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Syria-sly? or: the Media Coverage on Syria So Far

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.

six comments

I never understood how the U.S.‘s standing in the world was supposed to suffer if it doesn’t do what the world doesn’t want it to do.

Me thinks what stands to suffer was rather the self-image and matter of course of the “world policeman” (aka world bully) thing. That and neither the president’s nor the country’s reputation was what the talkers on-screen were really talking about.

Also, it was only three months ago that events in Egypt threatened Obama’s entire presidency. My how a couple of months can change something’s importance.

Why would the American media cover the Syrian civil war from the Syrian perspective? The media presents what is current. I presented in your last three posts the alternative, unread opinions for which you seem so desperate.

Why would the American media cover the Syrian civil war from the Syrian perspective?

Your question assumes that all perspectives are equally valid, well-informed, and meaningful. From the perspective of millions of Americans, the U.S. President was born in Kenya (or Indonesia or Iraq) and the CIA (or the Mossad or the Illuminati) engineered the 9/11 attacks. There is a place for those perspectives—and all perspectives—in editorial. But covering hard news with Birther and Truther angles is a shameful joke. Do you see where I am going here?

The media presents what is current.

Ain’t that the truth. Producers seem to have a hard time thinking on any time scale that isn’t the current news cycle. Even when they’re running stories about the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth.

@Austin-Even if you provide the perspectives we haven’t read, the mainstream media still presents a very pro-war coverage, which makes war more likely, not less.

“Oh yeah, he also killed Osama bin Laden.”

Oh brother. Mr. Obama didn’t kill anybody. He gave the ok for others to do that. Those people and many others worked for a lot of years to track down Mr. bin Laden, which they finally did. But for all that work, they ended up getting a guy who had been put out in the cold by the Pak Army/ISI, somebody whose death appears to have affected the fate of AQ affiliated and non-affiliated takfiri killers not a whit. As far as any moxie needed to approve the mission, given the totality of the circumstances there wasn’t any needed. What…He wasn’t going to approve it because we knew where he was and the fix was in? Right.

The raid itself was cracked up to be a lot more than it was. Dozens of guys landed in a compound with as many women and children as men in it, killed a couple of people and took away a body. They lost a helo in spite of there being next to no opposition. The whole thing was probably known of beforehand and approved of by the Pak Army/ISI. I obviously have no proof of that but am convinced that was the case. So the raid was more a publicity stunt with live ammunition and some dead bodies for verisimilitude. Now I guess I’ll be excommunicated from the Church of SpecOps never to worship in the cathedral again.

“…which, arguably, was prompted by his fear of an American military strike.)”

Oh brother again.

Assad lives next to Israel for Lord’s sake. He is in the middle of a civil war with thousands of dead littering the countryside including members of his government. A guy like that isn’t going to be the slightest bit intimidated by the prospect of an “incredibly small” strike by cruise missiles aimed by American intel that is notable for its ignorance about where things actually are. A flock of cruise missiles heading for targets probably selected as much because there wouldn’t be anybody in the area to get killed as for their military effectiveness doesn’t scare guys like Assad.

Where are we now in Syria? Before we had a big problem, who would win in the end, AQ or Iran? Both very bad outcomes. Before we said for a rather long time that Assad had to go. Where are we now? We have managed to paint ourselves into a corner whereby chem weapons are our main concern. Those weapons are neither here nor there. They never get used against anybody who can retaliate, only against the helpless. They are not a critical security concern for us, nor Israel.

But those two bad outcomes we should be concerned about are forgotten now. We will be fussing for months, maybe years, about diplomatic agreements and the war will go on. Assad, the guy we said had to go, is now the only guy we can deal with now that chem weapons are our main concern. So much for him having to go. He is stronger than ever.

Man, only people who have Ivy League educations could screw things up this bad.