared about, with nuclear ones, which Americans have feared since the 1950’s. It’s increasingly difficult to convince Americans to blindly support dictators who cross a certain line.  Uzbekistan crossed that line a while back, and got dropped.  Saleh and Mubarak ultimately couldn’t be supported personally, even if their regimes largely got to stay in place, for the same reason.  The Arab spring has shifted a lot of attention to who we support in the Middle East – an American bombing campaign that resulted only in another Mubarak in Syria would be very difficult to justify even with all the tools at the command of the powerful people in the US.  
    4.  Finally, the mutuality of Israeli and American goals.  Quite simply, if your USS Israel view were correct, what possible reason would we have for continuing to build settlements in the West Bank, or in occupying it at all?  Obviously there is a military incentive for Israel to keep a  buffer between it and its Arab neighbors, but it does worse than nothing for the US.  It makes the Palestinians a cause celebre for anti-Americans the world over (in a way they interestingly never were when they were occupied by Egypt and Jordan) and puts a huge obstacle between US companies and successful access to Muslim markets.  Moreover, in many cases US policy seems to favor Israel over our own interests – our invasion of Iraq and our continued hostility towards Iran, for example.

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