Apr 12

Eric C’s Response to Michael C

Michael C and I are twins. Thus, the one thing I hate most is saying that Michael C is right and I’m wrong. And yet...

Michael C is right, and I’m partially wrong. (Thus, this isn’t really a rebuttal to Michael C’s post last week.)

Friday morning after America launched missiles at a Syrian air base, I was pretty upset, so I wrote up my post from last week, and I still stand by my initial emotional reaction. But Michael C, at the time and since, kept saying I was over-reacting. A few days later, I’m less shocked but still angry, especially since the airstrikes seem entirely pointless:

- The air base that launched the chemical attacks is still operational.

- We alerted the Russians to exactly what we were going to do, meaning Assad almost assuredly knew what we were going to do. (Contradicting Trump’s previous statements about the element of surprise.)

- The Trump administration waffled on what the next steps would be, with multiple figures in the administration contradicting each other.

- This does nothing to help civilians in Syria, including children, Trump’s stated reason for the attack, and Syria has already re-attacked the same neighborhood.

- And Trump still wants to ban Syrian refugees (again, including children) from the U.S.

In short, we achieved nothing, except we killed a reported four to fifteen Syrian soldiers.

It was predictably unpredictable, as I wrote in my first post and as we’ve written about Trump since the inauguration. The guys over at Vox released an awesome podcast the day after the attacks, where Ezra Klein made the excellent comparison to the financial crisis, describing how rational actors operating under wrong assumptions can lead to disaster. Since both our allies and enemies can’t feel certain of how America will respond to a crisis, the chances of a disaster increases. Trump is making the entire international system incredibly uncertain. (Which must frustrate the hell out of realists, since so much of their underlying system relies on rational actors.)

The raison d’etre for our non-interventionist approach to foreign policy is the unpredictability of war, the chances that conflicts spiral out of control. Who knows what consequences Trump’s actions could have? Who can confidently predict it? That’s the source of my unease. I never would have predicted Trump would have taken these actions. Who knows what Putin, Assad or Rouhani may do in response? Which is exactly why we opposed getting involved in Syria in the first place three years ago.

We have a ton of other thoughts on Trump’s airstrikes on Syria, especially on how the media and politicians reacted to it (If we treat it as a mini-test run of how the media will react when the country goes to war, we failed.) My initial lesson is one we’ve stated again and again on the blog: don’t chase the headlines, and wait for more information to come out. A few days later, this is my main takeaway.

Still, I reserve the right to be outraged. Just because we thought President Trump would do stupid things that would get people killed doesn’t mean we can’t be angry when he does stupid things that get people killed.

Michael C’s Rebuttal

Re-reading my post on Syria from last week, I need to make one thing clear: I don’t support this style of foreign policy.

Trump’s style is unpredictable at best and incoherent at worst. His foreign policy/national security staff is either being filled slowly (at best) or deliberately left mostly empty (at worst). His fawning for the military to solve all problems is either extreme nationalism (at best) or fascistic (at worst). Therefore, we get situations where President Trump uses military strikes to allegedly help babies when President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly targeted civilians (and babies) in this civil war, also a violation of international norms. (And we refuse to let Syrian refugees into our country.)

Trump should have gone to Congress to get approval for a Syria policy. Trump should have a clear strategy. Trump should staff up the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon so he can craft a foreign policy. That would make decisions like this easier. Not easy, but at least easier.

So I don’t support Trump in this attack and think his recklessness will continue, which is why this attack never surprised me.

Apr 12

It seems that everyone from the political left, right and center has had to overreact to the events in Syria from last week, including my co-writer. When it comes to Trump, it seems awfully tempting to veer into wild hyperbole. So before I respond to Eric C, I want you, the reader, to answer this question: How many countries did President Obama drop bombs on (via plane, drone, cruise missile or other) during his administration?

We’ll wait.

You made your guess? No seriously, don’t keep reading until you make a guess.

Eric C guessed 7. I (Michael C) guessed 8. I have a feeling most people--but not our readers--will think it is less.

Well, Eric C was right. In 2016 alone, according to Micah Zenko, the U.S. dropped bombs on at least 7 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan and Somalia. (Those are the countries we have been at war in/with during the Obama administration.)

The sheer number of strikes should make you gasp too. Again, according to Micah Zenko, who we trust and respect, the number was over 26,000 in 2016 alone. 26,000!

So President Trump fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Is that high or low? Given that Obama launched an average of 76 strikes per day in 2016, it is right on course for a contemporary US president. (For instance, we know the military under Trump launched strikes in Mosul last month.)

So before we use these strikes as evidence that Trump is now a warhawk, or impulsive, or somehow “presidential”, let’s understand the context. The introduction above is that context. So let’s debunk the other myths about this missile strike.

Myth 1: This is a huge escalation of the conflict in Syria.

It isn’t, not until troops put boots on the ground, which likely would have happened when the Pentagon presented Trump a plan to defeat ISIS (he signed an Executive Order demanding that, remember?). In our post on the likeliest countries for Trump to go to war, Syria was second. Second! We’ve also put more boots on the ground in Iraq under Obama to fight ISIS, which could lead into a war with/in Syria.

Again, this isn’t to say that these missile strikes don’t make getting involved less likely. It definitely makes it more likely. But we were trending toward intervention after Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric on defeating ISIS. (And yeah, we probably already have special operators on the ground in Syria anyways, but you know what I mean.)

Myth 2: No, it’s a huge escalation because it attacks Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

This is true. We have shifted enemies from “Just ISIS” to “Both ISIS and Assad.” But knowing Trump could reverse himself in a week means we can only read some much into this.

Also, it has to be noted that Obama considered this exact same strategy. And the night before Trump launched the attacks, Hillary Clinton said she would have done the exact same thing. That shows that Trump’s attacks were really a part of a policy that is really in the mainstream of current establishment thinking. And something generals have wanted for years. Really this isn’t a “huge” escalation in the Trump sense, but just a standard escalation by any US president.

Myth 3: This is Trump’s first military action.

How quickly we forget! In January, Trump authorized special operators to attack a compound in Yemen. We know civilians died. We know suspected terrorists died. We know a special operator died. So blood had already been shed by Trump, and if Yemen continues the way it is going, I could see an escalation there as well. In fact, the Trump administration has openly pondered expanding their Yemen operations.

Myth 4: Now we know Trump is reckless.

Wait, we needed evidence that Trump is reckless and foolhardy and flip-flops on everything he says and does? We already knew that. This is what we wrote before the election:

“Donald Trump is a complete liability if he were to take over the office of the President. Since he has no guiding principles in foreign policy, he could do anything, which makes him a complete liability with nuclear weapons and our military.”

Trump went through three campaign chairmen during the election. He breaks political and international norms on a weekly basis. Trump has irritated almost every US ally with the things he said. He even blamed American generals for losing a soldier in Yemen! Did we need him to impulsively attack a country to know he was impulsive?

No, we didn’t. I wrote about it here. And here. And here. This instead just confirms our Bayesian prior, to use the FiveThirtyEight language of it all. We suspected he would use military force flippantly, and he has. This doesn’t make it more or less likely than before, I would say it makes it exactly as likely.

Myth 5: This attack was illegal.

Not really. Under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed after 9/11, as long as a President links a military operation to fighting groups that are allied with Al Qaeda, he can use military force. I’m sure Trump has a lawyer who can make the same connection, even though this attack targeted a government base that “opposes” Al Qaeda. (Need a refresher on the AUMF? RadioLab has you covered here.)

The problem is with the AUMF. It is so short but so broad that a President can use it to go to war with almost any country he wants to. That’s how President Obama got his authorization for 26,000 plus strikes on seven countries.

But who is going to stop Trump? The Republicans? Will they demand he follow the AUMF more closely? They refuse to take a vote on anything that could be politically damaging. They also refuse to oppose Trump on any issue. So as long as he says he was allowed to do this strike on the AUMF, and Republicans don’t expressly oppose him, then this isn’t illegal.

(Should we repeal that AUMF? Of course. Will we? I doubt it.)

We don’t support this strike, but it doesn’t change anything.

Let’s be clear. I really don’t support striking Syria without a larger strategy. Or Congressional approval. And I don’t think this shows that President Trump is consistent or somehow good at foreign policy. Nothing has shown me that to date.

But I don’t want to over-react just because he is Trump.

Apr 10

(This is the first post in a series on Syria. Hopefully, we don’t have to write more after the next two weeks, but if we do here’s all our thoughts.)

A few weeks ago, we wrote a post titled, “Where Will Trump Go to War?”. In it, we wrote this:

2. Syria or Iraq

The logic here is pretty straight-forward. Trump’s former National Security Advisor called ISIS an “existential threat” (it isn’t) and it stuck. So Trump has called for the elimination of ISIS, most recently at his address to Congress...

“...The question is whether this conflict spirals into America’s third major occupation of the region. You cannot eliminate ISIS from the air. And if you have to rely on allies in the region, that may include vile dictatorships like Syria or even Iran, who Trump hates. As Fareed Zakaria reported last weekend, ISIS is on the ropes anyways due to sustained fighting in both Syria and Iraq. But if something goes wrong, especially a terror attack, I could see an easily escalation of military conflict.”

This wasn’t really a prediction, per se. We were just outlining the possible courses of action Trump could take. And yet we completely missed the version of history where Trump turns against Assad. We didn’t even see it coming. There’s a good reason for this:

Trump said as much. Repeatedly.

Trump made it clear--before, during and after the campaign--that he didn’t want to attack Assad. This would include a tweetstorm in 2013 warning Obama not to get involved in Syria. This included praising Assad, saying “he’s much tougher and much smarter than [Hillary] and Obama” during the final debate, as we tweeted earlier this week. And yet, one chemical attack (an attack extremely similar to the infamous chemical attack in 2013 that ignited the debate over intervention in the Syrian Civil War in the first place) caused Trump to completely reverse his position.

This terrifies me (Eric C). We’ve been writing, for months now, about where Trump will go to war, arguing that he could take America to war in multiple countries, based on his rhetoric, temperament and establishment support

In my mind, this attack on Syria represents something much worse: his unpredictability. He launched an attack, without Congressional approval, contradicting everything he said he believed, changing his mind in a matter of days. If Trump can flip the switch on Assad, what’s to stop him from attacking Iran or North Korea, countries that he has repeatedly promised to get tough on? Taking the long view, this attack makes me think it is much, much more likely America could go to war in the next few years, and possibly with multiple counties.

Michael C disagrees. At least, he thinks I may have over-reacted, as he’ll respond tomorrow.

Apr 03

Way back in the day, I mean WAY back, humans ran around by themselves, isolated as individuals. The earliest humans spent every waking moment fending off predators, hunting other animals, and foraging for food. The hardest part was always staying safe. From saber-tooth tigers or lions or dire wolves or snakes, you always had to watch for predators.

(Side note: this history is, to be fair, fake. If you believe in evolution/Evolution, humans evolved from other pack animals going back millions/billions of years. It wasn’t like we somehow “started” as individuals. But let me go with it for a moment.)

The first group was the family. A male human impregnated a female human, and they stayed together because it just made it safer. This human male was giving up quite a bit of freedom. Before they mated, he could run around doing whatever he wanted. Afterward he mated, he had to come back from hunting every day by sundown. But he also got some benefits. By having children, the family had others who could help keep watch for predators, go hunting, or forage for food. (And, yeah sex.) Of course, these younger children had to obey the rules of the parents or get kicked out of the family into the wilderness to fend for themselves.

Living as a family was better than living alone.

Eventually it made more sense for one family to join with another family living nearby. This way they could share the guard duties and pool resources for food they had scavenged. Eventually, you had to join a group of families or other groups of families could come steal your food. These groups of families became the first tribes. And the tribes set up rules that all the families had to follow. These families also gave up some freedom by joining the tribe. Say a family liked to eat shellfish, but the tribe forbid shellfish. Well, the family had to give up the freedom to enjoy shrimp and lobster to join the tribe.

Joining a tribe was better than just surviving as a family.

Of course, some tribes banded together to make clans. These clans allowed for trade and inter-marriage among the tribes. They also guarded against the bad actions of other clans who might sweep in to steal food and women and, later, land.

Clans living was better than tribe living.

You see where this is going. Clans became cities, or city-states, or states, or nations, or nation states. After the Peace of Westphalia, some of these nations created alliances and today we have international treaties. In each case, working together in larger and larger groups made life better. This is a narrative version of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent history of the world, inspired by Yuval Harari’s Sapiens:

“History is the story of how we've learned to come together in ever greater numbers from tribes to cities to nations. At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn't on our own.”

The above history is a Hobbesian-turned-idealistic view of the world, showing humanity as truly having its origins in a state of anarchy, where life is nasty, brutish and short. But it gets better as we come together. The way I like to describe this is we have been in a perpetual trade off of sovereignty for security and prosperity.

And I want to focus on one word in that last sentence in particular: sovereignty. Because it could stop the final step.

In the deeper cuts of the conservative blogosphere, the concept of sovereignty is hot. Every few years you find a conservative railing against some treaty or UN commitment that would crush US sovereignty. And not even super conservatives, as Richard Haass most recent Foreign Affairs article was about redefining sovereignty.

The most ideal form of this thinking was the book The Sovereignty Solution. A while back one of the authors sent me a copy of the book. He loved our blog, but I had casually mentioned I wasn’t onboard with their theory yet. (It went military-blog viral, admittedly a small viral, a few years back.) So he sent me a copy to change my mind. In short, the book didn’t change my mind or convince me of their theory, but it did convince me of the appeal of their theory.

Basically, any time you join the larger group, you give up some power/freedom/sovereignty. Giving up of power (freedom/sovereignty) is scary. But it is worth it, as every example above proves.

We’ve now taken the process global. 
International treaties by definition force states to give up sovereignty for the larger benefit. A bunch of countries get together and decide to cooperate on a given issue. To do so, they usually set up an enforcement agency or body. This group than regulates the issue. Sometimes, this larger international body will trump domestic law. Even in the US. (Because of the Constitution!)

You can see the benefits for international cooperation, but see US pushback because of perceived loss of sovereignty across a wide range of issues.

- Take landmines. Or chemical weapons. They are nasty weapons and we shouldn’t have them. So certain nations got together and made a deal to stop building those weapons and agreed to fine countries who don’t stop building them. The US won’t join the landmine treaty because we like having landmines.

- Take global trade. Some conservatives hate institutions like the World Trade Organization because it can restrict the actions of certain American companies. Overall, though, it makes the global trade system profitable and benefits America far more than it hurts it. But sovereignty.

(We would bring up global warming and the Paris Accords, but we know that is a hot button issue.)

When Trump rails against global elites and China and ISIS/Muslims, he’s arguing that foreigners sap our sovereignty. Trump doesn’t believe in allies because he doesn’t believe in ever sacrificing your own freedom for the larger gain. What do Brexit-eers criticize most about the EU? Those damn bureaucrats in Brussels telling them how to regulate the internet. Oh, and those same bureaucrats telling them how to run their immigration laws. How is Putin trying to destroy NATO and the EU? By encouraging countries to take back their own power from global institutions.

That’s all code for taking back sovereignty from global institutions.

So life was getting better and better in larger groups, and now we’ve stopped it in the name of sovereignty. Even though interstate nuclear war could end life as we know it, some conservative thinkers and politicians (Trump, Putin, Bannon) want to stop global integration. For conservatives, the power of groups to make the world better magically stops at the international level. 

In the end, life will be better as a global society, not as nation states. We should remember that.