We don’t like chasing the news. We don’t like just offering gut reactions. We don’t want this to be a reactive blog, regurgitating other people’s content as so many media pundits accuse bloggers of doing.
But I have to write something about the media coverage of Syria. I spent four hours on September 1st catching up on all things Syria by watching the Sunday political talk shows, and I (Eric C) got this nagging feeling that the coverage, for lack of a more eloquent word, sucked.
The media would rather debate domestic politics (Is President Obama a lame duck president? How will Syria affect Obama’s legacy?) than, say, the question of whether or not we should go to war. Take, for example, this fairly typical passage from a Wall Street Journal article on the debate over the intervention:
“President Barack Obama is gambling his presidency on the proposition that he can achieve the very goal that has proved most elusive to him for more than four years: a bipartisan consensus in a bitterly divided Congress…
...The cost of failure would be high, nothing less than a blow to the proposition that a war-weary and economically strained U.S. is still capable of, or even interested in, leading the world.”
Re-read that excerpt. First, Obama’s legacy doesn’t hang on this military intervention. It just doesn’t. When Obama’s term ends, he’ll have led the country through an economic recovery, one of the most active periods of legislation (2008 to 2010) since Lyndon Johnson, and, as of now, a relatively scandal-free presidency. As far as foreign policy goes, Syria would be just one of four military conflicts in Obama’s presidency. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Libya intervention will have just as much an impact as a Syrian intervention, if not more.
Oh yeah, he also killed Osama bin Laden.
Addressing America’s international reputation, does anyone seriously think that by not invading Syria America will no longer be “capable of...leading the world”? We’re on our fourth military intervention in twelve years. We still have the world’s largest military by a mile. A mile. If one thing defines America’s foreign policy this century, it is a willingness to use that military. (This was written before Assad offered to turn over his chemical weapons, which, arguably, was prompted by his fear of an American military strike.) And Obama did very little to create the conditions for a “war-weary” or “economically strained U.S.”. His predecessor laid the groundwork for that.
The above excerpt exemplifies the national debate our country has (or hasn’t) been having about Syria. Too much of the Sunday talk show discussion revolved around whether or not Obama (or America) looked weak going to Congress for approval as opposed to whether or not we should go to war. As Jon Stewart pointed out, we’re conducting diplomacy on the level of eighth graders.
Before we debate legacies and lame-duck-ness, the media needs to answer very important questions about the Syrian civil war. Questions like...
- How do we know Assad used chemical weapons? Do we know that Assad ordered them to be used? We’ve been burned on this exact issue before, less than ten years ago.
- Who will take power if Assad loses? As Dexter Filkins pointed out, the al Qaeda branch in the region changed their name from “al Qeada in Iraq” to “al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria”. (Though we know how inaccurate that label is anyway.)
- What will happen if we leave a power vacuum in the region?
- Doesn’t Egypt show us the perils of taking sides in these conflicts? We don’t really know who’s going to gain power and what they’re going to do with it.
- Don’t foreign interventions usually prolong civil wars?
- Finally, what is our long term strategy? When, where and how will we use cruise missiles and bombings? Will they even be effective?
I’d like to hear the answers to all these questions before we even begin debating Obama’s legacy or America’s international reputation.
There are some good options out there in the media at large, and we’ll share some of them on Monday. But I have one last feeling that I just have to put out there. In the end, the coverage of Syria felt very pro-war to me. The media doesn’t invite anti-war activists onto their shows at nearly the same rate that they invite former generals and national security pundits, though I’d argue that former generals are just as biased.
Even if the coverage isn’t pro-war, it isn’t very critical either, which is tantamount to the same thing. Over 60% of the country opposes a war in Syria, but instead of asking if Obama will lose popularity by leading the country into a war it doesn’t support, the media asks if he will look weak. Seems odd, doesn’t it, to frame the criticism that way?
America would get into less wars if its populace and media maintained default skepticism over military interventions, not the opposite view. In the end, our country should ask itself why it has fought so many wars when so many other countries haven’t, and we should look to this media coverage to find out why.