The New York Time's Bill Keller and Mindlessness over Syria

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The New York Time's Bill Keller and Mindlessness over Syria

I’ll make this short.

Twenty-four hours ago, we posted Amb. Robert Hunter’s analysis of the Syria question and his appeal to Obama to “keep his nerve (backed by the US military leadership) and continue resisting attempts to drag the US even more deeply into Syria.” He prefaced his essay with a quotation from the British political TV series, “Yes, Prime Minister;” to wit: “It’s safer to be heartless than mindless. History is the triumph of the heartless over the mindless.”

Twelve hours later, I read Bill Keller’s column, “Syria is Not Iraq,” in Monday’s edition of the New York Times, which, to be frank, I found to a virtually perfect example of the kind of  mindlessness over heartlessness that Amb. Hunter may have had in mind. I know Keller is being completely sincere in his beliefs, but I was frankly appalled at what seemed to me precisely the thoughtlessness of the column, which, given its length (over 1300 words — just 200 words less than his infamous Feb 8, 2003 column, “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club,” that endorsed the Iraq invasion) and placement on the page, seemed calculated to convey the impression that it was The Final Word.

For mindlessness, take this passage, which follows his ruling out of putting U.S. boots on the ground, an outcome, he notes, “nobody favors:”

The United States moves to assert control of the arming and training of rebels — funneling weapons through the rebel Supreme Military Council, cultivating insurgents who commit to negotiating an orderly transition to a nonsectarian Syria. We make clear to President Assad that if he does not cease his campaign of terror and enter negotiations on a new order, he will pay a heavy price. When he refuses, we send missiles against his military installations until he, or more likely those around him, calculate that they should sue for peace.

All of this must be carefully choreographed and accompanied by a symphony of diplomacy to keep our allies with us and our adversaries at bay. The aim would be to eventually have a transition government, stabilized for a while by an international peacekeeping force drawn mostly from neighboring states like Turkey.

Now, without boots on the ground, how is it that the U.S. will “assert control of the arming and training of rebels?” And how will the Supreme Military Council ensure that only the “good” insurgents will get the weapons that will be funneled through the SMC? And are we sure that “sending missiles against his military installations” will persuade Assad and those around him to sue for peace? And if he or they don’t, what will be the next step to change his calculations? “Boots on the ground?” And how would he constitute “an international peacekeeping force drawn mostly from neighboring states like Turkey” when all of the neighbors are increasingly on one side or the other of the widening sectarian conflict? Sounds great, but who is he talking about? Iraq? Lebanon? Jordan, Saudi Arabia? And has he consulted the latest surveys on Turkish public opinion and what it might think about sending troops into Syria? Are these informed recommendations? Of course, Keller adds that he doesn’t “mean to make this sound easy,” but, in fact, that’s precisely what he’s doing, just as he did when he was a self-described “reluctant hawk” on Iraq.

Keller also notes that he was wrong on Iraq, calling his position a “humbling error of judgment.” But it’s clear that the statute of limitations on humility — and perhaps on the Iraq War itself — has expired. (Hence, “…getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.”) His column is anything but humble. It is filled with the conviction that he knows what’s best for all concerned, with confidence that his risk analysis is on the mark, that good guys and bad guys can be easily distinguished, that doing something is better than doing nothing (an idea he credits to an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, an American Enterprise Institute satellite). In short, his column is filled with the same kind of arrogance that he brought to Iraq as a “reluctant hawk” ten years ago. Indeed, Syria and Iraq may not be the same, but Keller hasn’t changed.

Jim Lobe, IPS News

Jim Lobe has served as Washington DC correspondent and chief of the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service (IPS), an international news agency specializing in coverage of issues and events of interest to developing countries, from 1980 to 1985, and again from 1989 to the present.

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