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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All About The Wall

You may have missed it, but Tuesday was the deadline for companies to submit bids for the design of “the wall” that President Trump proposes to build along at least some parts of our southern border with Mexico.

Customs and Border Protection is supposed to review the bids and announce finalists in June, and then some of the finalists are expected to build prototypes of their designs on government-owned land in San Diego.  The AP reports that the government is expected to select four to ten finalists to build 30-foot-long prototypes at a cost of $200,000 to $500,000 each.  Customs and Border Protection has indicated that it is looking for solid barriers, made of materials like concrete, rather than “walls” that rely on technology.

a0af3a441932abf668a4b1a868ee7b0aWe don’t know exactly how many companies submitted proposals, although apparently about 200 companies expressed interest in the border wall project.   I’m guessing that there were lots of bids.  What construction companies could resist bidding on a project that potentially involves pouring enormous amounts of concrete to build a barricade that extends for hundreds of miles?  The “wall” would make your standard highway construction project seem like a minor matter.

And although all of the bids haven’t been made public, we know what some companies are proposing because they have voluntarily disclosed their bids.  One bidder thinks the wall will become a kind of tourist attraction, and proposes a 56-foot-high wall designed with a walkway at the top to allow visitors to enjoy the desert vistas.  (“Hey kids!  Where should we go on our summer trip this year?  Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, or the border wall?”)  A different proposal suggests that nuclear waste be buried in trenches along the wall — which presumably would quash any meaningful tourist activity, by the way.  Another company wants to erect solar panels on parts of the wall, to generate electricity that can be sold to communities in both the U.S. and Mexico to help pay for the wall’s cost, which would allow President Trump to say that he had met, at least in part, his campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the wall.

Will a wall actually be built, given the significant opposition to it?  We don’t know at this point, but we do know one thing:  the bids that have been made public so far indicate the this effort at large-scale wall building could be a very quixotic exercise.

A Nuclear Near Miss In ’67

We’ve all heard about the Cuban Missile Crisis — the tense standoff in October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union seemed on the brink of nuclear war over Soviet missiles based in Cuba.

It turns out that there was another very close call during those terrible Cold War days, when kids were trained to duck and cover, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. kept nuclear aircraft in the air at all times, ready to respond to any attack, and nuclear annihilation seemed an ever-present threat.  This particular near-miss happened in 1967 and hasn’t gotten any attention because everything occurred behind the scenes.  It hasn’t been given a catchy, alliterative name like “Cuban Missile Crisis,” either.

sun-big-solar-flare-100910-02Let’s call it the Solar Flare-up of ’67.

It happened on May 23, 1967.  The sun emitted a solar flare so powerful that it knocked out the three U.S. Air Force’ ballistic missile Early Warning System radar sites in the northern hemisphere.  The sites appeared to be jammed — which in those days was considered an act of war because it would be the first step in launching a preemptive nuclear strike.  Reasoning that the Soviets were behind the jamming, Air Force personnel began readying the American nuclear arsenal for a countdown to a strike, too.

At that point, fortunately, scientists and solar forecasters working at the North American Aerospace Defense Command figured out that the huge solar flare, and not the Russians, were responsible for the jamming.  The news went up the command chain, and the American forces stood down.  And, since the Soviet defense systems were presumably similarly affected by the solar flare, a similar scenario played out somewhere on the Russian side of the Iron Curtain.

The Solar Flare-up of ’67 just reaffirms how improbable it was that the world made it through the hair-trigger period of the Cold War.  If relations were on a hair-trigger basis such that even solar flares could plausibly spark a nuclear exchange, it’s amazing that some miscommunication or misguided leader didn’t send the world on the path to a radioactive holocaust.

The U.S.A. Out, But Not Down

I listened to the World Cup game between the U.S. and Belgium on my drive back from Cincinnati today and really found myself getting into it.  According to the radio announcers, at least, the U.S. got a stunning performance from goalie Tim Howard that kept them in the game, but the Belgian pressure finally yielded two goals in extra time and the United States was knocked out of the World Cup, 2-1.

I’m not going to pretend that I know all of the rules of soccer — I certainly don’t, and probably never will — and I’m not going to claim that I am as interested in soccer as I am in, say, college football.  I will say, however, that I enjoyed the U.S.A. run in the World Cup this year, and I’ll be hoping that the Americans make another, even deeper, run the next time they get to play on the world stage.  The U.S. may not be one of the elite teams yet, but it looks like the Americans may be getting there.  Good try, U.S.A.!

Now that the Americans are out, I’m not sure I’ll watch another game in this tournament — but maybe I will.  I’ll miss the British accents and the references to “nil” rather than “zero” and the other quirky elements of this global sporting event.  It’s been a fun ride.

Cup, Yup — And Let The Nationalism Bubble Up

Hey, the World Cup has started!

Yup, they’re playing futbol down in Brazil, in all of those glitzy new stadiums that the Brazilians, desperate for more positive “emerging world leader”-type news coverage, have spent billions to build even though the country is beset by horrible, grinding poverty, terrible crime, and other awful societal afflictions.  Maybe all of those poor people will forget about their empty bellies and cardboard shanty homes while FIFA bigwigs limo around town and futbol fans from around the world show up in their colored wigs and toot their horns and chant their chants while men run around in shorts, kick a ball, and then fake injuries whenever they plausibly can.

I think soccer is boring — in fact, dreadfully, painfully boring — but I don’t begrudge people who think the World Cup is the greatest events in sports, period.  Isn’t it interesting, though, that the prevailing political view that nationalism is dangerous gets thrown out the window come World Cup time?  The ardent boosters of the EU will argue for just about every form of economic and political integration, but even the most suicidal EU bureaucrat wouldn’t dare argue that France, Italy, the Netherlands, et al., shouldn’t field national teams and try to beat the pants off each other when the World Cup rolls around.  Even Ghana is getting into the spirit and guaranteeing they won’t lose to Team USA.

Could the World Cup be exposing that the anti-nationalism one-worlders are, at bottom, a bunch of hypocrites?  If so, it’s doing something worthwhile — even if those guys do look kind of pathetic in their shorts and knee socks.

Moving Back From The Red Line, And Back In Time, Too

This morning Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. and Russia have reached agreement on resolution of the Syrian chemical weapons problem.  Under the agreement, Syria must turn over an accounting of its chemical weapons within a week, inspectors will arrive in Syria in November and begin to seize and destroy the weapons, and the destruction is to be completed by mid-2014.  The agreement will be “backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow for sanctions or other consequences if Syria fails to comply.”

With the agreement, the United States has backed away from President Obama’s “red line” that use of chemical weapons would produce immediate military consequences.  It’s been an awkward retreat, as I’ve pointed out in prior postings, but it recognizes reality — there simply is no international appetite for joint military action, and there is enormous opposition, both domestically and internationally, to the United States taking unilateral action.  I was opposed to the United States taking unilateral action, so I am glad that the Obama Administration ultimately came to its senses.  The use of chemical weapons in Syria is an international problem, not an American one, and the international community, collectively, should deal with it.

There are a lot of questions about this agreement, of course.  Our past experience with international weapons inspectors — in North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere — isn’t exactly cause for supreme confidence in their ability to handle the destructive ambitions of rogue states.  How in the world do international inspectors find and safely destroy chemical weapons stores in the midst of a raging civil war?  How does anyone trust the Assad regime, which denied having chemical weapons until a week ago, to honestly identify and produce all of its chemical weapons caches?   And we can’t lose sight of the fact that this agreement does nothing to end the suffering of the Syrian people who are trapped in the middle of a bloody fight among a regime that wants to hold onto power at all costs and a gaggle of “rebels” that undoubtedly include al Qaeda terrorists.

There’s another very interesting aspect to the agreement announced today.  It was negotiated by only two parties — the United States and Russia.  Syria was not part of the talks, nor were China, or France, or Great Britain, or other members of the UN Security Council, or the Arab League.  Apparently Russia is expected to deliver the agreement and cooperation of the Syrians, as if Syria is a kind of vassal state, and the U.S. is expected to bring the rest of the Security Council into line.  It reminded me of the bipartite, Cold War world I grew up in, where the U.S. and the Soviet Union led the two competing factions in the world and met occasionally at summit meetings to resolve international problems.  It’s odd to see this apparent return to those days.  I wonder how China and the other states in our increasingly diverse world feel about that?

Why Always Us?

Or, perhaps, the question should be:  why always U.S.?

President Obama apparently is weighing some kind of military strike against Syria in response to its government apparent use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.  As described in the New York Times, the use of military force would be limited, designed to cripple the Assad dictatorship’s ability to use chemical weapons but not effecting “regime change.”

It seems like an effort to thread the eye of a needle with an awfully blunt instrument — but the issue I’m raising is more fundamental.  I’m as appalled as any civilized person about the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, but . . . can’t someone else do something about it?  Syria isn’t our neighbor.  We don’t share any kind of common cultural or linguistic heritage with Syria.  Syria doesn’t have any great economic or geopolitical significance so far as I can determine.  As a result, when it comes to Syria, our interests appear to be no greater than those of those of any other country, and much less than some.

So, when the Syrian government commits an atrocity, why do heads swivel in our direction — as they always seem to do?  And, why are American Presidents eager to spend our treasure and risk the lives of our soldiers when that happens?  Is it because they like being viewed as world leaders?  Forgive me, but I would rather have a President whose focus is exclusively on our interests, assessed with a cold and calculating eye.  In this case, what exactly would a Syrian adventure of the kind described by the New York Times accomplish for the United States?  Even if successful, it would still leave the Assad government capable of slaughtering its people — only with conventional weapons, rather than chemical ones.  And, of course, any involvement risks the possibility that some wild-eyed fanatics in the Arab world will swear out a jihad against the Great Satan because it, again, has intervened in the world’s most volatile region.

There is no reason why the United States should be involved in punishing Syria for its gross moral transgressions.  The Arab League, or Turkey, or the United Nations, or some other country that shares a border or a language or some other cultural element with Syria should assume the lead.  Our resources are not infinite, and it’s time we stopped acting like they were.