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Missile Strikes and the Days to Ponder Them

A Friday and a weekend have passed since President Donald Trump ordered those 59 Tomahawk missiles launched against a Syrian air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons strike it had launched on a village during its prolonged civil war, but so far it’s all being assessed through the fog of war.
There are reports that the same Syrian air base has since launched another deadly attack on the same village, albeit with conventional weapons, so the debate about the effectiveness of Trump’s strike goes on. Some of the Democrats who supported Democratic President Barack Obama’s reluctant effort to win congressional approval for a “pinprick” retaliation against the Syrian regime for a similar atrocity back in ’13 offered begrudging praise, while others took a principled stand for congressional approval and quite hypocritically criticized Trump for both a untoward aggression against a sovereign state and a mere “pinprick.” Some of the Republicans who criticized Trump for the isolationist positions he staked out in the campaign offered begrudging praise for the assertiveness of the strike, even if it was the same “pinprick” they’d ridiculed Obama for asking Congress to approve, which at the time they thought was a constitutionally necessary, so the mainstream of both parties wound up looking pretty ridiculous.
Meanwhile, the fringes of both the left and right proved far more principled but even more ridiculous. Over on the fever pits of the right of the tin-foil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists who ardently supported Trump had already concluded that the Syrian dictatorship hadn’t launched a chemical weapons attack on that that village, and that all footage of gassed children who so moved Trump was faked was staged by the same globalist conspiracy that had recently expelled the righteous nationalist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council at the behest of Trump’s wouldn’t-you-know it Jewish son-in-law who is now in charge of Middle East peace and re-inventing government and solving the opioid problem and getting Mexico to pay for the wall along the Mexican border. Far-flung Democratic fever pits and even the recently popular MSNBC network are meanwhile speculating that the strike against a Russian ally was only intended to distracting from the ongoing speculation about Trump’s ties to Russia, which is a crucial supporter of the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, which the Trump administration had declared last Wednesday it no was no longer interested in toppling but over the weekend warned Russia to stop supporting.
At this point we don’t have anyone to root for, and from our view on the sidelines it all seems quite foggy. We’re inclined to believe that the Assad dictatorship did indeed launch that horrific attack on that village, just as we believe it did back in ’13, and several times before that during the dictator’s dictatorial reign, and something in our old-fashioned Republican sensibilities has no problem with a muscular response to such outrages. Back in ’13 we opposed Obama’s proposed response because his Secretary of State had described it as a mere “pinprick,” which didn’t seem to serve any strategic purpose, but we must admit the current Republican administration doesn’t seem to have thought any of this out any further. It would take some pretty convoluted theorizing to explain how all of this is an elaborately convoluted plot twist in an ongoing Russo-Trump conspiracy, but it still remains hard to explain away all of the connections between Trump’s past rhetoric and his past associates associations with the Ruskies.
At this point we’re waiting for the fog to lift, and hoping it doesn’t get any foggier.

— Bud Norman

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Of Sleeping Dogs and WMD

The late Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction are back in the news, and they’re proving an embarrassment to both sides of the debate about the Iraq War.
Readers of a certain age will recall that the WMD, as they were popularly known, were one of 23 casus belli cited in the congressional resolution authorizing the war in Iraq but the only one that anyone seemed to notice. When the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq failed to provide the press with large stockpiles of newly-made WMD to photograph the critics of the war started chanting “Bush lied, thousands died” and public opinion began to turn against the effort. President George W. Bush had always taken care to truthfully state only that our intelligence agencies and those of several of our allies had suggested a high probability of a WMD program, even someone so reputedly stupid would have been unlikely to launch a war on a basis he knew would be disproved, the lack of proof of the WMD did not prove their non-existence, there were sporadic reports of the chemical weapons that Hussein had indisputably used against in the past and credible theories that the weapons had been shipped to Syria during the debates in congress and the United Nations, several Democrats including both Senators who wound up serving as President Obama’s Secretaries of State also found the intelligence reports dating back to the Clinton administration credible, and there were still those other 22 writs that had been widely ignored, but such arguments neither fit on a bumper sticker nor rhymed and were not enough to persuade a war-weary public.
The missing WMD and that “Bush lied, thousands died” line became such cherished beliefs of the establishment media and the rest of the left that it was noteworthy that such a established paper as The New York reported last week that “American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells, or aviation bombs … ” The report was quick to add that the weapons were “remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West,” and “the discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale,” but that didn’t stop the war’s supporters from claiming long-awaited vindication. The Times spends most of its article explaining the toll those weapons have taken on American soldiers, and it is hard to reconcile that with its claims that they posed no threat to civilians. If taken at face value the facts laid out in the story also show that Hussein was not in compliance with his treaty obligations regarding weapons of mass destruction, and suggest that he retained his old willingness to use anything at hand against his enemies. As much as they hate to cite The New York Times as a source, the war hawks have found a weapon there to use against the “Bush lied” calumny.
Which raises the infuriating question of why the Bush administration didn’t avail itself of the evidence to defend its arduous efforts in Iraq while public opinion was turning against the war. Conservative suspicions naturally turn to political adviser Karl Rove, who has long been a leading figure in the demonology of the left and has lately assumed the same role for the right, and over at The Daily Beat the usually reliable reporter Eli Lake provides quotes from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and some unnamed “insiders” to bolster the case. Rove reportedly felt that that the public had already concluded no significant WMD were in Iraq, t and by 2005 was telling Santorum to “Let these sleeping dogs lie; we have lost that fight so better not to remind anyone of it.” The strategy was not without some merit, given that that the shrillness of the opposition was likely to drown out any claims of WMD and a hostile press was not going to offer any help, but given the continued decline in support for the war and the drubbings that the Republicans took in the ’06 and ’08 elections it doesn’t look good in retrospect. The Lake article has provided the more strident right-wing talk radio hosts with material for further rants against Rove, and in this case he seems to deserve it.
Rove wasn’t the president, though, and the ultimate responsibility for the decision rests with his boss. Perhaps he had his own reasons for declining to publicize the discovery of the WMD, and perhaps they had to do with military considerations that he considered more important than his own political standing, but we’ll have to await some long-off history book to learn what those reasons might be. Those history books will likely be full of facts that will change the public’s understanding of the war, and they’ll surely record that “Bush lied” and “blood for oil” and all the other bumper sticker slogans proved false, and they might just conclude that Bush’s invasion was a bad idea and Obama’s premature an even worse one, but until then no will get to enjoy any vindication.

— Bud Norman

Nagging Doubts

The president’s efforts to whip up some enthusiasm for war in Syria are not going well. Members of Congress from both parties are reluctant to authorize military action, international opinion is almost entirely against it, and the latest revelations in the news aren’t likely to bolster the president’s case.
A story appeared Thursday in The New York Times, formerly a reliable friend of the president, which portrayed the Syrian rebels who are likely to benefit from American intervention as a bloodthirsty bunch of Islamist fanatics who have summarily executed prisoners of war and committed various other atrocities. The unsavoriness of our Syrian allies is also being widely reported in the European press, and Britain’s The Telegraph tells of the rebel’s brutal treatment of Christians in a captured town. Even the State Department is citing the rebels’ suicide bombings and frequent attacks on civilians in its warning against travel in Syria, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s assurances to Congress that only 15 to 20 percent of the rebels are “bad guys.”
Such unfavorable coverage of our potential allies makes it hard to win support for their cause, and it also adds to the nagging doubts about who was responsible for the chemical weapons attack that is the president’s sole justification for taking action against the Syrian government. The administration is adamant that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad ordered the attack, and has lately elevated its language from “a high level of confidence” to “beyond the shadow of a doubt,” but the few pages of evidence it has offered for the claim are being widely disputed. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has provided the United Nations with 100 pages of argument that the rebels launched the attack to lure America into the country’s civil war, Florida’s ultra-Democratic Rep. Al Grayson is telling anyone who will listen that evidence of Assad’s guilt has been “manipulated,” and after the failure to find stockpiles of chemical weapons in Iraq after they were offered as one reason for a war there many people in between are bound to be suspicious.
We have no fondness for Putin or Grayson, or those who insist that the intelligence reports preceding the Iraq war were deliberately deceptive, but there is a troubling plausibility to their suspicions. The Syrian rebels seem quite capable of murdering a thousand of their countrymen in a false flag operation designed to dupe an American president, the president does seem quite capable of falling for it, and it is hard to explain why Assad would cross a presidentially-declared “red line” and possibly provoke American intervention and international scorn by using chemical weapons at a time when he seemed to be winning without them. The evidence against Assad might justify a high level of confidence, but at this point it does not seem beyond the shadow of a doubt, and it would be highly embarrassing to America if proof emerges that it has punished an innocent party and brought about the victory of the guilty.
Making a case that will overcome these doubts would be hard for any president, but this one is especially ill-positioned to make it. As a candidate he had happily exploited the public’s doubt about the intelligence that led to Iraq war, insisted that presidents don’t have the constitutional authority to order military action without congressional approval, argued that favorable international opinion was also required to fight and promised that he would be the one who would win it, and has president he now has to repudiate all of it. We’re told that some sort of action is needed to restore the president’s credibility, but his credibility is already a casualty of a war that hasn’t yet begun.

— Bud Norman

Red Lines in the Water

Can’t anybody here play this game? An exasperated Casey Stengel famously asked that question of his hapless ’62 Mets as they limped to a 40-120 record, but it could just as easily be asked of America’s foreign policy team.
With Syria’s mass-murdering regime under attack from various Islamist rebel groups as well as Israeli air strikes aimed at the weapons Iran is shipping through that country to Hezbollah, and with Syria making veiled threats of escalation and Iran urging its neighbors to join in the fray, now is a good time to review the administration’s evolving relationship with these countries. It all began with proper respect for Syria and Iran, of course. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went so far as to laud Syrian dictator Bashar Assad as a “reformer,” and President Barack Obama was so eager for that bound-to-be-constructive dialogue with Iran that he politely ignored a popular uprising that might have succeeded in toppling the troublesome theocracy with a bit of American encouragement. After years of being spurned the administration at last abandoned the courtship with both countries, and adopted a tougher tone in occasional statements which culminated in Obama’s now-infamous “red line” declaration.
“For the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons against its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues,” Obama announced at a news conference, later adding with his best poker face that “I’ve meant what I said.”
Syrian translators probably had some difficulty figuring out what calculus had to do with it, but they had no trouble conveying to Assad the message that Obama had promised to take some sort of action or another if chemical weapons were used against the rebels. With evidence emerging that Assad went ahead and did it anyway, apparently figuring that Obama did not mean what he said, administration officials are now busy explaining why no action is going to be taken. They’re demanding an exceedingly high standard of proof that chemical weapons have been used, and it seems that nothing less than a full confession will suffice, but they’re also anonymously leaking to the press that the president’s remark was “unscripted” and accidentally left out the “nuance” that president was referring to chemical weapons attack that caused mass fatalities. Another aide offers a more fran assessment of administration attitudes, telling the New York Times “How can we attack another country unless it’s in self-defense and with no Security Council resolution. If he drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?” Perhaps such nuances will have a deterrent effect on the likes of Assad, and be similarly frightening to any adversaries that might be tempted to cross declared lines on Taiwan, the Korean peninsula, the U.S. border and elsewhere, but it seems unlikely.
Even without a telepromptered script Obama must have known, as he promised some sort of action or another, that were no good options left in Syria. All of the rebel groups that remain in the fight are Islamist, and although the Obama administration has been happy to assist the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in its takeover of formerly friendly Egypt it does not seem to be eager to replicate that success in still-hostile Syria. Allowing Assad to gas his way to victory is not a good option, either, but it is hard to imagine Obama rousing his himself to another Middle Eastern war, much less the nation or NATO, even with an unlikely Security Council resolution.
The Israelis might handle it, but reports indicate that they aren’t even telling the United States what they’re going to do until they’re doing it. While Syria and Iran were being treated with open-handed appeals for dialogue the Israelies were receiving finger-wagging lectures about housing policy, calls for negotiations starting at the suicidal ’67 borders, and snubs to their Prime Minister, so their reluctance to consult the administration is understandable. Conspiracy theorists will speculate about some covert cooperation, but the overting distancing that both countries are doing with one another sends a message that America cannot deter its friends any more than it can deter its enemies. Like drawing lines that are not intended to be enforced, and the continuing revelations of bungling and duplicity in Benghazi, it makes one wonder if anybody here can play this game.

— Bud Norman