Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Catch of the Day

I really like Kevin Drum's deflating post on Syria hype: "This is no Iraq and it's no Vietnam. Hell, it's not even a Suez crisis." That's only one of a number of excellent points he makes. Good stuff.

Why did Syria get so hyped? I've been wondering about this (and blamed everyone for getting it wrong in my weekend Salon column). It's worth going through:

* Conservatives: at first, they were split, which may have pushed those who supported the president against hyping Syria (because they might not have wanted to play up something that found them on his side); once they eventually got a story they could tell about Obama botching Syria, it then made sense for them to hype its importance.

* Liberals: Anti-war liberals, in particular, wanted to use Syria to send a message to interventionist Democrats; not just that they opposed this one, but they had been right on Iraq, and that they weren't going to go along with future adventures. In their interest to hype the importance of Syria. Pro-intervention Democrats might have wanted to downplay it because it was a hard case.

* The White House: Mixed incentives. They might want to have downplayed it because it was a hard case; on the other hand, the whole idea of punishing a chemical weapons violation was to make it clear to the world that there was a cost to such behavior -- making the publicity about any missile strikes perhaps more important than the physical damage they caused.

* The press: Well, of course, if they're going to talk about it at all, they want to claim it's terribly important.

So basically almost everyone had an incentive to pretend the proposed strikes on Syria were a much bigger deal than they really were. What's more, the groups who had a possible incentive to downplay it -- pro-intervention liberals and conservatives -- were the least likely to be hard on this one, because the White House was going to be the main source of pro-intervention rhetoric. And at any rate, many pro-intervention conservatives tend by nature to hype everything, regardless of incentives.

And that's without what I talked about in my column, which was that we've all collectively failed to find a good vocabulary for a missile strike like this, which is in fact an act of war and does in fact entail real risks of unpredictable future involvement...but also isn't "war" in the sense of, as Drum says, Iraq or Vietnam or Suez.

Which gets me back to: nice catch!


  1. Not even a Suez Crisis? The Suez Crisis was a bigger deal than Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam all put together.

  2. Two other factors in overhyping just about: parties, candidates and organizations feel they must hype issues to raise money, and the Internet is the greatest hype media ever devised. They need to get"eyeballs" for advertising and self-promotion is no longer limited by periodic newspaper editions or newscasts--it's constant.

    Overhyping and hysteria are driving politics right now, national and international levels included. Hysteria--or very strong feelings--is not new in issues of war and peace, but the 24 hour media intensifies it. Same with actual and cynical political hysteria.

    1. That first sentence above should begin: Two other factors in overhyping just about everything...

  3. I disagree with the premise. Any time our nation is preparing for war, no matter the scale of the engagement, it's appropriate that we pause (if possible) to analyze and debate the proposal. (I guess one person's "hype" is another person's democracy.) Presumably, that's exactly what Obama intended when he decided that he didn't want to be responsible for starting a second war without Congressional authorization. The drama was heightened by the context, which was a speech delivered by Kerry giving every indication that war was imminent. Obama's last minute decision to change course surprised many, even his closest advisers.

    In response, voters spontaneously called their Congressmen in opposition to the proposed strike. This deserves all the attention that it has received -- because it stopped the rush to war. Pro-interventionist Congressmen were largely silenced by their own constituents before they even had a chance to rally behind the President.

    I suspect that the next president will carefully marshal his or her political forces before he or she invites the people themselves to veto the rush to war.

  4. Jonathan,

    Reading your Salon piece, in #2 and #5 you object to using the terminology of war to describe what Obama was trying to do (take us to war). I completely disagree. In fact, I'd say that not enough emphasis was placed on the fact that Obama was advocating for offensive warfare, which is itself a violation of international law. The scale of his intended engagement may be small, but the legal definition of "war" must not be denied.

    We also can't assume that what begins as a limited strike might not devolve into something bigger. Particularly since this would actually be a proxy war with Iran, a country that is believed by some to not follow the standard incentives of deterrence (ie, they may just nuke Israel for no reason at all -- even the Obama administration has suggested it believes this).

    Even a limited war poses a significant danger to our country, often in unexpected ways. People remember that our first involvement in Afghanistan was to empower fundamentalists who latter attacked our homeland in a spectacular fashion. Well, Obama is suggesting that we side with those same fundamentalists once again.

    War needs to be approached with a level of respect and seriousness that rises above normal policy debates. Even with precision munitions, war is a nasty, often senseless business, with unpredictable outcomes and, except in cases of true defensive war, morally ambiguous aims.

    I think it's deeply misguided, particularly for a liberal, to complain that the American people have considered war in all its true horror.

    1. I agree that the decision to do something like this is one that should be taken seriously; I agree that what Obama was proposing was an act of war; I agree that once force is used, the next steps are not perfectly predictable.

      But at the same time...what Obama was proposing was not what was intended in the Iraq War, or even the Gulf War. It wasn't even what he intended to do in Libya. And a lot of the rhetoric out there, to some extent pro- and to a larger extent anti-, was treating it as if it was (you say you disagree with the premise that it was overhyped, but I assure you it was. Remember, something can be important but still overhyped).

      What I'm saying is that we have failed to find an appropriate vocabulary for it. We don't want to use euphemisms that obscure that we're talking about an act of war, but we also don't want to mislead people into thinking that the plan is for 100K US troops to occupy another nation...while at the same time, the press should be at least to some extent skeptical about what an administration really intends to do. And we, myself included, failed to come up with the proper language to convey that clearly.

    2. For vocabulary, look to Orwell. If war isn't war, it must be peace.

    3. "you say you disagree with the premise that it was overhyped, but I assure you it was."

      And I assure you that it was not.

      I will agree that people have been influenced by war fatigue. But in an era in which we have come to define the entire globe as a "battlefield," I think that's a completely rational response.

      Of the problems we have with our political system, I don't think you could say that one of them is an inability to wage war. In the case of Syria, Obama's attempt to explain the threat posed to our national security was extremely weak. Perhaps if such a threat actually existed, the people would be with him.

      When he was running for office, I recall candidate Obama complaining, justifiably, that our policy was pushing us towards war with Iran. It's rather ironic that the people themselves have now prevented President Obama from engaging in a proxy war with that same country.

    4. "For vocabulary, look to Orwell. If war isn't war, it must be peace."

      Good point. While I don't think that's Jonathan's aim, I do think it is the inevitable result of downplaying war.

    5. Couves,

      By overhyped, I mean something specific: people were talking as if it meant a Iraq-type war. Not as a possibility if things went wrong, but as the initial plan. They certainly were talking that way, and it was simply not true.

    6. Jonathan,

      I don't recall the media describing this as a full Iraq-style invasion/occupation. (Perhaps you can provide examples.)

      In fact, there was quite a bit of focus on the specifics of Obama's proposal -- to the point where there was some frustration that the Obama administration was being rather vague and was sending mixed messages about what the mission would be. In any case, no reasonable person could have believed that Obama was proposing an "Iraq-type war." Of course, as you point out, whether the voter trusted that the plan would work out that way is another matter entirely.

  5. Strikes on Syria over chemical weapons is one thing, what to do about Syria generally is another. Drum was talking about the former.

    As to the latter, 100k dead and counting. It might not be Suez, but it's less than an order of magnitude from Rwanda, and we're not done.

  6. For my money, when Obama (and Cameron, and the developed west) did the whole serious red line thing wrt CW in Syria, it seemed as though Assad called their bluff when he used the gas. My sense is that wasn't Assad's intent, probably something more like trying to squash an assassination plot, but it sure looked like a bluff was being called.

    Which put the relatively amateur Obama in a tricky spot - there's a red line, Assad flaunted it (maybe thumbing his nose at Obama, maybe not), whaddya gonna do? Obama's limited planned response was, I think, reacting to the fact that he had to do something (red lines and all), but he didn't really want to do anything, not only because the responsibility for the attack was murky, but also for all the unintended side effects Couves laid out above.

    So while, per Drum, this experience hurts Obama's stature a little, there was no way this all would end well for Obama - the fact that the Russians gave him an avenue for it only to end a little bad is actually a huge win for the President.

    1. CSH, I’m inclined to agree with your premise that the President has doubts about the policy (beyond the Constitutional matter of obtaining Congressional approval), but I’m not sure about your conclusions.

      It’s certainly possible that his previous statements really were intended as a red line for the Syrians (in spite of the Administration's public denials) and so the President is pursuing a policy that he has doubts about, to achieve the greater goal of defending US credibility. But you have to consider that the policy is also about deterring future WMD use, plus striking a blow against Iranian power. There are multiple US interests being served – and while Obama may not personally care much about some of them (and so his focus on WMD’s may be personally genuine), that doesn’t mean that the political calculus that went into the decision to pursue force wasn’t including all of what the foreign policy establishment considers America’s interests. (People often wrongly assume that administration policy reflects only what the President himself wants to do.) So while American credibility may be an issue, I don't think force would have been pursued had there not been a genuine desire for deterring future WMD use, plus the overriding geopolitical goal of thwarting Iran.

      I can imagine that we were more-or-less on autopilot towards war – and when the President really thought about what was about to happen, he slammed on the breaks without committing to turning the thing around entirely (and thus discredit his own leadership). So, to switch metaphors, first the American people bailed Obama out, then Putin brought over the life raft.

      Now, that’s a whole lot of supposition, but the politics of all this are just too intriguing to not tease apart with some educated guesswork.

  7. Two things are making the right-wing absolutely desperate to spin every event as a meltdown-level disaster for Obama. One, the increasing realization that the Bush presidency was indeed a multi-pronged disaster (and so Obama's term must be painted as even worse), and the fact that Obama belongs (per the right's ideology) to an inferior race.

    Thus the desperate hanging onto Fast and Furious, and then the demon Obamacare, and then BENGHAZI!, and now Syria as The Worst Thing Ever.

    This desperation on the right will get increasingly insane as we get closer to the end of Obama's term and the right (hopefully) begins to realize that they don't have any gigantic disaster, anything at all analogous to the disasters of the Bush years to hang on Obama.


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