Why not Syria?

  • #1
russ_watters
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It is completely a coincidence, but today is the two year anniversary of when I started the "Why Libya, Why Not Syria?" thread: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=493814

Unfortunately as many middle-east threads do, it degenerated, but the issue is still relevant and today more relevant than ever. I'm starting this because of the news that the US intelligence community believes the Syrian government has used Sarin Gas on the rebels and Syrian civilians. The title of this one drops the reference to Libya because this situation now clearly stands on its own, incomparable to what led us to fight in Libya.

Here's a copy of the intelligence assessment:
http://www.foxnews.com/politics/interactive/2013/04/25/letter-on-chemical-weapons-use-in-syria/

Now, there is some hedging in it, but only a little bit of hedging. Basically it says that they are just mostly sure, not completely sure it was the Syrian government that used it. It references "physiological samples", which I take to mean they actually took tissue or other samples and chemically identified sarin. So we know for a fact that sarin has been used. But then it says "the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions." That means they don't have clear evidence that it was the Syrian government that used it, they just think (presumably based on who was targeted) that it was the Syrian government. That amount of hedging - to me - makes it just barely short of an ironclad case.

So where does that put us? Well:
President Obama has drawn a "red line" in Syria. The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have crossed it. Obama said last year, "A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized."
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-schneider/obama-toes-the-red-line-i_b_3165908.html

Cue chirping crickets:
The president never spelled out the consequences of crossing the "red line." All he said last year was, "That would change my calculus." A White House official warned after the intelligence assessment was released, "Don't take from this that this is an automatic trigger."

The administration says the evidence is still not conclusive. "Intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient," the White House letter said. No siree, not after what happened with the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Obama administration is being super-cautious with Syria, as it should be. "It is precisely because this is a red line that we have to establish with airtight certainty that this happened," a White House official told The New York Times.
So it is a "red line" with no defined consequences and an extremely tight standard of proof required. Sure, we got burned with the standard of proof on Iraq, but that standard of proof didn't even include the WMDs being used, just that they existed. Here we know for certain that it was used. So we're far beyond what existed for Iraq.

Yes, I'm a republican. Yes, I could probably be accurately called a "war hawk". But I'm a war hawk mostly (when we aren't directly threatened) for cases where there is problem that is really bad and really needs to be solved and we could solve it really easily. IMO, this is such a case. The death toll is getting pretty high and the Syrian people are suffering at the hands of a murderous dictator who has elevated himself to Khaddaffi/Hussein's level. The UN says the death toll is 70,000, with roughly eighty percent being civilians. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Syrian_civil_war

So my question is: how many is enough?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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It is completely a coincidence, but today is the two year anniversary of when I started the "Why Libya, Why Not Syria?" thread: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=493814

Unfortunately as many middle-east threads do, it degenerated, but the issue is still relevant and today more relevant than ever. I'm starting this because of the news that the US intelligence community believes the Syrian government has used Sarin Gas on the rebels and Syrian civilians. The title of this one drops the reference to Libya because this situation now clearly stands on its own, incomparable to what led us to fight in Libya.

Here's a copy of the intelligence assessment:
http://www.foxnews.com/politics/interactive/2013/04/25/letter-on-chemical-weapons-use-in-syria/

Now, there is some hedging in it, but only a little bit of hedging. Basically it says that they are just mostly sure, not completely sure it was the Syrian government that used it. It references "physiological samples", which I take to mean they actually took tissue or other samples and chemically identified sarin. So we know for a fact that sarin has been used. But then it says "the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions." That means they don't have clear evidence that it was the Syrian government that used it, they just think (presumably based on who was targeted) that it was the Syrian government. That amount of hedging - to me - makes it just barely short of an ironclad case.

So where does that put us? Well: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-schneider/obama-toes-the-red-line-i_b_3165908.html

Cue chirping crickets:
So it is a "red line" with no defined consequences and an extremely tight standard of proof required. Sure, we got burned with the standard of proof on Iraq, but that standard of proof didn't even include the WMDs being used, just that they existed. Here we know for certain that it was used. So we're far beyond what existed for Iraq.

Yes, I'm a republican. Yes, I could probably be accurately called a "war hawk". But I'm a war hawk mostly (when we aren't directly threatened) for cases where there is problem that is really bad and really needs to be solved and we could solve it really easily. IMO, this is such a case. The death toll is getting pretty high and the Syrian people are suffering at the hands of a murderous dictator who has elevated himself to Khaddaffi/Hussein's level. The UN says the death toll is 70,000, with roughly eighty percent being civilians. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Syrian_civil_war

So my question is: how many is enough?
So where would we get the money to fight a war with Syria?
 
  • #3
russ_watters
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So where would we get the money to fight a war with Syria?
Same place it always comes from. Same place it came from when we fought Libya. Not sure what kind of question that is, but anyway...

The war in Libya cost the US on the order of a billion dollars: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503543_162-20123941-503543/libya-mission-cost-u-s-more-than-1-billion/

I'm among the 53% of American tax filers who pays for such things, so that's an average of about $14 each. I'm willing to pay $14 to fix this.
 
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  • #4
nsaspook
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Both sides in the Syria war are extremist. Most of the Islamic moderates, Christians and secular leaders are with Assad. Russian and China will support Assad if we intervene directly in the fight. Let them work out their own problems if it can be contained. I feel for the poor civilians caught in the middle but it's their country to fix and not worth one drop of American blood.

http://www.strategyinternational.or...ism-in-syria-geopolitics-and-future-scenarios
 
  • #5
phinds
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Russ, you say it would be easy to fix. I don't see how you get that at all. Do you want us to nuke Assad or what?
 
  • #6
russ_watters
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I feel for the poor civilians caught in the middle but it's their country to fix and not worth one drop of American blood.
phinds said:
Russ, you say it would be easy to fix. I don't see how you get that at all. Do you want us to nuke Assad or what?
I'm not advocating spilling American blood. Similar to Libya and to a lesser extent Yugoslavia, providing air support to a revolution can be successful in enabling it to overthrow the government.
nsaspook said:
Both sides in the Syria war are extremist.
I believe that's true, but there is little better way to ingratiate yourself to a population than to help them free themselves from a dictator who is killing them. And if we do, we may be able to influence the direction of the new government.

At worst, we end up with another radical, but much less powerful enemy than we had before.

Moreover, your article (good article, btw) says that external extremists are injecting themselves into the conflict on both sides. That's a better reason for us to get involved, not a worse one. If we can help end the conflict, we can help stop the flow of extremists into it. That element of the conflict makes it a hotspot of our War on Terror and means the continuation of the war is a threat to our security.
 
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  • #7
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Same place it always comes from. Same place it came from when we fought Libya. Not sure what kind of question that is, but anyway...

The war in Libya cost the US on the order of a billion dollars: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503543_162-20123941-503543/libya-mission-cost-u-s-more-than-1-billion/

I'm among the 53% of American tax filers who pays for such things, so that's an average of about $14 each. I'm willing to pay $14 to fix this.
But Syria has more friends then Libya, e.g. Russia and China, so war with Syria would be much more costly and could easily draw the US into a war with unlimited consequences. Any war with Syria should have the same blessings of the international community as did the war with Libya.
 
  • #8
MarneMath
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I mostly concur with nsaspook. I spent a few years of my life in the middle east attempting to solve unsolvable problems. I don't want to send more 18 yr old kids to risk his life because a war hawks believe 14 dollars per American is a reasonable cost to risk his life. Especially don't want those very same kids to fight a war for an ally that very well may decide to turn on us once the whole ordeal is over.
 
  • #9
MarneMath
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I believe that's true, but there is little better way to ingratiate yourself to a population than to help them free themselves from a dictator who is killing them. And if we do, we may be able to influence the direction of the new government.

At worst, we end up with another radical, but much less powerful enemy than we had before.
While, I'll admit that the killings in Iraq by the government were not on the scale that is occurring right now in, memories are fickle things. I've walked through torture chambers, mass grave sites, and listen to the oral history of Saddam's rule. I heard it from guys who lost family to his rule or suffered themselves. It wasn't uncommon for those people to get sick of us and start to bomb us. The idea that we can influence a new government because we aided in their liberation is a false idealism. I have no doubt America would try, I also have no doubt that their attempt to do so would readily be seen and thus flare up more anti-American feelings in the region forcing whatever new government forms to take a hard stance against America. Much like what happens in Afghanistan.
 
  • #10
encorp
Isn't it better for the west if the country stays destabilized anyways? What's the point of going in, let em beat the hell out of each other until they can't take it anymore.. the longer it goes on, the longer none of us have to worry about the place. Most of the reason the U.S. even wages wars in this day and age is simply TO destabilize.

Obviously this sucks when you factor in respect of human life, but frankly, no side is any better when it comes to Syria.. so I could care less how many survive.
 
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  • #11
russ_watters
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But Syria has more friends then Libya, e.g. Russia and China, so war with Syria would be much more costly and could easily draw the US into a war with unlimited consequences.
Unlimited consequences? Do you really think they would actually go to war against us in Syria? I could see them vetoing a UNSC resolution, but even then it would look really really bad to vote in favor of a regime that is using WMDs.
Any war with Syria should have the same blessings of the international community as did the war with Libya.
Agreed. I'm quite sure we could round-up a coalition similar to what we had in Libya and I doubt that Russia and China would intervene - also like with Libya, I suspect they would merely abstain.
 
  • #12
russ_watters
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Isn't it better for the west if the country stays destabilized anyways? What's the point of going in, let em beat the hell out of each other until they can't take it anymore.. the longer it goes on, the longer none of us have to worry about the place. Most of the reason the U.S. even wages wars in this day and age is simply TO destabilize.

Obviously this sucks when you factor in respect of human life, but frankly, no side is any better when it comes to Syria.. so I could care less how many survive.
A valid point. As a pragmatist, I suppose in that way it is win-win for us if Islamic extremists are killing each other, but as a human being I find it offensive, particularly when the vast majority of those dying are civilians.
 
  • #13
encorp
A valid point. As a pragmatist, I suppose in that way it is win-win for us if Islamic extremists are killing each other, but as a human being I find it offensive, particularly when the vast majority of those dying are civilians.
Same here, truthfully. But at the same time, the U.S. does enough for the world.. sometimes putting something off when it can be, safely, is the smarter thing to do.
 
  • #14
BobG
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I'm among the 53% of American tax filers who pays for such things, so that's an average of about $14 each. I'm willing to pay $14 to fix this.
But would Grover Norquist?

In the current climate, I'm not sure what a war with Syria would mean. Would we be deficit hawks and raise taxes to pay for the war as we go? Would we be deficit hawks and cut spending in other areas to pay for the war as we go? Or would hold a hard line on taxes and pay for the war with deficit spending?

These should be dumb questions, but we set a precedent with Afghanistan and Iraq in that we decided we wouldn't let wars get in the way of reduced taxes and economic growth. Previously, the financial impact was part of the calculus used to decide whether the war was worth it or not.

However bad things are in Syria, will they be better after Assad is gone? From Syrian citizens' point of view, I'd have to say yes. But from our point of view? We don't know who will wind up in control after the war.

For that matter, we don't know what will happen to the weapons after the war. Many of the weapons used in Libya wound in Mali, making that a much larger than usual insurgency conducted by a whole different group than the usual insurgents. (Mali has had many Tuareg insurgencies that haven't gained much traction because the Tuaregs lacked money and weapons.)

The biggest positive is that we could help bring down Assad without sending in troops. In fact, given the lack of ground rules for using drones, the administration could probably assist Syrian rebels without even having to worry about Congress. In other words, providing limited assistance to Syria without a serious impact to our own country (in either lives or money) could actually be a reality given changes in our capabilities just in the last 10 years.

I think my biggest reason for lack of enthusiasm is that I just don't believe the results will be much better than their current leadership - at least from a US point of view. I don't see us gaining very much.
 
  • #15
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Isn't it better for the west if the country stays destabilized anyways? What's the point of going in, let em beat the hell out of each other until they can't take it anymore..
That's an argument to always back the losing side. Which may be the pragmatic position, but I do not think it's the morally right position.
 
  • #16
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I believe that's true, but there is little better way to ingratiate yourself to a population than to help them free themselves from a dictator who is killing them. And if we do, we may be able to influence the direction of the new government.
I'm not sure I agree with this statement. I'm definitely biased towards isolationism, but am open to being wrong. Are there any examples of this happening in recent history? How frequently does that happen versus the reverse? (I don't think Kosovars, Somalians, or Afghanis are very ingratiated with us, despite the military/humanitarian support we gave them)
 
  • #17
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I'm not sure I agree with this statement. I'm definitely biased towards isolationism, but am open to being wrong. Are there any examples of this happening in recent history? How frequently does that happen versus the reverse? (I don't think Kosovars, Somalians, or Afghanis are very ingratiated with us, despite the military/humanitarian support we gave them)
My understanding is that Kosovo has really good relations with the US.
 
  • #18
BobG
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I believe that's true, but there is little better way to ingratiate yourself to a population than to help them free themselves from a dictator who is killing them. And if we do, we may be able to influence the direction of the new government.

At worst, we end up with another radical, but much less powerful enemy than we had before.
I'm not sure I agree with this statement. I'm definitely biased towards isolationism, but am open to being wrong. Are there any examples of this happening in recent history? How frequently does that happen versus the reverse? (I don't think Kosovars, Somalians, or Afghanis are very ingratiated with us, despite the military/humanitarian support we gave them)
It's not true in Iraq (with the exception of the Kurds). However, there is an important caveat. This poll was taken 18 months ago, which is eons ago in a country where things are still changing very rapidly. At the time of the poll, Iraqis were very worried about how US troop withdrawal would affect their security. In the most recent Iraqi poll (which doesn't address attitudes aout the US at all), security concerns dropped below infrastructure needs (electricity, water, etc) as Iraqis major concern.

http://aai.3cdn.net/2212d2d41f760d327e_fxm6vtlg7.pdf [Broken]

Iraqis have very mixed opinions about the US. They feel the invasion made things worse, reduced political freedom (a very surprising opinion), and feel the US and Iran benefited most from the invasion. But they also feel the 2006 troop surge improved things in Iraq (suggesting the initial mess created the most negative feelings) and, while mostly approving of the US withdrawal, their main opinion towards the US withdrawal was worry (so far, most of that worry was unfounded). In fact, at the time, most Iraqis felt the US should stay as long as necessary in spite of their opinions about the US invading in the first place.

On the other hand, Iraqis view Iran as unfavorably as they do the US. 26% of Iraqis view the US favorably and 26% view Iran favorably. 67% view the US unfavorably and 66% view Iran unfavorably. As might be expected, Kurds (the group worse off under Hussein) view the US favorably and the Sunnis (the group in power under Hussein) view us very unfavorably. No group views Iran favorably, although more Shias view Iran favorably than other groups.

The poll says something, but Iraq is a place where polls lose relevancy quickly, so I wouldn't put too much stock in this poll even if it is the most recent regarding opinions of the US. Iraq was also very conflicted in its views (for example, 62% of Iraqis would like a democratic government, but 61% of Iraqis believe democracy won't work in Iraq, which could at least partially explain the surprising opinion about whether the US invasion improved political freedom).

Eliminating Hussein still could eventually result in Iraq liking the US, once Iraq has some real stability. It just neither has happened yet. I guess the main lesson is that there is no simple "if this .... then that..." when it comes to the result of liberating people from a dictator. The result is always messy and always a mixed bag.

While it doesn't address attitudes about the US at all, the most current poll about how Iraqis feel things are going in Iraq still might be interesting: National Survey of Public Opinion in Iraq
 
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  • #19
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Islamist Rebels Create Dilemma on Syria Policy
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/w...els-gains-in-syria-create-dilemma-for-us.html

NYTimes said:
CAIRO — In Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, rebels aligned with Al Qaeda control the power plant, run the bakeries and head a court that applies Islamic law. Elsewhere, they have seized government oil fields, put employees back to work and now profit from the crude they produce.

Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.

Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.
I think the problem of aiding rebels is that many are now hardened militants, and certainly Al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the situation.

The country is ethnically and religiously diverse, although there are large majorities, e.g., Sunnis who were previously oppressed. "Sunni account for 74% of the population, while 13% are Shia (Alawite, Twelvers, and Ismailis combined), 10% Christian (the majority Antiochian Orthodox, the rest include Greek Catholic, Assyrian Church of the East, Armenian Orthodox, Protestants and other denominations), and 3% Druze." Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syria#Religion
http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2006/71432.htm

It seems that a solution to the intractable conflict between religious and ethnic groups will take a generation or so, and would require a remarkable leader(s) to resolve. The US is very much an outsider.
 
  • #20
mheslep
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It's not true in Iraq (with the exception of the Kurds). ...
Zogby research might be evidence, but it is not identical to the the truth, as might expected when answers depend on weighing war versus freedom.

2008 Poll, ABC News, BBC, ARD, NHK. N=2,228
http://www.globalpolicy.org/images/pdfs/0308opinion.pdf

...Do you think your children will have a better life than you, worse, or about the same?
Better: 39%
Worse 28
Same 31

...Now thinking about how things are going, not for you personally, but for Iraq as a whole, how would you say things are going in our country overall these days? Would you say things are going very good, quite good, quite bad, or very bad?

Quite Good: 36%
Quite Bad: 36%

...From today’s perspective and all things considered, was it absolutely right, somewhat right, somewhat wrong, or absolutely wrong that US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq in spring 2003?

Absolutely Right: 21%
Somewhat Right: 28%
Somewhat Wrong 23
Abs. Wrong 27

...Your family's economic situation
Very Good: 15%
Quite Good: 42
Quite Bad: 27
 
  • #21
russ_watters
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But would Grover Norquist?
Grover who? Never heard of him.
In the current climate, I'm not sure what a war with Syria would mean. Would we be deficit hawks and raise taxes to pay for the war as we go? Would we be deficit hawks and cut spending in other areas to pay for the war as we go? Or would hold a hard line on taxes and pay for the war with deficit spending?
No tax or spending plan I'd be in favor of would be small enough to connect to a war against Syria, so that's pretty much an irrelevant question. But as with the other questions, I'll just connect it to the war in Libya, which had no special funding created for it, afaik.

Wars like Libya are so small they defy easy cost calculation anyway. We can calculate it based on the cost of the missiles fired (as is discussed in the wiki on it), but missiles have a shelf-life and are occasionally fired for training anyway. I wonder if the people who calculate costs for such things subtract that out of the equation?
These should be dumb questions, but we set a precedent with Afghanistan and Iraq in that we decided we wouldn't let wars get in the way of reduced taxes and economic growth. Previously, the financial impact was part of the calculus used to decide whether the war was worth it or not.
Apparently, Obama set a new precedent in Libya.
However bad things are in Syria, will they be better after Assad is gone? From Syrian citizens' point of view, I'd have to say yes. But from our point of view? We don't know who will wind up in control after the war.
I'll settle for that for right now. After all -- isn't it better to be on the right side of history? Isn't that enough? It is enough for me. And who knows, maybe they'll be grateful for it.
For that matter, we don't know what will happen to the weapons after the war.
Clearly, we should use this as an opportunity to destroy as many/much of them as we can. If the go to Mali, that doesn't really make things worse than they are now, does it? Terrorist dictatorships don't really get much worse than Syria.
I think my biggest reason for lack of enthusiasm is that I just don't believe the results will be much better than their current leadership - at least from a US point of view. I don't see us gaining very much.
Again, I know I'm idealistic, but I think it is worth $14 to be on the right side of history.

Re: your second post: interesting stats about public opinion in Iraq. So far so good, IMO even if they hold mutually exclusive opinions both for and against what we did. We're still only a few years removed though, so I'm hopeful that discrepancy will correct itself with time.
 
  • #22
MarneMath
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Aye, to only see war in dollar amounts, how I long for those days. I don't think I am alone when I say this, but this whole "right side" of history is just meaningless to me. 14 dollars is way to much to pay to drop bombs and kill enemies and probably civilians just so someone can walk around and feel good about doing the right thing. Just because in your mind things can't be worse, I'm not willing to take action without thoroughly understanding what it means to take action. There's a term we use in the military, "tactical patience", I wish civilians would appreciate that idea a bit more.
 
  • #23
russ_watters
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Aye, to only see war in dollar amounts, how I long for those days.
I'm reasonably certain this is the first time in history that that has ever been a realistic possibility.
I don't think I am alone when I say this, but this whole "right side" of history is just meaningless to me. 14 dollars is way to much to pay to drop bombs and kill enemies and probably civilians just so someone can walk around and feel good about doing the right thing.
That's a good point. Along a similar vein, I was considering donating $14 to the United Way tonight, but when I realized it would make me feel good, I decided against it. I'm sure the homeless person who didn't get to spend the night in a shelter for lack of my $14 would agree that it was worth it for him to sleep outside in the cold rather than feed my narcissism. :bugeye:
Just because in your mind things can't be worse, I'm not willing to take action without thoroughly understanding what it means to take action.
Two+ years and crossing the red line of using WMDs isn't enough to meet your criteria? :shrug: Fair enough: It was for me.
There's a term we use in the military, "tactical patience", I wish civilians would appreciate that idea a bit more.
I'm a veteran. Do you know the difference between "tactical" and "strategic"? I'll give you a hint: the decision to/not to go to war isn't a tactical decision.
 
  • #24
MarneMath
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I'm reasonably certain this is the first time in history that that has ever been a realistic possibility. That's a good point. Along a similar vein, I was considering donating $14 to the United Way tonight, but when I realized it would make me feel good, I decided against it. I'm sure the homeless person who didn't get to spend the night in a shelter for lack of my $14 would agree that it was worth it for him to sleep outside in the cold rather than feed my narcissism. :bugeye: Two+ years and crossing the red line of using WMDs isn't enough to meet your criteria? :shrug: Fair enough: It was for me. I'm a veteran. Do you know the difference between "tactical" and "strategic"? I'll give you a hint: the decision to/not to go to war isn't a tactical decision.
The difference between donating to charity and paying for a war should be enough to show that your comparison is a bit awkward. One, you're helping someone without killing someone, the other, you're killing people with the hope to help someone. I don't believe the United States is the world's police I don't believe we should ever use our military if it doesn't benefit us. Clearly, on the grand scheme of things, the United States tends to agree with this position. I don't buy into the whole "it's the right thing to do" because there are plenty of wars in African countries where civilians are/were killed on scales larger than Syria and all there is to say is "oh that's terrible!" So whenever I hear people advocate for war on moral grounds in one place but not another, I have to be a bit apprehensive and believe there are other reasons at play.

You're a non-combat veteran, which to me, means nothing really special. You got to play military for a while and never got to see the horrors of war. Good for you. It makes me bitter when veterans who never fought the battle argue for other kids to fight the battle. That's where a lot of my 'hostility" towards hawks. The military will always fight, I just hope we fight a war that benefits the United States on better grounds than the "feel good feelings." (I say this mostly because I spent 39 months in a combat zone, which nearly equals the length of service for some people or just under.)

I've also stated before when speaking to you that I would appreciate if you didn't bold, underline, italicize or speak to me as if I was an idiot. Of course I know the difference between strategic and tactical. I can't very well change the common military expression. The idea that it is meant to express is simply, it's better to let a situation develop than act irrationally. I think jumping into war while noble in intent is irrational if it doesn't benefit the United States and quite possible (very likely) will not improve the status quo.
 
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