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Two Quick Reactions on the Suspected Chemical Attack in Syria

I almost titled this post on the suspected/alleged chemical attack in Syria the “On The Media Quick Reactions Edition”. Both of my thoughts today will deal more with narratives in the media than the politics or policies involved. And in some cases, they drive each other.

Take my first point: I will keep calling this a suspected attack. News coming out of Syria is very, very unreliable. It isn’t for lack of trying by great journalists on the ground, but because it is an active and chaotic warzone. It will not shock me if our narrative on the event changes in six weeks, but by then it will be on page 12 of the newspaper (if you get one) or not covered at all on the front page of major websites. And if the narrative does change, it will be too late to change the political conversation in turn.

How else has the narrative affected policy?

Quick Thought 1: Only two options? Come on!

I hate “dilemmas”. I always have. Writing early on about Marcus Luttrell, I described his book, Lone Survivor, as a 300 page ethical dilemma. This was a trend I had noticed when writing about “rules of engagement”. My counterparts in the ROE debates often relied on dilemmas to show the problems with rules of engagement. (Look at this NPR article for how this affects mainstream outlets as well.)   

The real world is hardly ever just black and white. But we really want it that way. Quoting myself from the Luttrell article above:

I'm not surprised Luttrell only saw two options, human nature loves duality: prosecution or defense, Republicans or Democrats, pro-life or pro-choice, pro-guns or gun control, war hawk or dove, for or against with no middle ground. Marcus Luttrell describes his situation in dualist terms: kill or be killed. Military ethical dilemmas often fall into this trap: the ticking time bomb, children throwing rocks, or civilians acting as spotters are ethical dilemmas that are invariably presented with only two solutions.

The media enables Trump’s thinking in Syria (and limits our options) by implying Trump faces a dilemma in Syria. Josh Barro on this week’s “Left, Right and Center” summarized the issue by saying--I’m paraphrasing--that Trump wants to withdraw from what he sees as an endless war (Trump’s right) though it would risk allowing ISIS to return (Barro’s right on this). Since both options are bad, in Syria, we only have two bad options, or a dilemma.

It’s not a dilemma though. Even in the military sphere, we have more than two options. We could increase the number of troops or decrease the number of troops. We could launch some, none or tons of missiles and bombs. We could invade. That’s a range of options.

But that’s not the point. It isn’t about the military alone. What if Donald Trump proposed an escalation. But not a military escalation... a diplomatic escalation! Yes, in this scenario he would call not just a meeting of the Security Council, but an immediate summit of interested stakeholders and discuss bringing in UN peacekeepers to Syria and/or other options for Syria. Yes, Russia would oppose this, but the talks could still happen. Basically, Trump has the option, in addition to Barro’s two military options above, to try to solve the problem diplomatically. I haven’t really seen the diplomatic options explored by the executive branch or by the media when discussing the situation in Syria as wholeheartedly as they need to be.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s say Trump really wanted to get all the regional stakeholders like Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Iran and Iraq to the bargaining table. What if he offered an additional $50 billion over the next five years in refugee aid and resettlement funds, with the goal to have the EU and China each match the donation? Most of the international problems in Syria stem from the refugees, and America has done too little to ease this humanitarian crisis. Trying to solve the Syria problem with development aid is another tool (a fourth option!) that isn't mentioned by the media when Syria comes up. As a result, the politicians don’t mention it either.

Basically, I proposed two new tools that not a single news article or pundit has mentioned. I bet the smart people in government could brainstorm dozens more. Instead they focus on the bombs or troops, or lack thereof. We can be more creative than this. (Of course, you may say Congress would never fund my two new options. Good point! See next section.)

Quick Thought 2: Syria is Mitch McConnell’s fault

Imagine you opened up the Daily 202 from the Washington Post, the way I did this morning, and instead of seeing the discussion center only around President Trump, it’s first headline said, “Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan’s mistakes in Syria are still hurting the United States.”

Would that change how House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Marjority Leader Mitch McConnell act? I mean, if every newspaper in the country blamed them for Syria, would they try to do something?

I have to think so, but that isn’t the world we live in. Instead, we live in a world where the current President and maybe his predecessor share 100% responsibility for everything that does or fails to happen in the world. President Obama, when confronted with Syrian use of chemical weapons, rightly knew that any action he took would be criticized by Congressional Republicans. That’s all they ever did no matter what he did.

So President Obama said enough. As a Constitutional scholar, he knows that Congress actually controls the ability to declare war, so he asked for Congressional approval. He didn’t want Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to be able to sit back and criticize whatever he did if they didn’t have the decency to take a stand themselves. (They criticized him for Libya endlessly, and never voted on that either.)

Ryan and McConnell (and I blame McConnell more) almost never worked with President Obama on virtually anything. McConnell viewed giving President Obama a win as more detrimental than any given policy issue. Even on issues where they agreed, McConnell viewed winning elections as more important than making the world a better place.

So they never took a vote on Syria.

So when someone writes that this is Obama’s fault for his redline, just know that Ryan and McConnell had the opportunity to work with Obama to craft an authorization for war (with funding tied it) and refused to do it. They own the blame for this failure.