There’s an old Booth New Yorker cartoon showing an old man sitting in an armchair cackling while reading the newspaper, and back over his shoulder his wife says to a visitor something to the effect, “George has always enjoyed reading the morning paper, but lately it seems to be frequently accompanied by a graveyard laugh”—or something to that effect. I always thought this was a terrific cartoon, but only lately have I come personally to appreciate the old, curmudgeonly figure in the foreground. This morning’s papers are certainly no exception in their capacity to evoke cackling graveyard laughs from me—notwithstanding my exertions to avoid becoming curmudgeonly.
The Syria headlines, on the front page of both the Washington Post and the New York Times, focus on two developments: Kofi Annan’s meeting with Bashir al-Assad in Damascus, and the decision by the United States and ten other countries to expel Syrian diplomats from their capitals. Let’s take them in reverse order.Just the other day in this space I wondered aloud what brand of fecklessness the Obama Administration would come up with next in order to maintain the appearance that it’s actually doing something. Now we know, and we did not take to wait long to find out. We have run out of Marxian metaphors to describe this sort of thing, having gone from tragedy to farce to the simply ridiculous so many times that vocabulary now fails us. So let me put it like so: Expelling Syrian diplomats at a time like this is a little like trying to influence a mad serial murderer by threatening to cancel his library card.When I say “at a time like this”, I refer in part to the past weekend’s Houla massacre. But I also refer to the meeting yesterday between Annan and Assad. Assad stayed in role, denying completely that the Syrian government or Syrian military forces had anything to do with the massacre. Annan rejected Assad’s case, without directly calling him a liar. Diplomats don’t do that. Besides, it was not necessary. It’s important for those who are not experts on Syria and the Arabs to understand what is really going on at a meeting like this. Assad is deliberately lying to Annan’s face, and Annan knows it. Moreover, Assad knows that Annan knows it, and he does it anyway. That is why it is such fun. This is a form of humiliation directed at Annan and everything he stands for. Annan also knows that. In the standard private parlance of the region, I am making you the effeminized victim of a homosexual rape. Assad is essentially saying to Annan and indirectly to all those he represents and who hope for his success, “Sure, I’m lying to you. I’m teasing you. I’m humiliating you. So what are you going to do about it?”Assad is speaking the language of a bully who has the upper hand, and in doing so he is using Annan to make a point to his own people, to wit: You can trust in the international community, so-called, to save you if you want, but all it will get you is a fresh crop of corpses.Perhaps it would be instructive at this point to remind readers how Bashir Assad’s father Hafez used to diddle American and other Western diplomats back in the days. Stories could be told at length, but in the interests of the inherent lack of patience associated with the internet, I’ll try to be brief.Back in 1974, after the dust had settled from the October 1973 Middle East War, U.S. diplomacy strove to separate the warring parties through what were called disengagement agreements. After agreements were reached first between Israel and Egypt and then between Israel and Syria, United States led an effort to convene a Geneva Summit to address the underlying causes of war and lay the basis for peace. In that pursuit, Henry Kissinger and his friend and aide Joseph Sisco made multiple trips to Damascus to lay the framework for the summit. When American diplomats would enter Hafez al-Assad’s presence in Damascus, he would regale them with the history of the Middle East from the day after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden until roughly the day before yesterday. This soliloquy took many hours, during which time tea was served without respite—but no bathroom breaks were allowed. The elder Assad could drink gallons and never even blink. Meanwhile Kissinger and Sisco were tightly crossing their knees and trying to keep their eyeballs from capsizing.I don’t remember how many times Kissinger and Sisco made the trip to Damascus, but there were several. Sisco made many more trips on his own, and some of the stories he told me years ago, while truly insightful and hilarious, are too long to repeat here. In any event, after hundreds of man-hours of investment, agreement was finally reached on the nature of representation at the summit-to-be—how many delegates, how they were to be vetted by the other parties, the character of Palestinian representation and so forth—all basically shape-of-the-table issues. Then when we thought we had finally gotten all the preparatory ducks in a row, one day a few weeks thereafter—after having issued the formal invitation to the summit—Assad quietly informed Sisco that he had never had any intention in the first place of attending the summit. No one had to say out loud what this meant. We had been diddled, and the elder Assad had no doubt enjoyed himself enormously doing it.Like father, like son? Not exactly. The father was much shrewder than the son, more appreciative of wit, and a lot less gratuitously murderous. (It used to be said of the leaders of the two wings of the Baath Party that Assad butchered his enemies with regret, and only when he needed to; Saddam Hussein actually enjoyed it and could barely restrain himself whether he saw a need for brutality, or even when he didn’t.) The other difference is situational. Hafez al-Assad in the 1970s really did not have the upper hand, so he had to use skill to protect his weakness. Bashir al-Assad does have the upper hand right now in the face of American passivity, and so he can discount skill and simply have the sort of fun that bullies like to have. (I hope someone is bugging his private quarters, because the transcripts—if they ever exist in the public domain—are going to make for very interesting reading one day.)In any event, let me repeat a point I have made several times before in this space: The Annan mission is worse than hopeless; it actually does net harm. It buys time for and provides a useful shill for regime propaganda and intimidation. As we have seen in recent weeks, too, the mere presence of UN observers in Syrian villages can be enough to catalyze violence, giving the regime a chance to kill more people than it otherwise might be able to.Our government and our intellectual class are filled with people who repeat, mantra-like, the incantation that diplomacy is always superior to force, and that it anyway can do no harm. They appear to be genuinely incapable of understanding the strategic uses of insincere diplomacy by bad actors. I can imagine, I suppose, how young people could indulge this disastrous conceit, simply because they don’t yet have enough experience to know better. But it is truly beyond me how so many otherwise intelligent adults can do so, because this requires willful ignorance. Did every single one of them miss the high school lesson on Munich 1938?The other big headline in the Washington Post—indeed, one that appears above the Syrian news: “Drone strikes spur backlash in Yemen.” Now just the other day I drew some attention to the potential downside of Predator strikes. I noted the possibility of political backlash, which the Post’s story corroborates so quickly and so perfectly that you might think someone over there read my piece. (Not likely.) Besides, we already have plenty of evidence of Predator political backlash from Pakistan, so the news from Yemen should not come as a surprise to anyone. As I noted the other day, sometimes political backlash is a price one has to pay, and one should want to pay, to ward off imminent danger of terrorist attacks against the United States. Is that the case here? I don’t know; I don’t read that kind of traffic anymore.As it happens, yesterday’s New York Times carried a long feature story on the Obama Administration’s approach to the war against al-Qaeda. I would be prepared to bet the rent that this story originated as a premeditated White House leak designed to once again use the New York Times as a platform in the President’s reelection campaign. The President comes across as cold-blooded, deliberative, completely in charge and more than ready to use force in the national interest. This is how the New York Times tries to help elect Democrats to the White House, by characterizing them as tough on national security.Nevertheless, the story is not a complete softball. Aside from procedural details revealed for the first time about how the Administration conducts itself on these matters, some criticism of the Administration’s track record is noted presumably to give the appearance of balance. One criticism, associated in the article with the Secretary of State, is that the policy is much too short term and shallow in nature; it comes down to a kill list, with the technology having the general effect of pushing aside all other policy considerations. I credit this critique.Another related criticism, this one associated with former DNI Dennis Blair, is that the administration is in a take-no-prisoners mode. Given the unexpected difficulties of closing GITMO, the President, with the accession of his Attorney General, prefers not to take bad guys alive. So he just pops them with Predators. The article points out that President Obama referred to the targeted killing of an American citizen in Yemen as “an easy call.” I agree with his judgment in this case about the late, unlamented Mr. Awlaki, but even though I am not a lawyer (and have never desired to be one) I can see that this had to be anything but an easy call from a due process perspective. Except, apparently, we now know that, as far as the lawyer-in-chief was concerned, it wasn’t.And a third criticism, this one directly germane to the Post’s Yemen story, had to do with a CIA counting rule for civilian casualties. The story revealed that all males killed by Predator strikes, whether they are the actual high-value target of the operation or not, are counted as hostiles. The logic is that if you are an adult male in the general vicinity of a bunch of terrorists more or less out in the middle of nowhere, you are up to no good. This assumption keeps civilian casualties very low, which has all sorts of tactical bureaucratic uses.There are many cases in which this CIA counting rule constitutes a reasonable assumption, it seems to me. On the other hand, I can imagine many situations in which it is not a reasonable assumption—and the nature of the Yemeni landscape and its social-spatial layout strikes me as being often in the latter category. In some ways the place is a lot like the mountainous zones of Afghanistan, and there is no question that we have inadvertently killed lots of innocent people there in pursuit of high-value (and not-so-high-value) targets.The point of the Post story is that the kind of collateral damage we have caused is helping al-Qaeda recruit in Yemen. We kill bad guys but, by turning them into heroes, generate many more bad guys in the process. (One of Donald Rumsfeld’s most famous “snowflakes” zeroed in on just this dilemma back in 2003, but one would not expect the Post to make reference to it—and it didn’t.) In Yemen, a more purely tribal society than most other Arab countries, the specific dynamic here is that of the blood feud. Somebody kills one of your relatives—and it doesn’t matter a whit whether he is a terrorist or a bystander or something in between—and you are duty bound to take revenge. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula caters to that very deeply anchored social protocol. Of course it’s going to succeed under such circumstances.Be that as it may, the more one knows about Yemen, the less impressive this argument becomes. A lot of these people don’t need a great deal of help to become radicals. There is plenty of killing going on in the country without the assistance of the United States, and the potential for plenty of blood feuds to get started and to thrive. Yemenis live in the poorest country in the Arab world. It is a country running out of water, with the highest live birth rate, highest infant mortality rate, and highest female illiteracy rate in the region—and in some cases possibly in the world. Yemen is not just a potential failed state; it is an incipiently failed civilization. This is going to send people, any people, to and over the edge. If a bunch of errant Predator strikes doesn’t cause it, something else will.Of course, I’m not saying that the U.S. military’s killing innocent people in Yemen is always okay as long as a couple of actual bad guys get popped in the process. That’s a judgment call. Sometimes it is okay, and sometimes it’s not. We now know, thanks to the New York Times, that in at least a third of the cases in Yemen, the President himself makes the call. He has been willing to take personal moral responsibility. I find that admirable, to a point. But of course the Post did not draw the obvious analog—that of President Johnson picking individual bombing targets during the Vietnam War, for precisely the same reason that President Obama is picking bombing targets now—because that would not have been flattering to the President. You can compare Obama to JFK or FDR; but, please, not to LBJ.But really, folks, is there anything about any of this that is flattering? War is dreadful. Possibly the only thing worse is surrender, rampaging cowardice and ignominy. You know, like the Administration’s Syria policy.