So what did we learn from yesterday's impromptu lesson on how little everyone in the United States—from presidential candidates to former Iraqi ambassadors to the planet's "paper of record"—actually knows about the six-year-old Syrian civil war?
Various things, I suppose, but for me the big reveal goes something like this: The commentariat is far more interested in discussing the media fallout of blunders such as Gary Johnson's cringe-inducing "What Is Aleppo?" remark than actually discussing what various candidates plan to do regarding U.S. foreign policy.
Saw a ton of stories and cable segments in the past 24 hours about whether this means lights out for the Libertarian nominee but precious little time devoted to the the actual answer about Syria he gave on Morning Joe. Consistent with his stated positions, Johnson argued that pushing for regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere has destabilized whole regions and basically come a cropper, both for the people stuck in the places we've liberated and Americans here at home. Our role, he said, should be limited to bringing about a diplomatic solution, which means involving Russia, Iran, and other regional players to create a less-lethal status quo. Sounds pretty good to me, to be honest, especially after a dozen-plus-years of essentially complete U.S. failure in the area. But really, why should we actually discuss foreign policy and debate America's military role in the world when we can just go into an endless loop of navel-gazing about horse-race politics?
The insistence on superficial analysis is, I think, rooted in a presentism that infects most journalism and politics, but is particularly visible in cable news. Flash a heartbreaking picture of an ash-covered Syrian orphan and then demand of all viewers, guests, and policymakers: "What are you going to do to fix this or make sure this never happens again?" The last thing anyone seems interested in or capable of is discussing why such images predictably flow from American military actions. Sometimes it's mere days, other times it's years later, and it's always independent of actual intentions of interventions, but there you have it. Rather than hosting substantive conversations and debates about different ways of deploying (or not) American might around the globe, we get something that distracts us from important questions and does nothing to clarify all the troubles in the world—even as it sets up the next cycle of violence and despair.
Here's an excellent video circulating on Facebook that lays out all the ways in which the United States and other groups involved in Syria are teaming up with allies and enemies in ways that make the ever-changing alliances in Orwell's 1984 seem positively straightforward. "Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia." Except of course, when Oceania was supplying arms to rebels who were clients of Eurasia but actually working with Eastasia to destabilize Oceania while promoting a separate, non-allied homeland…