Nov 17

Earlier this year, the entire world became (rightfully) enraged when an obscure terrorist organization kidnapped approximately three hundred girls because they went to school.

Since we avoid “chasing the news”, we haven’t written about Boko Haram yet. But this story perfectly connects to many of the things we’ve been writing about recently. Without further ado, six (hopefully unique) thoughts:

1. The world is getting safer...because of technology. In other words, Genghis Khan would not like Twitter.

How many women did Genghis Khan and his army rape and kidnap? I’d guess it was over 300. But without a modern media/social media apparatus and travel technology, his crimes went unrevenged by Europe.

I tend to question most assertions about how the modern world is different than the world of the past, specifically generational biases. The exception to this rule is technology, which can create lasting change. And this crisis, like many others, proves that our interconnected world--both through data and travel--makes getting away with dastardly acts of violence much, much harder. The whole world can observe, judge and, eventually, destroy you.

And that’s exactly what happened to Boko Haram. Even ten years ago, this focus and outrage would not have been possible. (Remember the Second Congo War? No seriously, do you remember the civil war in Congo, because no one does despite the deaths of millions.) Boko Haram kidnapped 300 girls and did a pretty good job (with an assist from the Nigerian government) of keeping it quiet. Still the world found out. Then the world turned their attention to their misdeeds and debated how to respond. They even got Americans to care about something that happened in sub-Saharan Africa, a region America often ignores.

At least for a few weeks...

2. Damn, we just cannot keep up with areas of the world where America will go to war.

We’ve been writing about this a lot recently, but how many countries (or stateless terror groups) does America have to fight? In a weird, not really accurate way, we can connect Boko Haram to the Global War on Terror, even though they had nothing to do with 9/11.

But that’s just one incident of at least three this year. Russia invaded Crimea, And then Nigeria became the focus. And when we wrote the first draft of this post, Iraq hadn’t descended into chaos yet again.

So we were going/not going to war in Ukraine, then Nigeria, and now Iraq, in the space of three months, and I haven’t even mentioned the civil war in Syria or Iran’s nuclear program. It feels like a bit much. Does America’s military really have to play a role in each of these conflicts?

3. Does this attention actually help Boko Haram?

At first glance, no. They pissed off America, and America is the boss. The world’s super cop. It’s Superman. I tuned into an episode of PRI’s The World mid-segment discussing Boko Haram, and I heard this:

Marco Werman: Could you argue that this attention could ultimately weaken Boko Haram?

Zeynep Tufekci: The attention within Nigeria and the condemnation could definitely weaken Boko Haram.   

Great, I thought, this focus could take this group down, as I just argued above. But then I heard the next part:

“...could be countered if {Boko Haram] get a new unpopular enemy that they can pretend they're fighting against, or that they can create this 'Oh, look, we're fighting the Great Satan…”

So, ethically, one could make the argument that to save Eastern Ukrainians, innocent Syrians, the Kurds, the Shiites in Iraq, and Nigerian civilians, America’s military must intervene and go to war in Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine and Nigeria…

Except that every time we do, there are unexpected consequences. Like elevating a terror group to the level of “super terrorists”...

4. Or as Marc Lynch puts it, America shouldn’t give this group primacy.

By going after Boko Haram, we’re legitimizing them on the global stage. We’re giving fanatical young Muslims a new, hipper terrorist group to join. (Though ISIS pushed Boko Haram off the stage pretty quickly.)

The best analogy, to explain this process, comes from Marc Lynch. When The Game attacked Jay-Z (the most powerful rapper in the country, or rap’s “hegemonic” power) Lynch counseled Jay-Z to ignore the attacks. At its best, it would give The Game legitimacy and publicity. For the full take, read the original article and its follow ups, but this snippet summarizes the point:

“My basic argument was that Jay-Z handled his hegemonic position by exercising restraint, declining to engage in most provocations in order to avoid being trapped in endless, pointless battles. Jay-Z battling the Game would have risked being dragged down into combating an endless and costly insurgency with little real upside. Better for the hegemon to show restraint, be self-confident, and to carefully nurture a resilient alliance structure to underpin leadership.”

Can you think of any country (**cough** America **cough**) that needs this advice?

6. Not a trend, just a singular data point.

Well, it depends where you are looking. In Nigeria, the kidnapped girls probably do represent an increase in kidnappings and violence. However, finding accurate data is difficult. FiveThirtyEight received a lot of blowback from their article using media reports of kidnappings to chart the rise, because it failed to account for the growth of media in the country.

On a larger level, it is hard to connect this kidnapping to a larger trend of increasing violence in the world or violence against women. I mean, the world now holds global conferences condemning sexual violence in war, and it has even tried a war criminal (unsuccessfully) for allowing rape by his units. This kidnapping doesn’t represent a growing trend, just a single data point.

Nov 13

When the US exchanged five Afghan detainees for U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, the news coverage might have scared you into thinking President Obama made a future terror attack more likely. Senator John McCain called them five “vicious and violent” Taliban who he worries will attack the U.S. again. Dexter Filkins on the New Yorker’s “Political Scene” podcast called them “bad guys”. And Bret Stephens on Fareed Zakaria GPS described them as “five hardened Taliban commanders”.

To all the hand wringers terrified that President Obama released five hardened terrorists who want nothing more than to kill Americans as soon as possible, I ask you this: if I can promise you that these five men will never kill Americans in America, will that make you feel better?

Because I promise, right now, that the five Taliban prisoners will never kill anyone in America.

How can I make such a bold promise when the media has breathlessly repeated rumors and leaks from intelligence officials/Congress persons about these dangerous Taliban? For a couple of reasons…

1. Terrorism is not insurgency. Calling the Taliban prisoners “terrorists” is extremely disingenuous, as we have written about before. And mentioned a dozen times since. When Americans think “terrorism” they think non-state groups attacking civilians--the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, Oklahoma City, 9/11, the London Subway bombings. Only a smaller group--that has included the State Department, the CIA and the DoD--believe that insurgents fighting U.S. forces in their own countries count as terrorists. Doesn’t it seem odd to call an attack on a soldier deployed to a country in the midst of a civil war an act of terrorism?

Beyond semantics, the former Taliban officials released in the Bergdahl deal have very little interest in attacking the U.S. homeland. Al Qaeda conducted 9/11, not the Taliban. Since 9/11--and even after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and propped up a new government--there hasn’t been a single Taliban terror attack on U.S. soil. There hasn’t even been evidence of an attempted attack. The Taliban wants to govern Afghanistan, not attack the U.S.

2. Oh, and for good measure, terrorism is still incredibly rare. The media’s focus on rare and unusual events skews Americans’ perspective on the frequency of terrorism. Looking at the long term trends, I can say with a fair bit of confidence that there won’t be another terror attack on the U.S. just simply because it is so rare in the first place. (And even rarer for Taliban-led terror attacks.) For good measure, check out how many Americans died by gun violence since Bowe Bergdahl was released. The threat to Americans is gun violence, cancer, traffic accidents and other less shocking events.

3. The intelligence on the “terrorists” wasn’t great to begin with. I wrote an entire series on this, but I’ll be blunter with it this time: everyone in America--starting with President Obama and moving down to Joe Six Pack on the street--needs to question the accuracy of U.S. intelligence. U.S. intelligence isn’t peer reviewed, doesn’t use devil’s advocates, and doesn’t correct past mistakes. It often rushes to judgement and is spun to win the PR news cycle. Of course, this is exacerbated by…   

4. The media using “unnamed intelligence sources”. Too many journalists relied on “off the record” intelligence sources to paint the Guantanamo detainees as hardened terrorists. Without having to put their names to it, these same “unnamed sources” could skew the coverage to support their political viewpoints.

And political pressure often distorts the findings, as we’ve discovered multiple times this century.

5. Only one prisoner could be described as a war criminal. As the Afghan Analysts Network has reported, only one of the five has been linked to war crimes and specific violence. The rest were in civilian posts or not controlling ground troops prior to the U.S. invasion. Many also lack terror or insurgent experience, as opposed to government positions. And again, except for one individual, most lack violent histories.

Of course, you could come to this conclusion when the “intelligence” on the five men was poor in the first place. Most of the intelligence was gathered in the invasion by CIA officers without extensive knowledge (yet) of Afghanistan. Most of it contains unsupported assertions, and the Afghan Analysts Network debunked many of the reports. Yet, we never would have seen these reports except for the unauthorized release by Wikileaks. While an outside group debunked the reports very quickly, it never would have happened internally in the intelligence community.

These were five men involved in an insurgency, who weren’t really fighters in the first place, and terrorism is still incredibly rare. Americans have nothing to worry about.

Nov 10

Unlike 2012 and 2013, foreign affairs has dominated the news this year.

First, the world watched the crisis in Crimea, which expanded to the Ukraine as a whole. We’d love to comment more extensively, but--like Syria last year--we’re not experts on Russia so we’re holding off for now.

Next, Eric C was detachedly fascinated with the kidnapping of school girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria. (Detachedly because neither of us breathlessly follow the cable channels, just because they so often get the analysis wrong in the short term. We’d rather read longer articles.) He was fascinated that pundits couldn’t stop talking about Nigeria when it had so little impact on the lives of everyday Americans. Like Iran, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq (now), North Korea, and Egypt in the last few years, as soon as news coverage focused a light on the problem, people in Washington D.C. started discussing intervention.

Earlier this year, Michael C couldn’t stop fielding questions about Bowe Bergdahl. Everyone it seemed, wanted to know, “What do you think?”

At first, his answer was a giant, “Eh.” Most everyone in the military knew/suspected Bergdahl had walked off his base back in 2009. At the same time, Michael C assumed everyone would still want to get Bergdahl back. And no, On Violence was not worried about a Homeland-esque scenario playing out. That’s a fictional television show.

But--as often happens when we both reflect after the fact--some ideas percolated. Like the insistence that the Taliban prisoners released for Bergdahl would become terrorists that would strike the U.S. in the future. Or the idea that the kidnapping in Nigeria represents a growing trend of Islamic militancy. So we stored both events as candidates for "On V’s Most Thought Provoking Event of the Year.

Then Iraq fell apart. (Spoiler alert: that’s our most thought-provoking event of the year. Unless some absolutely devastating catastrophe occurs between now and then.)

When enough news events pack the beginning of a year, sometimes we like to turn them into our, “On Violence Most Thought Provoking Event of the Year So Far”. So this week we have thoughts on Bowe Bergdahl and Boko Haram.

Enjoy.

Nov 06

Usually when we write our updates, we link to the individual articles we are updating. Today, consider all these articles updates to our posts on the statistics of terrorism. By statistics, we mean terrorism’s remarkable rarity in modern life. (And since many of these links are old, we don’t even consider the statistical insignificance of ISIS.)

Putting the Boston Bombing in Perspective

As we wrote back in “Our response to an ‘On the Media’ Question”, terrorism is incredibly rare. (Particularly, check out Chris Hayes’ take.) Due to its rarity, spending large sums of money to stop it makes very, very little economic sense. This Bruce Schneier piece about the Boston Marathon bombings, which re-examines the evidence surrounding the likelihood of terrorism, helps make that case. Even better, Schneier lays out why, from a behavioral and psychological perspective, Americans overreact to rare events like terrorism. (H/T to Andrew Sullivan.) Conor Friederdorf, also at the Atlantic, pleads for similar sanity here.

That won’t stop the main argument that drives terrorism spending, though...

Why Does the Government need to spy on everyone? Because we live in a dangerous world.

This line stuck out to me in an op-ed from last year in the The LA Times by career intelligence analyst Andrew Liepman [bolding mine]:

“But those following the Snowden saga should understand two key points. First, though many things need to be kept secret in today's dangerous world, the line between "secret" and "not secret" is fuzzy rather than stark, and if the goal is security, the harsh truth is that we should often err toward more secrets rather than fewer…”

First, semantically, one can either write “we live in a more dangerous world” or “a less dangerous world”. You can’t write “We live in a dangerous world” because we just live in the world. By writing “dangerous”, he obviously means, “more dangerous than before 9/11”. And as we’ve written about before and will continue to write in the future: this isn’t the case.

The world is safer than it has ever been, and continues to get safer. If you’re going to argue that we need to keep more secrets, not less, you need to prove that the world is more dangerous.

Holy Crap! A Bag!

The guys at Decision Science News tear apart an ad about suspicious bags. Turns out, most abandoned bags (by most, I mean all but around 0.000008% of bags) aren’t dangerous.

This is another example of bad use of language. The ad says “probably” but no sane definition of “probably” means less than 50%, especially not 0.000008%.

Nuclear Terrorism is Unlikely Too

Georgetown University political scientist Keir A. Lieber and Dartmouth College political scientist Daryl G. Press make the case that nuclear terrorism is particularly unlikely, in a paper shared by the Monkey Cage. In short, states are extremely unlikely to give them to non-state actors, read terrorists.

Stopping Every Single Attack Forever

Researching the Boston Bombings, I came across this Wall Street Journal op-ed by Paul Campos describing a hypothetical basketball game against Lebron James, where he would win if he scored a single basket. If the game could go on forever, he would always have a chance to win. So goes terrorism, which explains the Sisyphean task the intelligence, national security and political leaders of our country have embarked when they say the U.S. can, could or should stop every terror attack.

Sep 15

You might have two thoughts after reading the title to this post. First, if you’re a truly dedicated On V disciple, you might be thinking, “Didn’t you already debunk this word three years ago in "Getting Orwellian: Contractors, Mercenaries, Private Security and Terrorists’?” Second, you might be thinking, “What’s wrong with the word ‘terrorist’?”   

To the first question, I (Eric C) didn’t remember writing about it. And that post was about the American media applying the word “terrorist” to every combatant in an active war zone. (In short, a soldier/insurgent probably isn’t a terrorist in an active war zone. Especially a civil war.)

To the second question, there’s nothing wrong with using the word “terrorist”, if you’re describing the actions of terrorists. A terrorist is someone who uses extreme acts of violence to achieve political, religious or ideological goals, usually targeting civilians. It’s someone who, outside of warzones, engages in ideological violence. Simple, right?

Except, in a two week span, I saw three anti-democratic world leaders use the word “terrorist” to delegitimize legitimate political opponents.

First, Egypt:

“Egypt is set to put 20 journalists, including four foreigners, on trial Thursday on terror-related charges in a case with ominous implications for freedom of expression under the military-backed interim government.”

The interim cabinet in Egypt labeled journalists--who weren’t using violence--as terrorists. Is the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization? I mean, yes, at times. They were also the ruling government of Egypt before a military coup, which throws the whole thing on it’s head. I mean, a government wouldn’t use terrorism against itself, right? What would that even look like?

Next up, Ukraine:

On January 22nd protesters hungry for action and tired of empty talk from both the government and the opposition clashed with the police, lobbing Molotov cocktails...Russian state television portrayed the protesters as Western-sponsored radicals and terrorists…

“... Sergei Glazyev, an adviser to Mr Putin on Ukraine, openly called on Mr Yanukovych to use force against “terrorists” to prevent chaos.

Again, anti-government protesters, some of which were violent, were labelled as terrorists, both by the Kremlin and eventually by the ousted president. But the vast majority of the protesters were peaceful. And ethnic Russians, protesting Kiev, eventually used violence themselves. Why didn’t Russia label them as terrorists?

Finally, Syria. As CBS wrote it up in their interview with Bashar al Assad, “Instead of civil war, Assad said, Syria is facing ‘terrorism through proxies,’ referring to foreign backing of the rebellion against his regime.” And that’s completely wrong--wait, no, that may be completely accurate. Islamic extremists associated with terror groups are fighting in Syria. And many of them are backed by Saudi Arabian donors. Then again, some fighters opposing Assad are legitimate freedom fighters engaged in a civil war.

(The amazing thing about the rise of ISIS is how so many of the things we thought we knew about the world since 9/11 had to be reversed. If America had intervened against Assad, we’d have been fighting alongside Sunni extremists (terrorists) who saw fit in the last few weeks to chop off the heads of journalists held hostage. Also, when does a terrorist group become a nation state? Do nation states count as terror groups?)

What matters isn’t that world leaders have misused the word “terrorist”; it’s why. Like every other Kanye album, 9/11 changed the game. Terrorism became America’s first concern, especially internationally. Because America cared so much, and because we hold so much sway, terrorism--instead of larger, economic global progress--became the number one concern of the rest of the world as well. We made it matter.

And now that word is being used against us. We only have ourselves to blame.

May 27

No, the title isn’t a reference to an unwritten Robert Ludlum novel, though, in fairness, every thing in the world would be better if they had Ludlum-esque titles. Instead, I want to talk about why--with the passage of time--the U.S. shouldn’t have attacked Syria last fall.

To do so, I will delve into a topic I briefly mentioned two years ago with Iran: decision trees. As a historian, I was trained to think of the world in a fairly deterministic way. Take X cause, link it to Y effect. Treat it like a forgone conclusion that because X existed, Y would have occurred. The media loves to use this type of logic. (For example, why did crime go down? Abortion. Or stop and frisk. Or fill-in-the-blank-subject-of-news-report.)

One of my primary missions/goals with my series on Iran two years ago was to describe all the various options Iran could use when responding to an American or Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. At business school, I learned to go against my historical training and think probabilistically. Though many of the options at Iran’s disposal had a low probability of success, they were still a probability. Ask anyone who’s played Risk: roll the dice enough times, and you are bound to hit a low probability event.

So when it came to Syria, last fall, I went through the same exercise. In short, while the U.S. likely would have emerged unscathed, in some cases, the war could have spiraled out of control. Those “spiraling out of control” events are why in hindsight we can be glad we didn’t start a war that Americans don’t care about now.

Here are the viable options I foresaw. For “viable”, I mean any situation with above a 1% possibility of occurring.

1. The most likely outcome. Playing the odds, if the U.S. had launched cruise missiles at Syria, it most likely wouldn’t have lost any soldiers. In most cases, the U.S. and its allies would emerge unscathed from military action. This is why Secretary of State John Kerry went to Congress and testified that this wasn’t war. He meant that the U.S. wouldn’t experience significant casualties. In most cases, he would be right. I’m honest about that.

What are the odds that this strategy would have disarmed or dethroned Bashad? We don’t know. But we do know that the strategy America did take--not intervening--achieved the same goals, without American involvement.

2. Syria attacks Israel in retaliation. Simply put, Syria has the ability to attack Israel. If the U.S. military campaign threatened the regime too much, Syrian leader Bashar al Assad could easily find it in his interest to attempt to deter the U.S. by firing missiles or using terrorist proxies to target Israel. Israel, then, could find itself beset by terrorist enemies.

3. Israel attacks Iran. I saw two ways this could’ve happened. In the above case, where Syria attacks Israel, in the fog of war—in this case an accurate description of the events—Israeli intelligence could rightfully or mistakenly believe that Iran had prompted the terror attacks on its territory.

Or--and this doesn’t require too huge a leap--Israel could decide to adopt the oft repeated maxim to “never let a good war go to waste”. (I won’t cite a source because that quote is in most cases a quote behaving badly.) Israel’s primary foreign policy aim for the last twenty years has been to maintain its position as sole nuclear power in the Middle East, which means preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Thus, as the U.S. started firing missiles at Syria, Israel could suddenly launch attacks at Iran to bomb their nuclear facilities. They could also do this if they accused Iran of sponsoring terror attacks against it.

Then, President Obama would have a legitimate problem as Iran could attack U.S. warships in the Persian/Arab gulf in response. Or they could not, but the U.S. could have to finish off Iranian nuclear facilities if Israeli war planes failed to complete the job.

4. The U.S. has to put troops on the ground. This is the least likely possibility, but still more realistic than 1%. If the U.S. lost a warplane, as it did during the war in Libya, it would have to send in ground troops. Those troops could be attacked, or worse. Or it could have to send in U.S. troops to secure chemical weapons. Either way, the U.S. could quickly see its commitment escalating.

Add up the probabilities and an “escalation scenario” is unlikely. It requires Syria attacking Israel in response to U.S. attacks, or Israel blaming Iran and counter-attacking (or simply deciding to attack Iran anyways) and Iran attacking the U.S. in response. In total, that’s an unlikely chain of events, in that more times than not, it doesn’t occur.

But there is that chance. I pegged it at about 2% at the time. If 2% doesn’t seem high, try to remember the first World War. Adding up all the factors required for that war to spin out of control, it was probably about a 2% chance that World War I started. But boy oh boy did that 2% have a huge impact on Europe.

And that 2% is why I opposed the war in Syria and will oppose most wars of choice in the future.

May 20

Here’s a rough outline of my foreign policy beliefs:

- The U.S. spends too much on defense. (I’d link to an On V post, but I couldn’t choose just one; we’ve written dozens on this topic.)

- Conversely, it spends way too little on diplomacy. The U.S. should increase the number of diplomats--and their overall quality--around the globe, focusing on better language skills.

- The U.S. government should also sign on to a host of international treaties to date it has not yet agreed to, including the International Criminal Court, the ban on cluster munitions, and the ban on land-mines (and support the efforts to classify white phosphorous as a chemical munition), along with too many environmental treaties to name.

That’s just for starters and it’s an incredible expansion of the U.S. position globally. I will take this internationalism even further:

- I believe the U.S. should begin donating (for free) U.S. troops to U.N. peacekeeping operations. That’s right. Take the current missions staffed by Brazil, Pakistan and other countries, and bolster them with U.S. brigades on two year deployments. The U.S. military would get peacekeeping training; the U.N. missions would get increased visibility, technology and support.

- I believe America--as soon as we emerge from the current financial crisis--should spearhead an effort for a “Global Marshall Plan” to support the U.N. Millenium Development goals to eradicate global poverty. This would significantly increase U.S. spending on foreign aid by tens of billions.

- I also think the U.S. government should encourage private individuals to donate even more of their wealth to charities working outside our borders.

To cap off these extraordinarily international and involved efforts:

- I believe the U.S. government should try to renew diplomatic relationships with Iran to decrease the likelihood of war. At the same time, the U.S. should signal to the world that it will slowly stop supporting vicious dictatorships, including American allies like Saudi Arabia and the rest of the gulf states.

Despite believing all of these things, according to Secretary of State John Kerry and Sebastian Junger, I’m an isolationist...because I didn’t want the U.S. to start a war with Syria.   

As you probably read last year, I opposed U.S. missile strikes in Syria. I opposed them because I didn’t think they were about the use of chemical weapons, but instead about the ongoing civil war in Syria. This, according to Sebastian Junger in his op-ed, “When the Best Chance for Peace means War” in The Washington Post, makes me an “isolationist” (emphasis mine):

And yet there’s been little evidence of that sentiment in American opposition to missile strikes against military targets in Syria. Even after 1,400 Syrian civilians, including 400 children, were killed in a nerve gas attack that was in all likelihood carried out by government forces, the prospect of American military intervention has been met with a combination of short-sighted isolationism and reflex pacifism — though I cannot think of any moral definition of “antiwar” that includes simply ignoring the slaughter of civilians overseas.

I understand Sebastian Junger’s larger point, but, like most fruitless debates, each side on the Syria issue talked past each other. I didn’t and don’t deny the slaughter of innocents in Syria. Then, as now, though, I don’t want the U.S. embroiled in a civil war when I simply don’t trust our military to actually slow or ebb the bloodshed. I also want to know why this civil war--as opposed to the one in Sri Lanka that went through 2008, the ongoing violence in and around the Central African Republic, or the burgeoning conflict in South Sudan--requires our intervention, and most importantly moral outrage, when those did not. (And I could have listed a dozen or more additional conflicts for which Sebastian Junger lacks similar moral indignation.)

But what outraged me most was both John Kerry and Sebastian Junger’s casual use of “isolationism” during the attempted run up to war in Syria. They weren’t alone. Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post used the label. So did Bill Keller in the New York Times. So did countless others.     

Isolationism is a real term. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was a genuine political movement supported by Republican politicians. Now it has been bastardized to label anyone who doesn’t want to start another war in the Middle East. Like myself.

Most learned people on foreign policy hold complicated views and simple reductionism don’t do them any justice. For example, I don’t want a militarily-interventionist foreign policy, but I do want a robustly democracy-promoting, free-trade-encouraging, internationally-focused interventionist foreign policy. The difference is I want to intervene before conflicts erupt, not after.

When pro-Syrian interventionists like Junger, Rubin and others label Americans who oppose the strikes in Syria as abject isolationists or naive pacifists, they are abusing those terms and smearing their opponents. If the anti-isolationists really want more peace in the world, they should find the policies that encourage peace in the long run. Unfortunately, military power doesn’t create peace; economic growth, international institutions, international laws, international norms, the spread of democracy, the spread of trade and other parts of foreign policy liberalism create peace.

And to support those policies requires more involvement in the world, not less. Which is why I’m not an isolationist; just someone who rejects unnecessary wars.

May 15

Last fall, Eric C and I were so worried about a possible new war with Syria--specifically, an authorization of force vote by Congress--that we violated one of our core rules and “chased the news”. We posted a few articles opposing the war and analyzing the media coverage, and wrote an open letter to our representatives in Congress recommending that they didn’t start a new war in the Middle East.

And the U.S. didn’t go to war. Media coverage moved past Syria and on to better, newer, brighter news stories, like a Malaysian airplane crash, the government shutdown of 2013 (Glad we weren’t fighting a war during that!), Obamacare’s failure (then not failure), and another foreign policy crisis in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria continues on...and Syria has actually destroyed some of their chemical weapon stockpiles.

Sigh.

Syria, another war that wasn’t.

At the time, President Obama’s failure to intervene symbolized his lack of leadership, the ascendence of Russia, the failure of Americans to protect the innocent, and the decline of American power and global leadership...all in one small crisis. If you had turned on Fox News, CNN or even The Daily Show, you would have seen coverage bemoaning President Obama deciding not to start another war. You would have heard countless pundits warning that America’s security had never been more at risk than the present.

Does any of that seem weird, in hindsight? I mean, eight months on and Syria hasn’t made the news for weeks. (Unless you watch PBS or read The Economist cover to cover.) At the time--and for the record, the conflict in Syria hasn’t stopped--Syria seemed like the most important news story ever. I mean, thousands died in a chemical gas attack.

Americans have a billionaire racist to obsess over now.

There is an important takeaway in this episode: The media hyper-charges foreign policy crises with its 24/7 coverage. In the weeks during a crisis, the U.S. over-analyzes and tears apart the President’s every decision. In hindsight, it’s hard to remember why every crisis seemed so dire.

This wasn’t the first time--or second time--we got duped into opposing a war that never happened. Two years ago, we wrote a whole series on war with Iran--we’re still proud of that work, by the way--that never happened. Last year, we wrote a series on “The War that Wasn’t”, about North Korea and that war that never happened. At various points this year and last, war with Iran seemed inevitable, and now we have talk of intervening in the Ukraine. (Maybe Nigeria?) But all of these “wars” eventually fall by the wayside.

This week and next we plan to run some posts we wrote last year related to Syria. With the Ukraine figuratively “blowing up” in the mean time, we plan to lump in the whole host of avoided wars during the Obama presidency into one chunk. In hindsight, we hope to offer what most of the media fails to in a bid to grab page counts: thoughtful, reflective analysis on a series of crises.