Some questions as we march to war in Syria

Summary: We’re off to war in yet another nation. Little Syria has suddenly become a nation whose fate can shake the foundations of the United States. Rather than again dissect the mad arguments of the hawks, let’s step back to see the larger pattern at work. After all, our opinions on the war matter not at all to our ruling elites. These significance of these events lies only in their ability to show that our leaders are incompetent, that we can no longer see the world through the fog of propaganda, and as a result we have lost control of the Republic.


It might take a century or more, but future historians will devise a catchy name for the US interventions in Afghanistan (1979 – now), Iraq (1990-2011), Libya (2011), and Syria (2013) — our bipartisan policy of overthrowing secular regimes, replaced by Islamic regimes — with dubious results for their people and the US. It is a coherent but mad policy, with several characteristics.

It’s just a game to our rulers
  1. No clear plan; we rely on our awesomeness for success
  2. Ignorance or indifference to the historical record of the target nation
  3. Ignorance or indifference to the past failures of the methods used
  4. Indifference to the fate of women in the target nation


(1) No clear plan

Imitating the plan of Imperial Japan in WW2: our awesomeness will produce success.

Our lavishly funded foreign policy apparatus (mostly military), with its middle and senior managers stocked with people holding advanced degrees (at the higher levels, mostly from elite universities), seem unable to form a first-year B-school level plan for our interventions. Goals, entry, execution, exit, follow-up. That’s obvious in the histories published about the Afghan War. It was obvious at the time in the post-9-11 interventions. Such questions were asked in the general media, but our confident elites blew them off with in effect instructions to “trust us”.

Despite repeated failures, we do. Again and again. This time they’re scarcely bothering to give coherent stories to build support for this war. They’re just ringing the bell, knowing we’ll respond. WMDs! Iran! Overthrow tyrants!

See the posts at the end about the Libyan War for examples of ignored warnings and daft propaganda.

(2) Ignorance or indifference to the historical record of the target nation

All these nations were weakly held together, with deep ethnic (and religious in Iraq, Libya, and Syria) divisions. All had traumatic experiences with colonial aggression, with ours seen as just another chapter. Experts warned about the risk of prolonged instability, but were ignored.

(3) Ignorance or indifference to the past failures of the methods used


Syria's govt attacks civilians!
Syria’s government attacks civilians! (Photograph of Hiroshima)

The history of foreign military interventions against insurgencies is one of almost total failure (see the posts at the end). This obvious fact was denied until recently, when the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan made it politically acceptable to admit. Like the scientists at Lilliput, we can only see what’s before us after we’re slapped in the face.

(4) Indifference to the fate of women in the target nation

Feminists in America vigorously debate the effect on America of Taylor Swift. Is she a feminist, closet feminist, or counter-revolutionary pawn? Feminists (with a few exceptions) appear indifferent to the horrific effect of America’s military interventions on women in the target nations.

Nothing shows the madness of early 21st century American foreign policy than, despite this history, protecting women was given as a reason to continue intervening in Afghanistan (after our first intervention tossed them into the hands of fundamentalist Islam). No matter how crazy the reason for foreign wars, Americans applaud. Future historians will wonder if it was something in our water.

  1. We destroy a secular regime in Afghanistan (& its women’s rights), then we wage war on the new regime to restore women’s rights. Welcome to the American Empire., 12 November 2009
  2. Today’s propaganda: we must fight in Afghanistan to help its women, 10 August 2010
  3. About our sudden concern for Afghanistan’s women (& the desperate search for a reason to fight), 12 August 2010
  4. Subjugation of women anywhere threatens US national security!, 16 August 2010

For More Information

About the Syria intervention:

Posts about the Libyan War

  1. Libya’s people need uninvited infidel foreigners to save them!, 1 March 2011
  2. “You just have not seen enough people bleed to death”, 8 March 2011
  3. About attacking Libya – let’s give this more thought than we did Afghanistan and Iraq, 6 March 2009
  4. Our geopolitical experts see the world with the innocent eyes of children (that’s a bad thing), 14 March 2011
  5. A war monger review, looking at the articles advocating a US war with Libya, 22 March 2011
  6. Who are we helping in Libya? Here are some answers., 27 March 2011
  7. In America, both Left and Right love the long war, 30 March 2011
  8. Why the Libyan War is important to us – and to our children, 9 April 2011
  9. A status report on our intervention in Libya. Historians will find this farce fascinating., 17 April 2011
  10. A child-like credulity is required to be a US geopolitical expert, 25 April 2011
  11. Important information about Libya hidden behind the veil of the US news media, 1 September 2011

The history of COIN:

  1. More paths to failure in Iraq, 16 December 2006 — Myths about COIN in Iraq
  2. How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
  3. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
  4. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard. She examines the present and past analysis of counter-insurgency. This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
  5. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010
  6. COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure., 7 August 2012



19 thoughts on “Some questions as we march to war in Syria”

  1. Perhaps you could refresh my memory? How many bases did we build in Iraq, and how many are we still occupying? Any estimates of how much this might have cost us?

  2. Avoiding the Slippery Slope: Conducting Effective Interventions, is a June publication of The Army War College.
    The author is not against interventions per se. He does critique how poorly interventions in civil wars in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo have been planned and executed. He thinks Libya was a success. He recommends UN involvement so the US can hand over the problem and get out. Also adhering strictly to an air warfare approach to avoid casualties, which would turn the American public against the intervention.

  3. If all presidents/governments from Bush Sr, through Bush Jr and Clinton, to Obama follow the same path despite detailed, reasoned and persistent analyses and warnings from experienced and knowledgeable people, then it means that

    1) this is a method, not incompetence;
    2) the outcome is exactly what they seek.

    It costs money? To the lowly taxpayer — it actually brings loads of money to the military-industrial complex.

    It plunges countries into strife or outright civil war? Good, those countries are then too busy and too weak to assert their independence and oppose imperialist policies.

    It ruins those countries? Good, they will be all the more compelled to sell their mineral resources at bargain prices.

    It brings islamists to power? Good, those population will remain longer underdeveloped, hampered by obscurantism.

    It fosters new extremist movements that will attack the interests of the USA? Only plebeians are at risk, the top cadre is too well protected and remote to fear for its life.

    It is a fundamentally insane policy in the medium to long-term? Who cares, in the long run we are all dead.

    I know, this is a cynical viewpoint.

    1. guest,

      Good point! Michael Cohen (@speechboy71), a sharp guy, raised that exact point on Twitter today: in what sense was our intervention in Iraq a success?

      My answer was like yours: One sense in which ISAF was great: lots of money made by some. Many big reputations built, which they’ll monetize. Imagine of General P’s future career, if he had kept his in his pants!

      US history clearly shows that participation in war at senior levels brings success, irrespective of one’s degree of success in the war. Dilbert makes the same point about corporate managers.

    2. guest:

      An excellent post. But you ignore the jolly good fun that large portions of the population get from these wars. I suspect its something like the gladiator contests in Rome.

      Everyday Americans who support these wars are hardly innocents; they should know better by now.

      1. As someone who reads the mil-blogs, I second Duncan’s point. I don’t know how large this group is — that gets jingoistic thrills from our foreign adventures — but it’s substantial.

        Nor is this anything new, although the fraction varies over time. The effect on the domestic herds has always been a benefit of overseas wars. So long as they don’t cost too much or kill to many of our boys.

        My guess — emphasis on guess — is that these jingoistic thrills are a compensation (ie, escape) for elements of the middle class – esp lower middle class — for the economic stress and social changes grinding them into the dirt.

    3. To Duncan Kinder:

      I am of course speculating here, but I do not believe that the portion of the US population that gets the “jolly gun fun” out of those wars is that large.

      1) The attitude is largely one of indifference: people know very little about what is really going on in those faraway war zones, are not very much interested in them anyway, and actually do not care about what happens to the natives.

      2) Excitement is associated to spectacular operations (“shock and awe”, assassination of OBL, etc), and subside pretty quickly. Most of the time, those wars take the form of the droning sound of US politics, as media focus on stars such as generals, senators, and their pronouncements.

      3) It is very true that everyday Americans are hardly innocent, as you state, but an increasing proportion of them is so mired in the desperate struggle to find a job, avoid repossession, pay a medical bill or stay out of jail that they just do not and cannot care about what happens in Syria or Yemen or Libya (back to point 1).

      1. guest,

        We can only guess, with the little data on hand. However my guess is that the 3rd factor you cite — economics — boosts the enjoyment of some Americans. It’s an escape, like football — or the games in Ancient Rome. Which were, after all, most associated with the fall of the Republic — not its rise.

      1. Duncan,

        I will put a darker spin on this. We are beyond the point at which public opinion matters on such things. The government does not care, unless the public becomes extremely focus on this issue — which is unlikely.

        As I said in the post, this is significant to us only as an I dictation of the degree to which US foreign policy has any relation to the needs of the Republic.

        That is, all that matters is the degree to which events like and the NSA revelations move the US public closer to action.

        Even that statement is not accurate. All that matters is the degree to which these things move a tiny fraction of Americans to organize. Affecting broad public opinion lies in a future phase.

  4. FM is correct. Our military/foreign policy elites don’t bother to formulate a sensible plan before starting another endless unwinnable war overseas because the entire point is to keep America’s military-police-prison-surveillance-torture complex going. Endless war feeds the troughs of the Pentagon career ticket-punchers, the down-and-out 18-year-old kids who need that check from the military because there are no jobs back in Armpit, Alabama, and the police and prisons that have been militarized and now feed off the selfsame anti-terror pork barrel with federal anti-terror grants to buy military weapons, military-grade SWAT tanks, military training for the local police.

    Those enlistees who survive the foreign war meatgrinder become police, where they treat American citizens they’ve learned to treat Iraqis and Afghans and Syrians: kill ’em all and let God sort them out.

    Shutting the process down would eliminate one of the few viable industries left in deindustrialized America, now that we’ve shipped our manufacturing and an increasing amount of our service jobs overseas. Today, your choice is: become a dog groomer, or a cop. “Cop” has much more prestige. Become a hairdresser, or a prison guard. “Prison guard” earns far more respect — and much more money. Graduate from college and work part-time as a lifeguard or a barista…or join the military. Not a tough choice, that.

    There is of course the additional option of joining America’s medical-industrial complex, but, alas, the nursing schools and med schools are full up with five year waiting lists…

    War is now the health of the state. FM and other commentators who should know better, like Chet, don’t seem to realize that plans are superfluous when the entire purpose of America’s military today is to perpetuate itself and its funding by fighting wars which never end. That would mean an end to the vast 1.2-trillion-dollar-per-year river of gold flowing into our military-police-surveillance-prison-torture complex. Horrors!

    1. “Those enlistees who survive the foreign war meatgrinder become police, where they treat American citizens they’ve learned to treat Iraqis and Afghans and Syrians”

      That is an important point. The military serves as the entry point for a large fraction (I don’t know how many) of the people in the US security services (formerly called “law enforcement”). That might be one of the factors pushing their militarization.

      It might be a major factor in building the security services that maintain order in a New America, a political regime that looks to be far darker than the America-that-once-was.

  5. This is heading towards the one thing I have really feared, a full on superpower confrontation. The battle lines have been drawn and (given the latest news) hardening between the NATO powers and Russia. There no sign whatsoever that the West will take a step back from this, in fact there are probably some that look forward to this as a way ‘of slapping Russia down’, as if.

    Russia’s political equation is straightforward, basically confront the West now, or it will be over some of their own territory soon, they have already allowed themselves to be backed into a corner in a lot of areas and Western pressure is relentless. Putin’s body language recently was interesting, the face of a man who knows what is going to happen but has little choice in the matter, it is impossible to compromise with the West (over anything now). It is total surrender or nothing.

    So now we lurch, haltingly, stumblingly towards a real crisis. Each side has now upped the ante considerably:

    1. Report: Russia to Send Marines to Syria (via
    2. Report: Russian Advanced Weapons for Syria: (via
    3. Report: Syria civil war: Friends of Syria agree to supply ‘all the necessary material’ to rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad

    I that you (FM) think that the west will never get into a real confrontation, I do, in fact we have been steadily moving towards this. Everyone forgets how closely we dodged a bullet over the Georgian crisis, if Chaney had got his way US troops and ships would have been in direct conflict with Russian ones. I see the hands of Bush’s father in that one as being a significant factor in Shrub backing off.

    And: “Flash-forward to this past Wednesday. At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime — specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces. ” (, knocked back for now …
    But the same article mentions “On the other hand, a Kerry partisan told me, U.S. intervention in Syria would not necessarily have to look like U.S. intervention in Iraq. When I mentioned the Albright-Powell exchange of 20 years ago, he pointed out something obvious: President Bill Clinton eventually decided to use air power in the Balkans. And it brought the Serbian government to its knees. ”

    So only a matter of time now. Very appropriate too, this after all, is the region where Armageddon is supposed to be.

    1. “I that you (FM) think that the west will never get into a real confrontation, I do, in fact we have been steadily moving towards this.”

      Quite right, I don’t believe we will get into a substantial direct confrontation. That’s been the pattern since October 1962. That’s a 60 year record, and mirrors a much larger pattern of nuclear-armed powers avoiding direct confrontations: China – India, India – Pakistan. (I consider as without factual foundation the stories that India-Pakistan were close to war in 1998).

      The reason for this is rooted in the most basic of motives: it’s good to be King. Rulers tend to avoid risks that might result in their immediate death.
      That does not make such a confrontation possible. But suggests that if it happens it will be accidental and brief — as the fast response will be for one or both sides to back off.

      This is a assessment of probabilities. In human affairs predictions cannot be given as certainties.

    2. References to Revelations 16:16 don’t appear to apply to any kind of superpower confrontation RAND has gamed out.

      • Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.
      • The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, “It is done!”
      • Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake.
      • No earthquake like it has ever occurred since mankind has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake.
      • The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed.
      • God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath.
      • Every island fled away and the mountains could not be found.
      • From the sky huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, fell on people.
      • And they cursed God on account of the plague of hail, because the plague was so terrible.

      This best describes a global hit on LSD. Perhaps al Qaeda will spice up every municipal water system, creating what future generations will know of as The Great High.

      I think these references to Revelations result from over-active imaginations, watching too many big-budget action-adventure movies, bordom with suburban life, and half-remembered Sunday school lessons. I would be a rich man today if I could have bet $10 on every prediction of war I’ve read in the email and Twitter geopolitical threads.

  6. “Quite right, I don’t believe we will get into a substantial direct confrontation. That’s been the pattern since October 1962. That’s a 60 year record,”.

    That’s a comforting thought, … for you. And shows a level of trust in their competency that frankly that I don’t agree with.

    I’ll just pick 1983 to prick that comforting thought … when we got so close …..

    They are idiots FM. In that reported exchange in the White House, Russia never even came up. In their minds they were irrelevant. The US Armed forces argument was “that they were not ready an it would take a lot of organisation” and that “the impacts of sequestration” were hurting them, that the “impacts of Iraq and Afghanistan” were affecting them.

    Translated, yes will we do that but we need more money (to waste).

    Not a word, or even a thought about Russia. I am totally sure, within the “own reality’ of their minds they really think they can do this without any penalty or risk, at least to themselves (they think).

    Plus they probably think they could do a ‘slapdown’, where Russia (after being dutifully thumped by the ever so superior US forces) slinks back into its proper place of a being a waiting supplicant. Waiting until it is taken out of course (on the list) .

    These are deeply incompetent people, probably sociopaths to the core, living in their own invented reality.

    Expecting rationality from them .. after all they have done … what an optimist you are.

    1. Oldskeptic,

      You might be right; as we can only guess about such things. Only time will show who is correct. We probably will not have long to wait.

      What is the event in 1983 you refer to? Is it the Able Archer war game (see Wikipedia)? I do not understand your point, or references to 1983.

      1. Oldskeptic,

        Looks like the odds of a superpower confrontation in Syria (widespread) have gone down, as Russia takes a step to disengage: “Russia says it has replaced military personnel with civilian workers at naval base in Syria“, AP, 27 June 2013 — Opening:

        Russia has withdrawn all military personnel from its naval base in Syria and replaced them with civilian workers, the Defense Ministry said Thursday. The ministry did not say when the switch at the base at Tartus took place or how many personnel were deployed there. The minor facility is Russia’s only naval outpost outside the former Soviet Union. It consists of several barracks and depots used to service Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean.

  7. The leaders of the Chinese Communist party and the Russian oligarchs and the elites who rule America have much more in common with each other than they have with the rabble they rule. The Chinese Central Committee and the Russian oligarchs probably have Jamie Dimon and Joe Biden and Barack Obama and Grover Norquist on speed-dial. None of these guys are going to confront one another militarily or politically. They’re too deeply intertwined by shared financial and trade and offshored factory and outsourced labor interests to alienate one another.

    Oh, no doubt China and Russia will make a great show of demonizing America to keep their public pacified, just the American elites make a great show of demonizing the Russians and Chinese to keep our public servile and distracted. But at the end of the day, China welcomes with open arms American corporations building factories on their territory, just as Russia welcomes with open arms all those H1B visas offered to former Soviet Fourth Institute mathematicians and physicists who now work as quants on Wall Street, and just as America welcomes with open arms all those Chinese PhDs willing to work via internet for $5 an hour to make America’s elites ever richer.

    The whole spectacle reminds me of a series of commercials aired by Taco Bell and Taco Time a few years back where Taco Bell tried to create the impression that its food was fresher than Taco Time’s food, while Taco Time tried to convince people that they offered bigger portions than Taco Bell. It was all fraud. Both Taco Bell and Taco Time are owned by the same conglomerate. The commercials served merely to give the gullible public an illusion that the two restaurant chains were competing, so as to drive up the market share for both.

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