The BuzzTNI's Daily Media Monitor
Does the Onion want the United States to fight another war in Syria? The satirical newspaper’s coverage of the two-year-old civil war in that country has taken a dramatic turn. While the publication made semi-regular references to Syria throughout the war’s earlier stages, its barbs have gotten more common and very pointed lately. Its recent posts have been deeply and darkly critical of current U.S. policy in Syria, and sometimes appear to border on outright calls for American intervention.
Consider three examples from the past six weeks. First, there is this mock op-ed on March 25, written from the perspective of the Syrian leader:
Hello. My name is Bashar al-Assad. I am the president of Syria, and in the last two years, you—the citizens of the world and their governments—have allowed me to kill 70,000 people. You read that correctly: I am an individual who has murdered 70,000 human beings since March 2011, and you have watched it happen and done nothing.
Then there is this news brief from April 4:
WASHINGTON—While tucking in his daughters as they settled into bed Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama reportedly kissed the two children gently on the forehead and reminded them that the lives of Syrian people are “worthless” and “completely insignificant.” “I love you two so much and Syrians are subhuman and don’t matter at all,” said the president.
And finally, there is this piece published yesterday, titled “‘Help Has To Be On The Way Now,’ Thinks Syrian Man Currently Being Gassed”:
HOMS, SYRIA—As Syrian military aircraft rained chlorine gas on his community Tuesday, local man Amir Najjar, 36, reportedly assured himself that military and humanitarian aid from foreign governments must certainly be racing toward the country at this very moment to protect him and other helpless civilians.
It’s telling to look at the assumptions that support this line of humor. Namely, these pieces all work from the premise that the world—and the United States in particular—bears the moral responsibility for what happens in Syria. As a result, the practical considerations about how an intervention to stop the killing might work are necessarily washed away. Reluctance to act on the part of President Obama implicitly means that he doesn’t care about the Syrian people, as the second item stresses. It’s the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in comedic form.
Part of the reason that the paper’s Syria coverage has been so striking to read is that in the past, it has often been a voice against what it sees as excessive or ill-advised American military action, particularly in Iraq. One example is this classic 2003 point-counterpoint published as the Iraq War began, which both anticipated many of the disasters that would happen as the war unfolded and perfectly captured the hubris of many of the war’s supporters. More recently, it has gone after President Obama’s regular use of drones to conduct targeted killings overseas. As one of its television “hosts” asked in a video last year, with the Onion’s trademark deadpan mock-seriousness, “After ten years of combat in Afghanistan, is it time to take a second look at our policy of killing Afghan children with missiles shot from terrifying, remote-controlled flying robots?”
Of course, Syria, Iraq and the drone war are all separate issues, and there are valid policy reasons to support one intervention but not the others. But it’s probably wrong to see the Onion’s “positions” (to the extent that one can call them that) as evidence of a consistent house agenda. The more likely explanation is that humorists are naturally going to respond to real or perceived mistakes, especially those made by the U.S. government. Thus far, Obama has chosen to err on the side of caution in Syria. As the body count has risen, this choice makes a fat target for the kind of biting satire cited above. Yet one can easily imagine an alternative scenario in which, if Obama had decided to intervene last year and things had gone badly, the Onion would now be skewering him from the opposite perspective, mocking his and America’s tendency to intervene frequently in other countries.
So, in short, the Onion is not exactly becoming a comedic arm of Bill Kristol–style neoconservatism or the liberal interventionism of Anne-Marie Slaughter. Nevertheless, its shift on Syria is notable, if only because the publication often serves as a bellwether of elite attitudes. Its Syria pieces have been very funny and well executed, but the reason they pack an emotional punch is because they rely on the presumption of a shared belief—on the part of both the audience and the authors—that of course the United States should be doing more in Syria. As the administration reportedly weighs new steps aimed at ousting Bashar al-Assad, the question of how this decision is portrayed in mass-media outlets—even satirical ones—is very much worth watching.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone. CC BY-SA 3.0.
The New York Times has a story this morning recapping a recent poll on U.S. public opinion toward the use of military force. Its main takeaway, as written in its first sentence, is that “Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria.” Daniel Larison explains why this characterization of these results makes little sense:
Of course, there’s not really any evidence of “isolationism” in this poll. Overall, the public opposes starting wars in Syria and North Korea. . . . The only people who would seriously describe this position as “isolationist” are hard-liners and hawkish interventionists that like to describe everything other than their own position as some form of “isolationism” or “neo-isolationism.”
It should go without saying that opposition to intervention in Syria and North Korea by itself does not represent an “isolationist streak.” It seems safe to assume that a large majority of those who oppose American military action in those two countries still support continued trade and engagement with nations across the world, for example. Moreover, it is also perfectly clear that most of them support taking military action when they believe it is actually merited. This is seen in this very same poll, as the next paragraph of the Times article reads:
While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.
So, to recap: Americans are skeptical of getting involved in North Korea and Syria. But they also appear to be on board—by a substantial majority—with the ongoing campaign of drone strikes across several countries that has reportedly killed about 3,400 people with 411 strikes over the past decade, according to one averaged set of estimates. And yet somehow, for the Times, this all adds up to evidence of “isolationism” on the part of the U.S. public. It makes one wonder what exactly the paper would consider an “interventionist” approach.
It’s time for the United States to act in Syria, says Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Washington Post, but the Obama administration is doing all it can to avoid recognizing that. She suggests it is succumbing to “the temptation to hide behind the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction” as it carefully hedges intelligence suggesting that Syria used chemical weapons.
Slaughter mentions a secret December 2012 cable from the U.S. consul in Istanbul, which she says “conclud[es] that it was likely that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons” and reports victims “responded well to atropine, a drug used to treat people exposed to the nerve gas sarin.” However, charges Slaughter, the administration said the chemical used was a riot control agent, and “similar evidence has been squelched again and again.”
But the cable, obtained by Foreign Policy reporter Josh Rogin, doesn’t say any of that with such certainty. In fact, it states that it “is not able to definitely say whether chemical weapons were in fact used in the December 23 attack.”
Rogin notes that there are multiple discrepancies in reports of what happened: Was it delivered by a vehicle, as initial reports said, or by several short-range missiles, as later reports said? Did atropine make the patients better—as two Syrian doctors told Rogin—or make it worse, as one contact told the State Department? Did most victims have dilated pupils, as the contact said, or pinpoint pupils, as the two doctors say? Was the gas colorless, as the State Department-supported media project BASMA reported, or were there “clouds of white smoke,” as State’s contact said? Was the gas odorless, as in BASMA’s account, or was there a “pungent odor,” as the doctors say? These discrepancies don’t just invite questions about what happened. They also make it harder to determine what gas was used, since different chemical weapons (and “riot control agents”) have different properties.
Yet Slaughter’s account removes all this subtlety and contradiction. And this seemingly willful blindness to shades of gray in the interpretation of intelligence should awaken memories of the rush to war in Iraq, the same rush that Slaughter cautions Obama not to “hide behind.” It’s hard to make a categorical distinction between Slaughter’s interpretation of the Istanbul cable and, say, the 2002 analysis work of Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans.
Reports now swirl of a new Syrian chemical attack, this time in Aleppo in March. The latest set of evidence appears much more reliable than that in the Istanbul cable (although Arms Control Wonk’s Jeffrey Lewis notes it’s also not the best). It may be true that Syria has used chemical weapons on its own people. If so, this is further proof of the utter wickedness of the Assad regime. Yet Slaughter’s Cheneyesque reading of the Istanbul cable is a fresh reminder of the eagerness for war in some circles—right and left.
Senator John McCain’s desire to help Syria’s rebels is understandable and even commendable. But his latest case for arming them and protecting them with a no-fly zone makes little sense.
On NBC’s Meet the Press on April 28, 2013, McCain urged the United States to help the rebels, quoting a teacher in a Jordanian refugee camp, who told the visiting Senator that the children in the camp are “going to take revenge on those people who refuse to help them.” McCain himself added that “the Syrian people are angry and bitter at the United States” because of Washington’s failure to do more to aid the armed opposition to the hopefully eventual ex-president Bashar al-Assad.
First, why is there any reason to think that Syrians who are already angry and bitter with Washington would be less bitter if the United States intervenes more significantly? They will still be displaced and their friends and families will still be dead or maimed. If they blame the United States for that, would the help that McCain proposes really change their minds after two years of fighting?
Second, how could anyone possibly argue that U.S. national-security decisions should be made to avoid making anyone angry or bitter? Under McCain’s logic, supporters of the Syrian regime would become even more hostile to the United States if we support their opponents. How do we decide which bitter people are more dangerous?
Third, the teacher whom McCain quoted was specifically suggesting that the children in the camp would grow up to take revenge on the United States for failing to oust Assad. Would arms for the rebels and a no-fly zone be the best way to avoid that outcome? What about improving conditions in the camps and helping refugees reintegrate into post-Assad Syria? There are other approaches to this problem as well.
Finally, how would anyone in Syria become angry and bitter at the United States for not doing more to get rid of Assad if we had not ourselves encouraged them to think that we would? Americans did this most immediately by saying and repeating that he has to go without being ready (President Obama) or able (Senator McCain) to make it stick, but also by eagerly toppling others across the region—ironically, something that probably made at least some of them angry even as it created a context in which they would expect U.S. military assistance.
Senator McCain really seems to like the anecdote about the teacher, which he employed similarly as a call to action during then nominee John Kerry’s confirmation hearings. Someone should persuade him to stop sharing it—it helps neither him nor his cause.
Tevi Troy has a very good, very long piece about presidential transitions in the current issue of National Affairs. He recounts his experience as the director of domestic policy for the “Romney Readiness Project,” which, beginning in July 2012, was “assigned to help Mitt Romney prepare for the early personnel and policy decisions he would face if he won in November.” The piece is valuable because this project was the first of its type to be funded by the federal government, born out of a 2010 law that “provides government support . . . to help presidential challengers begin transition efforts upon receiving their parties' nominations.”
Troy argues convincingly that starting to prepare early for a transition does not represent hubris—rather, it is essential given the size and complexity of modern government. He contends that the $8.9 million spent by the Romney transition project was a worthwhile investment even though the candidate lost. The argument is straightforward: if there’s a significant chance that a challenger might win the election, and the responsibilities of the president are as immense as they are, a modest investment to make sure his team is as prepared as it can be is prudent.
One issue that Troy discusses in detail is the challenge of staffing a new administration. Noting that the presidential confirmation process has become “lengthy, burdensome and overly partisan,” the transition team “wanted to have short lists ready so that the president-elect could choose candidates for the most important positions almost immediately after the election.” This required that each of the team’s three major subgroups—for economics, domestic policy and national security—“provide approximately 400 names that could potentially take top-level positions at the eight or so agencies under its purview.”
Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to new, incoming administrations. Recently, Foreign Policy has reported on the larger-than-normal number of senior positions that are either vacant or staffed by acting personnel at both the State Department and the Pentagon as President Obama begins his second term.
At Outside the Beltway, James Joyner observes that while congressional obstruction is a factor in this, the administration also bears responsibility for not putting names forward in a number of cases. Joyner’s proposed remedy is a sound one, although it is probably a political nonstarter given how much any White House will naturally want to maximize its control over personnel:
This is another data point in support of a position I’ve held for some time: there are far, far too many appointed positions in our government. Yes, the president ought to be able to put his stamp on policy, and bringing in outsiders of his selection at the top leadership levels helps facilitate that. It makes sense to have appointed cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries, and even undersecretaries. But do we really need to appoint assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries? Why not fill those from the ranks of the professionals of the Senior Executive Service?
With the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum set to open tomorrow, many journos this week are examining the life and legacy of the 43rd president. While some remain sour on his presidency, the latter Bush's approval rating has in fact gained 14 points since his final poll in office, bringing him to a lukewarm 47 percent. Jennifer Rubin's column yesterday "Bush is Back" seems to feel this is a landslide victory in the eyes of history. Her main points:
1) "Unlike Obama’s tenure, [under Bush] there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11."
Not true, but even if it were, why does Bush get a pass for the largest terror attack in American history? While you can read a list of several such attacks after 9/11 here, as a native Washingtonian the DC sniper attacks are a particularly prominent memory. In October 2002, my high school went into "lock down" after reports that men in a white box truck were shooting people at random in the vicinity. That spree, which Lee Boyd Malvo later testified was motivated by "jihad," killed ten and wounded three. Obama rightly gets heat for Boston and Benghazi later in the piece, but Rubin's logic is warped.
2) "It turned out that the triumvirate of Iraq-Iran-North Korea really was the Axis of Evil."
According to whom? This so-called Axis of Evil is one person's perception of the world rather than a fact (unlike, say, whether or not a country is stockpiling WMDs) and can't be proved or disproved as an objective truth. I have no doubt that Obama himself is another point on Rubin's personal Axis of Evil, but she neglects to reiterate that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction as Bush purported. In addition, what kind of diplomacy does labeling certain countries as inherently "evil" beget? While North Korea is truly out there, perpetuation of this language has served only to further complicate our relationships with Iraq and Iran at a time when more careful diplomacy is necessary.
3) He presided over "7 1/2 years of job growth and prosperity" and "can be credited with helping to calm the markets and stabilize financial institutions."
Bush's policies continue to constitute the largest portion of the current public debt, and it's anticipated that the effects of this will be felt long after Obama has left office. Rubin conveniently seems to forget the 2008 global financial crisis, which brought the market to its knees and pushed unemployment through the roof.
4) "Even [Bush's] dreaded enhanced interrogation. . .contributed to our locating and assassinating Osama bin Laden."
Stanley McChrystal himself said that enhanced interrogation did not work and concluded that "sitting down and just talking with people" proved far more effective. As far as Bin Laden goes, a 6,000 page Senate Intelligence Committee report found that torture did not produce any valuable intel that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
Rubin's review of the Bush 43 legacy glosses over 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, staggering debt and large intelligence gathering failures preceding the Iraq War. Perhaps it's unsurprising then that she's able to come to such a sunny conclusion. While the Bush library may present an opportunity for the president to refresh his image, he's going to need far more help than Jennifer Rubin can provide to come out on top.
Sigal Samuel of The Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog asks, “Should Americans Identify With Israel After Boston?” She notes that both Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and one of his close aides, Ron Dermer, have expressed optimism about the impact of the Boston bombings on U.S.-Israeli relations. Both suggested that Americans would feel a sense of shared struggle with Israelis on terror. Samuel notes that this “turns on a hidden assumption: . . . that we’ll all agree to more or less equate the sort of terrorism inflicted on Boston with the sort of terrorism inflicted on Israel.” However, she charges, the two are actually quite different:
Palestinian terrorism—as condemnable as it certainly is—exists within the context of Israeli occupation; living under Israeli control, lacking many basic rights, the Palestinians are clearly in need of a political solution. The same cannot be said of the Tsarnaevs, who lived in America and enjoyed the same rights enjoyed by every immigrant to the U.S. Exactly what political solution does an immigrant already granted full U.S. citizenship require? The answer’s not at all clear.
Samuel is right that it’s not clear what, precisely, the Tsarnaevs were aiming for. But we can make some educated guesses. NBC News reports that under interrogation, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has told investigators that he and his brother learned how to make the bombs from Inspire, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s periodic digest of jihadi thought, terror methods and bad poetry. He also told them that he and his brother “were motivated by religious fervor.” Accounts of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s transformation suggest he was sympathetic to the hardline Salafi-Wahhabi currents that have grown like a malignancy in the Muslim world in recent decades. Among other telltales, he had favorited a YouTube video of a Salafi cleric, he had a disdain for celebrating holidays (even Islamic ones) and he publicly accused an imam of unbelief.
And Salafi-jihadi thought absolutely aims for a political solution. That solution—the dominion of its peculiar strand of Islamic thought over all Muslim society, and the removal of all other influences from the Muslim world—just happens to be far less comfortable than political solutions to the Palestine problem.
Yet at bottom many Palestinian terror groups have equally untenable goals. Rejectionist Palestinian groups do not aim for a two-state solution, and have acted repeatedly to undermine it. Even Hamas, which has negotiated (indirectly) with Israel and entered an apparent truce after the last war, has only flirted with the idea.
And that’s what Israel and the United States have in common: they have enemies with which there can be no honorable peace. There always will be Palestinian rejectionists, because even under the most favorable two-state resolution, Palestine will still be a terrible place to live. And there always will be extremists willing to engage in violence as long as America is a major influence in the Middle East (likely for at least the next few decades) and as long as the Islamic world’s intense internal struggle over modernity persists (likely for at least the next few centuries).
Moreover, many of these incorrigible enemies have had deeper connections. Palestinian terror was once funded by America’s geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union; nowadays some of it is funded by America’s (lesser) geopolitical rival, Iran. Hezbollah killed lots of Israelis and lots of Americans in Lebanon’s civil war. Many of the jihadists that attack the United States would include U.S. relations with Israel among their motivations. The connections are rarely strong enough that Jerusalem and Washington face an identical foe—Hezbollah, nowadays, is more concerned with Israel, while Al Qaeda and its hangers-on are more concerned with America. The PLO evacuated Beirut with American guarantees—and an Israeli sniper’s crosshairs on Yasser Arafat’s head. But the connections have long been deep enough to merit substantive coordination.
This all doesn’t mean that the United States should automatically back Israel—which, Samuel notes, seems to be the goal of those who draw parallels between attacks on Boston and attacks on Israel. But the experience of terror is a common thread that should not be dismissed.
The Washington Post has made clear that a decade after the invasion of Iraq, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is still George Bush’s poodle.
Blair said Bush continues to believe that the world is safer without Saddam Hussein in power and added: “When you see what is happening in Syria today, the sense of that argument is evident. . . . What it does is just make clear that these decisions are very difficult. If you intervene, it can be very tough. If you don’t intervene, it can also be very tough.”
The hole in this argument is wide enough for a lorry. It is “very tough” in Syria because the country is in the midst of a civil war. Iraq was not fighting a civil war in 2003; Bush and Blair justified intervention by claiming that the country was developing weapons of mass destruction. And, of course, the purported evidence of Iraq’s WMD depended all-too-heavily on reports from Iraqi exiles eager to bring down Saddam Hussein however they could—especially if it could be done at someone else’s expense.
Why is Blair still Bush’s poodle after all these years? He has little choice but to defend the former president in defending his own legacy. In for a penny, in for a pound.
Victor Davis Hanson’s latest National Review column blasts President Obama for pursuing what he calls a “neo-isolationist foreign policy.” The charges he levels are familiar ones in hawkish critiques of the president: Obama is “leading from behind” and “outsourcing formerly American responsibilities.” His actions “send signals that there is no privilege to be derived from being a supporter of America or its values.”
What is most odd about the piece, however, is how poorly the “neo-isolationist” label appears to fit Obama’s foreign policy—even as Hanson describes it. Consider a few of the events that Hanson covers in his overview of Obama’s first term:
● The surge in Afghanistan, in which Obama sent an additional thirty thousand troops to that country, temporarily escalating the war with the goal of reversing the Taliban’s momentum.
● The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, in which “the Obama administration helped to remove the monster in rehabilitation Muammar Qaddafi.”
● The dramatic escalation of drone strikes across Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, in which “Obama, in one term, may have expanded targeted assassinations by drones tenfold over the tally of the eight-year Bush presidency.”
To state the obvious, this is hardly a record of “neo-isolationism.” That label doesn’t apply even if one grants Hanson all of his other criticisms of Obama—on Syria, Iran, defense spending and so on. It only begins to make sense if your default assumption is that the United States can and should be intervening everywhere, all the time.
The fact is that almost no significant political figure within America’s two major parties holds any views that can fairly be described as “isolationist” or “neo-isolationist.” Democrats and Republicans alike want the United States to have the world’s most powerful military, maintain its alliances and trade with other nations. As I wrote last December, “Hawks and neoconservatives have reduced the term ‘isolationist’ to meaninglessness by applying it to anyone who doesn’t reflexively support using military force to solve every problem around the world.” It may be a convenient rhetorical club for some to beat their opponents with. But as an analytical category, it has become practically useless.
Today, Carl Cannon reminds us at Real Clear History that this day marks the fifty-second anniversary of the beginning of the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. After briefly recapping the story of the “far-fetched scheme,” he concludes:
The finger-pointing began immediately, but over the years a consensus has emerged that the plan JFK inherited was a mess; that the CIA “intelligence” on Cuba was an oxymoron; and that if Kennedy was going to approve the plan he probably should have gone into the Bay of Pigs, well, whole hog.
Bad puns aside, this is a fair assessment of how much of a disaster the operation was from start to finish, and how poorly conceived the plan was. As historian Robert Dallek wrote in reviewing newly declassified documents in 2011, even “the CIA task force in charge of the paramilitary assault did not believe it could succeed without becoming an open invasion supported by the U.S. military.”
But while it’s fair to critique the (many) tactical errors made and to insist that if the invasion was going to happen, it should have been done “whole hog,” the broader question is: Why was official Washington so convinced that regime change in Cuba was a necessity in the first place? One answer is that this position naturally flowed from the country’s prevailing Cold War orthodoxy. As Jim Rasenberger put it in his book The Brilliant Disaster, the fiasco was “produced by two administrations, encouraged by countless informed legislators, and approved by numerous men of high rank and intelligence.” Rasenberger writes that all of these men
were operating under conditions that made the venture almost impossible to resist. At a time when Americans were nearly hysterical about the spread of communism, they simply could not abide Castro. He had to go.
This helps explain why, after the invasion’s failure, the Kennedy administration wasted no time continuing its drive to oust Fidel Castro, both through the subsequent Operation Mongoose, which attempted to sabotage and destabilize the Cuban regime, and through attempts to assassinate Castro himself. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy even said in January 1962 that overthrowing Castro was “the top priority in the United States Government.”
It’s worth remembering the consequences that these kinds of ventures, and this drive for regime change overseas, can have. In the case of the Bay of Pigs, one event that happened in its wake which cannot be ignored is the following year’s Cuban missile crisis. In the words of Michael Dobbs, “By authorizing the Bay of Pigs invasion, followed by Operation Mongoose, Kennedy had given the Soviets every reason to believe that he was determined to get rid of Castro once and for all.” It is hardly a surprise that, in response, Castro would want a form of deterrent and the Soviets would want to protect their client state. And so Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made the wildly reckless decision to send nuclear weapons to Cuba, precipitating the famous “thirteen days” of the crisis in October 1962.
To this day, the Cuban missile crisis remains perhaps the closest that the world has ever come to apocalyptic nuclear war. And while Khrushchev no doubt bears the largest share of the responsibility for that crisis, the Bay of Pigs is also an essential part of the story of how we got there.