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Three More Reactions to the Suspected Chemical Attack in Syria

So how does the news media forget about the crisis in Syria? Simply have the FBI execute search warrants on the President’s lawyer. That should do it. And it has. (We also forgot about Scott Pruitt and didn’t realize that another person left the White House. Tom Bossert anyone?)

But President Trump has tweeted that missiles are on the way. So let’s get some thoughts out there before he follows through. (Thoughts 1 and 2 here...)

Quick Thought 3: Guh, credibility

If the rationale for using military force in the Middle East could be summarized in one word, it would be “credibility”. If a U.S. President doesn’t use force, he will look hesitant. Therefore, he lacks “credibility” to engage in wars, so bad actors will do more bad things. This is primarily a bug of Democratic presidencies, who are often called weak by their political opponents, but Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have already pseudo-threatened Trump that we will lose credibility if he doesn’t back up his tweets. Seriously, diplomacy happens via Twitter now.

But “credibility” is vague and amorphous. The evidence that “credibility” exists in foreign affairs or even influences policy is slim. From a scientific point of view. Dan Drezner has called it the “credibility fairy” and political scientists have written papers showing “credibility” doesn’t actually influence events. Zack Beauchamp at Vox has a whole take down of credibility related to Syria here. He basically shows that you can find all sorts of examples where the U.S. being a credible military threat didn’t deter anything. As President Obama pointed out, the best argument, of course, is that President George W. Bush invaded two countries, and that still failed to deter Russia from invading Georgia.

We have an article on this coming up, but the problem with credibility is an issue of fairness. Obama said one thing wrong (a red line in Syria) and everyone called it the biggest blunder of his Presidency (for example, the Washington Post this week and the New Yorker in its end of Presidency wrap up). Trump says something more detrimental to U.S. credibility nearly every week, and tears up international agreements, a far greater breach of trust, and the response is a shoulder shrug.

And yet, since it’s Trump, credibility is only mentioned when bombs are involved.

Quick Thought 4: The news reaction cycle is driving this.

True or false: After Trump bombed an airfield in Syria after the last chemical attack, the Syrians quickly rebuilt it.

True or false: The cruise missile strikes cost $100 million dollars.

True or false: This isn’t the first chemical weapon attack since Trump bombed that airfield.

True or false: Even though Trump bombed an airfield, it failed to deter Assad from future chemical weapons attacks. (See above.)

True or false: Doing something “stronger” will NOT deter future chemical attacks.

So I don’t know the answer to the last question, but I know the answers to the first four: all true. Most people don’t realize how miniscule the last U.S. “response” was, don’t realize that chemical weapons have still been used, and don’t connect how weak the deterrence message is. If Trump used violence last time and it didn’t deter Assad, will more violence?

So the answer to the last question is probably “True”.

Quick Thought 5: We need to figure out what we really care about in human rights.

The weirdest part is the focus overwhelmingly on the type of weapons used in Syria. From a moral and ethical standpoint, I just don’t get it.

If we want to avoid dead children, an admirable goal, then I would get it. But then we would look at U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and be appalled. Or we would just be appalled by the war in Syria every week. Or we would look at foreign aid and development spending, to prevent dead children in developing nations. But to only focus on dead children when chemical weapons are involved? It just seems to miss the point.

Yes, we need to hold the line to prevent the spread of chemical weapons. Bombing a country that is currently using them probably won’t help. The best way to do that isn’t to focus on one dictator, but to strengthen international institutions that can stop their spread, something Trump and Bolton--and many conservatives like them--are uniquely unqualified to do. Bolton in particular has said arms control agreements are worthless (when they aren’t) and also doesn’t like them because they restrict the United States (which is true, but besides the point).