George Packer reveals his interior monologue about the great foreign policy dilemma du jour. Damned if we do and damned if we don't. If this is a (fair & balanced) illustration of a conundrum, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Two Minds On Syria
By George Packer
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
So it looks like we’re going to bomb Assad.
Really? Why good?
Did you see the videos of those kids? I heard that ten thousand people were gassed. Hundreds of them died. This time, we have to do something.
Yes, I saw the videos.
And you don’t want to pound the shit out of him?
I want to pound the shit out of him.
But you think we shouldn’t do anything.
I didn’t say that. But I want you to explain what we’re going to achieve by bombing.
We’re going to let Assad know that chemical weapons are over the line. There’s a reason they’ve been illegal since Verdun or whenever.
Except when Saddam used them against the Kurds—we knew, and we didn’t say a word.
Is that a reason to let Assad use them against his people?
At this point, I don’t think Assad is too worried about the Geneva Conventions.
He should have to think hard before using them again.
He’s a bloody dictator fighting for survival. He’s going to do whatever he has to do.
Not if we really hurt him. Not if we pound his communications centers, his air-force bases, key government installations. He’ll be more likely to survive if he doesn’t use chemical weapons.
Killing civilians while we’re at it.
These would be very specific targets.
The wrong people always get killed.
Maybe. Probably. But if you were a Syrian being bombed by Assad every day, trying to keep your head down and your family alive, wouldn’t you want the world to respond, even if a few more people die? I think so.
Easy for you to say.
Hey, can we not personalize this?
Weren’t you just saying that I don’t care about dying children? (Pause.) So you want us to get involved in their civil war.
I’m not saying that.
But that’s what we’ll be doing. Intervening on the rebel side, tipping the balance in their favor.
Not necessarily. We’ll be drawing a line that says dictators don’t get to use W.M.D.s without consequences.
You can’t bomb targets on one side of a civil war without helping the other side.
It would be very temporary. We’d send Assad a clear message, and then we’d step back and let them go on fighting. We’re not getting involved any deeper than that, because I know what you’re going to say—
The rebels are a bunch of infighting, disorganized, jihadist thugs, and we can’t trust any of them.
I’m not saying we should.
And what do we do if Assad retaliates against Israel or Turkey? Or if he uses nerve gas somewhere else?
We hit him again.
And it escalates.
Not if we restrict it to cruise missiles and air strikes.
Now you’re scaring me. Have you forgotten Iraq?
Not for a single minute.
My point is that you can’t restrict it. You can’t use force for limited goals. You need to know what you’ll do after his next move, and the move after that.
It only escalates if we allow ourselves to get dragged in deeper. Kosovo didn’t escalate.
This isn’t Kosovo. The Syrian rebels aren’t the K.L.A. Assad isn’t Milosevic. Putin isn’t Yeltsin. This is far worse. Kosovo became a U.N. protectorate. That’s not going to happen in Syria.
You think Putin is going to risk a military confrontation with the U.S. and Europe?
I think Russia isn’t going to let Assad go down. Neither is Iran or Hezbollah. So they’ll escalate. This could be the thing that triggers an Israel-Iran war, and how do we stay out of that? My God, it feels like August, 1914.
That was a hundred years ago. Stop with the historical analogies.
You’re the one who brought up Verdun. And Kosovo.
I brought up Kosovo because you brought up Iraq. That’s the problem with these arguments. Iraq! Vietnam! Valley Forge! Agincourt! People resort to analogies so they don’t have to think about the matter at hand.
And because they don’t know anything about the matter at hand.
I know what I saw in those videos.
Thank God Obama doesn’t make foreign policy that way. He knows what he doesn’t know about Syria. He’s always thinking a few steps ahead. He’s not going to get steamrolled by John McCain and Anderson Cooper.
At a certain point, caution is another word for indecisiveness. Obama looks weak! Or worse—indifferent. Anyway, he should have thought ahead when he called chemical weapons a “red line.” He set that trap a year ago, and now we’re in it.
Why does it have to be a trap?
Because our credibility is on the line.
Thank you, Dr. Kissinger.
See, that’s another thing people do in these arguments.
“You sound like so-and-so.” It shouldn’t matter who else is on your side. I mean, you’re in bed with Rand Paul. Anyway, credibility matters even if Kissinger said so. You have to do what you say you’re going to do, especially with bullies.
I don’t think Obama committed himself to any one course of action. But if he does bomb them, we’re involved in that war, and I sure hope his advisers have thought through all the potential consequences better than you have.
Inaction has consequences, too. Assad gases more people, the death toll hits two hundred thousand, the weapons get into Hezbollah’s hands, Iran moves ahead with its nuclear program, the Syrian rebels disintegrate and turn to international terrorism, the whole region goes up in sectarian flames.
And how does firing cruise missiles at Damascus prevent any of this?
It doesn’t. But, look, all of this is already happening with us sitting it out. If we put a gun to Assad’s head, we might be able to have more influence over the outcome. At least we can prevent him from winning.
A violent stalemate. How wonderful for the Syrians. Some people think that’s the best solution for us.
I’m not saying that.
What are you saying?
I don’t know. I had it worked out in my head until we started talking. (Pause.) But we need to do something this time.
Not just to do something.
All right. Not just to do something. But could you do me a favor?
While you’re doing nothing, could you please be unhappy about it?
I am. Ω
[After graduating from Yale, George Packer served in the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa. Packer has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since May 2003. His most recent books include The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq (2005), Betrayed (2009), and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (2013).]
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