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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times