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
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Why I'll miss Sean Spicer, the tragic hero who couldn't cope with Trump

He was all of us when we have a sociopath for a boss.

From the first day he walked up to the White House press podium, in his ill-fitting suit like an intern on his first day in the office, my heart went out to Sean Spicer. He did that classic thing you do when you have a very strong brief from your new boss and no idea what you're doing. He went completely overboard. Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd wasn't only huge, contrary to actual photo, video and eye witness reports, it was exceptionally huge. In fact, it was the biggest in history. Period!

We all had the same thought. This guy? This is who you pick to be White House press secretary? He crashed on to the scene all stutters and swivel eyes and redundant suit material. It was a fitting debut for the Trump administration.  

It was the start of a show that would give us Sean Spicer’s ABCs, a montage that poked fun at his tendency to mispronounce words and foreign leaders’ names. His greatest hits include saying “sometimes we can disagree with the facts”. He brought on to the stage two piles of paper, one large and one small, pointing to the larger one as evidence of what “big government does”, like he was on Sesame Street showing the kids the difference between BIG and SMALL. He said even "someone as despicable as Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons". Just face palm, head-desk stuff everyday. His press briefings descended into laughter from the press and cries "oh come on Sean. Sean??" as he stormed off in the middle of a briefing.

But somehow, you couldn’t get mad at him. Or mad enough. Sean Spicer is that man who collapses late into the meeting he is supposed to be leading, sweating, nervous, spilt coffee down his tie and a distinct air of having stress-induced heartburn, before overcompensating for it by talking over everyone and throwing his weight around. More than anything, Spicer just seemed scared. His bursts of irritation and anger masking a deep seated sense of inadequacy probably much exacerbated by Trump reportedly chewing him out everytime he didn't come across as slick enough.  

Despite working for a dishonest and dissembling White House, Spicer never felt like the actual bully. He was the bullied. The kid who wanted in with the big boys and did their bidding but actually wasn't that bad inside so never did it with much effect. Indeed, he was all of us when we have a sociopath for a boss, a recent promotion, and a mortgage. All of us when just trying to get through the day when we don’t believe what we’re selling and are crippled by impostor syndrome. He was a tragic hero. Someone who just wanted to be taken seriously but somehow had missed out on all the genes that would enable that. The man who shoveled elephant excrement at the Big Top but stuck with it because he wanted to work in show business. A modern day clown who hated people laughing at him and cried after the show. And then there was Melissa McCarthy’s Saturday Night Live rendition which drove the final nail in the coffin of his hope to ever develop any gravitas. But it was as affectionate as it was brutal.

None of this excuses any of his complicity of course. I over embellish for effect. He went out there and lied day in and day out, but as his tenure went on, his suits got better, but one felt that he wasn’t coping. People who could work for Donald Trump and not have a nervous breakdown probably fall into two camps; those who agree with him and all his tactics, and those who don’t but are careerists. To be in the latter and be able to sleep at night requires a pretty high functioning ability to compartmentalise and, let’s be honest - kill your soul.

In a recent interview, Tom Ricks, the veteran journalist said:

"It's a crushing burden to be in political power in Washington these days, and you see people almost lose their souls. I think Sean Spicer, the president's spokesman in recent weeks has been pushed almost to the edge of a nervous breakdown from his public appearance. And he's kind of lost a big part of his soul, and I think that's true of some other people. And watching H.R. McMaster, an officer I do admire, over the last few weeks, I feel like I've seen him come out and give up a slice of his soul a few times. And I wonder how many more times he can do that before he just says I am becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution here."

That’s what it felt Spicer was doing everytime he came on. Giving up a slice of his soul. This might be a charitable explanation and he’s just really bad at his job. But when Sarah Huckabee Sanders began job sharing with him, it looked like her relative competence was less attributable to the fact that she was a better press secretary, and more that she was a soulless stone cold liar who felt no dissonance.

As Anthony Scaramucci came onto the podium to accept his position as White House Communications Director, the appointment that Spicer allegedly resigned over, it was clear that it could get a lot worse than Spicer. Scaramucci put on a sickening display where he said he "loved" and was "loyal" to the president about ten times, as Huckabee, now fully wearing the late Sean Spicer’s shoes as White House Press Secretary, looked on dead-eyed from the sidelines.

Sean Spicer still has a chance to completely blacken his name and lose any fondness he may have fostered by leaving the White House, joining the cable TV circuit  and continuing to shill for the Trump administration. This is a highly probably scenario. But until then, here’s to Sean Spicer. You were the best White House press secretary ever. Period!