Saturday, February 09, 2013

Fred Hiatt's Gang Misses the Point

In a rather churlish, unsigned editorial, immediately after suggesting that President Obama did not intervene in Syria due to political concerns,1, the Washington Post Editorial Board complains,
Mr. Obama’s reasons for quashing the Syria plan were surely not purely political. But the president’s only public explanation for his resistance, in a recent interview with the New Republic, amounted to excuse-making. He wondered why he should concern himself with Syria and not the civil war in the Congo, as if the United States cannot intervene in any war unless it does in all; he asked whether providing weapons to rebels would “trigger even worse violence,” ignoring the testimony of his own aides that, under his present policy, the carnage “every day . . . it gets worse,” as new Secretary of State John F. Kerry put it.
What the President actually said was,
Every morning, I have what's called the PDB—presidential daily briefing—and our intelligence and national security teams come in here and they essentially brief me on the events of the previous day. And very rarely is there good news. And a big chunk of my day is occupied by news of war, terrorism, ethnic clashes, violence done to innocents. And what I have to constantly wrestle with is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity.

And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations. In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?

Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can. You make the decisions you think balance all these equities, and you hope that, at the end of your presidency, you can look back and say, I made more right calls than not and that I saved lives where I could, and that America, as best it could in a difficult, dangerous world, was, net, a force for good.
Hiatt's editorial board plucks out the one statement, the comparison to the Congo war, and ignores the rest. Why? Because it's easier to misunderstand or misrepresent that last statement, and thereby to advance the editorial position of the Washington Post, as opposed to responding to any other point the President made... or giving that statement an accurate reading.

The President was responding to the argument often made, and explicitly made in the editorial board's argument, that "we have to do something because people are dying." It may be an unpleasant reality to face, but the President was pointing out the fact that people are dying in nations other than Syria and the U.S. cannot intervene everywhere. The implied invitation to Hiatt's crew is not to snivel, "that's excuse-making", but to explain why Syria is different. Why do they favor intervening in Syria to "save lives" when they are content to let the Congo region bleed?

Also, concern that arming factions in Syria could make the conflict worse is not overcome by the argument that things are getting worse without intervention. The Post makes no attempt to counter the President's position, or even to argue that intervention would be more likely to stabilize the region or in a worst-case scenario be a wash. If you're headed toward a brick wall at 60 MPH, stepping on the accelerator will worsen the situation. That doesn't change at 70 MPH or 80 MPH - the situation still gets worse.

It's reasonable to infer from its past editorial positions that the Post is not particularly concerned about the post-war, because if the "moderate" groups that are armed to topple Assad turn out to be... not so moderate when they take control of the country, or are ultimately defeated by more radical forces, they would be content to have the U.S. invade and occupy Syria. For those of us who aren't as eager to have the U.S. invade nations in the Middle East, though, it makes sense to avoid taking steps that can further destabilize the region or necessitate another unnecessary $trillon military adventure.
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1. The editorial claims, "So why was the Petraeus plan rejected? According to the Times, Mr. Petraeus and Ms. Clinton were rebuffed when they presented the plan to the White House. At the time, Mr. Obama was in the midst of an reelection campaign in which he frequently assured voters that “the tide of war is receding."

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