Maureen Howard has this excellent discussion of the Syrian dilemma on her fine blog, “Whatever Works”.

Whatever Works

(George Packer has a chat.)

UPDATE : Dearest readers, as much as I’d like to lay claim to the words that follow, I cannot. They aren’t mine. The ‘dialogue’ here is from George Packer at The New Yorker, but reading now through your comments, it looks like I didn’t make that clear. The link above to is to his column. Packer begins:

“So it looks like we’re going to bomb Assad.


Really? Why good?

Did you see the videos of those kids? I heard that ten thousand people were gassed. Hundreds of them died. This time, we have to do something.

Yes, I saw the videos.
And you don’t want to pound the shit out of him?I want to pound the shit out of him.But you think we shouldn’t do anything.

I didn’t say that. But I want you to explain what we’re going to achieve by bombing.

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About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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18 Responses to Exactly.

  1. ansonburlingame says:


    I paste a reply sent to my classmates, regarding Syria today, and deterrence tomorrow. Is deterrence, as a concept, now crumbling??

    “Ken and others,

    First none of us, except perhaps Fred V, with 35 years in the foreign service are experts on foreign policy. But through some reading, study, thought and perhaps a little experience we can voice reasonable views, which certainly you do below, focused on just Syria, in this particular event in the present day.

    But step back if possible and consider the idea of deterrence related to Iraq in the late 1980’s and now Syria today as prime examples and who knows in the future. Some press reports have been revealing that we, America, in fact HELPED Iraq produce chemical weapons, during its war with Iran. Other press reports today indicate the components of the chemical weapons recently used in Syria originated in both Russia and Iran.

    Then consider the “what if” a “small nuke”, say a suitcase bomb, exploded in a relatively small city in America, say Kansas City and we traced the materials in that bomb back to ……… But Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for putting the bomb in place. What next?

    Deterrence as a matter of national policy worked to prevent a huge war for 50 years, between the Soviet Union and America. Is deterrence as a matter of policy now crumbling, with proliferation, technology, etc.?

    I don’t know for sure, but I sure am thinking about it. Just as I thought about deterrence and what I would do, on board an SSBN armed with ………

    Obviously I think SPEAKING of a “red line” but doing little or nothing once it is crossed is wrong. But I also believe that in today’s world America cannot, indeed, be the world’s cop.

    But if the NCA decides to retaliate against Syria, then retaliate to make a difference. I am thinking along the line of “shock and awe” before the troops hit the ground in Iraq in 2003. Don’t just launch a few cruise missiles to “pin prick” Syria to “show resolve”. In my view such actions would only show lack of resolve to uphold the concept of deterrence.”



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Anson, you said,

      But if the NCA decides to retaliate against Syria, then retaliate to make a difference. I am thinking along the line of “shock and awe” before the troops hit the ground in Iraq in 2003. Don’t just launch a few cruise missiles to “pin prick” Syria to “show resolve”. In my view such actions would only show lack of resolve to uphold the concept of deterrence.”

      I can understand the need to ” . . . make a difference . . . “, but therein lies the problem. What outcome do you want to promote? Who in this horrible conflict do you want to win, and if they do, what agenda will they then pursue? Seems to me that intervention will do precisely nothing to deter future terrorist attacks against us. In fact, just by intervening we would be accepting responsibility for outcomes that all sides will hate or resent.


  2. Jeff says:

    For me the fundamental problem here is a different kind of credibility. It is not a matter of people believing we will use force when we say we will use force. That to me is a much smaller issue. The credibility that we lack concerns *why* we use that force more than *whether*. I recently re-watched Naomi Klein’s coverage of Iraq in the 2005-2006 time frame and it is still as shocking today as it was back then.

    I like to think of the Iraq war as actually, two Iraq wars: Shock and Awe and Enduring Freedom. In the Shock and Awe Iraq war there were under 200 Allied casualties and under 30,000 Iraqi casualties, whereas under the Enduring Freedom Iraq war there were over 4000 allied casualties and close to a million Iraqi deaths. My point is that it is quite possible to be for the first Iraq war and against the second one, but the problem is that we don’t know if it is possible to get one without the other given today’s military.

    Please don’t misconstrue anything I am saying here as being about low-level soldiers. I am heavily in favor of GI programs. I am against Haliburton and Bechtel and in general war for profit.

    Another interesting source of context on this has been provided by John Perkins.


  3. ansonburlingame says:


    My position about “what to do about Syria” TODAY has been consistent. I think we should let the Syrians decide what to do with themselves. Yes external actors are in play, but all the play has been contained within Syria so far. I felt that way months ago and still do, today.

    Will’s column in Thursday’s Globe was pretty good, in my view. We have now “talked our way” into a crisis. Put up or shut up has now been laid down as a gauntlet of sorts. My position remains “shut up”, don’t talk about any sticks, but keep them well oiled and ready for use at any time, of OUR choosing and places, not “theirs”. NEVER us military power simply to save “face”.

    BUT, if we now must respond with military power, do it with enough force to really make a difference. Thus “shock and awe” from the air only, but with the “hint” of more to follow if chemical weapons are continued to be used by anyone, in Syria. Incidentally, do YOU (or anyone else) know WHO really ordered the use of chemical weapons this time around?

    Remember your support for “lily pads” a year or so ago.

    But of course the pasted email above was not specifically over Syria, right now. It addressed the larger concern over deterrence as a matter of effective foreign policy.

    Boil it down, today, to “If deterrence no longer works, what can we put in place that will work”.

    Try that as a topic for a Presidential debate!!!

    More directly to you and your readers, perhaps is “does deterrence still work to prevent the use of WMD, anywhere, anytime?” My answer now is “probably not”.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Anson, you said,

      I think we should let the Syrians decide what to do with themselves. Yes external actors are in play, but all the play has been contained within Syria so far. I felt that way months ago and still do, today.

      I am compelled to point out that it hasn’t been contained, it has spread all over the Middle East. To escape the violence, approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees have fled the country to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, while thousands also have ended up in more distant countries of the Caucasus, the Persian Gulf and North Africa. These people aren’t dying of poison gas but they are suffering nevertheless and they are straining the resources of those countries in an unsustainable way. For people like George Will to paint the dilemma as simplistic as a red-line dare is to demagogue the issue. But then, Mr. Will is consistent too. He left rational discourse behind several years ago. IMO.


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Also, the Syrian rebels are being supplied by all manner of countries. Both Iran and Iraq (W’s shining product) are involved, as is Hezbollah. And then there’s the Russian supply of Assad. Some containment!


      • ansonburlingame says:

        Containment, Jim, is not letting borders expand. It has little or nothing to do with preventing things from going IN to countries. That is called blockade, or embargo, the last time I checked. Want to try to blockade or embargo Syria? Good luck!



        • Jim Wheeler says:

          Containment, Jim, is not letting borders expand. It has little or nothing to do with preventing things from going IN to countries.

          I disagree, Anson. To me, containment means keeping the war from having more participants. As far as I’m concerned, when serious weapons are contributed to the fray, as in surface-to-air missiles from Russia or Hezbollah, that’s a war-like act and the opposite of containment. Tell you what, you take your definition and I’ll take mine.


  4. ansonburlingame says:

    Of course I am aware of such information Jim. But as well I do not believe that America should go to war simply for “humanitarian” reasons. The acutal conduct of combat has not crossed any borders and unless such happens, well let Syrians deal with their own mess.

    Want to help refugees, then pass a bill to spend the money to do so, humanitarian aid in huge proportions.

    As for external actors spending their money for one cause or another, well should we get into a spending race with Russia, Saudi Arabia, etc. given our current domestic spending concerns. Try passing that one in Congress.

    Remember, military power should only be used to force, violently, a political decision in our, American, best interests. No one likes humanitarian disasters for sure. But few like war, either. Look what we have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan in the very modern age. We learned similar lessons in Vietnam and Korea as well, did we not?

    Finally, the old War Powers issue is once again before us is it not. Should Congress approve the use of American military power, of any sort, in Syria today? I don’t mean sending in a “sneaky hit squad” either. I mean warships at sea publicly, on TV shooting a missile barrage at Syria. Is that war or simply “executive actions”? Have we learned a little about that particular argument over the last say 20 years???



    • Jeff says:

      “But as well I do not believe that America should go to war simply for “humanitarian” reasons.”

      I personally am not against the general concept of going to war simply for humanitarian reasons. I am firmly against America going to war for humanitarian reasons for the simple reason that our military hides things from us and lies to us on a regular basis. Without a basis of mutual trust, you cannot work together for a positive good.

      Maybe this is a place where the right and the left can meet in the middle?


  5. ansonburlingame says:


    Consider this “test” of what you wrote. Suppose Hitler had NOT invaded Poland, prompting the declaration of war by Britain, France, etc. He ONLY had started slaughtering Jews living in Germany. Would Britain, France, and ultimately America have declared war against Nazi Germany for that reason alone? I serioulsy doubt it.

    I also recall reading the Gulag Archipeligo (all two or three volumns) during the Cold War. What was it, some 20 million citizens slaughtered. And in Mao’s China I recall the number was 50 Million.

    100,000 dead in Syria today and a few million refugees does not compare to historical human indignities perpetrated by “enemies”. Yet we have “war talk” today over such matters.



    • Moe says:

      Hi Anson – I of course must comment here since this post comes originally from my place (actually from the New Yorker): you mention Hitler, so by the rules of the blogsphere, sorry to say but you lose. That’s the rule. 🙂


  6. ansonburlingame says:

    “rules of the blogsphere”??

    I have no idea about which you write, Moe. The only word banished, at least of a sort, is the N….. word, that I know of. Is Hitler now off limits as a matter of political correctness? I certainly did not refer to anyone as acting like Hitler today?



    • Moe says:

      Hey anson – sorry, this is just a lighthearted ‘rule’ of the blogsphere which I assumed, wrongly, that everyone had run into by now. It’s a bit tongue in cheek and it’s called “Godwin’s Law”. Here’s the history and explanation from Wikipedia:

      Godwin’s law (also known as Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies or Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies[1][2]) is an assertion made by Mike Godwin in 1990[2] that has become an Internet adage. It states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”[2][3] In other words, Godwin said that, given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope—someone inevitably makes a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis.

      Although in one of its early forms Godwin’s law referred specifically to Usenet newsgroup discussions,[4] the law is now often applied to any threaded online discussion, such as forums, chat rooms and blog comment threads, and has been invoked for the inappropriate use of Nazi analogies in articles or speeches.[5] The law is sometimes invoked, as a rule, to mark the end of a discussion when a Nazi analogy is made, with the writer who made the analogy being considered to have lost the argument.

      In 2012, “Godwin’s Law” became an entry in the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.[6]


  7. ansonburlingame says:

    Com’on Moe,

    In the EC blog I recently said that I would prefer leadership of Churchhill vs. Chamberlain, picking of course Churchhill. Is that against the “rules”? In my own blog I compare the Middle East today to the European wars related to the Reformation. Is that against the “rules”?

    Again, in my own blog, I have noted how we successfully put democratic governments in place in Germany and Japan after WWII through a “peaceful occupation” instead of trying to simply put Germans and Japanese “back on bicycles”. Is that against the “rules”?

    In this blog, I only pointed out where we probably would never have gone to war for humanitarian reasons in the 1940’s and related that observation to the current issues in Syria. You claim that as well is against some “rules” and thus I lost!!

    Bottom line, Moe, winning and losing in blogs rarely happens, ever. Points and counter points are made, debated and we all then move to the next topic. If Nazi aggression cannot be used as a historical reference in such debates, then what other “history” might next become against the “rules”, I wonder? At least Hitler did not crucify anyone that I recall. Not enough trees to do so is my guess considering the numbers involved in the modern world!!! So does Rome become a “rule” violation?



    • Moe says:

      Anson! Godwin’s law isn’t a real ‘rule’. It just something of a joke that developed over the years among some early bloggers.

      Please don’t take it either seriously or as a criticism of you. Comparisons to historical figures – Hitler included – are frequently very appropriate.

      I was trying to make a funny 🙂


  8. ansonburlingame says:

    Sorry Moe,

    I am so used to critical rebuttals here and in the EC blog that I can’t see humor, perhaps, as I normally would see it. I in fact took your comment seriously and thus……..


    It is lke the joke my minister told in church today. An old man on his front porch was being evangelized by some protestant faith. He told them “I’ve been a Bapist all my life and damned if I will now become a Christian”!!!



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