The Syria Dilemma

There’s news this morning that the United States, Great Britain, and France have launched air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria.  The strikes are in response to what the three Western allies call a chemical weapons atrocity committed by the Assad regime on its own people, and are targeting laboratories, production facilities, storage facilities, and other elements of the regime’s chemical weapons capabilities.

5ad199560f2544131873fb90Nobody wants to see civilians assaulted by chemical weapons, of course, and I agree with President Trump that anyone who uses chemical weapons is a “monster.”  The problem is that the Assad regime denies any use of chemical weapons, and its allies — namely, Russia and Iran — are backing the regime.  Indeed, at one point Russia claimed that Great Britain had, for some elusive reason, staged the chemical attack.  The outlandishness of that claim gives us a pretty good idea of how to assess the relative credibility of the charges and countercharges concerning who did what.

But in the curious arena of international affairs, questions of credibility and truth, and right and wrong, often don’t mean much.  Attacking Syria will have consequences for our relations with Russia and Iran, such as they are, and might put other American allies, like Israel, at increased risk.  Of course, it could also risk drawing the United States deeper into the quagmire of internal disputes in a foreign nation, a la Afghanistan and Iraq.  On the other hand, do countries like the United States, France, and Great Britain, which have the ability to take concrete steps to try to stop the use of chemical weapons, have a moral obligation to do something like launching these attacks when international organizations like the United Nations prove to be incapable of protecting innocents from monstrous and barbaric attacks?

It’s a dilemma that is above my pay grade, and one which I hope our leaders have thought through thoroughly and carefully.  I’m all for stopping the use of chemical weapons, but it is the unpredictable long-term consequences that give me concern.

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Looking “Presidential”?

Last week President Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian base that was implicated in a toxic chemical attack by the Syrian government against Syrian citizens.  This week we’ve got an array of U.S. Navy ships heading into the western Pacific regions, apparently as a show of force against North Korea, which has been engaged in repeated missile tests and is continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program.

2017-04-08t082322z_1_lynxmped3705y_rtroptp_2_usa-china-cfCouple the military maneuvers with a few presidential summits with foreign leaders like the Chinese head of state and the president of Egypt, and you’ve also got a lot of people talking about Donald Trump looking “presidential.”  Of course, Presidents always are said to look “presidential” when they are dealing with foreign policy or ordering military action; that’s because those are areas where the President can act unilaterally, without having to try to convince balky Congresses to take one action or another.  It’s been a time-honored technique of the residents of the Oval Office for decades — if you’ve had a rough time on your domestic agenda, have a foreign leader over for a visit or try to shift the focus to the actions of a “rogue state” or “terrorist threat.”  So, whether through careful planning or happenstance, Donald Trump is following a well-thumbed presidential playbook.

It’s interesting that we frequently associate ordering military action and foreign policy positioning with looking “presidential,” because in doing so we’re really encouraging Presidents to spend their time on those areas rather than focusing on the domestic issues  that never seem to get addressed and actually trying to convince Congress to do something about those nagging problems.  How many Presidents, deep in their heart of hearts, have been tempted to engage in a little sabre-rattling or to lob a few missiles at a terrorist encampment or an air base to shift the focus of national attention and raise their approval ratings a few points?

Donald Trump isn’t the first President to receive the “looking presidential” kudos, and he probably won’t be the last, either.  But the association of military action and photo ops with foreign leaders with “looking presidential” troubles me.  Wouldn’t we rather incentivize our Presidents to focus on fixing what’s gone wrong in this country, and reserve the highest, gushing “looking presidential” praise for when the President does what the Constitution contemplates, and signs domestic legislation that has passed both Houses of Congress into law?

The Power Of A Photograph

We live in a digital age, where streaming video rules the day — but old-fashioned still photography nevertheless has its place.  The picture of poor Omran Daqneesh proves it.

Omran is the five-year-old Syrian boy who was buried in rubble when an airstrike by Russians or the Assad government (no one is quite sure which) caused his house to collapse.  After the being pulled from the wreckage, Omran was taken to an ambulance, where he sat quietly, waiting to be treated, when the now-famous photograph was taken. His older brother, also pulled from the ruins, later died of his injuries.  Omran survived.

omran-large_transzgekzx3m936n5bqk4va8rwtt0gk_6efzt336f62ei5uIt’s a powerful photograph, indeed.  A five-year-old boy sits, dazed and lost, in an orange chair.  He is a small boy, and his feet barely extend out past the seat, much less reach the floor.  His arms and legs are covered in dust, and his face in particular is caked with dark soot.  One side of his head is covered in blood and the eye on that side is swollen partially shut.  His eyes are open, but he appears to be staring into nothingness.  His blackened face and vacant eyes paint a brutal picture of silent desolation.  It’s one of the most compelling pictures of the impact of war on children that’s been taken in years.

Photographs can change the storyline and turn public opinion.  The famous photograph of a young Vietnamese girl, naked, screaming, and running from a napalm attack, helped to turn American public opinion decisively against the Vietnam War.  Perhaps the picture of Omran Daqneesh, which has garnered worldwide attention on social media, will help to focus the world’s attention on the unfolding tragedy in Syria, where for years civilians have been desperately trapped in a civil war that has produced death and destruction and seems no closer to ending now than when it began.

During Omran’s five years of life, he has known nothing but war.  Now his house is destroyed, his brother is dead, and his family has been torn apart by a conflict he can’t begin to understand.  It’s not what childhood should be.

Redefining “Success”

John Kirby, a spokesman for the United States Department of State, has published a “year in review” piece on the Department’s official blog.  He notes that while “the year was not without challenges,” the “United States has helped to change the world for the better” and adds:  “Our diplomats have been busy, and they have met with significant success across a range of issues.”  He then gives his “take” on them using “a great hashtag — #2015in5Words — which was recently trending on Twitter.”

One of the #2015in5Words items Kirby lists is “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria.”

syrian-refugees-opener-6151Huh?  Syria?  The Syria where a bloody civil war between the terrorist forces of ISIS and the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has provoked a huge refugee crisis?  The Syria where significant parts of the control are under the control of a deadly terrorist group and where fighting is going on, even now?  The Syria where every big power is flexing its muscle and where, thanks to the support of Russia and Iran, it looks like the murderous Assad might conceivably stay in power?

How does Kirby explain that the U.S. was involved in “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria”?  He doesn’t, really.  He says only that the U.S. has “stepped up to aid the Syrian people during their time of need” and that “the UN Security Council passed a U.S.-sponsored resolution that puts forward a roadmap that will facilitate a transition within Syria to a credible, inclusive, nonsectarian government that is responsive to the needs of the Syrian people.”  Americans should be proud of their traditional generosity to others, of course, but neither increased aid or the passage of a preliminary United Nations Security Council resolution can reasonably be characterized as “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria” in the face of intense ongoing fighting.

Oh, and another “success” included by Kirby is “Winning Fight Against Violent Extremists.”  It touts the “Summit on Countering Violent Terrorism” hosted by the White House in February 2015 and says “this monumental summit launched an ongoing global CVE effort now underway that reaches throughout the world and across countless nations” that ultimately will lead to the defeat of ISIS.  Seriously?  We’re supposed to count a summit meeting that barely hit the news as a success?  Only a flack could say, in the wake of the events in Paris, San Bernardino, and other locations of horrific terrorist actions in 2015, that we are “winning fight against violent extremists.”

Diplomats are supposed to have credibility, but when you’re searching for “success” and trying to present your case in 5-word hashtags that were recently trending on social media, this is what you get.  Maybe there’s a reason the Department of State’s official blog is called “Dipnote.”

About Accepting Those 65,000 Syrian Refugees . . . .

Details are still sketchy in the aftermath of the horrific Paris terrorist attacks, but it appears that at least one of the killers was part of the wave of Syrian refugees that has come to Europe in recent months.  The French Prime Minister says he believes the attacks were planned from Syria, and intelligence agencies are fearful that ISIS, the organization that is claiming credit for the Paris atrocities, has implanted terrorists among the flood of refugees.

At Saturday night’s Democratic candidate debate, Hillary Clinton restated her view that the United States should accept 65,000 refugees, far more than the 10,000 President Obama originally proposed.  Obama Administration officials have discussed accelerating the process of vetting refugees for admission to the U.S. and defended the idea of accepting Syrian refugees, arguing that the refugees have suffered through the horrors of war and that “we can’t just shut our doors to those people.”  Republicans, on the other hand, contend that the security risks of accepting the refugees is simply too great.

This is one of those issues where the heart and the head tug in different directions.  The heart takes seriously the Statue of Liberty’s pledge to welcome the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and wants to help the downtrodden whose lives have been destroyed by terrorism and war.  The head, on the other hand, recognizes that allowing thousands of refugees to come to America inevitably increases the risk that terrorists might be among their midst, ready to pursue Paris-like atrocities on American soil.

The key point, for me at least, is whether the United States really can perform effective screening of refugees.  In Europe, where hundreds of thousands of refugees have been accepted, the vetting procedures have been slapdash at best.  The Obama Administration and Mrs. Clinton say the United States can perform a more thorough and careful investigation before allowing refugees into the country — but I’m skeptical of that claim.

Background screening presupposes the possession of accurate background information.  When employers check the job history or criminal record of applicants, they use public records and established data sources.  Do we actually have access to similarly reliable information about purported refugees from a war-torn land that has never been a friend to the United States?  Are we going to accept a Syrian passport at face value?  Even if we could determine whether an individual is in fact a Syrian national, how do we confirm that they haven’t been radicalized by ISIS?  All of these seem to be insurmountable problems with any meaningful screening process — and if you are accepting tens of thousands of refugees, only a small fraction of screening failures could produce catastrophic results.

The deadly Paris attacks raise legitimate questions about the security risks presented by accepting Syrian refugees, and if we don’t at least consider those questions in establishing our own policy and procedures we have only ourselves to blame.  It is not xenophobia to require some assurance that we can make meaningful screening decisions about whether a particular person who claims refugee status is, or is not, an ISIS terrorist-in-waiting.  Until such assurance can be provided, the better policy may be to honor our humanitarian impulses by working to establish safe havens for refugees within Syria itself.

Banking On The Doomsday Seed Vault

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a pretty apocalyptic concept in a pretty apocalyptic place:  a lonely repository of almost a million stored seeds of different plant life from around the world, preserved in a building embedded into the Arctic frost on a remote island at the northern tip of the globe.

The Vault itself looks apocalyptic.  It’s a sharp-edged, vertical rectangle jammed 500 feet into the mountainside on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, like the end of a knife handle plunged into a frozen side of beef.  It looks exactly like a set from a big-budget Hollywood end-of-the-world disaster movie, in which a rugged and diverse band of far-sighted, parka-wearing scientists must go to the ends of the Earth in a race against time to save the world while evildoers or religious fanatics try to thwart them.

Located just 800 miles from the North Pole, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is designed to preserve global botanical diversity against the threat of absolute catastrophe — be it nuclear holocaust, meteor strikes, crippling volcanic eruptions, or mass disease that wipes out the world’s plant life.  The Vault commenced operations in 2008, and it contains more than 850,000 seed samples, from nations all over the world, that could be used to restart plant life after the post-disaster dust has settled.

And now the first withdrawal from the Seed Vault is going to be made — thanks to the Syrian civil war.  The Seed Vault contains samples of hardy strains of wheat, barley and grasses that can grow in desert areas, and those seeds have been requested to replace seeds in another seed bank, in Syria, that has been damaged by the fighting.  There are a number of seed banks located around the world, but the Svalbard facility — thanks to its remote location and frozen climate — is considered the ultimate backstop.

It’s sad to think that, only a few years after the doomsday vault was opened to store seeds for eternity, a mini-apocalypse has required it to be used.  And you also wonder: at what point do the Seed Vault’s operators stop allowing seeds to be removed?  Crippling and destructive civil wars in places like Syria are terrible and devastating, but they are also — unfortunately — commonplace in our war-torn world.  If your purpose is to safeguard the global ecology and preserve a glimmer of hope for the world in the event of the unthinkable, a miserly withdrawal policy would seem to be in order.

The President’s Speech About ISIS

Tonight President Obama will give a nationally televised address about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the group of murderous terrorists who have seized territory in those countries and intend to establish their own nation.  It’s an important speech for the President, and for our country.

It’s important for the President because he desperately needs to reestablish his credibility in the area of foreign affairs.  He has been dogged by ill-advised comments, like the one describing ISIS as a kind of “junior varsity” squad, that paint him as possessing a curious mixture of overconfidence, naivete, and ignorance about history and human motivation.

The President seems to believe that an inevitable historical arc will move us toward a world of eternal peace, diversity, and right-thinking people who inevitably will adopt every democratic liberal precept — without realizing that there are fanatics, like those who make up ISIS and Boko Haram, that are dead set on establishing an historical arc that bends in precisely the opposite direction.  In the past, President Obama has been unwilling to admit that he’s made mistakes, but if the brutality of ISIS at least causes him to shed his rose-colored glasses about the dangerous world outside our borders that’s a step in the right direction.

As for the country, it’s important that we recognize that ISIS is a different, and immensely significant, threat.  Unlike itinerant terrorist groups like al Qaeda that move from place to place depending on local conditions and shifting political winds, ISIS intends to establish a nation.  It has captured funds and an arsenal of weapons from Iraq and seeks to control oil wells and oil refineries that would provide long-term, ongoing funding for its terrorist aims.

There is an additional dangerous element to ISIS.  Any group that would videotape and publicize its beheading of innocent journalists obviously doesn’t subscribe to accepted social norms, and ISIS’ treatment of civilians and captured soldiers in Syria and Iraq further speak to its utter brutality and depravity.  ISIS actively seeks to recruit like-minded jihadists from countries across the globe, including the United States and Great Britain, and it’s not shy about describing its intention to take the jihadist fight to our homeland.  We should take them at their word.  No one should doubt that ISIS poses a grave threat to America, and if we don’t act to punish and defeat them the threat will only grow more severe.

According to the Washington Post, tonight the President will announce a plan to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, and Secretary of State John Kerry is in the Middle East building support for broader action against ISIS.  This seems like a mirror image of the situation before the first Gulf War, when the actions of a rogue state threatened to destabilize an entire region and spread chaos on a much wider scale.  It’s time for the United States to form and lead a coalition, again, to defeat the latest rabid threat to the world to spring from ever-fertile grounds of the Middle East.

If President Obama is willing to accept that responsibility, I support him.  I don’t think we have any choice.