Monday, April 10, 2017

Syrian Kids Are Good Enough To Kill For, Not Good Enough To Save

On Syria, I have for the last several years stuck to the position that (a) it's an incredibly complicated and delicate situation with many moving parts that (b) doesn't admit to easy or obvious answers. During the Obama administration, I observed that many Republicans seemed to deal with this difficulty by waiting for Obama to tip his hand as to what he would do, so they could immediately and fervently advocate the opposite. This being a bad way to come to one's policy beliefs, I decided I would refrain from making sweeping pronouncements favoring or denouncing either interventionist or non-interventionist activities.

That logic continues to hold with respect to the recent airstrike launched by the Trump administration, done in response to a horrifying chemical weapon attack perpetuated by the Assad regime that yielded some ghastly images of dead or wounded Syrian men, women, and children. I don't think it is something that should evoke strong feelings -- if for no other reason than it was virtually entirely symbolic (the targeted airfield quickly was restored to operational status). In terms of actual, tangible policy towards Syria, the main differences between Trump and Obama can expressed succinctly as follows:
Trump would rather Syrian children die in Syria than survive in the US.
That's all. I suppose you could also say that Trump's wildly oscillating views on whether Assad should stay or go count as a "difference", and it doesn't strike me as implausible that the Trump administration publicly declaring that we no longer wanted Assad out is what emboldened the dictator to launch his chemical strike.

But really, this is the main difference. Syria is a complex, difficult situation, but what's incontestable is that it is producing a refugee population which wants nothing more than to escape the horrifying violence in Syria. The Obama administration wanted to rescue those civilians. The Trump administration insists that they stay in Syria and die. That's the function of the refugee ban. That's Trump's signature policy vis-a-vis Syria. Not a few rockets from a Navy destroyer.

Anyone who is chest-puffing about the toughness of Trump re: Syria who isn't appalled by the refugee ban gets a first-class ticket to my list of people whom I have no interest in listening to on Syria.

That was the main point I wanted to make, but briefly I also want to discuss concerns over the lack of explicit congressional authorization for the strike. The lack of congressional authorization is what deterred Obama from attacking Assad directly, though he did launch airstrikes targeting ISIS in Syria on a regular basis, and in any event Obama previously had attacked Libya without authorization (misgivings over the results of that action no doubt acted to stay Obama's hands when Syria proceeded to flare up). While I'm not opposed to congressional authorization requirements per se, the fact is that Congress virtually never presses the issue and it's therefore been a non-issue for every presidential administration in my lifetime -- used almost exclusively as one-off partisan attacks. Congress, indeed, seems very much to prefer not having the responsibility for authorizing military force rest on its shoulders -- the same voices crowing about how Trump is strong and Obama is weak seemed utterly uninterested in actually getting the Republican Congress to actually commit to voting to endorse such actions.

So I can't bring myself to care about the lack of congressional authorization either way. Presidents of all parties and stripes take actions like this regularly, it is not worse nor better when President Trump does it. Ditto international law issues, where (as Julien Ku wryly observes) everyone thinks the attack on Syria was illegal except for virtually all the governments in the world.

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