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I was surprised — “surprised” actually barely begins to describe it — to read a headline today in Slate purporting to explain “Why the Left Isn’t Protesting an Attack on Syria“. My surprise derived from the fact that, so far as I can tell, the Left is “protesting an attack on Syria.” The article therefore struck me as similar to someone in the windowless middle of a large office building during a summer shower writing an article about why it isn’t raining. ”Get outside and look around for yourself,” one wants to say.
In this case, outside of the blanket fortress the writer would find lots of people protesting — often in strong and snarly terms — about the prospect of Obama authorizing a punitive military strike against Syria. Many of these are from the “Occupy ethos,” where the Left comes around and makes common cause with the isolationist R-Paul right, but isolationism alone doesn’t remove one from the Left.
Now among the anti-bombing Left — of which part I am — I’m about as pro-interventionist as you’ll find. I favored Bill Clinton’s interventions in Haiti, in Rwanda, and the then-disintegrating Yugoslavia; I favored Obama’s incursion into Pakistan to capture bin Laden and his support for intervention in Libya.
In all of these cases except perhaps Pakistan, my rationale for supporting intervention was a commitment to international human rights. I do not think that “a man’s home is castle in which to do as he pleases” with respect to violence against his wife and children; nor, for that matter, is it any better if the genders are switched. If we don’t go into someone’s house to prevent the serious violence there, it’s because either the violence is not serious enough or the prospects of improving the situation are too poor.
In each of the above cases, the threat to innocents has been either grave enough or already realized and the prospects for improving the situation has been relatively good. We did stop impending or ongoing massacres in Haiti, Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, and Libya; we also, in each case, showed that we would not do so at the drop of a hat. (Compare those to the cases of Grenada, Panama, Iraq … etc.)
The counterarguments against such interventions are good.
Did we weaken the international taboos against doing so under less justified circumstances? Yes, we did. But those interventions would, for the most part, take place anyway in circumstances where (as in, say, Taiwan or Israel or North Korea or Cuba) a major power wasn’t willing to say “you had, very seriously, better not cross that line.” And each intervention has also lowered the taboo against the analogy of breaking down someone’s door and tackling a homeowner while he is beating his wife to death.
(Ironically, lots of foreign isolationists would be happy to see “illegal” intervention take place is someone where abusing a child or an animal. I value animal rights — but not more so than human rights.)
Are we often hypocritical in our application of this policy? Absolutely. Is that hypocrisy a problem? Absolutely. And yet, this doesn’t negate the possibility that even a hypocrite can do some good sometimes. It depends on the situation — and the situation therefore bears close examination. In the case of a not-small chemical weapon attack against civilians, I welcome hypocrites into the posse.
Is it possible that we’ll do more harm than good with forceful intervention? Yes — that’s almost always possible. And it’s also almost always possible that we’ll do more harm than good by non-intervention. We will stir up Syrian (and perhaps Iranian) hatred against us — and Russian and Chinese criticism — if we violate Syria’s sovereignty. That’s an argument against intervention — but it’s not a conclusive one. Tackle the guy who’s whipping his dog with a metal stick and he’s not going to like you either.
So, as you can see, I’m far from an absolute pacifist, although I am absolutely against violent intervention for reasons of personal/national gain. I think that that’s what people everywhere have a right — and even a responsibility — to hate. But we also shouldn’t be too quick to latch onto to every suggestion that a given intervention is a function of greed. That makes it too easy for true bad guys to get away with murder.
Most people, I presume, would not be willing to slaughter masses of civilians — but it doesn’t take “most people” to do it — just a few, just enough. The idea of intervention is to deter them. The biggest lack in the current debate against Syria is that it seems to come down to “bombing” or “not bombing.” This is a lot less sophisticated than the tactical debate surrounding World War II. Perhaps it can be improved.
What’s the proper reaction to an egregious, goalpost-moving, chemical weapons attack by a government on its civilians? I think that the general answer is: some loss of sovereignty. Being bombed from ships in the Mediterranean is one example of loss of sovereignty; it’s part of the point. (The other part is to reduce the target nation’s military capacity — but that’s exactly the part that we’re not sure we can do “bloodlessly,” meaning without lots of “collateral damage” (read, death to civilians and destruction of non-military property.)
If we’re not going to invade Syria — and we’re not — then is the destruction of military targets, at the cost of unintended destruction of civilian targets (and civilians themselves) so important? Not really. This battle is more psychological than material. The point we’re making is: “you had better stop messing around, because we can get you any time we want to.”
So, violating Syrian sovereignty isn’t just a means of doing something bad to the Syrian government: it is the point itself. It’s the thump on the chest that says “keep this up and next time or the time after that you’re not going to in a hospital.” You don’t need bombs to get that point across. Bombs, in fact, detract from the point to be made. Ideally, you want to make the point in a memorable and not directly violent way — the horse’s head in the bed, in Godfather terms (although I do recognize that this was violent to the horse.)
Here’s ten examples that send the message, without explosions, that the Assad government can’t protect its supporters. (If you don’t want some mordant humor — although #1-#7 do point out things that would be better than bombs, you can skip directly to #8.)
(1) Diluted chickenshit in balloons. Figure out where the Assad regime’s supporters live. Have bombers fly over the area and drop balloons filled with chickenshit, diluted to the point where it is unlikely to be lethal. Cover these areas with chickenshit-water balloons.
(2) Sticky colorful feathers. Feathers aren’t likely to kill people when they fall, unless bundled into large bales. Make them brightly colored — say, a festive hot pink — and covered with something like but less precious than honey. Drop them all over the place — where they will serve as colorful reminders, some stuck in place, some blowing in the wind — that they could have been bombs.
(3) Dead rats, microwave-sterilized. We don’t want to start a plague in Syria, so we have to be careful to make sure that they aren’t carrying plague or the like. But short of as an infectious vector, dead rats don’t generally kill people. They’re awfully unpleasant and very hard to ignore, though. But, I ask you, would you rather have dead rats or bombs dropped on your house? Rats, right? OK, then!
(4) Cicadas. I don’t know if this is technologically possible, but mounds of cicadas that would keep people up all night would be a pretty amazing show of force.
(5) McDonald’s hamburgers and french fries. Two big advantages to this one: first, people will know exactly where they came from; second, they’ll be a permanent reminder of the threat because they’ll never decay. (As a peace gesture, make sure that the burgers are halal.)
On the other hand, in a propaganda offensive such as what this should be, documents may be better.
(6) Pictures of Miley Cyrus twerking. Geneva conventions be damned. This would show that, if need be, we will stop at nothing — such as DVDs.
(7) Pictures of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein. I’m not positive as to exactly what point this would make, but it would make it eloquently.
What’s that? ”Get serious!” Okay, then, try this trio:
(8) Pictures of the victims of the Syrian chemical attacks.
(9) Autoplay MP3 recordings, like those on some greeting cards, of the screams of the victims.
(10) Fairly and passionately written documents, in Arabic, describing what has happened, what may happen next, the evidence against the Assad regime, and why the world believes that it must intervene.
Despite my enjoying thinking of #1-7, I’d go with a combination of #8-10 — propaganda (in this case, true) telling the story and rousing the populace to internal resistance. Note that all of these would violate Syrian sovereignty, which (when imposing international standards) is the main point of the exercise. They just won’t lead to killing people. It would show us toying with the Syrians — and it is very bad for a dictator to let the population show that enemies can toy with you.
I’m sure that there are other and better creative proposals out there. Any of them — like, I’d argue, each of these — would be better than the apparent plan of sending over bombs.
That’s how bad of an option bombing is — it’s worse even than dropping chickenshit-filled balloons.