Archive for the ‘Let’s all beat the war drums’ Category

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

September 8, 2013

It’s all Syria all the time today.  The Pasty Little Putz has extruded a turd called “Gambling With the Presidency” in which he gurgles out a question:  Can President Obama’s credibility survive the Congressional debate over whether to bomb Syria?  He actually uses the phrase “conscientious Congress.”  Really.  He apparently wrote that with a straight face.  MoDo has decided that she’s an authority on “Barry’s War Within,” and she informs us that while trying for gutsy in handling Assad and his cronies, the president pauses for a gut check.  The Moustache of Wisdom also has a question in “Same War, Different Country:”  Who will prevail in the Arab awakening, Hobbes, Khomeini or Jefferson?  In “Pulling the Curtain Back on Syria” Mr. Kristof says intervening in Syria is a bad option, but it’s better than letting President Bashar al-Assad massacre his people and break international norms with impunity.  Mr. Bruni considers “The Syria Babble We Don’t Need” and says the stakes of a decision to intervene or not are much bigger than the political fortunes of the celebrity politicians involved. The media must respect that.  Here’s The Putz:

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to a foreign policy fiasco.

All along, it’s been clear that President Obama has nothing but bad options in Syria’s civil war. Now, though, he’s found a way to put Congress in a similarly unfortunate position. When the House and Senate vote on whether to authorize strikes on Bashar al-Assad, they’ll be choosing between two potentially disastrous paths: either endorse a quasi-war that many constituents oppose and that this White House seems incapable of justifying on the merits, or vote to basically finish off the current American president as a credible actor on the world stage.

The second option seemed relatively unlikely a week ago, but now — in the House especially — it looks like a live possibility. The politics of a “yes” vote are lousy: the bases of both parties are opposed, the public in general is skeptical, and the president isn’t popular enough to provide cover for legislators worried about how another military adventure would play back home.

These political considerations wouldn’t loom so large if the strategic case for war were clearer. But neither the president nor his secretary of state seems to have figured out what kind of intervention the administration is proposing or why.

The strongest case for striking the Syrian regime is also a relatively modest one: The president drew a line around the use of chemical weapons, Assad crossed it, and a punitive strike is the best way to persuade him not to cross it more flagrantly still. The goal would be to contain a dictator’s most destabilizing impulses, and serve notice to other potential bad actors that there is a price to ignoring American warnings. The historical models would be our 1986 strike on Muammar el-Qaddafi or Operation Desert Fox against Saddam Hussein in 1998; each campaign had a limited purpose that didn’t open into wider war.

The case for a punitive intervention is hardly airtight. (The ’86 strike, for instance, did not induce Libya’s government to cease supporting terrorism.) But it’s more credible than the case the administration has been making, which has been much more expansive in its justifications for war, and therefore much less credible in its promise of a strictly limited involvement.

Secretary of State John Kerry, especially, has consistently spoken about Syria in the language of a crusading Wilsonianism — complete with outraged moralism, invocations of Munich and references to the Holocaust, and sunny takes on the alleged moderation of the Syrian opposition.

Yet if this intervention is actually about making Syria safe for democracy, the strike being contemplated is wildly insufficient to that end. So either the White House is secretly planning for a longer war or else it has no clear plan at all. And either possibility would be a plausible reason for a conscientious Congress to vote against this war.

A lot of observers I respect, conservative and liberal, are hoping for exactly that outcome. They want to see the war-weary American public vindicated at the expense of a Washington establishment that’s spent a decade badly overestimating the efficacy of military interventions. And they hope that in the long run, the shock of a “no” vote might help restore some of the constitutional balance that’s been lost to presidential power grabs and Congressional abdications.

But it’s important to recognize just how unprecedented such a vote would be, and how far the ripples might ultimately spread. It wouldn’t just be a normal political rebuke of President Obama. It would be a remarkable institutional rebuke of his presidency, with unknowable consequences for the credibility of American foreign policy, not only in Syria but around the world.

Presidential credibility is an intangible thing, and the term has been abused over the years by overeager hawks and cult-of-the-presidency devotees. But the global system really does depend on other nations’ confidence that the United States means what it says — that the promises the White House and the State Department make are binding, that our military commitments aren’t just so much bluster, and that when the president speaks on foreign policy he has the power to live up to his words.

It is to President Obama’s great discredit that he has staked this credibility on a vote whose outcome he failed to game out in advance. But if he loses that vote, the national interest as well as his political interests will take a tangible hit: for the next three years, American foreign policy will be in the hands of a president whose promises will ring consistently hollow, and whose ability to make good on his strategic commitments will be very much in doubt.

This is not an argument that justifies voting for a wicked or a reckless war, and members of Congress who see the Syria intervention in that light must necessarily oppose it.

But if they do, they should be prepared for the consequences: a damaged president, a potentially crippled foreign policy and a long, hard, dangerous road to January 2017.

Next up we face MoDo:

The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize had been up late pleading for war.

The president looked exhausted as he met the press in St. Petersburg on Friday. The man elected because of his magical powers of persuasion had failed to persuade other world leaders at dinner the night before about a strike on Syria.

He said he had told his fellow leaders, “I was elected to end wars and not start them.”

But in life, and especially in Washington, people sometimes end up becoming what they start out scorning.

It is uncomfortable to watch the president struggle to reconcile his two conflicting identities as he weighs what he calls the unappetizing choices on Syria, and as he is weighed down by the malignant choices on the Middle East made by his predecessor.

In his head, is Barry at war with the commander in chief?

One side of him is Barry, the smooth consensus builder and community organizer, the former constitutional professor and the drive-by senator who must stand by the argument he made when he ran for president excoriating W.’s and Dick Cheney’s highhandedness: checks and balances must be observed. As he told Charlie Savage, then reporting for The Boston Globe, in 2007, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

W. and Tony Blair were not honest about the imminent threat from Saddam. President Obama said in Russia Friday that “I put it before Congress because I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed an imminent, direct threat to the United States.”

When it came time to act as commander in chief, he choked and reverted to Senator Barry — even though many lawmakers in both parties privately wish the president had just gone ahead and hurled a few missiles, Zeus like, and not put them on the spot.

Now the president who saw no benefit in wooing Democrats on the Hill is desperate for their love. Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco peacenik, will have to win Barry the right to bomb.

Those around him say that, after the British poodle slipped its leash, Obama faced a gut check on his decision to have a strike. He had to dig deep and decide “This is who I am,” and be true to himself. To be Barry, editor of the Harvard Law Review.

In some ways, his reaction reflects his tendency toward mixing high principles with low motives. He believes it is proper to get Congressional approval and let the people chime in. But he also wanted to make life difficult for Congressional Republicans who like to “snipe,” using his word, from the sidelines with no accountability. He wanted to call their blustery bluff.

But who is going to get bluffed?

Obama had to know that once he threw this into the Congress, it was likely done for. Congress now is a paralyzed domestic version of the U.N., with Republicans going “nyet” as often as the Russians, and Democrats acting like the don’t-look-at-us-for-help Chinese.

Many Republicans are trying to use this as an attempt to emasculate the president, but can they really send the message that the U.S. president is weak?

Obama has told Israel, when it has threatened to go it alone on striking Iran, to back off, guaranteeing the U.S. would use force if necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. If Congress ratifies that there’s no appetite among Americans to police the Middle East, does it doom any chance of a U.S. pre-emptive strike on Iran and indicate that the U.S. won’t be there for Israel?

Barack Obama first made his mark as an Illinois legislator with a speech in 2002 about Iraq, which he warned would be “a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion,” a war that would “distract” from our own problems with the economy and poverty.

Now agitated constituents at town halls across the country are asking why the president wants to distract from our own problems with the economy and poverty.

As Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings said on NPR, a nurse at Johns Hopkins confronted him, saying: “Folks have been using chemical weapons for a long time. Do you realize when I took my son to school, they didn’t even have books for him to” learn from?

As commander in chief, Obama knows that if he doesn’t punish Bashar al-Assad, America and his presidency will be forever reduced. He thinks a limited strike — not a war, as some are calling it — is the right thing to do.

But as Barry talked to the press in St. Petersburg, his lack of enthusiasm came across. He was not thundering from the top of the moral ramparts. He made his usual nuanced, lawyerly presentation, talking about the breach of international “norms.” It’s a weak, wonk word.

Norms don’t send people to the barricades.

It’s a wonder she didn’t trot out “Bambi” for this one.  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Say, did you see the news from Libya — the last country we bombed because its leader crossed a red line or was about to? Here’s a dispatch from Libya in the Sept. 3 British newspaper, The Independent:

“Libya has plunged unnoticed into its worst political and economic crisis since the defeat of Qaddafi two years ago. Government authority is disintegrating in all parts of the country putting in doubt claims by American, British and French politicians that NATO’s military action in Libya in 2011 was an outstanding example of a successful foreign military intervention, which should be repeated in Syria. … Output of Libya’s prized high-quality crude oil has plunged from 1.4 million barrels a day earlier this year to just 160,000 barrels a day now.”

I keep reading about how Iraq was the bad war and Libya was the good war and Afghanistan was the necessary war and Bosnia was the moral war and Syria is now another necessary war. Guess what! They are all the same war.

They are all the story of what happens when multisectarian societies, most of them Muslim or Arab, are held together for decades by dictators ruling vertically, from the top down, with iron fists and then have their dictators toppled, either by internal or external forces. And they are all the story of how the people in these countries respond to the fact that with the dictator gone they can only be governed horizontally — by the constituent communities themselves writing their own social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens, without an iron fist from above. And, as I’ve said before, they are all the story of how difficult it is to go from Saddam to Jefferson — from vertical rule to horizontal rule — without falling into Hobbes or Khomeini.

In Bosnia, after much ethnic cleansing between warring communities, NATO came in and stabilized and codified what is in effect a partition. We acted on the ground as “the army of the center.” In Iraq, we toppled the dictator and then, after making every mistake in the book, we got the parties to write a new social contract. To make that possible, we policed the lines between sects and eliminated a lot of the worst jihadists in the Shiite and Sunni ranks. We acted on the ground as the “army of the center.” But then we left before anything could take root. Ditto Afghanistan.

The Obama team wanted to be smarter in Libya: No boots on the ground. So we decapitated that dictator from the air. But then our ambassador got murdered, because, without boots on the ground to referee, and act as the army of the center, Hobbes took hold before Jefferson.

If we were to decapitate the Syrian regime from the air, the same thing would likely happen there. For any chance of a multisectarian democratic outcome in Syria, you need to win two wars on the ground: one against the ruling Assad-Alawite-Iranian-Hezbollah-Shiite alliance; and, once that one is over, you’d have to defeat the Sunni Islamists and pro-Al Qaeda jihadists. Without an army of the center (which no one will provide) to back up the few decent Free Syrian Army units, both will be uphill fights.

The center exists in these countries, but it is weak and unorganized. It’s because these are pluralistic societies — mixtures of tribes and religious sects, namely Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Druze and Turkmen — but they lack any sense of citizenship or deep ethic of pluralism. That is, tolerance, cooperation and compromise. They could hold together as long as there was a dictator to “protect” (and divide) everyone from everyone else. But when the dictator goes, and you are a pluralistic society but lack pluralism, you can’t build anything because there is never enough trust for one community to cede power to another — not without an army of the center to protect everyone from everyone.

In short, the problem now across the Arab East is not just poison gas, but poisoned hearts. Each tribe or sect believes it is in a rule-or-die struggle against the next, and when everyone believes this, it becomes self-fulfilling.

That means Syria and Iraq will both likely devolve into self-governing, largely homogeneous, ethnic and religious units, like Kurdistan. And, if we are lucky, these units will find a modus vivendi, as happened in Lebanon after 14 years of civil war. And then maybe, over time, these smaller units will voluntarily come together into larger, more functional states.

I still believe our response to Assad’s poison gas attack should be “arm and shame,” as I wrote on Wednesday. But, please do spare me the lecture that America’s credibility is at stake here. Really? Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting since the 7th century over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad’s spiritual and political leadership, and our credibility is on the line? Really? Their civilization has missed every big modern global trend — the religious Reformation, democratization, feminism and entrepreneurial and innovative capitalism — and our credibility is on the line? I don’t think so.

We’ve struggled for a long time, and still are, learning to tolerate “the other.” That struggle has to happen in the Arab/Muslim world, otherwise nothing we do matters. What is the difference between the Arab awakening in 2011 and South Africa’s transition to democracy in the 1990s? America? No. The quality of local leadership and the degree of tolerance.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

When I was a law student in 1982, I escaped torts by backpacking through Syria and taking a public bus to Hama, where the government had suppressed a rebellion by massacring some 20,000 people.

The center of Hama was pulverized into a vast field of rubble interspersed with bits of clothing, yet on the fringe of it stood, astonishingly, a tourism office. The two Syrian officials inside, thrilled to see an apparent tourist, weighed me down with leaflets about sightseeing in Hama and its ancient water wheels. After a bit of small talk, I pointed out the window at the moonscape and asked what had happened.

They peered out at the endless gravel pit.

“Huh?” one said nervously. “I don’t see anything.”

It feels to me a bit as if much of the world is reacting the same way today. The scale of the slaughter may be five times that of 1982, but few are interested in facing up to what is unfolding today out our window in Hama, Homs, Damascus and Aleppo.

As one woman tweeted to me: “We simply cannot stop every injustice in the world by using military weapons.”

Fair enough. But let’s be clear that this is not “every injustice”: On top of the 100,000-plus already killed in Syria, another 5,000 are being slaughtered monthly, according to the United Nations. Remember the Boston Massacre of 1770 from our history books, in which five people were killed? Syria loses that many people every 45 minutes on average, around the clock.

The rate of killing is accelerating. In the first year, 2011, there were fewer than 5,000 deaths. As of July 2012, there were still “only” 10,000, and the number has since soared tenfold.

A year ago, by United Nations calculations, there were 230,000 Syrian refugees. Now there are two million.

In other words, while there are many injustices around the world, from Darfur to eastern Congo, take it from one who has covered most of them: Syria is today the world capital of human suffering.

Skeptics are right about the drawbacks of getting involved, including the risk of retaliation. Yet let’s acknowledge that the alternative is, in effect, to acquiesce as the slaughter in Syria reaches perhaps the hundreds of thousands or more.

But what about the United Nations? How about a multilateral solution involving the Arab League? How about peace talks? What about an International Criminal Court prosecution?

All this sounds fine in theory, but Russia blocks progress in the United Nations. We’ve tried multilateral approaches, and Syrian leaders won’t negotiate a peace deal as long as they feel they’re winning on the ground. One risk of bringing in the International Criminal Court is that President Bashar al-Assad would be more wary of stepping down. The United Nations can’t stop the killing in Syria any more than in Darfur or Kosovo. As President Assad himself noted in 2009, “There is no substitute for the United States.”

So while neither intervention nor paralysis is appealing, that’s pretty much the menu. That’s why I favor a limited cruise missile strike against Syrian military targets (as well as the arming of moderate rebels). As I see it, there are several benefits: Such a strike may well deter Syria’s army from using chemical weapons again, probably can degrade the ability of the army to use chemical munitions and bomb civilian areas, can reinforce the global norm against chemical weapons, and — a more remote prospect — may slightly increase the pressure on the Assad regime to work out a peace deal.

If you’re thinking, “Those are incremental, speculative and highly uncertain gains,” well, you’re right. Syria will be bloody whatever we do.

Mine is a minority view. After the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the West is bone weary and has little interest in atrocities unfolding in Syria or anywhere else. Opposition to missile strikes is one of the few issues that ordinary Democrats and Republicans agree on.

“So we’re bombing Syria because Syria is bombing Syria?” Sarah Palin wrote, in a rare comment that liberals might endorse. Her suggestion: “Let Allah sort it out.”

More broadly, pollsters are detecting a rise in isolationism. The proportion of Americans who say that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally” has been at a historic high in recent years.

A Pew survey this year asked voters to rate 19 government expenses, and the top two choices for budget cuts were “aid to the world’s needy” and the State Department. (In fact, 0.5 percent of the budget goes to the world’s needy, and, until recently, the military had more musicians in its bands than the State Department had diplomats.)

When history looks back on this moment, will it view those who opposed intervening as champions of peace? Or, when the textbooks count the dead children, and the international norms broken with impunity, will our descendants puzzle that we took pride in retreating into passivity during this slaughter?

Isn’t this a bit like the idealists who embraced the Kellogg-Briand Pact that banned war 85 years ago? Sure, that made people feel good. But it may also have encouraged the appeasement that ultimately cost lives in World War II.

O.K., so I’ve just added fuel to the battle for analogies. For now, the one that has caught on is Iraq in 2003. But considering that no one is contemplating boots on the ground, a more relevant analogy in Iraq may be the 1998 Operation Desert Fox bombing of Iraqi military sites by President Bill Clinton. It lasted a few days, and some say it was a factor in leading Iraq to give up W.M.D. programs; others disagree.

That murkiness is not surprising. To me, the lessons of history in this area are complex and conflicting, offering no neat formula to reach peace or alleviate war. In most cases, diplomacy works best. But not always. When Yugoslavia was collapsing into civil war in the early 1990s, early efforts at multilateral diplomacy delayed firm action and led to a higher body count.

Some military interventions, as in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo, have worked well. Others, such as Iraq in 2003, worked very badly. Still others, such as Libya, had mixed results. Afghanistan and Somalia were promising at first but then evolved badly.

So, having said that analogies aren’t necessarily helpful, let me leave you with a final provocation.

If we were fighting against an incomparably harsher dictator using chemical weapons on our own neighborhoods, and dropping napalm-like substances on our children’s schools, would we regard other countries as “pro-peace” if they sat on the fence as our dead piled up?

And last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

Our country is about to make the most excruciating kind of decision, the most dire: whether to commence a military campaign whose real costs and ultimate consequences are unknowable.

But let’s by all means discuss the implications for Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Iowa, New Hampshire and 2016. Yea or nay on the bombing: which is the safer roll of the dice for a Republican presidential contender? Reflexively, sadly, we journalists prattle and write about that. We miss the horse race of 2012, not to mention the readership and ratings it brought. The next election can’t come soon enough.

So we pivot to Hillary Clinton. We’re always pivoting to Hillary Clinton. Should she be weighing in on Syria more decisively and expansively? Or does the fact that she authorized the war in Iraq compel restraint and a gentler tone this time around? What’s too gentle, and what’s just right? So goes one strand of commentary, and to follow it is to behold a perverse conflation of foreign policy and the Goldilocks fable.

The media has a wearying tendency — a corrosive tic — to put everything that happens in Washington through the same cynical political grinder, subjecting it to the same cynical checklist of who’s up, who’s down, who’s threading a needle, who’s tangled up in knots, what it all means for control of Congress after the midterms, what it all means for control of the White House two years later.

And we’re doing a bit too much of this with Syria, when we owe this crossroads something more than standard operating procedure, something better than knee-jerk ruminations on the imminent vote in Congress as a test for Nancy Pelosi, as a referendum on John Boehner, as a conundrum for Mitch McConnell, as a defining moment for Barack Obama.

You know whom it’s an even more defining moment for? The Syrians whose country is unraveling beyond all hope; the Israelis, Lebanese and Jordanians next door; the American servicemen and servicewomen whose futures could be forever altered or even snuffed out by the course that the lawmakers and the president chart.

The stakes are huge. Bomb Syria and there’s no telling how many innocent civilians will be killed; if it will be the first chapter in an epic longer and bloodier than we bargained for; what price America will pay, not just on the battlefield but in terms of reprisals elsewhere; and whether we’ll be pouring accelerant on a country and a region already ablaze.

Don’t bomb Syria and there’s no guessing the lesson that the tyrants of the world will glean from our decision not to punish Bashar al-Assad for slaughtering his people on whatever scale he wishes and in whatever manner he sees fit. Will they conclude that a diminished America is retreating from the role it once played? Will they interpret that, dangerously, as a green light? And what will our inaction say about us? About our morality, and about our mettle?

These are the agonizing considerations before our elected leaders and before the rest of us, and in light of them we journalists ought to resist turning the Syria debate into the sort of reality television show that we turn so much of American political life into, a soap opera often dominated by the mouthiest characters rather than the most thoughtful ones.

Last week, in many places, I read what Sarah Palin was saying about Syria, because of course her geopolitical chops are so thoroughly established. A few months back, I read about Donald Trump’s thoughts on possible military intervention, because any debate over strategy in the Middle East naturally calls for his counsel.

They’re both irrelevant, but they’re eyeball bait: ready, reliable clicks. I wonder how long I’ll have to wait before a post on some Web site clues me into Beyoncé’s Syria position. Late Friday, Politico informed the world of Madonna’s. (She’s anti-intervention.)

This type of coverage hasn’t been the dominant one. But plenty of it is creeping in.

Here’s a smattering of headlines, subheads, sentences and phrases from various news organizations last week: “Votes on Syria could have huge ramifications on 2016 contenders”; “Vote puts Republicans mulling 2016 run on the spot”; “Democrats and Republicans are choosing their words carefully, lest they take a hit three years from now”; “the difficult line G.O.P. presidential contenders like Rubio must balance in trying to project a sense of American military might without turning off conservatives skeptical about following Obama’s lead”; “the risk for Paul is if Obama’s prescription for Syria turns out to be a success”; “Mitch McConnell’s muddle”; “Hillary Clinton’s Syria dilemma.”

Some of this rightly illuminates the political dynamics that will influence the final decisions about a military strike that individual members of Congress and the president reach. It’s essential in that regard.

But some merely reflects the penchant that we scribes and pundits have for reducing complicated issues to campaign-style contests and personality-based narratives, especially if those personalities have the stature and thus the marketability of celebrities.

Celebrities get clicks, while the nitty-gritty is a tougher sell. I’ll not soon forget a BuzzFeed post from last February with this headline: “The sequester is terrible for traffic.” It didn’t mean Corollas and Escalades. It meant the number of readers bothering with Web stories on a subject they deemed as dry as they apparently did the federal budget and automatic cuts to spending.

THE traffic lament shared the screen with a link to an utterly different style of political feature asking readers to indicate which “presidential hotties” they’d get down and dirty with. The headline on that post? “Sexy U.S. presidents: would you hit it or quit it?” Sex, I guess, brings on rush hour. Maybe presidents do, too. They’re celebrities, even the dead ones.

It’s easy for the media and our consumers to focus on recognizable figures, how they’re faring and what they’re saying (or, better yet, shouting). I even spotted recent reports on what Chris Christie wasn’t saying. They noted that he hasn’t articulated a position on Syria, though that’s unremarkable and appropriate. He isn’t receiving the intelligence that members of Congress are, and he doesn’t get a vote.

He’s not the story, and neither is Paul or Rubio or the rest of them. What matters here are the complicated ethics and unpredictable ripple effects of the profound choice about to be made.

And if we want the men and women making it to be guided by principle, not politics, it surely doesn’t help for journalists to lavish attention on electoral calculations and thereby send our own signal: that we don’t expect, and voters shouldn’t count on, anything nobler. On a question of war and peace, we need nobler. We need the highest ground we can find.

It’s hard to find high ground in the sewer.

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Blow, Kristof and Collins

September 5, 2013

In “The Era of Disbelief” Mr. Blow says this time, Americans are questioning everything — as they should.  On the other hand, in “The Right Questions on Syria,” Mr. Kristof says sitting on our hands as Syrians are slaughtered is not “pro-peace.”  Well, NIck, neither is raining down death indiscriminately via cruise missiles.  Ms. Collins takes us “Off to the Mayoral Races” and says from kittens on the rails to Central Park carriage horses, in New York this year, we have four-legged issues.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

This is a particularly bad time to sell the American people a war, and make no mistake: we are being sold, and this “military action,” in another time and place — and in some quarters, here and now — would be called an act of war.

Americans are not only weary of war, they’re weary of the politicians who commit us to it.

According to Gallup, only 10 percent of Americans now have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress, a record low since Gallup started tracking the measure in 1973.

Only 36 percent have the same level of confidence in the presidency.

Furthermore, the degree to which Americans trust the government in Washington to do the right thing at least most of the time has tanked since peaking in the jingoistic, post-9/11, post-traumatic-stress era.

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans trusting the government to do the right thing always or at least most of the time hit a high of 60 percent in October 2001.

That high level of trust mixed with a high level of patriotism, a clear attack on American soil and a clear enemy who publicly took credit responsibility for the attacks made going to war in Afghanistan an easy choice. President George W. Bush could do no wrong. His approval rating soared to 90 percent.

Then came Iraq, and so began W.’s disaster. The focus shifted from the country harboring the terrorists who’d just finished an attack on an American business center to the country where W.’s father had left business unfinished.

So while American patriotism was at a record high — according to Gallup, the proportion of people in this country who said that they were extremely or very proud to be American reached 92 percent in 2002 — the Bush administration, with its nest of warmongers, set about selling a trumped-up war with trumped-up “facts.”

The Bush administration led us to a well that they knew was poisoned. Skepticism began to displace trust as the lies came into full resolution. Our faith had been misplaced; our confidence had been betrayed.

We were promised that the war would only last a few months, but it stretched on from one miserable year to another and the bodies of young American men and women stacked up or came home mangled.

We were told that Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, had a stockpile of “weapons of mass destruction.” None were ever found in our war of mass deception.

We were told that the Iraqi people would see us as a “hoped-for liberator.” We would come to be seen as a nightmare occupier.

How could the government have sold us such distortions? How could so many of us have bought them? Never again, we said.

Now here we are with another administration coming to Congress and to the American people, asking for approval to strike another Middle Eastern dictator over weapons of mass destruction.

But this time, the facts on the ground in America have been altered. The aftertaste from Iraq still lingers. Trust in the government to do the right thing at least most of the times has plunged to just 19 percent. Congress is divided on how we should proceed. And the international community has yet to rally in favor of intervention.

Striking Syria has given Americans a chance to exhibit and exercise the caution that they eschewed in the lead-up to the Iraq war, and they are doing just that.

According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week, 6 in 10 Americans oppose launching missile strikes against the Syrian government even if the United States says it has determined that the Syrians used chemical weapons.

People are questioning everything — as they should. Are we absolutely sure of the evidence? Are there no options other than military options? Can we be guaranteed that we won’t face retaliation and that we won’t be drawn into a protracted engagement? Will bombing ease the refugee crisis or exacerbate it? Is this really about sending a message to Syria about its use of chemical weapons, or is Syria just a proxy, a small state on which we can make a big statement, a way for us to send a signal to others that our word is absolute? Is this an act of humanitarianism or militarism?

And what do we hope to accomplish? The president has said that he’s not interested in regime change with this action, and many fear that deposing Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, at this moment could cause more problems than it would solve. We are wary of terrorist elements within the opposition who would love to get their hands on Syria’s weapons. In this community of thought, the Syrian civil war is a war among demons with few angels.

And yet, Syria’s civilians still suffer. More than 100,000 are dead, seven million are displaced (that’s a third of the country’s population), including two million refugees.

Something should be done, but what? And why must we do it? This is not an easy issue, but committing this country to military action never should be. President Obama is not President Bush and Iraq isn’t Syria, but trust is trust, and when certitude melts into uncertainty, it is hard to reshape.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Critics of American military action in Syria are right to point out all the risks and uncertainties of missile strikes, and they have American public opinion on their side.

But for those of you who oppose cruise missile strikes, what alternative do you favor?

It’s all very well to urge the United Nations and Arab League to do more, but that means that Syrians will continue to be killed at a rate of 5,000 every month. Involving the International Criminal Court sounds wonderful but would make it more difficult to hammer out a peace deal in which President Bashar al-Assad steps down. So what do you propose other than that we wag our fingers as a government uses chemical weapons on its own people?

So far, we’ve tried peaceful acquiescence, and it hasn’t worked very well. The longer the war drags on in Syria, the more Al Qaeda elements gain strength, the more Lebanon and Jordan are destabilized, and the more people die. It’s admirable to insist on purely peaceful interventions, but let’s acknowledge that the likely upshot is that we sit by as perhaps another 60,000 Syrians are killed over the next year.

A decade ago, I was aghast that so many liberals were backing the Iraq war. Today, I’m dismayed that so many liberals, disillusioned by Iraq, seem willing to let an average of 165 Syrians be killed daily rather than contemplate missile strikes that just might, at the margins, make a modest difference.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the number of dead in the civil war, is exasperated at Western doves who think they are taking a moral stance.

“Where have these people been the past two years,” the organization asks on its Web site. “What is emerging in the United States and United Kingdom now is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence.”

In other words, how is being “pro-peace” in this case much different in effect from being “pro-Assad” and resigning oneself to the continued slaughter of civilians?

To me, the central question isn’t, “What are the risks of cruise missile strikes on Syria?” I grant that those risks are considerable, from errant missiles to Hezbollah retaliation. It’s this: “Are the risks greater if we launch missiles, or if we continue to sit on our hands?”

Let’s be humble enough to acknowledge that we can’t be sure of the answer and that Syria will be bloody whatever we do. We Americans are often so self-absorbed as to think that what happens in Syria depends on us; in fact, it overwhelmingly depends on Syrians.

Yet on balance, while I applaud the general reluctance to reach for the military toolbox, it seems to me that, in this case, the humanitarian and strategic risks of inaction are greater. We’re on a trajectory that leads to accelerating casualties, increasing regional instability, growing strength of Al Qaeda forces, and more chemical weapons usage.

Will a few days of cruise missile strikes make a difference? I received a mass e-mail from a women’s group I admire, V-Day, calling on people to oppose military intervention because “such an action would simply bring about more violence and suffering. … Experience shows us that military interventions harm innocent women, men and children.”

Really? Sure, sometimes they do, as in Iraq. But in both Bosnia and Kosovo, military intervention saved lives. The same was true in Mali and Sierra Leone. The truth is that there’s no glib or simple lesson from the past. We need to struggle, case by case, for an approach that fits each situation.

In Syria, it seems to me that cruise missile strikes might make a modest difference, by deterring further deployment of chemical weapons. Sarin nerve gas is of such limited usefulness to the Syrian army that it has taken two years to use it in a major way, and it’s plausible that we can deter Syria’s generals from employing it again if the price is high.

The Syrian government has also lately had the upper hand in fighting, and airstrikes might make it more willing to negotiate toward a peace deal to end the war. I wouldn’t bet on it, but, in Bosnia, airstrikes helped lead to the Dayton peace accord.

Missile strikes on Assad’s military airports might also degrade his ability to slaughter civilians. With fewer fighter aircraft, he may be less able to drop a napalm-like substance on a school, as his forces apparently did in Aleppo last month.

A brave BBC television crew filmed the burn victims, with clothes burned and skin peeling off their bodies, and interviewed an outraged witness who asked those opposed to military action: “You are calling for peace. What kind of peace are you calling for? Don’t you see this?”

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Big primary election for mayor of New York City next week, people. Let’s take a look at what’s been going on. If you stick with me, I promise animal stories. Including kittens.

Right now the big news is on the Democratic side where Bill de Blasio, the current public advocate, has been shooting ahead in the polls. Skyrocketing!

Perhaps this is because he has one of the most interesting families in the history of politics, including an African-American wife who says she only dated women until she fell in love with Bill de Blasio, and a 16-year-old son, Dante, who made a really lovely TV ad about his father. By now, more New Yorkers may be aware of Dante’s spectacular Afro than any other factor in the entire campaign. So it definitely could be the family.

It could also be because de Blasio is nearly six and a half feet tall. New Yorkers like to think big.

It would probably not be because of his work as public advocate. The New York City public advocate does not really have any work to do. His job is mainly to call press conferences and denounce things. We have quite a few elective posts like that around here.

But it could be the carriage horses. We will get to them in a minute.

When the race began, the two big names were Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker, and Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller. Thompson is low-key. So low that Chris Smith of New York magazine interviewed an enthusiastic woman at a Thompson rally who said that in 2009 she had voted “for the opposite of Bloomberg. The Democrat. Whoever that was.” It was Thompson.

Quinn, who would be both the first female mayor and the first openly gay mayor in city history, was the early favorite. But now the latest Quinnipiac poll has her struggling with Thompson for second place, while de Blasio is threatening to sew up the nomination in the first round by winning more than 40 percent of the vote.

It is possible that Quinn is having a hard time because she’s a woman. Really, unless you’re Hillary Clinton, New York is tough. Also, she is the candidate most identified with Mayor Bloomberg. We feel as if Bloomberg has been running the city since the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.

And don’t discount the Central Park carriage horses. Animal rights advocates have long yearned to abolish the industry, and Quinn is the only major Democrat who disagrees. The horses are very well-protected by regulation — they have to have five weeks of out-of-town vacation a year. French workers do not have as good a holiday package as the Central Park carriage horses. However, they do have to walk through traffic, which makes many people uncomfortable.

The horses became a huge issue early in the campaign, when there was an entire mayoral forum devoted to the subject of animal protection. In it, John Catsimatidis, one of the Republican candidates, described how his wife tried to save the family’s aged cat with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Quinn did not attend the forum. Neither did Joe Lhota, the Republican front-runner, who made news the other day when he criticized transit officials for closing down two subway lines for more than an hour after two lost kittens wandered onto the tracks. (The other candidates said they would have shut down the lines to save the cats. Anthony Weiner claimed he would have thrown his body over the electrified rail. Anthony Weiner is still not going to be elected mayor.)

But Quinn, who owns two rescue dogs, was identified by the carriage horse crusaders as Public Enemy No. 1. Meanwhile, de Blasio, who vowed to retire the horses “first day I’m mayor,” became their hero.

(De Blasio seems to be hedging on the timing issue, perhaps realizing that putting the carriage industry at the tiptop of your mayoral to-do list sounds a tad over the top. “It will not be my first act, but it’ll be something I’ll do right away,” the candidate said in a radio interview this week.)

None of this is a big deal for the average New Yorker; it doesn’t come up on the campaign trail unless there are people waving “Christine Quinn Hates Animals” signs. What we have here is a lesson in intensity of preference. The animal rights folks started early, and drew a bunch of wealthy donors, some of whom had long-running issues with Quinn that had no relation to four-legged friends. They ran tons of ads, organized phone banks and showed up with their protest signs, throwing the campaign off-stride.

Then de Blasio popped up as the change candidate, running to everyone else’s left. New Yorkers may look loopy or out of control to the outside world, but when it comes to running the city, we generally pick candidates who are, one way or another, going to rein things in. Maybe this year, New York liberals are ready to party. If so, it’d be the first time, really, since John Lindsay. Who was 6-foot-4.

Dowd and Friedman

September 4, 2013

Apparently Tommy ate a bad oyster or something, because he’s not in Damascus trying to hail cabs.  MoDo, in “Shadow of a Doubt,” says it’s a bewildering time in bizarro world: all the sides are scrambled as the shadow of Iraq looms over Syria.  The Moustache of Wisdom thinks he has all the answers, as usual.  In “Arm and Shame” he intones that the United States should definitely respond to Syria’s murder of innocent civilians with poison gas. But a limited “shock and awe” missile attack isn’t the best strategy.  Here’s MoDo:

It’s a bewildering time here.

Nancy Pelosi is the hawk urging military action. Britain refuses to be our poodle. The French are being less supercilious and more supportive militarily. Republicans are squeamish about launching an attack. Top generals are going pacifist.

The president who got elected on his antiwar stance is now trying to buck up a skittish Congress and country about why a military strike is a moral necessity. Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t want to go to war with the Army Chuck Hagel has. John Bolton is the dove who doesn’t think we should take sides, or that it matters “what the intelligence shows.”

Once more, we’re vociferously debating whether to slap down a murderous dictator who has gassed his own people, and whether we have the legit intel to prove he used W.M.D.

Many around the president are making the case that if he doesn’t stand firm on his line in the sand, having gotten so far out on a limb, he’ll look weak and America will lose face and embolden its foes. The secretary of state is arguing if the dictator had nothing to hide, why was he so reluctant to let in U.N. inspectors?

In many ways, Syria is an eerie replay of Iraq, but with many of the players scrambled and on opposite sides.

Just about the only completely consistent person is John McCain, who’s always spoiling for a fight.

Once more, we see the magnitude of the tragedy of Iraq because the decision on Syria is so colored by the fact that an American president and vice president took us to war in the Middle East on false pretenses and juiced up intelligence, dragging the country into an emotionally and financially exhausting decade of war and an identity crisis about our role in the world.

W. was so black and white, as he mischaracterized and miscalculated, that he ended up driving America into a gray haze, where we’re unsure if our old role as John Wayne taking on the global bad guys is even right.

We now actually have a president who understands the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. But our previous gigantic misreadings of the Middle East, and the treacherous job of fathoming which sides to support in the Arab uprisings — are the rebels in these countries the good guys or Al Qaeda sympathizers? — have left us literally gun shy.

It should not be so hard to reach a consensus on trying to prevent Bashar al-Assad from killing tens of thousands and making refugees of millions more, with chemical weapons and traditional ones.

But the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday dramatically showed how our misjudgment on Iraq infects our judgment on Syria.

A panel of top Obama officials who don’t even agree themselves about what to do in Syria did their best to stick to White House talking points, arguing against what Secretary of State John Kerry called “armchair isolationism,” as they were grilled by skeptical, and sometimes hostile, senators.

Kerry and Hagel both voted as senators for the authorization to invade Iraq and then came to regret it; Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last spring that he was uncertain if the U.S. “could identify the right people” to give arms to in the Syrian opposition.

But there was the trio trying to help the president make his case that American credibility is too big to fail.

“After the fiasco of Iraq and over a decade of war, how can this administration make a guarantee that our military actions will be limited?” asked Senator Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico.

Indeed, Kerry showed how slippery the slope is when he answered a question by Chairman Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who opposed the Iraq invasion but supports a Syrian smackdown.

When Menendez asked Kerry if the administration would accept “a prohibition for having American boots on the ground” as part of a resolution authorizing force in Syria, Kerry replied: “It would be preferable not” to “have boots on the ground.”

Then came the “but.” “But in the event Syria imploded, for instance,” Kerry said, “or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of Al Nusra or someone else, and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us — the British, the French and others — to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.”

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee chided Kerry: “I didn’t find that a very appropriate response regarding boots on the ground.”

Realizing he had been undiplomatic, the top diplomat retreated from his scary hypothetical immediately, saying, “Let’s shut that door now as tight as we can.”

It’s up to President Obama to show Americans that he knows what he’s doing, unlike his predecessor.

Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

The Obama team has clearly struggled with its Syria policy, but, in fairness, this is a wickedly complex problem. We need a policy response that simultaneously deters another Syrian poison gas attack, doesn’t embroil America in the Syrian civil war and also doesn’t lead to the sudden collapse of the Syrian state with all its chemical weapons, or, worse, a strengthening of the Syrian regime and its allies Hezbollah and Iran. However, I think President Obama has the wrong strategy for threading that needle. He’s seeking Congressional support for a one-time “shock and awe” missile attack against Syrian military targets. The right strategy is “arm and shame.”

Let me explain. Count me with the activists on the question of whether the United States should respond to the Syrian regime’s murder of some 1,400 civilians, more than 400 of them children, with poison gas. If there is no global response to this breaching of a universal taboo on using poison gas, the world will be a much more dangerous place. And only America can spearhead a credible response: Russia and China have rendered the United Nations Security Council meaningless; Europe is a military museum; the Arab League is worthless; all others are spectators. We are out front — alone. We may not want to be, but here we are. So we must lead.

But upholding this norm in the context of the Syrian civil war is not a simple matter. Start with the fact that probably the only way to produce a unified, pluralistic, multisectarian Syria is for an international army to come in, take over the country, monopolize all weaponry and referee a long transition to consensual rule. Syrians can’t forge that on their own now. But such a force is not possible in this century, and Iraq demonstrated how hard it is for even that option to work.

Thus, the most likely option for Syria is some kind of de facto partition, with the pro-Assad, predominantly Alawite Syrians controlling one region and the Sunni and Kurdish Syrians controlling the rest. But the Sunnis are themselves divided between the pro-Western, secular Free Syrian Army, which we’d like to see win, and the pro-Islamist and pro-Al Qaeda jihadist groups, like the Nusra Front, which we’d like to see lose.

That’s why I think the best response to the use of poison gas by President Bashar al-Assad is not a cruise missile attack on Assad’s forces, but an increase in the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army — including the antitank and antiaircraft weapons it’s long sought. This has three virtues: 1) Better arming responsible rebels units, and they do exist, can really hurt the Assad regime in a sustained way — that is the whole point of deterrence — without exposing America to global opprobrium for bombing Syria; 2) Better arming the rebels actually enables them to protect themselves more effectively from this regime; 3) Better arming the rebels might increase the influence on the ground of the more moderate opposition groups over the jihadist ones — and eventually may put more pressure on Assad, or his allies, to negotiate a political solution.

By contrast, just limited bombing of Syria from the air makes us look weak at best, even if we hit targets. And if we kill lots of Syrians, it enables Assad to divert attention from the 1,400 he has gassed to death to those we harmed. Also, who knows what else our bombing of Syria could set in motion. (Would Iran decide it must now rush through a nuclear bomb?)

But our response must not stop there.

We need to use every diplomatic tool we have to shame Assad, his wife, Asma, his murderous brother Maher and every member of his cabinet or military whom we can identify as being involved in this gas attack. We need to bring their names before the United Nations Security Council for condemnation. We need to haul them before the International Criminal Court. We need to make them famous. We need to metaphorically put their pictures up in every post office in the world as people wanted for crimes against humanity.

Yes, there’s little chance of them being brought to justice now, but do not underestimate how much of a deterrent it can be for the world community to put the mark of Cain on their foreheads so they know that they and their families can never again travel anywhere except to North Korea, Iran and Vladimir Putin’s dacha. It might even lead some of Assad’s supporters to want to get rid of him and seek a political deal.

When we alone just bomb Syria to defend “our” red line, we turn the rest of the world into spectators — many of whom will root against us. When we shame the people who perpetrated this poison gas attack, we can summon the rest of the world, maybe even inspire them, to join us in redrawing this red line, as a moral line and, therefore, a global line. It is easy for Putin, China and Iran to denounce American bombing, but much harder for them to defend Syrian use of weapons of mass destruction, so let’s force them to choose. Best of all, a moral response — a shaming — can be an unlimited response, not a limited one.

A limited, transactional cruise missile attack meets Obama’s need to preserve his credibility. But it also risks changing the subject from Assad’s behavior to ours and — rather than empowering the rebels to act and enlisting the world to act — could make us owners of this story in ways that we do not want. “Arm and shame” is how we best help the decent forces in Syria, deter further use of poison gas, isolate Assad and put real pressure on him or others around him to cut a deal. Is it perfect? No, but perfect is not on the menu in Syria.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

August 30, 2013

Bobo’s knickers are all in a wad.  In “One Great Big War” he squeals that Syria’s civil conflict portends a chilling prospect of a wholesale Middle East inferno.  He twists recent history and lies outright when he compares Syria to Rwanda, were over 500,000 people were killed in 100 days.  “Dagmar 20” from Los Angeles said this at the end of her comment:  “So, when you ask what the biggest threat to world peace is, I would say it is neocons and it will always be neocons, and the reporters, or opinion writers, who support them.”  Mr. Cohen is also whaling away on the war drum, and being based in London is playing “let’s you and him fight.”  In “Make Assad Pay” he shrieks that Inaction would undermine U.S. credibility, the chemical weapons ban and prospects for ending the war.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “The Unsaved World:”  Why don’t we learn from financial crises? As Asian currencies fall and crisis strikes, we seem to be making the same mistakes made in the ’90s.  Here’s Bobo:

What’s the biggest threat to world peace right now? Despite the horror, it’s not chemical weapons in Syria. It’s not even, for the moment, an Iranian nuclear weapon. Instead, it’s the possibility of a wave of sectarian strife building across the Middle East.

The Syrian civil conflict is both a proxy war and a combustion point for spreading waves of violence. This didn’t start out as a religious war. But both Sunni and Shiite power players are seizing on religious symbols and sowing sectarian passions that are rippling across the region. The Saudi and Iranian powers hover in the background fueling each side.

As the death toll in Syria rises to Rwanda-like proportions, images of mass killings draw holy warriors from countries near and far. The radical groups are the most effective fighters and control the tempo of events. The Syrian opposition groups are themselves split violently along sectarian lines so that the country seems to face a choice between anarchy and atrocity.

Meanwhile, the strife appears to be spreading. Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq is spiking upward. Reports in The Times and elsewhere have said that many Iraqis fear their country is sliding back to the worst of the chaos experienced in the last decade. Even Turkey, Pakistan, Bahrain and Kuwait could be infected. “It could become a regional religious war similar to that witnessed in Iraq 2006-2008, but far wider and without the moderating influence of American forces,” wrote Gary Grappo, a retired senior Foreign Service officer with long experience in the region.

“It has become clear over the last year that the upheavals in the Islamic and Arab world have become a clash within a civilization rather than a clash between civilizations,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote recently. “The Sunni versus Alawite civil war in Syria is increasingly interacting with the Sunni versus Shiite tensions in the Gulf that are edging Iraq back toward civil war. They also interact with the Sunni-Shiite, Maronite and other confessional struggles in Lebanon.”

Some experts even say that we are seeing the emergence of a single big conflict that could be part of a generation-long devolution, which could end up toppling regimes and redrawing the national borders that were established after World War I. The forces ripping people into polarized groups seem stronger than the forces bringing them together.

It is pretty clear that the recent American strategy of light-footprint withdrawal and nation-building at home has not helped matters. The United States could have left more troops in Iraq and tamped down violence there. We could have intervened in Syria back when there was still something to be done and some reasonable opposition to mold.

At this late hour, one question is whether the sectarian fire has grown so hot that it is beyond taming. The second question is whether the United States has any strategy to limit the conflagration.

Right now, President Obama is focused on the imminent strike against the Assad regime, to establish American credibility when it sets red lines and reinforce the norm that poison gas is not acceptable.

But the president does have the makings of a broader antisectarian strategy. He has at least three approaches on the table. The first is containment: trying to keep each nation’s civil strife contained within its own borders. The second is reconciliation: looking for diplomatic opportunities to bring the Sunni axis, led by the Saudis, toward some rapprochement with the Shiite axis, led by Iran. So far, there have been few diplomatic opportunities to do this.

Finally, there is neutrality: the nations in the Sunni axis are continually asking the United States to simply throw in with them, to use the C.I.A. and other American capacities to help the Sunnis beat back their rivals. The administration has decided that taking sides so completely is not an effective long-term option.

Going forward, there probably has to be a global education effort to reduce anti-Sunni and anti-Shiite passions. Iran could be asked to pay a higher price not only for its nuclear program, but for its mischief-making around the region.

But, at this point, it’s not clear whether American and other outside interference would help squash hatreds or inflame them. The legendary diplomat Ryan Crocker argues in a recent essay in YaleGlobal that major outside interventions might only make things worse. “The hard truth is that the fires in Syria will blaze for some time to come. Like a major forest fire, the most we can do is hope to contain it.”

Poison gas in Syria is horrendous, but the real inferno is regional. When you look at all the policy options for dealing with the Syria situation, they are all terrible or too late. The job now is to try to wall off the situation to prevent something just as bad but much more sprawling.

At least the moron admits the possibility that our continued meddling might make things worse…  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, also howling for war:

Of the chemical weapons attack in Syria last week that left several hundred people dead, President Obama has now said: “We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences.”

There are two presidential voices in that statement on PBS’s NewsHour, the active and declarative of the first sentence, the passive and impersonal of the second. They capture Obama’s oscillating drift over the Syrian conflict, now well into its third year, with more than 100,000 people killed and several million displaced. The president has had a bad Syrian war.

This is still an American-led and American-protected world. If “there need to be international consequences,” then the United States, in coordination with its allies and where possible with the backing of the United Nations, must deliver them. Obama has drawn and redrawn a red line at the use in Syria of chemical weapons, a scourge that almost all the world’s nations (189 of them) have abjured through the Chemical Weapons Convention and through participation in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The credibility of the United States is a precious, already eroded commodity. Its loss would make for a treacherous world. That credibility cannot be compromised in this instance. A world where President Bashar al-Assad thumbs his nose at the U.S. president and where the international taboo on the use of chemical weapons lies shattered is headed in a very dangerous direction.

But don’t the Syrian people deserve better than raining U.S. Tomahawks unaccompanied by a Western strategy for an endgame? They certainly deserve better than the Assad tyranny, three decades after its devastating attack on Hama, and they deserve better than a war that will never end so long as the Assad clan hangs on.

A limited attack that destabilizes Assad, damages his military assets, compromises his air force and dents the ability of Russia and Iran to bring in arms may in the best case bring Assad to the negotiating table or speed his departure. In the worst case it will lead to more of the same (Syria’s gradual dismemberment through civil war) with greater American “ownership.” As worst cases go, more of the same is acceptable.

The option tried up to now has been inaction: It does not work. Persisting with it and expecting anything to change is feckless and foolish.

While Russia would be angry at any U.S. or allied attack, its anger would not go beyond the rhetorical. (It was angry about the fall of its ally Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, too, but did nothing.) The Geneva diplomatic path to a negotiated settlement would be set back but has been going nowhere anyway. Jihadist elements in Syria might benefit, but nothing will benefit them more than a prolonged war of the kind that already exists. War fatigue in the United States and Britain is not an excuse for the surrender of a commodity of enduring strategic importance — national credibility — to an ephemeral one — public opinion.

Of course, the Iraq precedent, a story of botched intelligence, is a terrible one. For that reason, before any use of force, U.N. inspectors must complete their mission to Syria, the British U.N. resolution accusing the Syrian government of a deadly chemical weapons attack and authorizing force must be debated (although Russia will block it) and Obama and David Cameron, the British prime minister, must present their evidence that the Assad regime was the author of the attack.

The legitimacy of the case for military intervention can be powerfully made on the basis of the evolving law (post-Rwanda, post-Bosnia, post-Kosovo) of humanitarian necessity and the world’s prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.

The “responsibility to protect” should not be empty words. On the eve of the 100th anniversary of World War I, whose gas attacks on Flanders fields produced “the froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer” of which the British poet Wilfred Owen wrote, the Assad clan’s gassings cannot go unanswered.

Two other things should happen on the diplomatic front. Obama should invoke the Chemical Weapons Convention and place Syria before its responsibilities in being among the tiny group of nations that has not adhered. (Israel is a signatory but has not ratified the convention; perhaps that is why Obama has been reticent on this front.)

The West should also put out feelers to the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who has made a powerful call for the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons to be upheld. “Iran gives notice to international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in Syria,” Rouhani wrote on his official Twitter account this week, recalling how Iran was attacked with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein (with the West’s open or tacit support) during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Rouhani did not support Western military action but did signal a changed Iranian tone.

Rouhani’s Iran, handled right, can help hasten a Syrian endgame. So, too, can the firm military assertion of U.S. credibility.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The rupiah is falling! Head for the hills! On second thought, keep calm and carry on.

In case you’re wondering, the rupiah is the national currency of Indonesia, and, like many other emerging-market currencies, it has fallen a lot over the past few months. The thing is, the last big rupiah plunge was in 1997-98, when Indonesia was the epicenter of an Asian financial crisis. In retrospect, that crisis was a sort of dress rehearsal for the much bigger crisis that engulfed the advanced world a decade later. So should we be terrified about Asia all over again?

I don’t think so, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. But current events do bring back memories — and they are, in particular, a reminder of how little we learned from that crisis 16 years ago. We didn’t reform the financial industry — on the contrary, deregulation went full speed ahead. Nor did we learn the right lessons about how to respond when crisis strikes. In fact, not only have we been making many of the same mistakes this time around, in important ways we’re actually doing much worse now than we did then.

Some background: The run-up to the Asian crisis bore a close family resemblance to the run-up to the crisis now afflicting Greece, Spain and other European countries. In both cases, the origins of the crisis lay in excessive private-sector optimism, with huge inflows of foreign lending going mainly to the private sector. In both cases, optimism turned to pessimism with startling speed, precipitating crisis.

Unlike Greece et al., however, the crisis countries of 1997 had their own currencies, which proceeded to drop sharply against the dollar. At first, these currency declines caused acute economic distress. In Indonesia, for example, many businesses had large dollar debts, so when the rupiah plunged against the dollar, those debts ballooned relative to assets and income. The result was a severe economic contraction, on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.

Fortunately, the bad times didn’t last all that long. The very weakness of these countries’ currencies made their exports highly competitive, and soon all of them — even Indonesia, which was hit worst — were experiencing strong export-led recoveries.

Still, the crisis should have been seen as an object lesson in the instability of a deregulated financial system. Instead, Asia’s recovery led to an excessive showing of self-congratulation on the part of Western officials, exemplified by the famous 1999 Time magazine cover — showing Alan Greenspan, then the Fed chairman; Robert Rubin, then the Treasury secretary; and Lawrence Summers, then the deputy Treasury secretary — with the headline “The Committee to Save the World.” The message was, don’t worry, we’ve got these things under control. Eight years later, we learned just how misplaced that confidence was.

Indeed, as I mentioned, we’re actually doing much worse this time around. Consider, for example, the worst-case nation during each crisis: Indonesia then, Greece now.

Indonesia’s slump, which saw the economy contract 13 percent in 1998, was a terrible thing. But a solid recovery was under way by 2000. By 2003, Indonesia’s economy had passed its precrisis peak; as of last year, it was 72 percent larger than it was in 1997.

Now compare this with Greece, where output is down more than 20 percent since 2007 and is still falling fast. Nobody knows when recovery will begin, and my guess is that few observers expect to see the Greek economy recover to precrisis levels this decade.

Why are things so much worse this time? One answer is that Indonesia had its own currency, and the slide in the rupiah was, eventually, a very good thing. Meanwhile, Greece is trapped in the euro. In addition, however, policy makers were more flexible in the ’90s than they are today. The International Monetary Fund initially demanded tough austerity policies in Asia, but it soon reversed course. This time, the demands placed on Greece and other debtors have been relentlessly harsh, and the more austerity fails, the more bloodletting is demanded.

So, is Asia next? Probably not. Indonesia has a much lower level of foreign debt relative to income now than it did in the 1990s. India, which also has a sliding currency that worries many observers, has even lower debt. So a repetition of the ’90s crisis, let alone a Greek-style never-ending crisis, seems unlikely.

What about China? Well, as I recently explained, I’m very worried, but for entirely different reasons, mostly unrelated to events in the rest of the world.

But let’s be clear: Even if we are spared the spectacle of yet another region plunged into depression, the fact remains that the people who congratulated themselves for saving the world in 1999 were actually setting the world up for a far worse crisis, just a few years later.