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How Our Democracy Ignores the Military Case Against Syria Intervention | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

How Our Democracy Ignores the Military Case Against Syria Intervention


Smoke rises after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the village of Dourit, August 17, 2013. Picture taken August 17, 2013. (Reuters/Khattab Abdulaa)

My new Think Again column is called The Mainstream Media and the Slowly Boiling Frog and it’s about global warming.

Two things:
1) Here is a list among other things, of people who thought it would be cool to invade Iraq, with pro-genocide, Elliott Abrams.

2) In this article about a visit to the West Bank town of Hebron in the Times of Israel, Marc Goldberg writes, “in Hebron I feel like we’re winning the battle and losing it at the same time. I feel like God himself is playing a trick on us, saying that we can have our Holy Places and the land He promised us but that in payment we have to give up on our own moral code, the same one He instilled within us. He gave us a cruel choice to make and that the punishment for making the wrong choice is to lose the country entirely.”

Reading it reminded me of a fascinating recent discussion I attended after synagogue recently where a noted scholar gave a lecture on the philosophy of Emile Fackenheim, who among many other things, is the author of the philosophical concept of the 613th commandment, that advises that Hitler should not be given any posthumous victories. When I raised the issue of the difficulty of its application with regard to say, Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, a man in the room stood up and screamed at me that I was equating Israel with Nazis and I “should be ashamed of myself.” Naturally, I was not ashamed of myself, as I had done no such thing. (He was the only person who brought up Nazis.) But the issue left me profoundly depressed about the ability of American Jews to hold any kind of intelligent discussion about Israel at all. I learned more about the fellow in question here and here and I suppose one should not draw too many conclusions based on this kind of individual whose wealth, I imagine, provides a useful shield from people explaining to him when he is acting like an idiot. But he received a great deal of assent for his ignorant grand-standing from the room and those who were aware of the foolishness of his point kept their own counsel. The political implication of this is that John Kerry is unlikely to receive much in the way of domestic support from American Jews for the peace process so long as Israel’s government remains intransigent with regard to its continued construction of illegal settlements. More and more Jews, especially younger Jews, may be alienated from Israel than ever before, but most of those who do remain engaged are largely stuck in a time-warp which, ironically, reinforces the arguments of those who would like to see Israel destroyed as a both a democratic and Jewish state—just as its professed enemies would also like.

Alter-reviews
John Updike: Library of America, Collected Stories.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Purple Box” re-release.

Sly and Family Stone Box: “Higher.”

Bob Dylan “Another Self-Portrait.”

The Rides, Live at The Iridium and some other stuff.

In the next week or so, my friends at the Library of America will release John Updike: The Collected Stories, which is about as important an announcement regarding LOA or Updike as one could imagine. Updike wrote beautiful stories, but they were unevenly collected. Second only to Cheever in this realm, in my not-so humble opinion, his first collection, The Same Door, was originally published in 1959 and his last, My Father’s Tears, in 2009. Add it all up and we get 186 stories, from 1953’s "Ace in the Hole," a sketch of a Rabbit-like ex-basketball player written when Updike was a Harvard senior, and through "The Full Glass" (2008) in the lovely LOA format. According to the LOA, each story is presented in its final definitive form and in order of composition, established here for the first time. Each volume also contains a previously uncollected story: “A Game of Botticelli” (1954) and “Part of the Process” (1988). You can buy them separately or in a deluxe boxed set featuring Alex Katz’s 1982 portrait on it. I sure would.

Legacy Recordings and Experience Hendrix LLC have a re-release of an expanded edition of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Purple Box, which originally came out in 2000. It’s hard to believe but Hendrix only put out three studio albums while he was alive. Only Elvis has seen his catalogue mined more energetically. Anyway, I’ve been buying live albums and outtakes here and there for the past few years trying to find the right mix and now I can get rid of them and keep this instead. It does the trick save for you Hendrix fanatics who don’t need my advice anyway. A four CD boxed set, it contains 60 previously unreleased or unavailable studio and concert recordings from a remarkable four-year period in musical history, 1966-1970, ending with the artist's final multi-track recording session at New York's Electric Lady Studios in August 1970. Among the highlights are alternate versions of classics like "Purple Haze," "Foxey Lady," “Bold As Love” and "Little Wing," as well Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” from Hendrix’s October 1968 performances at Winterland in San Francisco. For obscurities, you get the original recording of “Peace In Mississippi” from the October 1968 sessions at TTG Studios, previously available only as the b-side of the 2010 “Valleys Of Neptune” and a rare, recently discovered 1967 performance of “Burning Of The Midnight Lamp." The original UK single mix of "The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam's Dice," is also new in the US. There’s an 80 page color booklet filled with rare photos, essays and annotation by Dave Marsh and John McDermott, detailed track notes and more, though the box is the old-fashioned fat cardboard kind, which might have been improved upon, methinks.

The new release of Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series, Vol. 10 - Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) is really something new and quite wonderful. The unreleased tracks from Self-Portraint—by unchallenged consensus Dylan’s worst album—is actually a really quite good (if profoundly relaxed) Dylan album. Containing 35 rarities and previously unreleased recordings, Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) is drawn from the 1970 studio recording sessions that resulted in Self Portrait and bled into New Morning along with a few songs with the Band from the Isle of Wight—at least on the two disc version. It’s hard to understand why Dylan chose to release the inferior material and hold back on the good stuff, though it did have the effect of making New Morning appear to be a massive comeback. Oh and David Bromberg plays some first rate guitar, I don’t recalling hearing him on any previous Dylan albums and it’s too bad because, together with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, they really could have provided him with the challenge and support he lacked for so long. As for rarities, we get a previously unavailable version of "Only A Hobo" and the demo version of "When I Paint My Masterpiece," and a new painting by the Bobster for the cover. There are lots of versions, but the one I’m talking about is the two disc version that is the mass market one. There’s a trailer on youtube.

Need yet another new box set? How about Sly & The Family Stone’s new 4-CD box set, Higher!, from Epic/Legacy?, a division of Sony Music Entertainment. Released in celebration of Sly Stone's 70th birthday, Higher! is the first career-spanning anthology to celebrate the musician whose wedding I attended at Madison Square Garden with my French/Canadian au pair, Celine, when I was in sixth grade in 1971 or so. It’s one of those big book-style boxes with 104-page book, the 77 songs, 17 of them previously unreleased. The box fixes a previous problem with the last box, which had all of Sly’s studio albums but left out the songs that were issued either only as singles or on the massive selling Greatest Hits album. That includes amazingly “Everybody is a Star,” "Hot Fun In the Summertime," "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again)." (Neither box has the incandescent version of “Que Sera Sera,” which was the last worthwhile thing Sly did before slipping into drug-induced incoherence, and provided the first dance of my ill-fated wedding.) This box is pretty generous and beautifully mixed and annotated in addition to the rare and uncirculated photography, 45 rpm label and picture sleeve repros, eye-popping vintage concert posters and ticket stubs from Sly & The Family Stone shows, etc.

If you don’t know about Sly, well, as much as anyone he invented funk and the Family Stone, featuring “Sister Rose” personified racial harmony through getting down in the late sixties and early seventies before they pioneered drug-addled gangsterism and no-show-ism. He also wrote great hooks and wore ridiculous clothing when he did make it to the gigs. To be honest, I don’t exactly understand the choices made in this box, picking live versions of “Stand” and “Dance to the Music” which are fine, but not nearly as awesome as the studio versions. But the unreleased stuff, which includes the Loadstone Records single of "January 1967" by Sly & The Family Stone, cover of Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose," and the mono single master of "Higher" from May 1967. If you’ve got the previous box set, as I do, it’s going to be a tough call, given you still need those three great songs and the 17 or so you’ve never heard before. If you don’t, well, it ought to be easy. 

Finally, a few weeks ago I mentioned a new documentary I loved called “Born in Chicago,” about the largely Jewish local boys who hooked up with Muddy, Wolf, Otis, etc and went on to obscurity. It featured Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield, but the guiding spirit of the film was Barry Goldberg, who helped get the film made after disappearing for a long time on the west coast following quite a few fine Jewish blues albums. Well, Barry’s finally back and he’s got Stephen Stills and Kenny Wayne Shepherd for a band called The Rides. I saw them Wednesday night at The Iridium, which is as intimate a venue as you will ever see Mr. Stills and/or Mr. Wayne Shepherd. I have long argued that Stills does not get the credit he deserves for his guitar playing—there are not enough CSNY shows for him to show off, or to be challenged—and so it was a pleasure to see him play the blues opposite Mr. Wayne Shepherd, with whom I was unfamiliar, but who plays as good as he looks (or so the ladies tell me). The set was drawn from their debut album, Can't Get Enough (released the day before) which is an homage to 1968 album Super Session, which featured Stills on guitar on one side, and the Mike Bloomfield on the other. The material is hit and miss, but the band cooks on it. Of course, it’s easier to relate to material you know so my favorite songs of the evening at Iridium were Goldberg’s “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” with Shepherd on vocals, Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” “Love the One You’re With,” (which he compared to a fart) and Neil Young’s “(Keep On) Rockin’ in the Free World.” But some of the classics cooked as well, particularly an expansive reading of Muddy Waters’ “Honey Bee.”  

And finally, finally, if you never heard the Drive By Truckers live CD, Alabama Ass-Whupping, you might wish to, if only for its incredible version of “18 Wheels of Love.” It also has a more than decent version of “People Who Died” for which, believe it not, I once had the opportunity to place my headphones on the late Jim Carroll’s head and play for him. (We were members of the same book group, again, believe it or not.) He liked it. And so, I imagine, will you.

Oh, and finally, finally, finally, as I write this, I swear, I have on the bluray player, “One Night Only,” which features the Bee Gees performing at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in November 1997. One of the few Bee Gees performances ever filmed, this Blu-ray, completed with bonus tracks from “An Audience with the Bee Gees," and a band interview, has been fully restored with remastered sound. It is really good in most places and really terrible in a few, but that’s ok, if you keep the remote close. And the sound is beautiful.

Now here, (finally) is Reed:

Camouflaged Debate: How our Democracy Ignores the Military Case Against Syria Intervention
by Reed Richardson

Each day’s news out of Washington makes it increasingly clear; the time for talk is over. A US military attack on Syria is no longer a matter of if, but when (probably this weekend). The administration has now fully coalesced around the big idea that, in response to Assad’s alleged chemical weapons use, something must be done. And whether through sympathetic op-ed columns or jingoistic cable-news “debates”, the Beltway conventional wisdom has once again shown itself more than happy to oblige. 

The tragic déja vu quality of this media obeisance has been brilliantly captured by Conor Friedersdorf. But there’s another troubling aspect to what’s happening right now. For all the pundit bluster about the need to do something, there has been shamefully little scrutiny or public discussion of what can be done, despite a growing chorus of alarm from the folks who will do it. Even if Assad did brutally murder thousands of his own people using chemical munitions—something still not conclusively proven—the painful reality is that there is little our military can do right now to effectively punish him for any past atrocities or prevent future ones short of a massive expenditure of blood and treasure. And it is precisely this blinkered outlook that the nation’s military experts have been warning against.

Indeed, it speaks volumes about our broken national discourse that the most prominent skeptic of military intervention in Syria happens to be the top US general in the Pentagon. For months, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been patiently laying out one compelling reason after another for not engaging our armed forces in Syria’s still-chaotic civil war. But only if you were willing to dig past the establishment media op-ed pages and look outside the cable-news bubble would you find the many red flags Dempsey has raised about our country going to war:

“Dempsey Cautious on Syria” (April 30)

“Martin Dempsey: Syria Options Costly, Risky” (July 22)

“General Says Rebels Aren’t Ready to Take Power” (Aug. 21)

“Dempsey: Rebels Wouldn’t Back US Interests” (Aug. 21)

“Military Experts Cautious about Effectiveness of a U.S. Attack on Syria” (Aug. 29)

Beyond these unheralded press accounts there was the sobering, unclassified letter Dempsey sent to Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, on July 19. In it, Dempsey discusses a range of military options, from limited airstrikes to establishing buffer or no-fly zones to taking physical control of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles. For the latter options, which admittedly aren’t being openly considered—yet—Dempsey estimates thousands of US ground forces would be involved at a cost of a billion dollars a month. And though the White House has all but officially declared it will execute the first, least muscular option, that choice has little to commend it as well. Dempsey sums it up thusly:

Conduct Limited Stand-off Strikes. This option uses lethal force to strike targets that enable the regime to conduct military operations, proliferate advanced weapons, and defend itself. Potential targets include high-value regime air defense, air, ground, missile, and naval forces as well as the supporting military facilities and command nodes. Stand-off air and missile systems could be used to strike hundreds of targets at a tempo of our choosing.Force requirements would include hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions. Over time, the impact would be the significant degradation of regime capabilities and an increase in regime desertions. There is a risk that the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets. Retaliatory attacks are also possible, and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country.

A couple of things. Note that the favorite pundit term “surgical strike” does not appear anywhere in Dempsey’s very frank assessment, but the phrase “probability for collateral damage impacting civilians” does. Also, it’s worth pointing out that even this scaled-back campaign would involve hundreds of military assets and cost billions of dollars. And then there’s the part where Dempsey explains how the very limited nature of such an air campaign translates into a higher likelihood that Assad’s regime will be able to withstand it. This, of course, merely opens the door for more pundits to call for more missiles and more sorties. The slope, in other words, gets very slippery from here on out.

Nevertheless, this kind of less than sanguine assessment doesn’t stand much of chance with those in the press willing to absorb whatever rosy scenarios anonymous pro-war sources feed them. And sometimes they don’t even bother with that. Over at The New Republic, in an otherwise good primer on the Syrian state of affairs, readers are nonetheless treated to a hypothetically-riven rebuttal to foregoing a military strike:

Retired Major General Paul Eaton, an advisor to the National Security Network, told me that ‘if Assad or rogue elements have decided to use chemical weapons in the face of very strong international condemnation, an attack is not going to be an deterrent.’ That may be true, but Assad may have also assumed that the United States, which had not responded strongly before, would once again back off. If that were Assad’s reasoning, serious retaliation could deter him, and could also send a signal to other rogue governments.

Those second and third sentences are riddled with conditionals to justify spending billions of US dollars and possibly killing untold Syrian civilians. Not exactly a slam dunk. Others in the press don’t muster up that much intellectual honesty, though. Consider the credulous, unattributed assertion that snuck into this news story in The Hill, a statement that would likely come as surprising news to Dempsey:

If successful, the U.S. strikes could cripple the Syrian military's ability to carry out attacks on rebel forces and bring the regime to its knees.

Really? A one, two, or three-day air campaign targeting a few dozen sites will bring to its knees a regime hardened by two-plus years of civil war? Recall that the NATO air campaign against Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s much weaker Libyan regime commenced on March 19, 2011 and continued on for 222 days. And as this 2012 Journal of Strategic Security article points out, Libya was a much better candidate for intervention than Syria for a number of reasons. One, the former had a geographically well-defined opposition with a credible military leadership based in Benghazi. Two, a United Nations Security Council Resolution authorizing military intervention was already in place. And three, there was broad support among Arab and neighboring nations for removing Gadhafi, Libya’s brutal dictator. But as Lance Kildron, of the Naval War College, concludes in his JSS analysis:

[B]efore engaging militarily in another humanitarian crisis, U.S. policymakers should take each of the criteria used in Libya and apply them to the situation in Syria. By applying these criteria to Syria, it is evident that limited military intervention similar to the Libya campaign model does not fit in Syria.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this kind of inconvenient candor from within the ranks about the lousy military options we face in Syria doesn’t sit well with some, in particular, a certain Senator from Arizona. As was noted almost as an aside in this front-page story of The New York Times: “Mr. McCain has said that doubts about military action expressed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, have emboldened the Syrian government to use chemical weapons…” Now, McCain’s shamelessly fickle relationship with the Pentagon’s point of view is well-documented. But still, accusing a high-ranking four-star general of tacitly encouraging the enemy just by doing his due diligence, that should merit a front-page story on its own and give pause to everyone beating the drums of war. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when our nation learned the painful, costly lessons of not heeding the expert advice of those who have seen war close up. Just ask Gen. Eric Shinseki.

Oh no, the president assures us, Syria won’t be like Iraq. And I believe him—to the extent that I don’t think he’s stupid or reckless enough to launch a full-scale ground invasion of a Middle Eastern nation based on lies and misinformation. But to paraphrase the old adage about prostitution, launching an airstrike on Syria will still be pre-emptive war, Obama’s just haggling over the price.

In fact, the administration’s feckless talking points make it seem like downright cheap when it comes to such a supposedly important undertaking. Calling the proposed airstrikes “just muscular enough not to get mocked” or “just enough to be more than symbolic” is an outrageously cavalier attitude toward the unleashing of deadly force. So, too, is the White House’s half-hearted goal to merely “deter and degrade” Assad’s ability to launch chemical strikes.

In an interview with a local NPR station, former Army officer and Boston University professor of international relations Andrew Bacevich blasted the administration’s “weasel words” as emblematic of a similarly fuzzy, ineffectual military strategy:

Degrade? Deter? If indeed the crime here is the use of chemical weapons to inflict large-scale casualties, how will this presumably very limited attack prevent any recurrence of that event? This will be an act of war by the United States against the government of Syria. When we go to war, we should do it only for the most serious reason. We should have very specific political purposes to be served, and I don’t see that in this particular case.

 

I think what we have is a president who backed himself into a corner by foolishly saying the use of chemical weapons constituted a red line. Now the red line’s been crossed, and people in Washington are concerned about American credibility or the president’s prestige being compromised. I think we’re going to have a modest, ineffective military action undertaken to try to give the impression of restoring that credibility and prestige.

We’ve truly arrived at a through-the-looking-glass moment, one where even liberal bastions like The New York Times editorial page believe restoring our nation’s credibility abroad somehow requires launching a military campaign that likely won’t achieve anything except accidentally killing some of the people we claim to be trying to protect. That we’re rushing to undertake this potential misadventure without any public support or Congressional approval only compounds the injury.

To be sure, Gen. Dempsey is not a renowned Constitutional scholar, but one does not rise through the ranks and get to his position without learning to be both strategic and precise in every aspect of your professional life. So, the general’s language at the end of his July letter to Sen. Levin, much like Prof. Bacevich’s above, is worth noting for its strong Article I allusions:

I know that the decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly. It is no less than an act of war. [emphasis mine]

In other words, there's a debate to be had about this; but—unlike the UK—we aren't having it. Now, I’m a firm believer in civilian command of our armed forces. So, whatever Dempsey’s personal beliefs, when President Obama eventually gives his order on how to proceed with Syria, all of the military chain of command, Dempsey included, should execute with best possible speed. But it is precisely because dissent and debate are not roles given over to our military—and for good reason—that it falls to us as citizens to exercise those principles on their behalf. And yet, here we are once again—a chosen few in our nation’s capital stand ready to embark on a perilously ill-advised military campaign, all the while brushing aside real debate. Isn’t it long past time we try something different than heedlessly exporting violence abroad to encourage democracy, like practicing a little more of it here at home? 

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

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