Decoding the Four-Sided Proxy War in Syria


In modern American political culture, wars — both the decisions to undertake them and their conduct once underway — are intensely politicized.

This may be a reflection of anxiety over the inexorable aggregation of war power in the executive branch of our government, a condition which threatens many traditional notions about separation of powers and divided government. It may also reflect the increased capture of the legislative branch by the various interests that benefit from American warmaking, thus pushing lawmakers into political, if not genuine or substantive, collision with the subject. Then again, it could be just a reflection of an increasingly warlike nation making its way in a destabilizing world, one where long wars fought with carefully discriminate means invite the constant observation, involvement, and posturing of political calibrators.  

Whatever the prevailing pattern tells us about ourselves and our role in the world, it carries a range of nettlesome consequences. As various factions use wars as argumentative territory for various proxy fights over pet issues and to energize their respective electoral bases, the rhetorical scaffolding used as a platform to paint domestic politics onto war becomes so voluminous that it eventually obscures the war altogether. Observers, including the citizens in whose defense the war is ostensibly conducted, lose their basic understanding of what we’re doing and why. 

In this environment, it’s important to occasionally pause, admonish everyone to shut the hell up (or at least wish for this to happen), clear the rhetorical underbrush, and re-cage our understanding of the situation. We’ve reached that moment with respect to Syria, and Ezra Klein’s video (featured above) is a useful vehicle for catching ourselves up to the reality of what we’re into. Only by re-tracing our steps sufficient to know where we’ve been can we have any hope of knowing where we’re going, much less making the steering inputs to get there or avoid going there.

Syria, in addition to being an unfolding tragic calamity capable of hot-walking a mostly unwitting world into a major power conflict, is a veritable checklist of strategic pitfalls. From the consequences of regional over-involvement to the risks of military indecision, from the fallacious notion that arming rebels is an inherently good idea to the equally nonsensical proposition that stand-alone airpower on a tight leash can turn a complex social tide, it’s a conflict that exposes our current state of strategic decrepitude. 

Absent any idea what we should do, we’re doing what we perceive we can do … which is to engage in a mostly toothless and pro forma military campaign that insufficiently vindicates the investment required to conduct it, much less the honor of those dutifully carrying it out absent the clarity of purpose and operational latitude necessary to “win,” whatever that means.

What we do have is an overabundance of political certitude. We should do this. Why aren’t we doing that. We’re failures for not doing something, and even bigger failures for mistakenly doing some other thing. And so it goes. While valid opinions occasion themselves in this intellectual landfill, they’re scarcely discernible from the piled up garbage. The only totally certain proposition extricable from this morass of mindless bloviation is that anyone who is certain about what to do in Syria is wrong.

Consider this an argument that we should have taken the time and effort to appropriately deliberate about what to do before we got involved, as I argued nearly a year ago. But if that argument doesn’t resonate, consider it also an urging that we all take the time to understand the situation as best we can and communicate with elected representatives that we expect the same from them.

Klein’s video is a good start.

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