Syria: There's no need to be logical or consistent

Michael Kinsley is a Syria hypocrite. You should be, too.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com

Logical consistency is undervalued in Washington. It’s really a form of intellectual honesty. I’ve never understood F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It seems to me that if your words contradict your actions—or if they contradict other words you’ve spoken—then you haven’t thought it through, or you’re too cynical to care. (If your words contradict the facts, that’s simple dishonesty, or ignorance. Lying is not nice either, but it lacks the insidious character of intellectual dishonesty, which can be factually true and yet essentially false.)

For example, when George W. Bush started running up huge annual deficits (after Bill Clinton achieved Ronald Reagan’s alleged goal of balancing the budget), many Republicans—notably Vice President Dick Cheney—started saying that deficits don’t matter.

Ordinarily, I'm a big fan of logical consistency in government policies. Sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. It should not depend on whose ox is gored (to mix my animal metaphors). But when it comes to these repeated exercises in short-term, or would-be short-term, military intervention that seem to be the dominant U.S. military activity of the 21st century, the quest for logical consistency (I reluctantly conclude) can be unhelpful.

Maybe honesty and consistency are overrated, at least in foreign affairs. Maybe hypocrisy isn't the worst thing in the world. I don't mean the everyday hypocrisy of diplomats (yes, yes, in the famous definition: sent abroad to lie for their country). I mean in the most important decisions nations—good, well-meaning nations, like the United States—make about when to (let's be blunt) start killing a lot of people.

If we bombed Libya because a cruel dictator was murdering large numbers of his own people, how can we justify sitting on our hands while the same thing is going on in Syria? What’s the difference? Well, you can turn that same question around: Why should we do anything about Syria when we sat on our hands during the massacre in Rwanda? This argument goes back at least to World War II and the controversy about bombing the Nazi death camps.

To be sure, every situation is different. Some of these differences are strategic or military. Some may result from deep reflection on the moral issues. But many of these differences are historical accidents. They have nothing to do with strategic or moral issues. How is the president’s standing in the polls? How soon is the next U.S. election? Was the most recent previous intervention successful? What else is on the political agenda? What did the president have for dinner last night? How strong is the economy? What’s the unemployment rate? What does the president’s spouse think? This is another good reason why President Barack Obama was right to demand backing from Congress before acting.

It’s not logically inconsistent to allow moral or military considerations to affect your view about whether to intervene in Syria. But it is logically inconsistent to allow unrelated factors to affect that decision. However, all decisions like this are affected by unrelated factors.

The laws of war themselves are logically inconsistent. Syria has broken the anathema on use of chemical weapons that survived every conflict (with a few relatively small exceptions) since World War I. Conventional weapons have killed far more Syrians than chemical weapons, just as the conventional firebombing of Tokyo killed more people than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. And we were fully prepared to let Bashar al-Assad keep slaughtering people until he crossed the “red line” into chemical weapons. It’s not logical. But it works.

It was President Clinton who freed America, for better or worse, from the chains of logical consistency. The Clinton doctrine (my label, not his) was that it’s OK to be inconsistent. Sometimes you intervene for strictly humanitarian reasons, sometimes you require a self-defense rationale and sometimes you stay out. There is no consistent pattern. The demand for consistency will lead to paralysis. In a way, the Clinton approach replaced the Powell Doctrine, a string of conditions for intervention which, in practice, would lead to the answer: never.

On the Syria issue, the hawks are an odd mixture of left-wing human rights enthusiasts like UN Ambassador Samantha Powers and Obama-hating Republicans eager to paint him as weak, along with some neoconservatives who always seem up for a bit of war. The doves are most of the traditional anti-war left, the growing constituency of right-wing libertarians such as Senator Ron Paul, plus—it seems—an overwhelming majority of the citizenry. Many of the politicians in both groups have had Road-to-Damascus-like dramatic conversions in the past couple of years. They favored the Iraq war under Bush but adamantly oppose the Syrian adventure under Obama, or vice-versa.

Neither of these teams has a coherent answer to the Syria-versus-Libya question, or similar questions about all of America's military adventures—those we engaged in and those we avoided—since Vietnam. Is there a pattern? Is there a consistent rule that can be applied to all of them?

A front-page article by Charlie Savage in The New York Times on Monday made the case that an attack on Syria would be unique—and not in a good way.

“On another level, the proposed strike is unlike anything that has come before—an attack inside the territory of a sovereign country, without its consent, without a self-defense rationale and without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council or even the participation of a multilateral treaty alliance like NATO, and for the purpose of punishing an alleged war crime that has already occurred rather than preventing an imminent disaster.”

Still, we can only reason by analogy, and the record suggests that these 21st-century-style interventions are almost always messier, more costly (especially to the innocent civilians of the countries whose governments we wish to punish or decapitate), and less effective than the planners expect. So I tend to put a thumb on the scale in favor of staying out, and hope that the president and Congress do the same.

Michael Kinsley is editor-at-large of The New Republic

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com

Rebel fighters fire from a tank captured from the Syrian army during a battle with Syrian government forces in the rebel-held northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

There is one thing Donald Trump can't build a wall against

Muslim immigrants don't bring terrorism - ideology does. 

Rather than understanding the root of the Islamist extremist issue and examining the global scale of the challenge, one US presidential candidate has decided to pin his domestic security hopes on the demonisation of a particular group of people. 
 
The arrest of Ahmad Khan Rahami over the recent New York bombing, an Afghan-born naturalised US citizen, proved too tantalising an opportunity for the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to once again conflate terrorism and immigration. Taking aim at his rival Hillary Clinton, Trump claimed that she “wants to allow hundreds of thousands of these same people", people who he described as having hatred and sickness in their hearts.
 
It is unclear who exactly Mr Trump is referring to here, one can only assume that it is a reference to Muslims, more specifically those not born in the US, and their apparent deep-rooted hatred for all things American. These comments will no doubt strengthen support for his campaign among those who have remained supportive of his overtly anti-Muslim stance, but the reality is that Mr Trump is rather missing the point.
 
Trump’s insistence on profiling Muslims as a measure to curb terrorism is not merely offensive; it reinforces the "us versus them" rhetoric used by the very terrorists he is trying to defeat.
 
The attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando earlier this year was described as the deadliest mass shooting by a single attacker in American history. Omar Mateen, the perpetrator, was not an immigrant. Born in New York, Mateen was an American citizen by birth. This, however, did not stop him from killing dozens of innocent people and wounding many more. 
 
One of the most influential jihadi ideologues, certainly in the Western world, was in fact an American. Not a naturalised citizen, but a born American, Anwar al-Awlaki was a central figure in the propaganda output of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula. Awlaki’s ideas are reported to have been a significant factor in the radicalisation of the Tsarnaev brothers, the perpetrators of the deadly Boston Marathon bombing. 
 
Putting the spotlight on immigration as the most effective means to curb terrorism ignores the real problem; the ideology. The poisonous, divisive, and intolerant mindset that is at the heart of the matter is the real culprit. This ideology, which presents itself as a "true" reflection of Islam is nothing more than a politically motivated worldview that seeks to spread hatred and violence. 
 
Research from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics has shown that those individuals who buy into this worldview come from a multitude of backgrounds. Some are from poor backgrounds while others are from more affluent ones, some are well-educated while others aren’t. The truth is that there is no prototype terrorist - the common denominator, however, is that they share an ideology. Focusing on immigration as a source for terrorists fails to acknowledge the wide and varied pool from which they recruit.
 
The ideology, which perverts the shared religious heritage that 1.6bn Muslims around the world hold dear, is not simply a threat to the US, but to the world over. There is no wall high enough, no trench deep enough, and no bomb big enough to destroy this ideology. 
 
While the focus on Isis conjures images of the Middle East, this year alone we have witnessed deadly attacks committed by the group including Indonesia, Bangladesh, France, Germany, and Belgium. The ideology that drives the violence is transnational; it’s a global threat that necessitates a global response.
 
The transnational appeal and threat of this ideology is evident with the recent phenomena of online radicalisation. Men and women, boys and girls, have been lured by these ideas from the safety of their own homes, with these powerful ideas moving some to join causes in lands they have never visited. 
 
Recent attacks in France, Germany, and indeed the US, have demonstrated how items that can be obtained ordinarily, such as vehicles and knives, are being weaponised to cause maximum damage. But would a ban on knives and trucks be the solution? The only effective means for defeating terrorists is by challenging and dismantling their ideological appeal, effectively sapping the substance that fuels the violence.
 
Mr Trump, who may become Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most formidable army, must recognise that we are engaged in a battle of ideas, similar to that of the Cold War. A battle in which opposing worldviews are key, words are important, and taking control of the narrative is paramount.
 
In this battle of ideas, Mr Trump is not only hampering the global efforts against groups like Isis and its ilk, but actually reinforcing the ideas put forward by the extremists. Our leaders should not mirror the intolerant attitudes of our enemies or echo their binary worldview. 
Though, when it comes to the Republican candidate, his past statements on the topic indicate, perhaps, that this aim is overly ambitious.
 
Our response must be clear and robust, but we must first acknowledge who, or what, the enemy is. Muslims coming to the US are not the enemy, Muslims born in America are not the enemy, the enemy is the poisonous ideology that has manipulated Islam.
 
Defeating this transnational ideology requires alliances, not alienation. Mr Trump has expressed his commitment to work with allies in the Middle East to fight terrorism, but it is just as important to foster good relations with American Muslims. They can, and should, play an integral role in defeating Islamist extremism at home.

Mubaraz Ahmed is an analyst at the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics. He tweets at @MubarazAhmed.