SIO33: Thinking Clearly on Syria

I support Trump’s Syria strike against the Shayrat airfield. That is the punchline of today’s episode but I encourage you to listen with an open mind as I go through the reaction to the Syria strike, what different pundits and columnists and congresspersons have said, and why I think ultimately it was a good idea. There’s a lot of muddy and motivated thinking going on in our public discourse; I’m doing my best to go where the facts lead. And as always, I’m very open to counter argument! Here are some selected sources:

How Many Bombs Obama Dropped on SyriaBreakdown of Senate Support for the StrikeCongress Syria Statements 2013 vs 2017Blatant Republican Hypocrisy on SyriaOpinion Piece Alleging Liberals ‘Cooing’ Over TrumpShadi Hamid Avoiding Fallacies on SyriaPossible Anti-Trump Backlash in Special Elections

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6 Replies to “SIO33: Thinking Clearly on Syria”

  1. I’m by no means the first to say this, but it terrifies me to see the adulation and validation that Trump has gotten from the media when his administration engages in dramatic military action. It’s bad enough that prominent newspeople, including reliable critics of the Trump administration, equate demonstrations of military force with competent leadership, but as we know, Trump is an unfit narcissist obsessed with the approval of others, a desperate need to be viewed as legitimate, and a demonstrated history of reacting to what he sees on cable news. Putting aside, for a paragraph, the question of whether it was wise/moral/necessary for “a president” to respond to the presumed use of chemical weapons on civilians by a foreign government with a missile strike, it needs to be said that the particular person who is president, and the context of that presidency is very much relevant to the discussion. By that I mean to say, a semi-illegitimate president exercising quasi-legal authority to instigate military action that nominally serves potential national interests, while simultaneously the personal and political interests of that president needs to be considered in that context.

    Moreover, it really freaked me out that Trump’s speech (from his gross resort) announcing the missile strike was so liberally peppered with references to God and God’s will. I got the sense it was written by some staffer who has access to a general template of euphemisms and aphorisms that sound like something a thoughtful president should say while launching a calculated missile strike, but with that in mind, it feels reckless, given his temperament and worldview, to put those words in Trump’s mouth, as may develop a taste for them.

    My main objection to the claim that the Trump administration was right to launch this missile strike is that I do not trust the Trump administration to competently handle a political and military strategy in the region, something Trump has noted they have no interest in doing. Then again, Trump said overtly, following the missile strike, that we aren’t going to be sending troops into Syria, despite having already sent over a thousand troops into Syria prior to this missile strike.

    Further still, beyond Trump himself, the competency of his administration needs to be considered. As noted in the episode, top-level figures have offered incorrect assessments of the damage done (Rachel Maddow had a collection of individuals and spokespeople offering varying assessments ranging from 20 planes on the base, 20% of the base, 20% of all planes in the Syrian Airforce, etc…). This is not an administration that seems to care about conveying accurate and truthful information to the public, whether that be a deliberate disinformation tactic or the inevitable result of not filling a significant portion of necessary government jobs to ensure proper functioning.

    More still, despite this popular narrative that the military is full of professionals who can operate independently from the executive branch, we’ve already seen evidence contrary to this claim, we know that military strategists can not be expected to unilaterally intuit shifting diplomatic priorities, and any honest assessment of deregulation involving the military needs to address the ever-present cultivation of sadism, sexual violence, and the deliberate dehumanization of “the enemy” in military cultures. I don’t say this as criticism of the military unilaterally, but as recognition that ethical actors in this system require support from outside of it to operate effectively and responsibly.

    As to the point about Obama supporters being obligated to support this action (assuming that by “Obama supporter” we mean someone who would have supported this action under Obama), I have to push back on this. I’ve been giving some republicans the benefit of the doubt, as it relates to the polls that show support for military intervention more than doubling under Trump rather than Obama, because as much as I want to accuse them of hypocrisy, racial bias, and tribalism (et al.), I don’t think it’s absurd to factor in the context of the administration when considering the appropriateness of military action. If those republicans felt Obama was somehow incapable of navigating the fallout from this action but that Trump is a strong leader who will “let the military do what needs to be done” (or whatever their belief may be), I can’t call them hypocrites.

    I don’t mean to dismiss the accusation altogether, because I do accept my willingness to trust President Obama while questioning the motives and competency of President Trump is certainly informed by bias, but the idea that there’s no basis for that skepticism aside from my own hypocrisy is absurd.

    That said, I have qualms about the usefulness of pointing to hypocrisy as if it were some sort of disqualifier that will bring about a political backlash. It seems to ignore reality (Mitch McConnell isn’t going anywhere), it colors our view of other’s positions (e.g., interpreting their position in a way we can more easily dismiss by inferring hypocrisy), and it puts too much focus on establishing our own consistency, as if that were an objective virtue, rather than acknowledging specific contexts and valid contradictions within our worldviews.

    1. The fact that we launched 59(?) missiles and we’re not exactly sure what they hit, just strengthens my suspicion that the plan for this strike was run by the Kremlin in advance. It was a PR strike. The Russians knew it wouldn’t hit any of their stuff and wouldn’t seriously debilitate Al-Assad either. You and Thomas are looking AT the window and describing it in Vermeerian detail. Try looking THROUGH the window.

  2. I pretty much agree with what Kyle said.

    I would state that what I mostly object to is that Trump did not seek congressional approval. Yes, he was not legally required to take it up with congress. However, because the US was not under immediate threat, I think congressional approval was in order. Also congressional review would subject the evidence that pro-Assad forces were responsible to a wider audience.

  3. I disagree as well that this was a wise course of action. My reason is essentially this, is the life of a syrian civilian made any better by this action, or is this simply a theatrical and expensive show of disapproval ? Is your average syrian any safer today then before the strike? The odds of dying in a chemical attack have decreased(slightly I would guess), but the much much more likely death by barrel bomb remains unchanged. Has this intervention shortened the conflict? No the conflict remains in general as it was the day before and perhaps has been extended by the slight weakening of Assad(the presumptive victor at this point). Every day the war continues means additional unnecessary deaths. Sad to say that in my opinion Russia’s course of action of propping up Assad seems the most humane. Not that I’m a fan of either but the alternatives seem much worse. So when judging an action we must balance the risks vs benefits, I see little to no practical benefits(our righteous indignation doesn’t factor with me) and some( albeit it limited) downsides. So with that in mind I would say this intervention in particular was a mistake.

  4. To me the most amazing thing is that Trump gave the okay to launch the missiles while at dinner with another nation’s leader present at the table.
    This could place the foreign leader in a awkward position having been present at the decision to violate a country’s sovereignty (regardless of whether it was correct to do so or not). He could place Xi in a position where he has to answer to other world leaders, or his citizens.
    I would feel awkward if I was attending dinner with my neighbour where he discussed robbing my other neighbour. I would want to leave…

    1. Well, at least there were no reports of him grabbing his dinner guest’s crotch. With the Donald, no matter how bad it actually was, it could always have been worse.

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