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Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Let us begin, for the sake of argument, by laying down two premises:  First, what Assad is doing is awful, deeply immoral, and without excuse.  Second, America's hands are so bloody in the Middle East that there is nothing it can do that is not compromised by past actions [and current ones.]  So, what if anything should the rest of the world community do?  [I am under no illusions that the hands of other nations are less bloody.]  Is there anything at all that anyone can do that will actually effectively stop the slaughter of innocents?  Can anyone with much more knowledge than I identify any actors in the Syrian theater that, by some reasonable moral standard, ought to emerge victorious?  Is it even clear what "victorious" could mean?

America is the richest and most powerful nation on earth, and there are any number of things it could have done over the past half century that would have stimulated and facilitated a better state of affairs in the entire region than now exists, including, of course, in Egypt.  But having said that, can we identify anything that ought to be done now?

Ought we simply to wash our hands of the situation and avert our eyes from the slaughter?  If not, then what?

I freely admit I have no idea what the answers are to these questions, and I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has either specialist knowledge or else just less compromised moral intuitions than I.


Michael Llenos said...

There was a guest professor on the PBS news hour who said that we should not get involved in Syria because France and Great Britain did not get involved in our own American Civil War.

However, our forbears fought the Civil War over slavery, while in Syria, the government there is now bent on genocide, proven by the use of chemical weapons on Sunni Muslims. Albeit both are nefarious, with slavery there is no spill over into other countries, but there is so with genocide and the use of chemical weapons, especially in our modern era.

The limited use of airstrikes that worked in the Serbia region could work in Syria. Although, the limited use of Special Ops troops in Syria is questionable, and I believe the U.S. government should make darn sure that there is no repetition of Operation Restore Hope that took place in 1993.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you for that. I encourage everyone to weigh in, because I am genuinely at sea on this one.

C Rossi said...

Yes Syria is a mess, and sadly the US, along with our pals in the region the great democrats in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, has has much to do with it. Bashar al-Assad is a dictator, but Syria is (or was) a fairly pluralistic, secular, and functional state by regional standards. However, the human rights record is among the worst in the world. Assad is an Alawi Shite, a minority of a minority in Syria, but six other political parties in addition to Assad's neo-Baathist party are allowed to exist and have seats in the government. It's not Switzerland, but it's a functional state. It had a good education system, a highly educated population, and was a safe haven for many of those from the Iraqi diaspora. In 2011 during Saudi-backed rebellions by various Sunni groups, Hilary Clinton declared as US policy that Assad must go without specifying why, or how, or where. The US declared its support for the Syrian National Coalition as the "sole representative of the Syrian people." Since then, the US has probably been engaged in covert mischief and been supporting the so-called Free Syrian Army (some ragtag groups that are not free or in some cases Syrian, and only by deep analogy an army). Many of the Sunni groups in the rebellion (if that's what it is) are of the worse sort of Sunni fundamentalists: Salafis, Wahhabis, and Takfiri groups who believe that all other Muslims (including fellow Sunnis) are kafir (infidel) and may be killed with impunity. Many of Syria's Sunnis are somewhat secular. Victory by any of these groups would be disastrous for Syria, and the US seems to be encouraging such a victory while claiming that our rebels are Syrian freedom-fighters. During that 2011 uprising, the Assad government proposed a constitution that was approved by vote of the Syrian people (I don't know whether you can trust the vote, but then, the vote is not always to be trusted in Florida either). There are elections scheduled in 2014 in which Assad will have to run for President. If this crisis continues, those elections will likely never happen. It's hard to admit, but it seems that Assad is fighting for both the continuation of his lousy regime and the continued existence of the state of Syria.

It's interesting to note that in 2000, there were four secular, functional states in the Arab Middle East and North Africa: Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. All four were run by dictators, two of whom were probably psychopaths, but they were intergrated states. Eqypt is now a post-Islamicist mess; Iraq is a kind of Shia theocracy, Libya exists only as a name on a map, and Syria is ready to be destroyed. The US isn't responsible for all of this, but we've haven't helped.

This should not be taken as a plea for Bashar al-Assad but rather for the Syrian people to have an opportunity to test their constitution. The US should keep out. We now say that after the atrocious chemical attacks we will attack Syria in "defense of international norms." The same international norms we have been flouting in Pakistan, Yemen, and wherever else out drones strike.

David Auerbach said...

I would second Rossi, and add that killing people in order that others stop killing other people rarely works out.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Professor [Mr? Ms?] Rossi, thank you for that long, thoughtful comment. I accept all of what you say [from a much more knowledgeable position than I can offer]. I feel stymied. That we as a people and as a state bear a good deal of responsibility for the disastrous state of affairs [but not all of the responsibility, by any means] is clear. Yet I ask myself: Suppose I were a policy maker in the State Department or the White House [an unimaginable hypothetical, of course]. What now, today, at this juncture, would I recommend?

Clearly [as David Auerbach wisely observes] there is much to be said for not killing people in the hope or expectation that that will stop other people from killing still other people! And yet, since we have, as a nation, chosen to spend money and make the arrangements over seventy years to have at our disposal vast amounts of military power, what if anything should we do with that power now?

I very much fear that we will end up doing something bloody, ineffective, expensive, and endless. The worst of all worlds.

canonfodder said...

Unified theory of seemingly internecine slaughter:


divide et regere
[no such thing as a Civil war]

canonfodder said...

[no such thing as socratic ignorance]

Knewit AllAlong
[denying the obvious]

Magpie said...

I am afraid I cannot contribute to the discussion in any other way than to say that I share Prof. Wolff's feelings.

I can see nothing good coming out of this.

Incidentally, although so far the situation in Egypt has not reached the apocalyptic extremes of Syria (and let's pray it doesn't) everything in the Middle East seems to exceed my understanding.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

This is alweays the fate of empires. Think of Rome in ancient England, of Great Britain in India [even though the English learned a great deal more about India than we have ever learned about the Middle East], of Russia in Afghanistan, and of course the U.S. in Viet Nam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and lord knows where else.

C Rossi said...

Professor Wolff:

I agree that nothing good will come of US intervention. This era's Colin Powell, John Kerry (we Vietnam era veterans used to hold his name dear) said that we will not change conditions on the ground (how can a strike against one side in a civil war not change conditions?) and that we are not interested in regime change (countries we don't like have regimes, we and our friends have governments or better yet administrations). The consensus seems to be that the West (whatever that is these days) must appear strong and save face. The French and British will be our partners in this affair, two countries seen in the Levant as their former colonial masters and surely not beloved. That will help our cause and our standing in the region. Many will die for a short-term ego boost for the declining powers.

Thanks for stimulating this discussion.

Charles Rossi (Mr. but I prefer Chuck)

Unknown said...

Things on the ground are in flux. There are too many unknowns to make a wise choice. Even if military action succeeds in its immediate objectives, the fallout for America and the region is too hard to predict.
Is it the right of America to police the world? Maybe we have an obligation given how we damaged the region; but other countries had a hand in that as well.
In any political decision I feel you need to consider the relevant goods involved plus the rights of the actors; these we can discuss with the help of experts; but before you act it is very helpful to be aware of the likely consequences; in Syria and the Middle East there is too much uncertainty to act wisely even if it is imperative to take some kind of action

Unknown said...

The last comment attributed to unknown was by Howie

Unknown said...

The use of chemical weapons is, of course, terrible, no matter which side used them, but so is the entire situation in Syria in which 100,000 people have died so far. Are these deaths less terrible because they were not the result of chemical weapons? And does anyone really believe that the United States has not been involved in supporting the rebellion with the objective of replacing tthe Assad government with one more compliant with the United States and as an important step in getting at Iran? In calling the use of chemical weapons in this instance "a moral obscenity" Kerry has conveniently forgotten that the United States used chemical weapons (napalm, Agent Orange) on an enormous scale in Vietnam and supported Saddam Hussein's use of them against Iran, also on a scale that dwarfs the present situation. The professed outrage over the as yet unproven use of chemical weapons by the Assad government is just a convenient cover for justifying an attack on the Assad government for political reasons.

NotHobbes said...

@ Michael Llenos, if your civil war was fought over slavery then why did it take almost 18 months of fighting before Emancipation Declaration?
Anyway, enough of being off on tangent

Situation in Syria has only changed through use of chemical weapons. The conflict has raged for almost two years now and the world has sat idly by and done nothing. Is it somehow worse being killed by chemical weapons than by 'ordinary' ordnance? You're still dead. I don't think mortar shells intelligently select combatant targets do they? Or incendiary bombs only burn legitimate targets?
Belated unilateral action will not solve anything
A solution two years ago would have been a UN peacekeeping force, I do not know what the future holds for the Syrian people and fear for them for generations to come :-(

Michael Llenos said...


I didn't know the exact dating of of the E.D., so thanks for the information.

What I know, however, is that Abraham Lincoln (and possibly the Repbulican party) were covert in the beginning stages of freeing the slaves in the south, and not overt about it until later on. They needed the majority of the masses to agree with them before the true agenda could come out.

And I realize the southern rebellion from the union was no subterfuge for the war. But many northern politicians wanted war for the sake of the slaves.