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Sunday, September 08, 2013


It is, to say the least, weird to hear people speak of "harm" to the President should he fail to get a vote from Congress authorizing actually harming civilians by remote control in our name.

As Heidi Klum says, in fashion one day you're in, and the next day you're out. But in presidential politics you're in until you lose or leave office. Political punditry really needs to retain the distinction. Obama may be "down" rather than "up" if he "loses" the upcoming vote -- but there are countless people with real lives to lose were he to "win," and it is hard to see what he would really win should he win. How long is a win a win when it yields no change in the status quo, or if it precipitates more atrocities, or if it escalates regional tensions, or if it draws us deeper into a pointless ruinously costly already universally unpopular war?

Is it really true that not acting on the violation of "a red line" will diminish the credibility of the United States more than when the United States has failed to act on past violations (as when Republicans made trade agreements and sold arms to Iraq at the very moment when such chemical weapons were being used to kill some of its citizens), or, for that matter, the many times the United States has indeed acted on such grounds in ways that yielded bad results in serially failed armed conflicts around the world? The credibility of the United States, whatever that is supposed to be philosophically, is made of money and bombs and that will remain exactly as true if Congress says no or Congress says yes in coming days to the President's request.

President Obama has lost lots of high-profile votes already, from guns to Grand Bargains. Losses are old hat, and there are plenty of narratives readily available for him to slot this next one into that are as likely to damage his opponents and bolster his credibility as not. Apart from WaPo and Politico pundits wringing their hands about which kids look tough in the playground or sit at the cool table in the cafeteria by their reckoning, the President and his party are as likely as not to benefit from the President's consultation with Congress in matters of war even if he doesn't get what he seems to want from that consultation, and if not getting what he wants means Americans getting what they do seem very much to want themselves (no war), it isn't hard to imagine that soon enough President Obama will decide that what he really wanted wasn't exactly what he thought he wanted anyway. Nobody can know exactly how the politics will play out, indeed the only certainty in all this is the fact that bombing Syria will mean innocent civilians will be blown up in our names.

Within weeks there will be a host of long-postponed high-stakes budgetary and policy issues from sequestration to the debt ceiling to immigration for the Administration to cope with in the face of the criminally obstructionist and hopelessly dysfunctional Republicans dominating Congress. I suspect that in the midst of that mass-mediated scrum, the war-crimes of the Syrian dictator will come to matter to Americans, and to their government, precisely as much as they have done for years now. Which is to say, not very much. I can't shake the sense that the Syrian episode has been propelled by reportorial boredom in August as much as by anything else, and its political stakes will abide or decline in ways that reflect this frankly disgusting fact of the matter.

None of this is to deny the horrifying reality of Assad's brutally violent response to non-violent protestors two years ago or the scale of his atrocities as that protest assumed the demoralizing contours of war-crimes and mass-graves from lethal weapons, both "conventional" and "proscribed," in an armed multi-sectarian civil war. But we would all do well to remember that a willingness to slaughter civilians by aerial bombardment isn't exactly the only or best way in the world to demonstrate we are aghast at human rights abuses when it comes to that.

1 comment:

jollyspaniard said...

All this talk about red lines and credibility is strictly spin for the domestic audience. The people who have the bombs dropped on them tend to disbelieve it.