Thinking of the children

>> Tuesday, September 10, 2013

I am depressed and discouraged.  I have not heard a more dishonest and depressing speech since George W. Bush was the President of the United States.  President Obama, a man I have an enormous amount of respect for, stood up in front of the country and dissembled for about half an hour.

I don't know if I should regret voting for him.  I guess I don't.  What was I going to do, abstain or vote for Mitt Romney, which would have been the same thing?  Gods know, I wasn't terribly likely to vote for John McCain in 2008 even before he threatened to put Sarah Fucking Palin a heartbeat away from the Presidency.  But I have gone, in the space of an evening (mostly) from votes I was sort of proud of to feeling like I barely chose the lesser of evils twice running.

It isn't a good feeling.

Over the past two years, what began as a series of peaceful protests against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has turned into a brutal civil war. Over a hundred thousand people have been killed. Millions have fled the country. In that time, America has worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition and to shape a political settlement.

And I hate this.  But we didn't do more than work with allies to provide humanitarian support and assist the moderate opposition and work towards a political settlement because we can't count every fallen sparrow.  And there was a time, back in the 1990s, really, when I thought we could, that I thought we could be a force for good in the world and use our own unrivaled power and good intentions to effect positive change in the world; but whatever I had left of that faith was lost when Afghanistan went from girls in school and movies in theatres for the first time in decades to a matter of counting our children's limbs in the middle of the road; I can't do this anymore, no matter how much I wish I could, how much I wish we could be noble.  It could be moral cowardice, but there are limits to what we can do, and certainly limits to what we can do without spending lives and treasure profligately; we made regime change and reconstruction abroad work twice, essentially, but only by invading Europe and Asia with our allies and then spending vast fortunes rebuilding West Germany and Japan at a time when we had what was essentially the sole functioning economy in the entirety of the world and were flush to the gills, and when the world had devolved to an only-slightly-unstable binary where the nations we rebuilt had a choice between kissing our sanctimoniously democratic asses or giving themselves over to Stalinist barbarism.
But I have resisted calls for military action because we cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I suppose this is technically true, though I can't but think, Mr. President, that you said there was a red line.  That you said there would be no military action unless, and thereby created this untenable situation where a promise must be kept or broken, however vague that promise.  What did you mean, precisely?  I think we all assumed you meant you would take the crossing of this line as a call for military action, and groaned.

The situation profoundly changed, though, on August 21st, when Assad's government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children. The images from this massacre are sickening, men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off limits, a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war.

This was not always the case. In World War I, American GIs were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust. Because these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant, the civilized world has spent a century working to ban them. And in 1997, the United States Senate overwhelmingly approved an international agreement prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, now joined by 189 government that represent 98 percent of humanity.

On August 21st, these basic rules were violated, along with our sense of common humanity.

Kill a hundred thousand people with arms and artillery, and we'll look aside.  Kill a thousand with gas, and we'll dredge up the scruples of Edwardian hypocrites who were content to gas revolting colonials but balked at turning it upon one another.

A bullet doesn't distinguish between a soldier and an infant.  Nor does an incendiary bomb, which we dropped plenty of upon German and Japanese civilian centers.  One nation has used atomic bombs in warfare, in both cases against civilian targets; hello.  The point here is not that we are as awful and evil as Assad might be, the point is not a false equivalency between us and him: the point is a false difference between Sarin gas and every other weapon of warfare that has ever been used and most likely ever will be.  As if there's a good way to die; as if having a piece of hot metal pierce the skin at supersonic speeds, screaming through the guts and caroming off the bones is pleasant.  As if being set afire alive by phosphorous, magnesium or napalm, the fire clinging to the body like glue as it melts and blackens the skin and boils the blood is a better way to die than a acetylcholinesterase inhibitor shutting down the ends of neurons.  Every violence man inflicts upon man is horrific, and not a one of them happens to be merciful to women and children, not a one is smart enough to pick a soldier instead of an infant.

And when we fire whatever the President means to fire at Assad or his chemical weapons facilities, whenever we make this "targeted" strike, nothing we have in our arsenal will distinguish between innocent and sinner once the trigger is pulled.  We are likely to murder innocents too, as we've done and will do.

No one disputes that chemical weapons were used in Syria. The world saw thousands of videos, cellphone pictures and social media accounts from the attack. And humanitarian organizations told stories of hospitals packed with people who had symptoms of poison gas.

And everyone disputes what we should do.  If anything.  If anything we could do was worth doing at all.

Moreover, we know the Assad regime was responsible. In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad's chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area they where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces.

Shortly after those rockets landed, the gas spread, and hospitals filled with the dying and the wounded. We know senior figures in Assad's military machine reviewed the results of the attack. And the regime increased their shelling of the same neighborhoods in the days that followed. We've also studied samples of blood and hair from people at the site that tested positive for sarin.

And Secretary Of State Powell sat down with the United Nations and showed them pictures of Saddam Hussein's mobile bioweapons facilities.  Which turned out to be interesting because they didn't exist.  And a pretty great man's reputation was tarnished forever, which was awful but not as awful as all the blood we shed in Iraq over a great big stinking lie.  Or error.  I mean, let's be fair and consider that maybe Secretary Powell's boss was misled, too; he was kind of an idiot savant in his way, Yale and Harvard educated and a savvy political op, but the kind of guy who didn't seem to think twice when the very guy he delegated to find him a Vice-Presidential nominee claimed he looked everywhere and couldn't come up with a better choice than his very own self, the kind of thing that would have raised eyebrows most places hither and yon.  The kind of guy who read a lot but nobody was ever really entirely sure if he understood any of it, or, more accurately still, grokked any of it (that excellent Heinleinian coinage for a level of deeper understanding than deep understanding, the feeling in your bones, profoundly kenned).

We can't afford to believe you anymore just because we like you, Mr. President.  It's nothing personal--we can't believe anyone anymore, a President least of all.  We shouldn't have, ever: Gods know, we've had our Tonkin Gulfs and Checkers Speeches, Teapot Domes and all the way back.  You know the Assad regime was responsible, or you say you do; we don't, gods have mercy on us.  Your word and a picture of President Lincoln will get us a grande latte at Starbucks and yet another interminable war in the Middle East.

When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory, but these things happened. The facts cannot be denied.

The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people -- to those children -- is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security. Let me explain why. 

Perhaps we're prepared to do what we did when he killed the first hundred thousand.

If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.

The slippery slope.  The Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons, though the implicit threat of your red line was, according to you, Mr. President, insufficient to keep him from starting.  Other tyrants will do what they will do.  Our troops have biohazzard gear, and while I don't want them to face chemical weapons, they're as prepared as anyone might be with their environment suits and atropine.  Terrorist organizations can get chemical weapons anyway, anyhow; the dubious good news is that without a delivery system these attacks are likely to be less effective than a really well-built explosive; Aum Shinrikyo killed eight people with Sarin in 1994 and thirteen in 1995, injuring thousands more but still less effective than hijacking four airplanes.

I do not mean to belittle a threat: I don't have an environmental suit nor a convenient atropine shot handy.  A mere droplet of Sarin quickly penetrates the skin and triggers a terrifying chemical chain of events in the nervous system, and only a tiny bit more is agonizingly fatal.  But a well-equipped and fairly organized terrorist group armed with Sarin killed fewer people than one nutjob with his mom's assault rifle, and we've been marvelous effective in preventing the next one of those from happening.

If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel. And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path. 

Do we think Iran is really going to be deterred by cruise missiles in Damascus more than they might be deterred by the secret war they're already fighting with Israel?  If having their top tier of physicists "mysteriously" murdered in the space of two years isn't stopping them, I think we can assume they're unstoppable and can only be delayed by clever tradework.

This is not a world we should accept. This is what’s at stake. And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use. 

Only the world we're stuck with.  Is a targeted military strike against a chemical weapons depot anything like a targeted strike against the Taliban?  Because those are going just-oh-so-well and we're ever so accurate and reliable with those (PDF link).

That’s my judgment as commander-in-chief, but I’m also the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress, and I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together. This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.  

The large print giveth, the fine print taketh away, as someone once said.  I think the President's belief that he has the unilateral power to order military strikes might be as controversial as the presumed source of that authority itself.  Half of this sounds like the President gets it and half of it sounds like the crackling of the Constitution going up in flames.  Okay, the Constitution is a shitty document and this kind of thing is an example of why: the Founders had no idea we'd be dealing with the Presidential authority to launch missiles half a world away in reprisal for alleged threats to the nation's foreign interests, fair enough; but as much as I may think the Constitution is defunct and expired, it's the only bleeding one we've got, and it pains me that this is the state we're in.

...many of you have asked, won’t this put us on a slippery slope to another war? One man wrote to me that we are “still recovering from our involvement in Iraq.” A veteran put it more bluntly: “This nation is sick and tired of war.”

My answer is simple: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Assad’s capabilities.

And my response is: we bombed Germany practically to the Stone Age in WWII, and it took Soviet tanks rolling on Berlin to get them to quit; we flattened Japan in the same war, and it took two atom bombs and the threat of an infantry invasion bypassing the rest of the Pacific to convince them we wouldn't take a conditional surrender; for their part, the Germans did a fine job of harassing the British from the air in still-the-same-war, and all they managed to do was stiffen the Brits' collective neck and solidify their resistance long enough for the United States to eventually get into the war and make it completely unwinnable for the Reich.

We bombed the hell out of North Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and I think all we got out of that deal was the second-worst Republican Presidential candidate of the previous half-century.  We also bombed Viet Cong strongholds in Cambodia, and all that did was drive the Khmer Rouge even batshit crazier than they already were (which is saying something), contributing to a radicalization process that eventually caused between two-and-four million deaths (many of them caused by being beaten to death by starving children armed with machetes and unloaded rifles, which is a horrible way to die like all the other ways to die, and probably most of them by starvation, which is also a horrible way like all the other ways to die--did you know that one form of malnutrition, scurvy, basically causes your body to disintegrate and bleed out because your body can no longer form the connective tissues that literally hold you together?).

Point being, nobody wants "boots on the ground," but that's how you actually accomplish anything at all.  Air power is great--in conjunction with ground forces.  Naval support is awesome--in conjunction with ground forces.  Planes and ships don't hold territory, they don't impose a greater will upon the citizens or regime.  There's some evidence, mentioned above, that what a bombing campaign gets you is easily a more-resolved enemy and/or a crazier population; these may be the same thing, the survivors psychologically fused together by the act of survival, driven paranoid by the uncertainty of when death will next rain down and bound in solidarity by that looming, inescapable fear.

What are we going to accomplish shooting things at Assad?  He isn't afraid of us now when we've threatened to shoot things at him; gods help us with what he might do to his own people if we do shoot things at him and he lives through it, or what he does to us if he can get his grubby paws on us.

Speaking of which--
Others have asked whether it’s worth acting if we don’t take out Assad. As some members of Congress have said, there’s no point in simply doing a “pinprick” strike in Syria.

Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force -- we learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad, or any other dictator, think twice before using chemical weapons.

Restating a dubious proposition in completely different words doesn't make it less-dubious.  Nice dick-waving with the "pinprick" line, though.  Your predecessor would be proud, Mr. President; that's the kind of phrase he used to love.

Other questions involve the dangers of retaliation. We don’t dismiss any threats, but the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military. Any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise. And our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakeable support of the United States of America.

Am I the only one who has a hard time reconciling this passage with the crap about, "Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians"?  It's very hard to take a speech seriously when one of the speaker's choice arguments is a rebuttal to something he claimed less than fifteen minutes previously.

To be clear, I actually buy this part of the President's speech--except I think it's actually an argument for continuing with diplomatic pressures and foregoing a military response, because I think the earlier, contradictory claim where the President tried to press fear-of-terrorism buttons and our-men-and-women-in-uniform buttons is the horseshit argument.  In any case, you can hardly have it both ways in my view: either Assad's (or anyone else's) chemical weapons are a danger to American soldiers abroad and to civilians within our borders, or they aren't, and if we don't need to be afraid of reprisals, we have as little to fear from overconfidence, or vice-versa.

Many of you have asked a broader question: Why should we get involved at all in a place that’s so complicated, and where -- as one person wrote to me -- “those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights?”

It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists. But al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death. The majority of the Syrian people -- and the Syrian opposition we work with -- just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom. And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.

Did you notice his failure to actually address the question?  And why can't we redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution the day before any military action, especially seeing as how a military action risks killing or pissing off the opposition we might want to work with?  And when did the alternative to a military strike become "doing nothing", or is that what we've already been doing, in which case why did he say we "worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition, and to shape a political settlement"?  I'm confused... no, wait, I'm not confused, this is just a bunch of bullshit, is all.  I understand perfectly.

...I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions. Over the last two years, my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warning and negotiations -- but chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime.

I think this translates as "We're ineffectual", which kind of begs the question of why firing a few rockets at Assad and settling on our haunches to see what happens next would suddenly make a resumption of ineffectualities... effectual.

The implication here--which I agree with--is that anything we do is going to be limited in effectiveness.

The exception being, of course, an invasion; which, to be clear, is a really, really shitty idea unless we're going to go the full invasion-of-Germany-followed-by-a-Marshall-Plan route.  Which we obviously aren't.  At most we'd go for the invade-Iraq-and-spend-a-decade-bleeding-to-death route.  Which stinks, do I even have to say that?

However, over the last few days, we’ve seen some encouraging signs. In part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin, the Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons, and even said they’d join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use. 

How the fuck have we gone so far askew that Vladimir Fucking Putin has become the hero of the story?  We are fucking doing it wrong.  We have to be.

And so, to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just. To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.

Indeed, I’d ask every member of Congress, and those of you watching at home tonight, to view those videos of the attack, and then ask: What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas, and we choose to look the other way?

Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Our national determination to keep free of foreign wars and foreign entanglements cannot prevent us from feeling deep concern when ideals and principles that we have cherished are challenged.” Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.

America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.

That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth. 

"Think of the children" ought to be an impeachable offense.  This is a naked appeal to visceral sentimentality when the problem is a cold and ugly matter of the limits of American power and the boundaries of American commitment, even leaving aside the ugly fact that we fail to think of the children all the fucking time.  But even if we were as holy as we would like to be, we cannot count every fallen sparrow and never could: we do not have the means or the will to prevent every brutal and unnecessary death in the world, whether we're talking about the deaths of eight-year-olds or eighty-year-olds.

Were I God; were I omnipotent, omniscient, and benign: not a child would be gassed to death, but nor would they be shot (I wouldn't kill them in floods nor in famines, either, nor with fire or plague).  But then, I'm a soft touch: I would reach out and succor the elderly and the middle-aged, those without families and those with, the lonely and isolated and the gregarious and surrounded, alike.  I would give some dispensation to puppies and kittens, too--frankly, I might have to do something about the laws of physics lest the Earth be so terribly crowded the ground cracked under the assembled weight of all those I couldn't bear to see suffer and die.

Perhaps this is why I'm not a god, I'd be terrible at the job.  But then, even grokking this, it's why I don't believe the all-knowing and all-compassionate God so many seem to believe in is the least bit possible.  There's no evidence to my mind of a god at all, but if I concede the possibility, the evidence is He's a monster of violence or ignorance or both.

I digress, though there's a point here: to accept that people of whatever age will die whatever we do is a terrible thing to face, but denying this basic truth is the worst kind of lie there is, it is the cancer of deceits--it metastasizes and seeps over everything in its proximity until it has choked the life out of its host.  If we could do something, it would be different, but I do not see a few rockets fired at Damascus as being something, and most likely doing that will kill children, too.  Were we to invade, it would guarantee something, but that something would include killing children.  (And adults: are we really so precious, now, that we're going to decide whether to go to war by playing the game of setting values on lives like this?  How many dead adults equal a single dead child?  Clearly, from what the President has said and this nation has done so far, the ratio must be in the thousands-to-one.  Do we make distinctions based on whose children have been murdered, or where those children were when they died?  We apparently draw distinctions from whether they've been gassed or exploded.  This is a shitty game: no one comes out ahead by playing it, we do not get a rationale for war from it, only an exposure of just what rotten sophists we really are.)

The President went there, he really went there?  He's a rat bastard for doing it.  Damn him and damn his dissembling.


Janiece Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 10:28:00 AM EDT  

Oh, good. I'm not the only one who listened to that POS speech and came away thinking "Fuck me. I am so tired."

The only thing left for me to decide is whether or not he was changed by the office (as nearly everyone is who sits in that chair), or if he was always a prevaricating jerkwad.

Eric Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 11:59:00 AM EDT  

I suspect it was mostly the latter of those two things, Janiece, though I have a fear that prevarication is a prerequisite for the office. Whether that's a new thing, the product of modern politics, or whether it's something engrained into and essential to democratic politics and a feature of our republic going back to the drafting of the Constitution (which artfully addressed and failed to address issues like slavery and secession in ways that made it possible for the convention delegates to go home and claim the new Constitution said whatever their constituents wanted to hear), I don't know.

"Fuck me. I am so tired," is a perfect response to the POTUS' address in a spare six words. I kind of wish I'd written that, instead, or at least used it for the post title.

Anonymous,  Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 2:06:00 PM EDT  

We are so on the same page. I watched the speech as well, and the whole time was simply thinking that Obama's delivery was better than Bush's would have been, but otherwise the speech could have been given by either one.

I voted for candidate Obama twice, yet didn't vote for President Obama. If you know what I mean.

Robbin Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 9:45:00 AM EDT  

Did you see Putin's op-ed in the New York Times yesterday? We have turned Russia into the defender of International Law.

Eric Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 10:33:00 AM EDT  

I didn't read Putin's op-ed, but I heard about it. The mere notion that we've made Russia some kind of moral force--is laughter or sobbing the appropriate response? Probably both. Sheesh.

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