August 30, 2013

Make It Stop

Several days ago I wrote I was extremely conflicted on the question of punitive action in Syria, but no longer. I am now staunchly opposed having better detected an utter lack of true seriousness by the Obama Administration. The myriad leaks around what type of mission, the palpable trigger-happiness among some, the British debacle (they won't even have their poodle this time, the cat-calls will ring!) and the ‘shot across the bow’ nonsense showcases an Administration unready for an invigorated course correction of its flailing Syria policy. Frankly, I am astonished by the lack of seriousness and mediocrity on display. Our NSA Advisor has taken to Twitter to issue inanely faux-imperious pronunciamentos that would embarrass prior occupants of the office like Kissinger, Brzezinski, or Scowcroft, while abdicating an inter-agency coordination role that would actually bottoms-up a credible policy (memo to Susan Rice: calling foreign leaders to lobby coalitions is the easy work—if their Parliaments are another matter--having a convincing strategic end-game the true value-add, so perhaps you might tweet about the former less often). Defense Secretary Hagel is likely biting his tongue and saluting best he can but fundamentally opposed. And I don’t even need to speculate about what CJCS Martin Dempsey is thinking. Secretary of State Kerry, with respect, will be pulled in too many directions and himself is opposed to the pin-prick approach, which is essentially what is in the offing. In short, the team is not ready for prime time.

The incredibly publicized, telegraphed theater around how this will be a deterrent mission to slap bad-boy Bashar’s wrist for his alleged use of CW (as we break international law ourselves via the putative response despite the typical legal mumbo-jumbo the lawyers will be commandeered to produce) has been an epic embarrassment, unless Barack wished all the preamble noise and spectacle serve as the deterrent itself. Perhaps he did, if so, he should follow his instinct, hang up his spurs and allow his Syria fireworks show to never see the light of day. I expected more from this President given his obvious charisma, intellect and oratory, but it appears not married to strategic execution of complex statecraft. In this, he is no Dick Nixon, whom for all his many flaws, at least was capable of geopolitical panache and intrepid diplomacy on occasion. What we are seeing here is a festival of superficiality about the humanitarian imperative presented by Ghouta. It is an unbridled tantrum masquerading as moral righteousness.

If you mean it for real, however, you quietly go about your business planning a deterrent response that Bashar won’t simply hunker down through, you wait for the UN inspectors to issue their report on reasonable timing (would be graceful, no, at very least given the risks they undertook during their mission?), you at least try to have robust UNSC dialogue (let the Russians be on record that they are opposed, as we know they’ll be, but put in the effort regardless!) you cease with the constant leaks and descriptions and explications of what the policy might be or won’t or whether it will be no fly or no drive or cruise or no cruise or this or that, you don’t force allies to rush ham-handed into Parliamentary debates half-assed even before the UN investigation report finalized, and speaking of Parliaments, you deign to seek some imprimatur of legitimacy from yours; in short, you quietly execute, lay groundwork and let your opponent wonder what the hell is coming after his ostensibly despicable actions, rather than this gussied-up R2P prom-night feel-good gesture. The benefits of protecting the norm are outweighed by the feeble lack of coherence of the contemplated response.

These past 72-96 hours have been a titanic embarrassment for anyone who cares about U.S. foreign policy. It appears a rush job to beat the St. Petersburg summitry on a quiet August weekend that everyone hopes will be quickly forgotten, except for the mighty 'lesson' learned. It’s worse than unprofessional and cowardly. It’s contemptible in the extreme. Make it stop. Declare the orgy of speculation and movement of naval carriers have already doubtless ensured the boy dictator will think more carefully in the future using such weaponry. Mission accomplished! Better than risking gross unintended consequences by a team that, alternatively, does not really have the stomach for the fight, or are simply not up to it strategy-wise, and in the President's case, perhaps both.

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Posted by Gregory at August 30, 2013 05:04 AM | TrackBack (0)

Excellent, Greg! There are a dozens other reasons to oppose any involvement in Syria. However, the ones you outline here will suffice. There is nothing that will make the ruling Elite wake up to the foolishness, squalor, and waste, of the last 20 years or so, short of a return of draft. Put their kids in the Service. And I don't mean the Peace Corps. Then and only then., will get their attention. Virtual Preening...should not be mistaken for "attention".

Posted by: jonst at August 30, 2013 08:52 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If Obama takes military action against Syria without approval from Congress, this would be a transgression against the Constitution of the highest order. He should then be removed from office with the utmost dispatch.

Posted by: Mogden at August 30, 2013 11:49 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If someone (like jonst above) is totally opposed to any involement in Syria, that makes sense. But if you think it might be desirable for the U.S. military to try for a certain outome there, how does it make sense to decide against trying for that desired outcome because of bad communication coming out of the Administration? Does any of that bad communication make the desired outcome unachievable? Nothing in GD's post indicates this. (And if the answer is no, then who cares about the bad communication? -- the President will give the order but the U.S. military will do the job.)
The post pays lip service to strategy, but mostly just comes off as petulance and offended sensibilities. What this actually has to do with the decision whether to intervene, again, is beyond me.

Posted by: James at August 30, 2013 11:54 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

While I normally tend to agree with you, I don't here. This is how you fight the military-industrial complex. Obama doesn't want to intervene, obviously. He may be morally appalled, as we all are, but he isn't going to be George W. Bush, he isn't going to war over WMD to defend al Qaeda.

But Obama can't just say "no, we're not bombing" after the attacks because the military-industrial complex would have had a hissy fit. So the way you thwart the effort is to drag your feet, to deliberate, to go to the UN, go to our allies, talk about it, let a day then a week then a couple pass. And before you know it, people don't care anymore and don't want to bother. And we're off the hook.

We haven't bombed Syria yet so Obama's foreign policy hasn't failed on Syria, its been brilliant. If he bombs in the end then I'll agree with you, its been a pathetic embarrassment.

Posted by: Nicholas at August 30, 2013 01:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

James, what outcome is to be attempted by the U.S. military, and what rhetoric would aid in that outcome? There hasn't been a damned thing said (think of it: The National Security Advisor to the President of The United States on Twitter. Is Ms. Rice going to weigh in on Mylie Cyrus' twerking next, in 140 characters or less?) in the last three days, which aids in any conceivable desired strategic outcome, to be executed by armed forces of The United States. This is yet another Administration filled with people who just cannot shut up, and who have no idea of how to employ rhetoric towards achieving a strategic outcome.

Posted by: Will Allen at August 30, 2013 01:14 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Nicholas, if the President of the United States was determined to avoid using the military of the United States to kill people in Syria, as part of the United States' policy with regard to a civil war in Syria, then the President of the United States would have been well advised to avoid pointlessly blathering about a "red line " that Syria's despot must avoid crossing, to prevent the President of the United States changing his "calculus" or "equation".

As to the desires of the military-industrial complex, the "military" part of the complex seems fairly opposed to dropping ordnance on human beings in Syria.

Posted by: Will Allen at August 30, 2013 01:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Mogden, the President and Congress have already demonstrated, via Libya, that there isn't anyone in our nation's capitol who will seriously consider the legitimacy of the President's unilateral war-making powers. That ship has sailed, especially after a subsequent presidential election in which the opposing party wasn't even willing to raise the issue.

Posted by: Will Allen at August 30, 2013 01:31 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I understand you’re using hyperbole a fair amount in this article, but I think you have a couple very basic problems with your argument.

"The incredibly publicized, telegraphed theater around how this will be a deterrent mission to slap bad-boy Bashar’s wrist for his alleged use of CW "

Obama’s attempt to deter (the Red Line statement), has already failed. The relation of military response to deterrence is only that it makes future attempts at deterrence more believable.

"as we break international law ourselves via the putative response"

Be specific. When I read this without support I assume you mean that we’re breaking international law because consensus for military action won't get through the UNSC. I find that to be a very weak argument. Almost nothing gets through the UNSC because most major problem states have significant economic relationships with one of the UNSC members, who promptly vetoes any military action (and usually any meaningful sanctions). We throw out “against international law” a lot – and its sometimes legitimate – but that specific instance is silly, and when you spell it out the statement has a lot less teeth if the UNSC is the logic behind it.

"Declare the orgy of speculation and movement of naval carriers have already doubtless ensured the boy dictator will think more carefully in the future using such weaponry. Mission accomplished!"

This is not how deterrence works. When you threaten a reaction and then fluff the response that does not have a future deterrent effect. Rather, it makes your future deterrent efforts significantly less effective because you've already demonstrated you may not back them up.

To be clear - I'm not excited to spend lives and treasure in Syria (and I don't think we will on the first). It's a very hard situation and I’m not sure there is a “right” answer or action.
However, chemical weapons are a big deal, they're also "against international law" for important reasons (though admittedly Syria has not signed That they tend to only get used against domestic populations because that's the easiest to get away with it without the international community freaking out doesn't make their use less bad.
If the inspectors substantiate the chemical weapons use, which I suspect they will, I think some form of response IS best for the world as a whole, notwithstanding the implications for our future deterrent potential.

Please note: I don't normally comment on blogs and may have accidentally double posted this on the previous article - apologies.

Posted by: mattb at August 30, 2013 02:10 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I have to respectfully challenge your premise that the "military" wants this strike. I think it is just the opposite. I think Hagel is against it...but he is saluting and getting ready to carry out his orders. Dempsey is clearly against it. But he too will salute and carry out the orders. I think it is the political wing of the White House, and the R2P types, and finally, thee 'Lobby' that is for this. Perhaps, the "industry" sector, is for it as well. But the driving force is political...the Dems want to look tough. It is as cynical as that. And that is the same reason they did the so called surge in Afghan/Pack. And forget about the given premise of CW's....this is going to take place because Iran and Hezbollah have gained the upper hand in Syria. The CW's, and the tragic and gut wrenching videos are the best way to sell a policy of 'standing' up to Iran. As dopey as that policy may be.

James, your points are, in my opinion well taken, but I read Greg's premise as being that one can go about something so clumsily, so counter-productively, and so silly as to render the *strategic* plan null and void. At least that is part--but only part--of what I see Greg noting.

Mogden, I agree with you 100%.

And Will, there are parts of the GOP starting to "raise the issue" of presidential overreach...I may distrust their motives, and sincerity (to say nothing of the sanity of some of them), but they are raising it. And at high levels of the GOP....which is more, far, far, more than I can say about the what is called the Democratic Party these days.

Posted by: jonst at August 30, 2013 03:02 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Will Allen, thanks for your post. I don't know the answer to your question. My first post is based on the GD lead-in: "Several days ago ... I was extremely conflicted on the question of punitive action in Syria."
If the military doesn't have a military outcome that it has a realistic possibility of achieving, then we shouldn't intervene. My hunch is you and I are in agreement on that.
But nothing that's happened in the last several days has had any impact on this question. So without re-writing my first post (anyone is free to read or reread it or just ignore it), I think GD is suffering from his own lack of seriousness re: how he's apparently resolved being "extremely conflicted."

Posted by: James at August 30, 2013 03:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Nicholas, thanks. Fair point, but is it really that bad? Remember, we aren't starting with a "clean state" situation of stability with Syria. It is already horrific and broken.
So is it really as bad as you've characterized it in your response to me, or is GD just being a drama queen? (which of course is his right on his own blog) I think the latter.

Posted by: James at August 30, 2013 03:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I write as someone with only a layperson's grasp of US foreign policy but a long history in (mostly) Democratic politics. My knee jerk reaction is to support this White House, so it makes me more than a little uncomfortable to write this.

I feel like my college history teacher is running the county. Well-intentioned and brilliant but utterly disassociated from the real world, someone who uses debate to avoid decision.

Whether one supports or opposes a strike in Syria, it's difficult to argue that this isn't one of the more ham-handed, amateur efforts I've ever witnessed from an Oval Office. At this point, no matter what the President chooses to do in Syria, I'll be dissatisfied because neither he nor anyone around him has given me a single reason to trust their skills or judgment.

Posted by: Lynn P at August 30, 2013 05:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

lol @ "he's no Dick Nixon"

like are you kidding me, Dick Nixon would probably HELP Assad gas his own people

Posted by: whysosrs at August 30, 2013 05:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

*"the palpable trigger-happiness among some..."*

OK, stop. Just stop now. Because over the last decade-plus, my memory remains sharp enough to recall the incessant drum-beating for the invasion of Iraq. Where every day, the papers and TV channels were filled with Bush Administration mouthpieces filling the nation with fear over smoking guns and mushroom clouds. THAT, Mr. Djerejian, was trigger-happiness.

Posted by: Gold Star for Robot Boy at August 30, 2013 06:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The clumsiness was in the initial "red line" gauntlet so many months ago. The struggling of the recent days is balanced quite simply by the one single fact: The President Has Not Authorized An Attack. Meanwhile, the Dems are mincing about trying to read his tea leaves, the hawkish GOP is turning dovish, many in military command are expressing opposition to engagement of any kind, and the notion that the President hasn't gone to Congress to seek approval--at this point--looks quite simply like a President who isn't looking to launch, so WHY would he ask for "permission to what is still just a hypothetical?
On the other hand, Susan Rice should have never gotten the job she has, and should be jettisoned as soon as can be, with her behavior this week being cited as Cause.

Posted by: Steve at August 30, 2013 11:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

James, if there is no intention to wage war, then the behavior of the last few days by the Administration is utterly inept. Likewise, if the intent is to roll the iron dice. These people can't shut up, and like most people who can't shut up, the inability is in large measure due to their patting themselves on the back with such vigor.

Posted by: Will Allen at August 30, 2013 11:34 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Everybody is against attacking Syria except the Islamist, Al Qaeda and their lovers

Posted by: Tut Ankh Amon at August 31, 2013 03:15 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I was wrong to use the term "military-industrial complex" because it is too vague and nonspecific. I agree that the military itself is not necessarily on board with this plan and Hagel is following orders.

When I say "military-industrial complex" I am attempting to describe the faction in this country, predominant among the right, but enabled by hawkish democrats, that promotes military force as a solution to any ill. The John McCains of the world, the people over at the Weekly Standard. I mean, there are people in this country who actually think we should be bombing Iran over their nuclear program. Its absurd! Obama knows bombing Iran is absurd!

But in the 2012 election, the "military-industrial complex", defined loosely as I've defined it, demanded to know what Obama would do in the case of Iran for example. Had Obama flat out stated that his goal for Iran is containment (which, it obviously is, and as well it SHOULD be), the MI complex would have flipped out. Again, this transcends partisan lines - many of Obama's fellow democrats might have abandoned him had he said such a thing.

I think Obama understands that he is just one man and he can't fight this powerful faction head on. But he doesn't need to nor does he intend to. He ducks and weaves so that perhaps they can deliver a glancing blow but never a knock-out. Standing still and asserting loudly that he would not bomb Iran, period, would have resulted in an Obama KO. Standing still and asserting loudly that he isn't going to intervene in Syria to defend Al Qaeda, despite the moral obscenity of Assad's action, would have been very damaging.

So he has ducked and weaved and now look where we are. Obama did the most brilliant move possible - he is putting his policy to congress. There's no WAY its going to make it through congress. And thats the whole point! You don't think he knows that? Here again, Obama is going to catch a glancing blow. He is going to lose the congressional vote, and everyone is going to go on the news and say how embarrassing it is, and how weak he is, yada yada yada. Whatever. It will be a far better outcome to take the issue to congress & be thwarted, by the way re-establishing the precedent of the President asking for permission which the American people will love and hopefully continue to expand & demand from here on out, which in itself is a HUGE victory for Obama. But the outcome also prevents a strike on Syria, which Obama clearly doesn't want.

Obama will have beaten the MI complex, as I define it, at their own game. Obama didn't box himself in before the 2012 election, the MI complex demanded to know where he stood on Iran, etc. They wanted to see his lines. Romney was pummeling him about it. So Obama gave them his lines. Now he is erasing those lines, and by bringing the issue to congress and demanding their approval, he is destroying the idea that a president can even HAVE lines. Which is exactly where Obama wanted to be years ago but couldn't, lest he be destroyed politically before the election.

Like I said, if we bomb, I rescind everything I've said and I will call this foreign policy to be an abject failure and a humiliation. But I don't think we will. No way this makes it through congress. Fucking brilliant...I love it. Its been like watching a chess-master.

Posted by: Nicholas at September 1, 2013 09:43 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Oh, for the love of Metternich, Nicholas, will you give us a large freakin' break? You don't have to assert anything loudly about Syria to avoid stupidly yammering nonsense about "red lines", or some of the gibberish that has spewed forth in te last week. You may have missed it, but your chessmaster hero has still not conceded that he must gain Congressional approval in order to make an attack on Syria legal. Of course, he already demonstrated, in Libya, that he firmly believes that he does have the legal power to unilaterally wage war, because if need be, he can simply declare that the words "fighting" or "hostilities" don't encompass dropping ordnance on human beings.

This is all nonsense, which would be humorous, if not for the corpses.

Posted by: Will Allen at September 1, 2013 01:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The Obama team has bungled this response. However, bungled timelines, procedural missteps and leaks do not constitute the disaster this author asserts. What will matter down the line will be if the US manages to keep itself out of this conflict and not get the US tied in to another war in the Middle East. Nobody will remember or care about this clumsiness if US ultimately stays out. Conversely, Obama would receive no credit if with a unified, well timed voice and an unsuccessful UN security council vote we were dragged into another Mid East Civil War.

Posted by: Mick at September 2, 2013 03:07 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This is the most incoherent gibberish I have ever seen Mr. Djerejian write, speaking as someone who has at times been an admirer. It lacks almost completely an explanation of what exactly the administration, has done, you know, wrong, except that apparently they have, a, informed the American people of their intentions beforehand - to do anything else would be a cariacture of George Bush, Dick Nixon, and every other sneak and reckless failure or autocrat in history. Oh, and they're on twitter. Which doesn't mean a thing about anything. Oh, and people Greg Djerejian thinks are important don't agree with the deicision, which means it is by definition a bad decision, even though Greg himself didn't know what to do like a week ago.

Oh, and it glancingly references a few other things that Barack Obama does not control, like the timing of a vote in the British parliament.

What a bunch of superstitious and catty crap. Heads up: the guy is trying to do something unpopular. That requires dialogue. If you are mad that he is trying to do something you don't want him to do, man up and make that case. Instead, you are hiding behind some kind of literally incoherent excuse about poor execution.

"Robust security council dialogue"? Are you kidding me? Exactly what hearts and mind are going to give a withered fuck about the extensiveness of the security council dialogue? The security council has been debating Syria for years. Make up your mind, is there too much theater or not enough?

Embarassing. You're not a pro anymore. You're just ranting at people to get off your lawn.

Posted by: glasnost at September 3, 2013 02:46 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The inherent problem that GD reveals with his clumsy and epiphanic indignation is that he's a closet Obama-ite in desperate search of Obama. It isn't an easy thing to discover that one's hopes were pinned on an apparition. We are witnessing regret, pains of disappointment and another wounded Quixote on the dizzy left.

Obama has long been, is and will be the Mount-Rushmore wannabe bobble-head president who functions on the basis of Not-Present. Thus having a beer summit approximates decision-making. Or Obamacare becomes the glorious plan no one mentions. Gitmo is postponed. Yet again. Long aided by the supine msm, Obama hides his deficiency and own spinelessness in plain sight. Sorry if that disturbs, Greg.

This is not an ideological postulate but political reality. That reality just becomes all the more manifest on the world stage. E.g., Obama's Syrian directives are neither directives nor imperatives nor clarity nor even Churchillian spit; instead, he crafts a Red Line that is sort of half red and half pink when push comes to shove, which is to say, Obama's true colors is that of an artistic do-nothing. He must be part French.

Moreover, I doubt I need waste a word on Benghazi....

What we'll ultimately see, of course, in the now-abandoned streets, munitions dumps and factories in Syria, is an upgraded-level E-Tech drone war. It might last as long (read: short) as the W/H video coined, and become just as watched, as the bin-Laden extraction. Call it World of Warcraft, director's cut, Assad version.

Drones are Obama's antiseptic kill-toy with which he can both wash his conscience and then wash his hands, of all affairs warlike. The drones will piss off the locals, crystallize the zealots and satiate the DC dogs of war. What the drones shalln't do is to bother Assad. He's already tucked away in the Kremlin's safe house, playing his own species of pretend leader.

Speaking of the dogs of war, when Graham and McCain are your two consiglieres on any matter, especially concerning blood-lust, it's time to admit you really don't have a friggin' clue.

Posted by: resh at September 7, 2013 10:18 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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