Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Friday, April 7, 2017


There isn't much to argue against what Martin Longman says here.

Was striking the Assad regime appropriate after the chemical weapons attack?  Probably.  Should it have been done in 2013?  Maybe, though Obama was able to negotiate away most of the Syrian weapons stockpiles.  The problem is that chemical weapons are cheap and easy to make, so getting rid of them once doesn't mean you've gotten rid of them for good.

The problem is that we have no Syrian policy and likely there is no Syrian policy to have.  Aside from the Kurds, there is no group in this conflict who we can call our friends.  Not even Turkey, frankly, who have embarked on an authoritarian course and seem to tolerate the worst elements of the Syrian Civil War.

There is no way you can arrive at a solution to this mess that does not involve a serious deus ex machina.  Getting rid of Assad won't stop the factional fighting, keeping Assad will insure there is never any peace.  Conquering ISIS would only shift the belligerence to Kurds vs. Baghdad vs. Damascus vs the Rebels.

The bombing of the Syrian airbase feels very much like Dealing With Dictators 101: The Lesson of Munich.  Assad can't be deterred, goes the reasoning, so he must be smacked around a little.  This is true to a degree.  Dictators often only listen to the persuasion of force. Assad's regime is monstrous.

I can't bring myself to criticize this decision, unless I want to make petty (but accurate) points about Trump's hypocrisy.

The real issues are twofold: What comes next for Syria and what comes next for the Trump Administration?

In Syria, as I noted, there are no good solutions, barring a miracle.  Waiting for miracles is a poor strategic plan.  What do we do next?  What if Assad launches a chemical attack on Kurdish forces and kills an American serviceman?  We've already upped our ground forces supporting the anti-ISIS coalition, what happens if we get dragged into the Syrian war even more?  This episode proves that Trump is both impulsive and easily manipulated.  These actions go against what Trump was saying o the campaign trail, and some of his supporters are furious.  These actions were prompted by pictures of victims of the attacks.  But there have been previous pictures that left him unmoved  What changed?

There are Hawks in Trump's cabinet, including his SecDef and NatSec adviser.  These are the guys who "want to take the gloves off."  The result of this has been that the US has increased the number of civilian casualties we are creating with airstrikes.  I guess killing civilians with cluster bombs is more humane than killing them with sarin gas?  Clearly, the Hawks used these images to get Trump to backtrack on his previous position on Assad.

If he's that easily manipulated once, he can be again.

Secondly, I imagine Trump will see a bump in his poll numbers for being "strong."  Obama rightly understood that "being strong" was often a quick high.  And like a nice hit of meth, it made you feel good for a moment, but it often led to both negative repercussions in the long run, as you needed to get your fix.

Trump's presidency is historically unpopular.  That unpopularity spreads across the political spectrum.  These attacks will shore up some support among GOP Hawks and his numbers will bump upwards a little.  If he notices this, he will reach for this literal weapon every time his numbers sag.  We have seen the militarization of our foreign policy establishment, but now we are on the verge of militarizing our domestic politics.  This is a critical step in the creeping authoritarianism that Trump represents.

Or maybe not.

The strikes on Syria were - if not a good idea - not a bad idea.  There is a logic to them, though the represent exactly the DC Playbook that Obama worked to resist for 8 years.  Like saving your Closer for the 9th inning is the "Book" in baseball, it's a decision that usually isn't second guessed, except by people who are thinking more creatively.  You rarely catch shit for following "the Book."

The YUUUGE question is what comes next.  My first guess is that nothing happens.  Trump gets simultaneously distracted and pleased with himself for his poll numbers creeping upwards.

But keep an eye on the people beating the war drums.  And keep an eye on Trump when his poll numbers start to slip again.

This was McMaster's play, not Bannon's.  It's pretty clear the Hawks are back in charge.  Let's see what that means in the long run.

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