Bob Schwartz

Tag: Syria

Syria Again (Weary and Helpless)

I’ve stopped counting the number of posts I’ve written about Syria. The most recent back in December, right before Christmas, was Syria: Things Fall Apart: “This is a season of light for many people, but in Syria it is getting darker every day.”

More than three years ago, the post was Syria and the Fog of Or Else:

Hints of chemical weapons allowed Obama to employ his own red line: no chemical weapons—or else. Because of world history and established international agreement, certain weapons of mass destruction are deemed so out of bounds that action is semi-automatically called for. That is, using chemical weapons trumps sovereignty. The international community might stand by for the internal slaughter of thousands, no matter how inhumane, but it is quasi-obligated to answer when certain civilized conventions come into play. In other words, the chemical weapons would offer a license to act, even if the other inhumanities didn’t

A license to act—if we knew what we could reasonably achieve, if people believe that it is worth losing lives to enforce the ban on chemical weapons, if it is actually about chemical weapons, if acting doesn’t make matters worse, if we knew exactly what we planned to do and how we would deal with all the possible aftermaths. None of which is clear now. None of which is likely to be clear anytime soon.

Welcome to the fog of or else.

The “hints” of chemical weapons aren’t just hints any more. They are being dropped in bombs. If it was dark in December just before Christmas, it is darker in April, just before Passover and Easter. Why mention those holidays? I could try to explain by making some clever intellectual and theological connections, but I’m really not sure, and anyway I’m not up to it. I am weary of writing about Syria. And I am weary of nonsense, and of comfortable leaders making others suffer, and of comfortable leaders pontificating and politicizing and pretending to be more moral and smarter than they actually might be. They may mean ill or well, but meanwhile, there is the fog and the darkness and things falling apart in Syria. And most of us are helpless to make it better.

Syria: Things Fall Apart

I just checked to see how many posts I’ve published about or mentioning Syria. Twenty in the last four years.

Just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it does. When you think that nobody has “the answer” you are proven right. Again.

The oldest of the posts is Can Israel Stop the Syrian Genocide? (“Can Israel stop the Syrian genocide? On its face, the question seems practically preposterous and crazy….But in a world and region that continues to exhibit madness, maybe moments of crazy wisdom are what we need to break through. Because whatever we are doing isn’t working.”)

Of course, Israel wasn’t about to stop the Syrian madness, and hasn’t. Neither have we or any other nation, and neither are we or any other nation sure what to do—not only to stop the madness but to relieve the ongoing dismal and heartbreaking aftermath.

So we watch. It’s not the first time in our lifetimes, or in history, that good people have stood by uncertainly at the sight of spiraling tragedy and could not act or figure out what to do.

William Butler Yeats wrote The Second Coming in 1919, as the madness of World War I was just ended and the madness of the Irish War of Independence was just beginning. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” As Yeats saw it, one cycle was ending in utter darkness, but there was the possibility of light appearing again in history, as it had before.

This is a season of light for many people, but in Syria it is getting darker every day. We will do what we can, but if we and our leaders can do nothing, we can at least keep Syria in our hearts, right next to a burning light.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

No Refugees in the Democratic Debate

Adding insult to their injury, Syrian refugees were missing from last week’s Democratic debate.

There were some other important issues mentioned, often presented in sound bites, but many more conspicuous by their absence. But you would think the party that considers itself the more progressive, caring, humane and globally sensitive would take the opportunity to at least mention to the 15 million viewers that we are experiencing one of the biggest humanitarian crises since the end of World War II. The same goes, maybe goes double, for the individual candidates who had the floor and could have just once brought it up.

(Note: Jim Webb did raise refugees while talking about his wife, who is a refugee from Vietnam. But that was not in the context of the current crisis.)

The explanation of this is simple and typical, though not particularly happy. Raising questions you can’t answer, or can’t answer with some vague, equivocal, pointless comment is to be avoided. Either voters will realize that you have no answer, or if you do answer from your conscience and heart, you just might lose votes. Either way, as a candidate, you’re screwed.

This isn’t a Democratic purview. When Republicans get together in their overstuffed debate scrum, there isn’t much to be said about the refugee crisis, except that it is an obvious ruse to allow Islamic terrorists to enter our country. It does seem like an elaborate scheme—displacing millions of men, women, and children just to get a chance to disrupt American stability—but you know how tricky those people can be.

And so, the next time a Democratic candidate wants to tell one of those rise from adversity stories that is a sure fire way to seem human and humane, maybe he or she can mention the shared and horrific adversity that won’t just go away—even if he or she has some magic plan to “fix” Syria (which he or she doesn’t). Maybe the next time, at the podium or on a debate stage. Those refugees will certainly still be there, in an increasing hell on earth.

Obama Speech: Is It ISIS, ISIL or IS, and What is a True Religion?

Obama ISIS Speech

This is not a comprehensive review of last night’s speech by President Obama about ISIS/ISIL/IS. But if you asked me to join the millions of reviewers, descriptors that come to mind are lukewarm, vague, uninspiring, insufficiently informative, tactical (the speech, not the plan), and blah-blah-blah.

Here is one paragraph that stuck out, because it reflects two issues that may not get enough attention:

And one of those groups is ISIL — which calls itself the “Islamic State.”

Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

What Is the Name of This Enterprise That We Are at War Against?

Is it ISIS, ISIL, or Islamic State? This is much more significant than whether the English transliteration of the name of the Egyptian President was Morsy, Morsi, or Mursi or the Libyan dictator was Gadhafi, Qaddafi, Kadafi, Gaddafi, or Gadafy. This is our new mortal enemy, and besides, all these IS names are in English.

Different nations and different news media have different approaches to this. The BBC, for example, has settled on Islamic State, apparently opting for whatever the organization chooses to call itself. What is totally strange about the “official” U.S. nomenclature is that at the highest levels, there is no consistency. The President prefers ISIL, while those in his cabinet regularly use ISIS.

One small matter about ISIL does deserve note. The full name is the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant. I challenge many in the administration, and many in Congress, and many in the media, to explain—without Google or cheat sheet—what the Levant is. For five hundred years or so it has described the land of the eastern Mediterranean, now roughly comprising Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and contiguous countries. The word comes from the French word for “rising”, as in the east where the sun rises. It isn’t much in use any more, outside of scholarly circles and, of course, in our latest war.

So please, President Obama, if you are gathering the support of dozens of nations and hundreds of millions of Americans, let’s all decide on what to call this organization that, in the words of Vice President Joe Biden, we will pursue to the Gates of Hell.

What is a True Religion?

“No religion condones the killing of innocents,” the President said. Without going into historic and contemporary detail, this is patently false. I believe the President knows better, but he didn’t want to get into a deep discussion, and instead just wanted to make a rhetorical flourish. If he doesn’t know, there are thousands of histories he can read and scholars he can consult, or even easier, news reports from the past few weeks, months, and years he can read.

If, however, he really did mean it, he has disqualified the majority of world religions from being classified as such. Which, by the way, plenty of critics of religion would applaud.

The President doesn’t have to be the Teacher in Chief, the Scholar in Chief, the Explainer in Chief, etc. Being Communicator in Chief is enough of a job, but if he just wants to say stuff for effect, without regard to its making sense or being true, we’ve already had plenty of that in years past, from those less smart or thoughtful than you. We get enough nonsense from many in Congress. Speak as if some of us are actually thinking about what you say. Because some of us are.

The Abstract Perpetual War Is Real

Rome

Consider this: If you have a child or grandchild age 12 or younger, they have lived their lives with America at war.

And this: In six years that child will be old enough for military service, but will not necessarily have to serve because we have no mandatory universal service. So even if we are still at war, that child is probably not at risk.

And this: Why don’t we have mandatory universal service, especially if we are in perpetual war? Do we have perpetual war because we don’t have mandatory universal service?

Michael Auslin, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has a fascinating piece in Politico about the prospect of a perpetual war footing, Don’t Do As the Romans Did… His politics may not be yours, but his analysis is compelling and worth reading in its entirety:

For Washington, which has already spent at least $2 trillion on relatively limited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospect of decades more competition, deterrence and fighting at an unknown cost represents the greatest security challenge since the Cold War, and perhaps since World War II. It is just as much a domestic political issue, and will figure as prominently in the debates over the future direction of the country, as do the battles over Obamacare, the regulatory burden or the transformation of the economy. Yet so far, it does not seem that either the country’s political elites or ordinary citizens have fully appreciated both the scope and, more importantly, the nature of America’s new two-front conflict. They soon will, as the country’s economic health and domestic political stability will be directly affected by rising global risk. To quote Leon Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Americans must accept the fact that, while their country may not be engaged in daily fighting, neither will it know peace for the foreseeable future. The world will become far more insecure and unstable over the next decades, and the amorphous yet crucial idea of global “order” will be strained, perhaps to the breaking point.

America’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The spirit of can-do, roll up your sleeves, and in the words of Larry the Cable Guy, “get ‘er done” is a model for the world. But a related failure to think things through, apply broad and deep vision, and act deliberately and more slowly, can neutralize or outweigh the benefits of that spirit.

Living in the moment, in the now, is a great way for people to not be mired in the mistakes of the past and not be intimidated by the hypothetical misfortunes of the future. That is, unfortunately, not a luxury that nations, particularly super powerful ones, have. When you can spend trillions of dollars of your citizens’ money, send thousands of citizens to their deaths, and have the potential to blow up cities and the whole world, we expect you to think twice or more before you roll up those sleeves and get ‘er done.

A World Worth Saving

Xul Solar - Puerto Azul

People are justifiably angry, frustrated, and confused when those with all the “advantages” of Western Europe and the United States join violent apocalyptic movements in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. But maybe we can learn a little by asking some related questions: Do these fighters believe the world is worth saving? Do your fellow citizens, friends, and neighbors believe it? Do you?

Almost by definition, those who are convinced to join movements aimed at turning the world upside down believe that the world as it is is beyond repair, and that the world as it is is not worth saving.

What might surprise you, if you think about it, is how many of the people around you, people you know, believe exactly the same thing. They don’t go halfway around the world to kill mercilessly to hasten the end of the status quo. But they do believe that this world is irreparably broken, that many other people (maybe even you) are complicit in maintaining and encouraging that disrepair—in feeding the beast—and that nothing short of the quickest possible end to this world will bring them to the rightness of that world.

We don’t talk much about whether this world is worth saving. There are those true believers just mentioned who think there is nothing to talk about, that it is dogmatic and axiomatic that this world is as good as gone. For others, it can be a bunch of words, about how we will make the ultimate sacrifice to preserve “the American way of life” or “freedom,” as if those were so self-evident that discussion would be at best useless and at worst seditious.

We have to talk about it, not just assume or demand the automatic answer “of course it’s worth saving.” One of the reasons we don’t talk about it is that we would have to think about it, and that is not easy or comfortable. We would, among other discomforts, have to admit shortcomings, some very serious.

When we don’t talk, we end up with some people easily persuaded that maybe this world is so broken that we should start creating a different one, even apocalyptically. That’s the bad news, ripped from today’s headlines.

The good news is that if we did talk about whether the world is worth saving, honestly, without dogma, with no “wrong” answers, we would almost certainly conclude that—with some minor and major adjustments—it is. It’s just getting to that conclusion that can be so difficult.

With Syria

With Syria by Banksy

“On the 6th March 2011 in the Syrian town of Daraa, fifteen children were arrested and tortured for painting anti-authoritarian graffiti. The protests that followed their detention led to an outbreak of violence across the country that would see a domestic uprising transform into a civil war displacing 9.3 million people from their homes.”
Banksy

On March 13, stand with Syria in a global vigil.

 

 

There Is Still a War in Syria

Paris Hilton As Miley Cyrus
When there was less to people’s news and info lives—a newspaper or two a day, a half-hour network news show, a couple of news magazines a week—there were stories that rose to the top and stayed there, depending on importance. This didn’t mean that second-tier or frivolous stories didn’t get coverage or traction. People always loved celebrities, always loved hearing gossip, and when man bites dog, that’s always news. The down side was a certain provincialism that came with a narrow channel and less worldly attitudes: if millions were suffering in a place nobody heard of, with people unlike us, most readers and viewers might have no idea.

Now we can know anything, though we don’t know everything, or care about everything. This has left news leaders in a delicate position. There are going to be stories that appeal to a journalist sense and a humanist sense, that deserve at least regular mention, if not coverage that might only say, “And in the misery of this place or that war, it’s still happening, with no end in sight.” The dual problem is that people can find and figure that out for themselves, without a multi-billion dollar media enterprise telling them, and those media consumers might just as well pay attention to something else.

Which is why, unlike its predecessors World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War, the Iraq War was not the top story every day of its ten years. Which is why the current violence in Iraq is barely covered, a turning away that in part must come from some profound but unspoken embarrassment.

For a few moments a few months ago, Syria was a bright shiny object. Red lines, chemical warfare, threats of military action, etc. After some erratic movement, slight progress is being made. But that progress does not include ending the civil war.

The New York Times, still possibly the world’s greatest news enterprise, has an ongoing section devoted to the Crisis in Syria. The increasing numbers stupefy: 6.5 million Syrians displaced from their homes, more than 2 million of them seeking refuge in other countries. Now we hear about a cluster of polio cases among Syrian children.

We have plenty of our own problems, individually and as a country. Some of those are not small at all. But there is no polio. And the entire population of the state of Tennessee or Indiana has not had to leave their homes behind, dodging mayhem, unsure if they will ever return, or if there will be anything to return to.

We shouldn’t expect ourselves to be exhausted or crushed by the miseries of the world; that’s what keeping track of all the problems all the time would do. So yes, you can argue that it is important to learn from the news today that Paris Hilton has spent $5,000 on Halloween costumes so that she can dress up as Miley Cyrus. But for a change of pace, a regular, maybe daily, reminder that there is still a war in Syria might be of value.

Syria: So This Was the Plan All Along

The Sting
The Syria strategy may have looked improvised or haphazard. It turns out that all along it was a master plan. A sting. A long con. Aimed at having Assad turn over his chemical weapons.

It began with President Obama’s mention of a chemical weapons red line two years ago. Even after there was evidence that chemical weapons were being used a year ago, it was too soon to make a play. And then it was time.

Everybody knew their part. The President beat the limited and unbelievably small war drums. The international community and Congress demurred, feigning reluctance. Most of all, John Kerry’s penchant for overtalking was the most valuable tool. One loose remark after another, and then the trap was sprung. He mentioned the “impossible” possibility that Assad would turn over his chemical weapons in a week. The State Department would pretend that this offhanded remark was not administration policy. Assad and his Russian handler took the bait. Very soon—maybe not a week but soon—Syrian chemical weapons would be in the hands of the international community, ready to be destroyed.

Back in the real world, here is another possible behind the scenes scenario.

John Kerry continued to say stuff, lots of stuff. Asked if there was any way for Assad to avoid a strike, Kerry did indeed mention turning over the chemical weapons in a week. It was an accident.

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are power hungry political survivors, one more venal and voracious than the other. One or both of them sensed an opening.

It was Putin who may have said: This chemical weapons business is bad for all of us. The world knows you are our client state, and while I don’t mind defending you most of the time, this isn’t in either of our best interests. You can do whatever you want to hold on to power by conventional means; we will continue to help. The chemical weapons can be our trump card and it is time to play it. Once we come to the table, we can keep this negotiation going for months. As long as there is the appearance or the slightest possibility of progress, there will be no military action. Meanwhile, you can continue to pursue your war with no interference. I get to look a little bit like a hero and statesman—I don’t expect miracles—and you get to look like someone who isn’t averse to being part of civilized humanity. We both win.

The American scenario is already unfolding. While the administration is cautious about this latest development, it does claim that whatever good comes out of it will be due to their willingness to respond militarily. For the moment, it is hard to say who is more relieved, the President or Congress. The President may avoid having his request for authorization turned down. In Congress, those who continued to sit on the fence may be gloating, as a vote may be delayed or never taken.

And John Kerry? With all due respect, when you are smart and articulate, if you keep talking long enough, something good is bound to happen.

John Kerry: A Teeny, Tiny, Unbelievably Small Strike

Cruise Missile
Secretary of State John Kerry says the strike against Syria would be “unbelievably small” (“teeny, tiny” is inferred).

The job of Secretary of State is unbelievably big. More than just the nation’s chief diplomat, the secretary is in the line of presidential succession, following the Vice President, Speaker of the House and President Pro Tem of the Senate. Six American Presidents have served in the office, along with two of the most famous Chief Justices—John Jay and John Marshall—and an army of legendary figures, including Daniel Webster twice.

Throughout the Syria crisis so far, John Kerry has had some trouble when he speaks. His appearance before Congressional committees has been widely viewed as underwhelming. His comparing Assad to Hitler, talking about a “Munich moment,” was mostly ignored. And now he is trying to minimize attacking targets in Syria as “unbelievably small.” It isn’t clear that this is a diplomatic term of art. Hopefully, it is not a military term of art. If it is artful anywhere, it might find its place in a casual conversation between friends.

John Kerry has already been getting a pass from the media on past statements, no doubt out of respect for his no longer being a politician. So what he might have said as a Senator and presidential candidate may be out of bounds. Such as

“If you don’t believe…Saddam Hussein is a threat with nuclear weapons, then you shouldn’t vote for me.” February 11, 2003

The real dilemma is how to downplay the nature of the strike while maximizing its claimed ability to achieve either the stated aim to deter further chemical warfare or, as some would like it, to change the balance of power in the civil war. This is less like squaring the circle and more like rounding the tesseract (a four-dimensional cube).

Whatever the rhetorical trick that is being tried, it is not working. Or at least talking about a teeny, tiny, unbelievably small strike isn’t.