A Menu of Bad Options, and the Folly of Worrying About “Looking Weak”

In trying to sort out my own views on the Syria situation, I ran across this post from Paul Waldman at TAP, and am happy to report that he says it all better than I can:

I’m paid to have opinions, and I can’t figure out what my opinion is. On one hand, Bashar Assad is a mass murderer who, it seems plain, would be happy to kill half the population of his country if it would keep him in power. On the other hand, if he was taken out in a strike tomorrow the result would probably be a whole new civil war, this time not between the government and rebels but among competing rebel groups. On one hand, there’s value in enforcing international norms against certain kinds of despicable war crimes; on the other hand, Assad killed 100,000 Syrians quite adequately with guns and bombs before everybody got really mad about the 1,400 he killed with poison gas. On one hand, a round of missile strikes isn’t going to have much beyond a symbolic effect without changing the outcome of the civil war; on the other hand, the last thing we want is to get into another protracted engagement like Iraq.

In short, we’re confronted with nothing but bad options, and anyone who thinks there’s an unambiguously right course of action is a fool. So it’s a lot easier to talk about the politics.

Yes it is, and I plead guilty to Waldman’s accusation that many gabbers and scribblers have sighed with relief at the drift of the “Syria” story into one about domestic politics, where we all have our perspectives on the dynamics and the major players. But unfortunately, as the Syrian nightmare gets translated into the language of domestic politics, some bad old habits re-emerge, as I’ve been warning and as Waldman argues more clearly:

Can we please stop caring whether Obama “looks weak”? You know who spent a lot of time worrying about whether he looked weak, and made sure he never did? George W. Bush. Everybody lauded his “moral clarity,” his ability to see things in black and white, good guys and bad guys, smoke ’em out, dead or alive. And look where that got us.

Yes, the president’s and the country’s credibility and predictability are tangible diplomatic assets that need to be protected. But when “strength” is invariably defined as a matter of using lethal force, the means to protecting America’s authority quickly overcome and sometimes obliterate the ends.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.