Thursday, September 05, 2013

Why Can't Applebaum Simply Admit That She Favors A Full-Scale Invasion of Syria

I have heard an argument floated in relation to Syria that I find absurd: that we need to arm rebel factions to the point that they can imminently topple the Assad regime, and once that happens all of the parties can be brought to the bargaining table where they'll hammer out a lasting peace agreement. First, it's difficult to imagine the argument being made in a context in which the speaker hoped to preserve the government that is under threat. History tells us that defenders of the government will take the opposite position - that peace talks won't be possible until the traitors and terrorists lay down their arms. Second, that's not a context in which either side is likely to want to run to the bargaining table. The government in danger of being toppled has too much to lose, and the "rebel factions" that are poised to depose the government have little incentive to lay down their arms and accept a deal that keeps the threatened regime in place. Third, in a case like Syria's, there are many armed factions. You would not only have to convince every significant faction to join and maintain a ceasefire, you would have to broker a peace deal that they all found satisfactory, and that they all trusted to the point that they don't turn their guns on each other or insist upon carving the nation into territories under the control of various warlords.

Nonetheless, I was not surprised to see Ann Applebaum implicate that argument,
Back in June, the Group of Eight called for “urgent” peace talks. But there are no negotiations to speak of, in part because the Syrian rebels continue to hang on for Western military support that always seems to be just around the corner but never quite materializes.
The rebels are too weak, and too much in danger of losing, to engage in peace talks? Then why, dare I ask, does Applebaum suppose that turning the tables on the government will make Assad's regime rush to the negotiating table?

Applebaum's piece is snarky, first at Clinton for not acting quickly enough to intervene in Bosnia, and next at President Obama for not acting more quickly in Syria. Applebaum suggests that Presidents should not engage in rhetoric about foreign leaders needing to change their ways or resign unless they're willing to promptly back up those words with military force.
Two decades ago, five years ago and today, the source of the problem is the same: The president of the United States wishes to represent things — justice, fairness, international norms — that he cannot, or will not, or doesn’t know how to defend in practice. In the future, it would be far more just, and far less cruel, for the president, and the rest of us, simply to say nothing at all.
I am not convinced by Applebaum's suggestion that the world, upon hearing the President call for a foreign leader to step down, understands that to be a threat of invasion if the leader chooses to remain in power. I think her implication that a government should not make a statement on an undesirable foreign situation unless it is either prepared to take military action or immediately qualifies its comments, but we're not going to do anything about it, is just plain wrong. We can't criticize human rights in China unless we're prepared to invade? We can't press for the release of dissidents in Burma and call for free elections unless we're prepared to invade? Come on.

Applebaum argues that the President has threatened force in Syria, then backed away from the threat, then again threatened force.
For example, in August 2011 Obama declared: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” To Syrians fighting on the ground, that may have sounded like a promise that U.S. military support, or at least substantial military aid, was imminent.
May have? It also may have sounded like the President was saying that it was time for President Assad to step aside, and it may well be that they were smart enough to figure out that there was no actual or implied threat of imminent military action.
This June, the White House authorized the CIA to begin arming some of the Syrian rebels. This sounded even more like a promise, but as of last week that aid also had yet to arrive.
Were Applebaum more honest, she would share the reasons for that delay as stated in her own source, the anything-but Obama Administration-friendly Wall Street Journal,
U.S. officials attribute the delay in providing small arms and munitions from the CIA weapons program to the difficulty of establishing secure delivery "pipelines" to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands, in particular Jihadi militants also battling the Assad regime.
By virtue of her marriage, Applebaum has very close ties to the international diplomatic community, and certainly has many people in her virtual Rolodex from whom she could easily get a reality check on the Administration's concerns. If she believes that the officials are incorrect, she could present a cogent argument to that effect. The fact that Applebaum instead chooses to misrepresent the reason for the delay suggests that she's not trying to be balanced, or even accurate.
The president famously declared a year ago that the use of chemical weapons constituted a “red line” in Syria. But now that the red line has been crossed, the president has decided that he needs congressional support before he can respond. This is perfectly legitimate — but shouldn’t it have been obtained earlier, at the time the promise was made? Certainly the Syrian regime interpreted the president’s sudden and unexpected desire for congressional support as a “historic American retreat.” Its media gloated accordingly.
Okay... so it's "perfectly legitimate" for the President to go through Congress before launching a military action, but it also is honest for Syria's state-controlled media to characterize that legitimate action as a retreat? Which does Applebaum want - for the President to follow statutory law and the text of the Constitution, or to cast those trivialities aside to prevent a propaganda sheet in Syria from misrepresenting what it means to follow democratic process?

As for the notion that the President could have sought Congressional pre-approval for military action in the event of Syria's use of chemical weapons, that's true of pretty much anything the President says on foreign policy - but you can't take everything to Congress. Why does Applebaum believe Congress would have gone along with such a request, that Boehner and the Tea Party would be ready to give the President the discretion to initiate a military action based upon something that few at the time believed was likely to happen? Does she believe that the Republicans would have been more cooperative a year ago, when the use of chemical weapons was considered unlikely, than they are today when their use has been documented? If so, I would love to hear her explanation.
If you wanted to do so, you could read something sinister into these tactics. Perhaps, some unnamed officials suggested to the Wall Street Journal this week, these delays and sudden changes are intentional: Perhaps the administration’s point is to “tilt” the fighting away from Assad but to prevent an outright rebel victory — in other words, to prolong the war.
Unnamed officials? So we're talking about what... leaks within the White House, suggesting that the President is only following what Applebaum deems to be a legitimate course of action because he hopes to perpetuate the civil war? Let's turn back to the WSJ:
Many rebel commanders say the aim of U.S. policy in Syria appears to be a prolonged stalemate that would buy the U.S. and its allies more time to empower moderates and choose whom to support.

"The game is clear to all," said Qassem Saededdine, a spokesman for the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council. "When it comes to the interests of superpowers…the average Syrian comes last."

Some congressional officials said they were concerned the administration was edging closer to an approach privately advocated by Israel. Israeli officials have told their American counterparts they would be happy to see its enemies Iran, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and al Qaeda militants fight until they are weakened, giving moderate rebel forces a chance to play a bigger role in Syria's future.
So while Syrian rebels are depicted as being frustrated that the White House is not simply arming everybody, but appears to be considering arming only those groups whose goals are not hostile to U.S. interests, something that is consistent with the facts, these unnamed "congressional officials" are imagining a secret conspiracy between the Obama Administration and Israel. One can hardly imagine why they don't want to attach their names to the accusation....

I'm curious, also, as to what it means to be a "congressional official". I know what a Member of Congress is. Their staff members aren't officials. I can see why Applebaum chose to say only "officials", but knowing the context I don't find the omission to be particularly honest.
If so, this administration is even more ruthlessly cynical than its critics have maintained, and Syrian conspiracy theorists are right on the mark.
Except the Syrian statement wasn't a conspiracy theory. The Syrian statement was sensible and consistent with the Obama Administration's statements on the provision of military aid - it's perfectly reasonable to conclude that the Obama Administration hopes to "empower moderates and choose whom to support". It was the unnamed congressional "officials" who were pushing the conspiracy theory and Applebaum herself who is choosing to treat it as a serious possibility.
But whether that is true hardly matters because the effect is the same:...
No, I think the truth does matter. First, I think it matters that columnists like Applebaum try to present the truth, rather than misrepresenting their sources and giving air to conspiracy theories before concluding that truth is irrelevant. Second, I think it does matter if the President's delay results from his taking care to avoid potentially turning Syria over to a government not far removed from the Taliban. To somebody who favors such an outcome that may constitute putting the interests of the average Syrian last, but for those who want Syria to have a more enlightened future the truth lies in the opposite direction.
As happened in Bosnia, American pontification, prevarication and postponement in Syria have preempted the policies of others and delayed negotiations. The civil war continues; with every month the devastation increases, the refugees multiply and the levels of political extremism rise. Back in June, the Group of Eight called for “urgent” peace talks.
Such alliteration. It's always fun when a columnist gets in touch with her inner Safire. What's missing is any explanation of how the Administration's failure to... I guess, invade Syria or at least indiscriminately arm its rebel factions without concern for their goals or whether weapons end up in the hands of terrorists... has preempted the polices of "others". Who are these "others", what are their "policies", and why are they sitting somewhere, invisible, silent, and unnamed, as Applebaum takes up their cause. I understand why Applebaum's "It's a conspiracy between Obama and Israel" officials don't want to be named, but this isn't the first season of Lost - who are these others?

The Group of Eight... That wold be Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the U.K., the E.U., and the United States. Of those eight, the U.S. is proposing military action, France has indicated that it won't act unless the U.S. first authorizes military action, the U.K. and Germany have voted against military action, Russia is protesting that Assad is innocent, the Prime Minister of Canada has stated that he has "no plans" for a direct military mission, Italy insists that any military action should be preceded by a U.N. mandate, and Japan is sitting on the fence pending a final U.S. decision. Which of those nations does Applebaum believe to be more hawkish than the U.S., and to have had its plans and hopes crushed by the fact that the U.S. is exercising caution and following constitutonal process?

I was curious, given the circumstances, to see what Poland had to say about the issue. Would Poland be a pillar of Applebaum-endorsed virtue, ready to do the most it could to punish the criminal Assad regime?
Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced last week that Poland will not be taking part in any military action in Syria, though Minister Sikorski said on Monday night that he has told US secretary of state John Kerry that, “Poland does not have the capability [to take part in a military strike] but understands the situation”.

As President Obama tries to win support from Congress for a military strike, Minister Sikorski said in an interview with the TVP public broadcaster: “In my judgement a chemical attack occurred, most likely by the Assad regime. The use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians, their own citizens, is unacceptable”.

“The use of chemical weapons in the twenty-first century sets a very dangerous precedent,” Sikorski said, adding that, "President Obama's decision to give more time to convince the US Congress gives a chance for Russia and China to change their positions.”
So the official position of Poland, as articulated by Applebaum's husband, is that (a) Assad probably used chemical weapons, and that is wholly unacceptable, (b) Poland won't contribute so much as a Zloty toward any military action, and (c) the Obama Administration is correct to go through Congress and the associated delay could help the world achieve a diplomatic solution?

Perhaps the Applebaum household is among those in which the spouses simply don't discuss politics.....

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