Everyone Hates Ben: Epic Debate on Syria

Here at The Daily Banter, we strongly encourage debate on all the pieces we write. That's why Ben Cohen got into it with a reader on the Syria crisis, taking abuse from, well, pretty much everyone.

We encourage this here

Here at The Daily Banter, we strongly encourage debate on all the pieces we write. After all to 'banter', is to "talk or exchange remarks in a good-humored teasing way." It's not always good humored or teasing given we talk about some pretty serious stuff, but there are certainly lots of exchanges between the authors and readers.

The topic of Syria and President Obama's proposed action has been a source of some fairly heavy debate on the site - much of which has kicked off in the comments section. I've been at odds with not only the staff here at the Banter, but many of our readers due to my fairly definitive stance that US led military action is a very, very bad idea.

Bob Cesca wrote an excellent piece yesterday with a different take on what has been happening within the Obama administration. I have argued that the President has boxed himself in with regards to military action - he warned Assad not to use chemical weapons, then had to make good on him promise regardless of how idiotic US intervention would be. He then inexplicably went to Congress for permission, opening himself up to ludicrous attacks from Republicans who would oppose him even if he wanted to resurrect Ronald Reagan from the dead and take his place. It looked, at least to me, that the Russians saved Obama from himself by getting Syria to give up her chemical weapons in exchange for not getting bombed to pieces.

Bob argued that Obama was in fact adopting "a two-tiered strategy," that was, "on one hand, scaring the holy bejeezus out of Assad and Putin, while simultaneously offering enough time for Assad regime to save face as it figures out how to wiggle out of this mess." It's a compelling argument and I don't necessarily think it's wrong. Either way, it kicked off a huge debate in the comments section that contained some very interesting insights.

Scrolling through, I noticed several comments directed at myself, slamming me for laying into Obama and US foreign policy in general. Not being on to shy away from a good intellectual biff up, I got into it with a reader named 'Nick L.' who took issue with my stance on the topic. It was a great back and forth - a little bad tempered, but a good illustration of the different arguments surrounding the crisis (Nick and I both later apologized to each other for the snark, and left the debate on good terms). Anyhow, here's how it went down:

Nick L.: Countdown to the next Ben Cohen article suggesting this development is reflective of Obama's apparent stupidity and moral depravity. I guess it is lucky for the world that the mighty and virtuous Russians and Syrians were able to come to some kind of agreement before the wretched, dim-witted Americans could effect their tragic foreign policy plan. It would really be too bad for Ben if this works and he will no longer be able to wedge the President between the proverbial moral rock and a hard place in order to advance the tiresome European viewpoint that the US is a global enemy.

Ben: Yawn...exactly where in my writing have I suggested that Obama is stupid or morally depraved? And where have a I suggested that the Russians and Syrians are 'mighty and virtuous'? You really don't have any idea how international relations work, do you? I like Obama and think he does a pretty damn good job for the most part - but he is still the President of a giant empire with a history of beating up much of the world to get what it wants (as have ALL empires throughout history). When I analyze conflicts abroad I take history into account and don't just blindly take political rhetoric at face value.

I'm hoping the latest deal gets everyone out of this potential disaster, regardless of whether it was Obama's genius or massive amount of luck. Either way, you should probably read some books (and my actual writing) before jumping into the debate.

Nick L.: Yawn is right. I read plenty and I know when someone's argument is primarily informed by their own sense of moral superiority. Nothing else could lead someone to look at what is happening in Syria and declare any kind of practical absolutes, as you have done.

Military strikes on Syria are stupid in your opinion; a forceful response to the use of chemical weapons is folly. You suggested, not terribly subtly, that the President's interest in responding to the use of nerve agents against civilians is informed by a desire to preserve access to Syria's oil reserves (bizarre) and American hegemony. You left no room that perhaps a decent human being might look at what is happening in Syria and just want to do something to stop some part of the violence. You also completely missed the possible consequences that would come, because chemical weapons are extremely difficult to control, from the unintended release of sarin into Israel. You want to see WWIII then, by all means let us see what would happen if the Israelis are drawn in. You have consistently not allowed for the possibility that there would be entirely reasonable and even moral motivations behind a course of action you disagree with.

Also, regarding your continued penchant for painting Americans as isolationist stooges, the US and its citizens have some good reasons for not trusting the efficacy of the UN. Whether it was UN soldiers helping serbs to load up genocide victimshttp://www.theguardian.com/wor... or UN soldiers standing by and watching people get hacked to death in Rawanda, it always seems that it takes American blood to make anything the UN does stick. I don't ever see China or Russia ponying up for peacekeepers, or maybe that is because the only people the world trusts less than Americans are the Chinese and Russians. Certainly, it helps that when there is a tsunami, major earthquake, or nuclear disaster it is not uncommon that the US military (and civilian government) provides assistance. Anyhow, I always find it informative when know-it-all Europeans - the same people that bumbled the world into the two deadliest wars in human history - want to lecture everyone else from a position of moral authority. There are 300 million Americans and we hardly all think the same way.

I am not sure that you know how foreign relations work. You were too busy demonizing the administration for a policy that you thought was 'stupid' to take in for a moment the possibility that this is all part of diplomacy. Here is a book for you, Clausewitz wouldn't have been at all surprised by what has unfolded here. Military action exists on the poltico-diplomatic spectrum and represents one tool of many. The believable threat of military action can make bad actors come to the table. At this point, the US has out-manuevered Russia, China, and Syria no thanks to the hysterical do-nothing crowd. Hopefully you all remember this for the next time the president has an idea, just to spare us the ridiculous aspersions you seem to cast to make the man out to be half-stupid.

Ben: Good Lord, is this your usual tactic when it comes to debating people? Hurl hyperbolic accusations and hope that if you chuck enough of them that you win?

You are making a stunning number of assumptions that mostly betray some weird psychological hang up you have about 'snooty Europeans'. For the record, I've lived in the US for well over 10 years and love it here. America is a big part of my identity and I consider myself at least in part, culturally American.

First of all I agree - Europe's history is extraordinarily violent and destructive. Part of the reason it is reasonably peaceful now is the insane amount of killing it engaged in for hundreds of years, culminating in two horrific wars that wiped out millions of people. And let's move on to Britain - my nation - a traditionally colonizing empire that brutalized much of the world through violence and punitive trade. I'm no fan of my nation's historic record and criticize it openly.

That a good enough acknowledgment for you? Does this give me the right to criticize America now? I'm not arguing from a European perspective - I'm arguing on historical facts.

The truth is, you're a blind nationalist and a cheer leader who would rather point the finger at everyone else rather than look at the actual historic record and accept the awful things your country has done.

I don't think Obama and his team are sitting there thinking 'we want to grab oil from Syria so lets pretend we care about Syrians'. I'm sure that they are all horrified by Assad's actions, as are most normal people. But there are atrocities going on ALL OVER THE WORLD and you don't hear a peep out of the White House on the majority of them. And why is that?

You can either conclude the US government has a special place in its heart for Syrians, or there's strategic interest in the region. Obama heads up a very complex nation state that relies heavily on access to Middle Eastern oil reserves. I'm sure if he could wave a wand he'd have America become 100% energy independent and get the hell out of the Middle East. But he can't, so he has to play the game like everyone else on the world stage (Russia, China, Europe etc). Syria is a part of a very complicated jigsaw puzzle in the region, and US policy towards it reflects its broader interests in the region. If the US gave a flying fuck about human rights, it would be all over the Congo stopping children getting hacked to death on a daily basis. Congo isn't of interest to the US strategically speaking, so therefore it isn't threatening it with aerial bombing or preaching to them about human rights.

Again, I'm not saying that Russia, China, or Europe care about any of this stuff either - they are pursuing their own geo political interests, but they happen to be less gung ho about blowing people up (at least at this stage in history). That's what makes America so dangerous at this particular time: its massively bloated military, fracturing economy at home, and military industrial complex that essentially demands war to keep it in business.

Your hilarious rant on the UN is just that - hilarious. The US has openly flouted international law and the UN more so than virtually every other major power in recent history. There are the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the toppling of foreign leaders in Latin America and the Middle East, war crimes in Vietnam/Iraq/Afghanistan, the political and financial support of Israel's continued violations of international law, the support of brutal dictatorships around the world - the list goes on.

You can cite as many Russian/Chinese/European violations as you want, but it doesn't stop what I'm saying about America from being true. And if you were intellectually honest, you would accept that.

Sadly, you can't. You can only engage in 'my team is better than your team' ranting matches in order to win an argument. Pretty sad really.

Nick L.: Sigh. Let me walk through this one, because I think you painting me as a nationalistic troll is exactly the problem with your entire analysis. Simple caution about carrying out military strikes is not the same as strident declarations of stupidity.

I live in Europe. I have been in enough discussions that begin with underlying mistrust of Americans and their motives to recognize it. Over the last few days, you have made enough generalizing and offensive assumptions about Americans to make me think it at least informs your own opinion.

Your "historical facts" have little bearing on this conversation about Syria. That the US waged a genocidal conflict against Native Americans or propped up South American dictators has as little bearing on Obama's opinions about Syria as the Nazis bear on Merckel's, or the Ukranian genocide bears on Putin's. The international community has rejected the use of chemical weapons for almost a century. Again, this isn't Obama's red line, this is the World's. Your descriptions of military action poison the well and suggest that any inclination to such action reflects moral deficiency.

I am not sure that it is so difficult to see that Syria is not the Congo, Syria is not Iraq, and Syria is not Libya. We are talking about the internationally prohibited use of chemical weapons, a potentially destabilizing use that could escalate a terrible war and involve a number of regional powers. The Congo is a terrible situation, which cannot in anyway be helped by threatening to fire tomahawk cruise missiles into the country. The Congo controls plenty of natural resources that are extremely valuable on the global market; if that is all we cared about we would be there. On the other hand, the threat of impending strikes scared both Russia and Syria enough that when any chance for an out was presented they both jumped. Ultimately, the serious threat of military action provided the leverage to push a deal.

My statements about the UN are in response to your ridiculous assertions that Americans (as in, all of us) don't trust the UN. Well, even if I accepted that contention, I would say that we have good reason. The UN is not a panacea of world peace. It is crippled by its statutes and, while it is useful to have a forum for global diplomacy, the UN generally does a poor job of responding to crises. The use of chemical weapons represents a clear and present threat to global stability; it isn't enough to just throw up your hands and say that we can't do anything because it isn't okay with the UN. By the way, the UN got completely bypassed in this little deal.

Obama doesn't do everything right, but he isn't stupid and treating him like he doesn't know his job is getting old. You targeted him. I am fairly under the impression that you believed the only acceptable response to this crises was to go back to the security council and continue to bang our heads against the wall. Playing chicken is a well-worn diplomatic strategy, especially when your opponent has way more to lose than you do. Here it seems to have worked. The President's strategy worked.

Reasonable people can view Syria and be appalled. Reasonable people can admit that it is incredibly complicated and there is no clear solution. Reasonable people can disagree on what the best course of action is. Unreasonable people call these strategies stupid. Unreasonable people suggest these strategies are motivated by national greed and international bullying.

The use of chemical and biological weapons poses a uniquely uncontrollable threat to humanity. Their limited efficacy is largely based in the type of terror they instill in poential victims. If aren't willing to fight to stop their use, then what the hell are we all doing here?