The Cost of Symbolism in Syria

If Assad does not respond as hoped, Obama will face unhappy choices about his credibility and much more.

How many innocent Syrians should we be willing to kill to send a message? Since Barack Obama feels the need to make a point about chemical weapons and sees verbal options as inadequate, that's the question we confront. But it's hard to think of a number that is easy to justify.

Killing civilians is an inevitable part of war. But wars are usually fought for big, vital purposes: to assure a nation's survival, protect its independence or eliminate some horrible evil. The attack Obama apparently has in mind for Syria, however, is something short of full-scale war, and it lacks a tangible objective.

He is expected to send cruise missiles against military units and installations. The idea is not to blow up Syria's chemical weapons, which could rain toxins on the local population. The idea is to prevent their use by raising the cost to President Bashar al-Assad.

Another motive is to confirm the credibility of Obama, who had vowed to retaliate if the regime used chemical weapons. This demonstration is supposed to impress not only Syria, but Iran, as it considers whether the U.S. would use force to keep it from getting nukes.

The anticipated strikes, we are told, will be strictly limited. Obama is not trying to topple the regime, enable the rebels to win or force Assad to negotiate. His aims are more abstract: enforcing accountability and promoting deterrence.

But the attack may well achieve neither. Assad could absorb the blow, decide he can take what the U.S. is willing to dish out and use these agents again. Or he could revert to conventional methods of slaughter, which have been adequate to kill more than 100,000 Syrians.

If Assad does not respond as hoped, Obama will face an unhappy choice: admit failure or take bigger, riskier actions to get his way. Having upheld his credibility, he may be forced to uphold it again. Credibility, you see, is highly perishable.

It's also not readily transferable. For Obama to follow through on his threats in Syria doesn't guarantee he'll follow through elsewhere.

Kori Schake, a national security analyst at Stanford's Hoover Institution, scoffs at the notion that hitting Syria will deter Iran. "I certainly don't believe cruise missile strikes will achieve that, because it would take a sustained military campaign to destroy Iran's nuclear programs, and the president keeps conveying -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya and in Syria -- that he isn't willing to fight one," she told me.

Nor would failing to act in Syria mean he would let Iran off the hook. Assad allegedly used gas against his own people. If Iran gets nukes, they will be pointed outward. Assad is no threat to us; Iran might be. So the mullahs in Tehran can draw no firm conclusions from whatever Obama does in this case.

Some people think we have to uphold the powerful international taboo against poison gas to keep its use from spreading beyond Syria. But the main reason nasty regimes have abstained is not respect for global norms. It's naked self-interest.

Chemical weapons are hard to control once dispersed, making them a threat to the army that uses them. They can also provoke devastating retaliation. Saddam Hussein could have used them in 1991 during the first Gulf war. He refrained rather than invite his complete destruction. Assad had no such worry.

Any U.S. attack on Syria has clear drawbacks. One is that it's bound to kill blameless bystanders. During the famously successful air war against Serbia in 1999, the U.S. didn't suffer a single combat fatality -- but it killed 500 civilians.

There is also the risk of greater entanglement in a war we can't afford and don't need to fight. To attack an enemy and then let him survive could be seen as sowing the seeds of future trouble, not to mention encouraging other enemies.

Says retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, "If you do a one-and-done and say you're going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in." Once a president puts his prestige on the line, he may find it hard to walk away.

Maybe Obama will be able to. In that case, the attack on Syria will amount to an ineffectual exercise in geopolitical symbolism. But the innocents on the ground will not die symbolically.

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  • Steve G||

    None of this is new to even mid-level officers in the military. It just amazes me sometimes when the 4-stars who by that point in their career are (should be) even more fluent in basic principles of war that none of them stand up and say, "uh, boss, what's the objective here?" And then resign in protest at the absolute vaguery of the response.

  • wareagle||

    because by the time the stars are being pinned on, they are far more politicians than warriors.

  • Gene||

    And then resign in protest at the absolute vaguery of the response.

    I don't know whether a couple of cruise missiles warrants that extreme action, further escalation from there might.


    http://www.lowyinterpreter.org.....otest.aspx

  • Mainer2||

    say, "uh, boss, what's the objective here?" And then resign in protest

    Or they could, you know, uphold their oath, and refuse to commit troops until they have a declaration of war from Congress. Yeah, I know.

  • lizalisa12||

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  • Rhino||

    I did. And i know a lot of great Marine Officers who've done the same. Most of them look at this administration's policies and said, "I cannot serve this administration and keep my oath to support and defend the Constitution."

  • ||

    For once I completely agree with Chapman.

  • RightNut||

    I agree with Chapman, and now I feel like I need a shower...

  • ||

    We can take one together, handsome, to save water for the environment.

  • Lord Humungus||

    aww... man on man love, brought on by a common interest in the environment.

  • ||

    Or, as you would say, "I'd like to rule that wasteland!"

  • SugarFree||

    There's nothing gay or even romantic about two men taking a shower, their taut muscular bodies sliding against each other as they reach for the shampoo, society forgotten as they soap each other's bodies in a completely heterosexual way.

  • RightNut||

    How the fuck did my innocent comment get turned into a homoerotic novelette?

  • Mr Whipple||

    For a magazine called "Reason".....

  • Rhywun||

    There weren't so many gaylords around here when Postrel was running the place.

  • Cdr Lytton||

    Because she kept the freight dock clear?

  • CampingInYourPark||

    I was pretty young and didn't really follow politics back in the 70's, but Obama foreign policy seems to me like Jimmy Carter all over again. He opened up his big pie hole, now he has to act.

  • SweatingGin||

    Look, the only reason anyone is opposed to going to war to back up the president's empty rhetoric is RACISM.

  • Doctor Whom||

    Also, in response to any criticism of Obama's foreign policy, I must point out that -- OMG, Miley Cyrus!

  • DontShootMe||

    I must admit, that is a very large tongue.

  • XM||

    Large and freakishly white.

  • ||

    Carter's foriegn policy was pretty inept, but it was more bumbling with a healthy dose of naiveté. Carter himself was always a pretty humble guy who really never forgot about growing up dirt poor in the South.

    Obama is pure arrogance personified.

  • CampingInYourPark||

    Carter's foriegn policy was pretty inept, but it was more bumbling with a healthy dose of naiveté

    See: Arab Spring

    Carter himself was always a pretty humble guy who really never forgot about growing up dirt poor in the South.

    "James Earl Carter, Jr., was born at the Wise Sanitarium on October 1, 1924, in the tiny southwest Georgia city of Plains, near Americus. The first president born in a hospital, he is the eldest of four children of James Earl Carter and Bessie Lillian Gordy. Carter's father was a prominent business owner in the community, and his mother was a registered nurse."

    Apparently, we have different definitions of "dirt poor"

  • ||

    I saw him on Charlie Rose talking about growing up poor and working in the fields as a kid many years ago. Maybe he was lying. Or maybe his family got more successful later on.

  • John||

    He was shading the truth. I am sure Carter did work in the fields when he was a kid. But that wasn't because his parents were poor by the standards then. That was because everyone rich and poor back then expected their kids to work. I think he was solidly upper middle class. But back then, even the upper middle class were taught the value of work and humility. Now, not so much.

  • sarcasmic||

    How can someone today teach their kids to work? It's practically illegal.

  • John||

    It is illegal. And yeah, it is a problem. I saw one of my neighbors teaching his second grade son how to mow the lawn the other day. In a neighborhood where everyone hires Mexicans to do that sort of thing, it made me feel a little better about society.

  • ||

    Perhaps, yes. I honestly can't recall if he portrayed himself as poor, that's just my impression these many years later. I think one of the points he was making was about segregation and how he used to work alongside poor blacks growing up.

  • John||

    The Jim Crow South was a strange place. The same people who obsessed about segregating water fountains, let black women basically raise their kids.

  • wareagle||

    The same people who obsessed about segregating water fountains, let black women basically raise their kids.

    absolutely true. My wife's mother was bawling all over when her black nanny died; barely a sniffle at her own mother's passing. And poor whites worked alongside poor blacks every day.

  • CampingInYourPark||

    Perhaps, yes. I honestly can't recall if he portrayed himself as poor, that's just my impression these many years later. I think one of the points he was making was about segregation and how he used to work alongside poor blacks growing up.

    There is no segregation on a farm. The job has to be done and what shade your skin is has nothing to do with it. Working alongside someone does more to eliminate prejudice than anything I can think of.

  • Ted S.||

    He was shading the truth. I am sure Carter did work in the fields when he was a kid. But that wasn't because his parents were poor by the standards then. That was because everyone rich and poor back then expected their kids to work.

    I'm reminded of a possibly apocryphal story about Calvin Coolidge's son, who was working on a farm in Massachusetts in the summer of 1923. Warren Harding dies, and Dad takes the oath of office. When the son shows up for work the next morning, one of his friends says, "If I father were President, I wouldn't be working here today." To which the son replies, "If my father were your father, you'd be working here today."

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Isn't that the same son Coolidge cut out of his will?

  • Lord Humungus||

    both of my brothers "worked in the fields" at the local farm. And yes, back then, we were all supposed to be working by the age 15+ - and many chores before that.

  • gaoxiaen||

    In my youth in Beaver County, PA, almost all us kids did occasional labor on local farms like baling hay and cleaning out barns and stables in the spring. It was a way to earn a few bucks. Also, the zoning inspectors would suggest that we offer lawn services to people that weren't in compliance. Here in Taiwan, probably less than 5% of my university students have EVER had a job, even part time. Parents feel that it is too demeaning.

  • Jon Lester||

    By the time he was running for the state legislature, he was actually working as a wholesaler, rather than farming peanuts himself.

  • CampingInYourPark||

    I saw him on Charlie Rose talking about growing up poor and working in the fields as a kid many years ago.

    I don't doubt at all that working on his father's farm probably made him feel poor. I have yet to meet a well off farmer. From what I hear they're all barely making ends meet.

  • John||

    I have yet to meet a well off farmer. From what I hear they're all barely making ends meet.

    +1000 That is very true. In truth, that is how you survive as a farmer. All the money you have today is one bad year away from being gone. So the smart ones always spend and act like they are poor no matter what their bank account looks like.

    The contrast is worth noting though. Back then, even little Jimmy with his well off father, worked in the fields. He may have been in line to inherit the place. But his father still viewed him as free labor until then. We were a better country for that.

  • Ballz||

    that is such buuuuullshiiit

  • Ballz||

    I know quite a few wealthy "small" farmers

  • Ballz||

    and Jimmy Carter can suck it! what an asshole!

  • sarcasmic||

    Farmers are a great example of the difference between money and wealth (one of those distinctions that Tony's broken brain cannot comprehend).

    On paper most farmers are quite wealthy. They've got all kinds of land and machinery and such, but they aren't exactly rolling in cash.

  • John||

    Exactly. And even when they are rolling in cash, that is just because they had a good year. They can't go blow that cash and act like every year is going to be that way. They have save that cash to cover the inevitable bad years.

  • Lord Humungus||

    Pretty much this - see this all the time with the fruit farmers up north. They are land rich but cash poor. Pretty much like the "landed gentry" of the 18th/19th century.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    Is not a large portion of American farming done by large 'agribusiness' enterprises?

  • sarcasmic||

    Is not a large portion of American farming done by large 'agribusiness' enterprises?

    What does that have to do with anything in the context of family farms? Oh yeah. Nothing. Nothing at all. Absolutely nothing.

    Thank you for your useless contribution, Captain Obvious.

    derp

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    What does the fact that family farms are increasingly being replaced or structured into larger agribusiness enterprises have to do with 'anything in the context of family farms?'

    Rarely is there seen a question that so well answers itself.

  • RightNut||

    Because your obviously trying to change the topic with your derpful comment with full intention of then going into a screed about evil agribusiness.

  • wwhorton||

    Is not a large portion of American farming done by large 'agribusiness' enterprises?

    I mean, there are definitely corporate farms, and major agribusiness companies like ADM, but my understanding is that a lot of farming is contracted. In other words, the farms are "family" farms, but they contract with an ADM or Cargill or other company to sell X amount of whatever over a period of four years or something for a certain amount of money. And from what I've read a lot of professional farmers do a little of both, like they might grow watermelon and tomatoes and so forth for local sale and contract corn or wheat out to a corporate buyer.

  • John||

    Snark above makes a good point. Carter foreign policy was amazingly naive and stupid. But Carter wasn't anywhere close to being as arrogant as Obama. Carter during the last year of his term finally realized how dumb he had been and started to reverse some of his most naive policies. Human rights stopped being the top priority in foreign policy and he started building the military again and confronting the Soviets. Obama will never reverse course. He is too arrogant and too incapable of accepting responsibility.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    I do not think that making human rights a top priority is a problem, especially if we are not talking about any interventionism based on human rights. And I certainly do not favor Carter's military build up or 'confronting the Soviets' per se.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Thank gosh Carter was a bumbler -- we could use one of those right now instead of the Arrogant Decider Supreme Commander Obama.

  • Ballz||

    Carter existed to make Reagan look good. Then it all went to shit.

    let's just get a central bank into Syria & Iran and make Bill Clinton president of the world.

  • Rhino||

    I think it's more like Bill Clinton's. Look up Operation Desert Fox in 1998. Saddam was preventing UN weapons inspectors from searching for chemical weapons so Clinton bombed Iraq for 4 days. All it accomplished was distracting the country from his impeachment scandal.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Look at Reagan's War on Drugs. All it did was distract the media from Iran-Contra (and CIA cocaine/weapons dealing)until the mid-term Congressional elections were over.

  • Rich||

    His aims are more abstract: enforcing accountability and promoting deterrence.

    Hope and change, Baby!

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Punishment, my adoring crowds, punishment!

  • Mr Whipple||

    Obumbler runs his foreign policy like a Warner Brothers cartoon.

    http://goo.gl/kcCYir

    Your comment contains a word that is too long (50 characters).

    Piss off.

  • Rich||

    It's red lines all the way down!

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    She caught you in her SpamGuard!

  • Jake W||

    The comments on that clip suggest that the left is capable of rationalizing any action of choco-jesus with a cartoon.

  • Doctor Whom||

    "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, the frogs do not die in sport, but in earnest."

    Updated to

    "Though politicians throw stones at frogs symbolically, the frogs do not die symbolically, but in earnest."

  • ||

    We never threw stones at frogs for sport. That's disgusting!

    That's what BB and pellet guns were for.

  • gaoxiaen||

    We only killed them for their tasty legs when the fish weren't biting. Shine a flashlight in their eyes and they won't move. A quick flick with a treble hook under the chin and they were late-night snacks.

  • Dweebston||

    This is about Syria, not France.

  • DH||

    But this is about France.

    @ 1:48

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFJR1YRSHck

  • CampingInYourPark||

    THE WHITE HOUSE — U.S. President Barack Obama says he has not yet made a decision about how to respond to what the United States sees as the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but he says that Washington has concluded that Syria's government carried out the attacks.

    So, we get a week of leaks about missile strikes to test the waters and then Obama decides instead to uninvite Assad to the Christmas tree lighting?

  • SweatingGin||

    Seems likely. Wonder if they'll go after the ones that leaked about missile strikes?

    Also, what NSA? Between this and Miley, kind of got the surveillance state off the front page.

  • Rhino||

    sounds about right. That's Obama's MO for any decision. Like most liberal leaders, he wants to be very careful not to end up having to take any responsibility, and if that's not possible, the throws someone else under the bus or very cautiously tests the waters to make sure his decision isn't unpopular. He's filling a position, not leading.

  • ||

    Says retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, "If you do a one-and-done and say you're going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in."

    FTFYRMGAZ

  • ||

    What is the ratio of good to bad Chapman articles? After this one we must brace ourselves for the series of bad ones sure to follow.

  • John||

    Four or five to one? And the bad ones are really bad.

  • John||

    From Johnson to Carter to Clinton, Democrats cannot understand that wars cannot be fought in a half assed way. Johnson did this shit for three years in Vietnam. The US would bomb a little bit just to show the North we were serious and they needed to stop this. Clinton did the same thing in the middle east. That never works. They just figure out that being bombed isn't that big of a deal and keep going on. Meanwhile we keep coming back and bombing more and more slowly getting drug into the conflict, when we could have just ended the thing by going big early. That was the entire point of the Powell Doctrine; if you are going to go to war, go in with as much force as you have and end it as quickly as possible.

    As inhumane as war is, it is even more inhumane to drag a war out because you don't have the political will to fight it properly. And Democrats for some reason seem to love doing that.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    -From Johnson to Carter to Clinton, Democrats cannot understand that wars cannot be fought in a half assed way.

    How does that apply to Clinton? The aerial strikes against Serbia were something that I opposed on other grounds but it can be said they achieved their result better than many other more recent and more massive military adventures.

  • CampingInYourPark||

  • Jon Lester||

    Well, Iraq was getting bombed, one site at a time, on a near-daily basis for the entirety of Clinton's terms, and then there was that 1998 campaign for a few days, which also had something of a flimsy pretext (but nothing to do with Monica, of course, as we were constantly assured).

  • gaoxiaen||

    They sure bombed the hell out of a shitload of microwave ovens.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "If Assad does not respond as hoped, Obama will face an unhappy choice: admit failure or take bigger, riskier actions to get his way. Having upheld his credibility, he may be forced to uphold it again. Credibility, you see, is highly perishable."

    It's a good thing Obama isn't running for reelection in one way--because it would make him more concerned about how his inaction was perceived by American voters...

    "The anticipated strikes, we are told, will be strictly limited. Obama is not trying to topple the regime, enable the rebels to win or force Assad to negotiate. His aims are more abstract: enforcing accountability and promoting deterrence."

    ...on the other hand, one of our biggest problems right now is Obama's lack of accountability. Obama has not been made to suffer for his policy mistakes, and now he has little to fear in terms of negative consequences, politically.

    In some ways, Assad is more accountable than Obama. If things go badly for Assad, he'll end up with his head on a pike, but if all of Obama's efforts go badly, what difference does it make to him? Obama has another vacation coming up soon, I'm sure.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    But wars are usually fought for big, vital purposes: to assure a nation's survival, protect its independence or eliminate some horrible evil.

    That's mighty naive of you.

    Wars are usually fought for treasure, trying to force compliance of a people, to exert a nation's influence, and is generally the result of some horrible evil.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Wars are CLAIMED to be fought for those weighty issues(the former), but really for the venal, trivial ones (the latter).

  • DH||

    "It's also not readily transferable. For Obama to follow through on his threats in Syria doesn't guarantee he'll follow through elsewhere."

    It's a shame he can't hand the responsibilites off to Uncle Joe. I'm sure he would have some good suggestions.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ooPzr1vzmGY

  • gaoxiaen||

    That's a good video. Thanx.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    I've been muddling this issue over. And honestly, for the life of me, I can't see where this turns out well. This isn't a case where I simply don't think it will turn out well. This is a case where I can't really see what line of reasoning makes someone think it will turn out well. Any suggestions? Cause right now it's worse than the Underpants Gnomes. They were missing just the intervening step. I don't even see that we have some sort of desired outcome in mind.

  • JWatts||

    What? Of course it turns out well.

    President Obama bombs Syria and declares that he is a strong Democratic President who took decisive action. Liberal's chime in that not one American soldier was killed.

    At that point, Hillary is setup to take over for another 8 years, thus protecting Obamacare.

    From a Democratic political point of view this is gold. The Right will gripe, but who cares. The Code Pink/Anti-war Left will gripe, but the media will only mention this in passing and downplay it as much as possible. Most of Academia will be sure to stay quiet on the issue.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Well, that only works if this doesn't blow up in Mr. Obama's face. Code Pink/Anti-War gripes aside, I'm not seeing it at all guaranteed that Mr. Obama comes out looking strong. You bomb Syria and Assad remains in power? He stood up to the United States. With impunity. You remove him? Al Quaeda winds up in control of the country. And each time you bomb, Mr. Putin gets antsier and antsier.

  • Jackand Ace||

    I agree. There seems to be no good outcomes on the horizon. Assad stays, Assad falls and terrorists take over, the whole thing erupts into a regional conflagration, more chemical weapons are used by either side, more money drained from our treasury, the intelligence is true and chemical weapons were used, the intelligence is false and we bombed another country under false pretenses...and on and on.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Exactly. It's an interesting game. The only winning strategy is not to play.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Right. It's like watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff- in your asshole brother-in-law's new car.

  • Rhino||

    Try thinking like a progressive. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The innocent people of Syria need protection from being Sarin gassed. We have the ability to protect them. If you argue that it would be bad for our interests, considering who the rebels are, why you're just a selfish, anti social, pig. You're not supposed to think about YOUR interests. So, from a social justice standpoint, we must be Team America World Police.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    WHAT credibility?

  • Volren||

    The only people Obama still has credibility with are people he will never lose credibility with regardless of what he does

    Team Blue stands united!

  • Stuarti||

    Obama's ego and over confidence in all things and his lack of experience will force him to make the wrong move. As a community organizer he may have know how to mediate a street fight, but this is a whole other matter. Whatever he does, it is certain to be wrong. Surrounded by academics and those who care more about the image of the DNC versus the image of the USA, he will fail to make the correct choice.

    Hell is breaking loose and he chooses to use EO to stop weapons imports and NFA trusts. Obama is all about Symbolism.

    He will make the wrong moves because Symbolism is important to him.

    There is no stopping the mistakes he will make with Syria and we will be embroiled for years to come.

  • Jake W||

    Despite the distinctive possibility that a US attack on Syria would likely kill large swaths of civilians, I can't justify jumping into the middle of another civil-war between a dictatorship and it's people. It's a bad precedent to set as cause for US involvement, these sorts of conflicts are fairly frequent in the Middle East and Africa.

  • linda.j||

    my Aunty Lily just got yellow Mercedes-Benz S-Class S65 AMG by working online at home. this hyperlink...max38.com

  • gaoxiaen||

    My cousin's father in law just got a new .50 cal M2 machine gun and a dozen TOW missiles working online for a few hours a day. this hyperlink... alkhyder.com

  • Black Liberty Unchained||

    At least Kim Jong-un has the decency to just shoot his own people with machine guns and lock up the rest in labor camps. Don't cross that line Kim! Obama gonna drop a bomb on dat azz!

    Hide your bibles and porn in North Korea

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