Thursday, August 29, 2013

In which Nicholas Kristof hurls a Hail Mary toward Assad

Unlike several New York Times columnists, Nicholas Kristof usually gets his facts straight.  And in his advocacy over decades for victims of war and rapine, he's developed a signature line of argument: Okay, it may be imprudent/ineffective for the U.S. to intervene militarily. But we can do x, y and z -- a carefully calibrated and coordinated range of diplomatic, economic and sub-military measures -- to pressure a brutal dictator or warlord to stop or reduce the killing. Such has been Kristof's m.o. in columns urging action in Darfur, South Sudan, and I think, a range of other conflict zones.

His advocacy today for a strike on Syria seems uncharacteristically sloppy, a mesh of unargued or thinly argued assumptions: When slaughter in civil war escalates, it's the U.S.'s responsibility to step in. Arming Syrian rebels earlier might have built a more viable or cohesive or moderate opposition and reduced the slaughter.  A punitive strike now may not only deter further chemical weapons deployment but also cause moderate rebels to spring out of Syrian soil like Spartoi.

Kristof does make a case of sorts that a limited strike may deter Assad, who "has carefully calibrated his actions over the last few years, testing the domestic and international response before escalating," from further chemical weapons use.  But the case is thin, divorced from his earlier dutiful recitation of arguments against military action. He does not really engage with the possible unintended consequences laid out by many others, and particularly powerfully by George Packer (albeit in a fictionalized interior voice that may not fully represent his own considered thought):

I think Russia isn’t going to let Assad go down. Neither is Iran or Hezbollah. So they’ll escalate. This could be the thing that triggers an Israel-Iran war, and how do we stay out of that? My God, it feels like August, 1914.
Kristof's what-the-hell-bomb-it-may-help argument climaxes at the close with a big "if":
Look, Syria is going to be a mess, whatever we do. The optimal window to intervene by supporting moderate rebels to achieve a quick end to the war may have closed. But if the coming clash gives us a chance to do more to arm certain rebel groups or share intelligence with them, that would still be worthwhile — all while backing the idea of a negotiated settlement.
Every argument in favor of a strike that I've read relies on such ifs. Perhaps that's inevitable, prior to military action. But the perceived benefits are in every case notably amorphous, while the possible unintended consequences gape like a chasm beneath the advocate's (e.g., Fred Kaplan's) feet.

Perhaps the weakness of such arguments stems from there being no apparent good options. But such situations place a heavier burden on those advocating military action.

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