NY Times bold headline analyzing “eroding” US standing over Syria based on…ONE analyst’s account
Anne Bernard’s piece in the NY Times the other day unfortunately suffers from its reliance on only a few anecdotal discussions with anti-Assad individuals (who would say what they said of course) despite the wide headline for the piece that clearly suggest broad agreement – as Angry Arab said yesterday. Indeed, she claims this in the beginning of the piece:
“Their dismay reflects a broader sense on all sides that President Obama’s policies on Syria and the Islamic State remain contradictory, and the longer the fight goes on without the policies being resolved, the more damage is being done to America’s standing in the region…”
— Where did the “ALL sides” suddenly come from? Well, sadly, the use of only a few anti-assad activists and skype chats in the piece is not the main problem by any stretch.
The key failings are twofold:
1) Anne, for some reason, relies on only ONE analyst to support her broad claim and headline… and it is Emile. She gives NO context to where Emile’s ideological roots are or what he has been arguing for years (essentially that military force is the ONLY and best thing that will work against the “Resistance Axis” and, at every turn, that wide military force should/must be pursued to this end). I have disagreed with Emile many times over the years – of course he, like Anne, are exceptionally sharp, hard working etc… – and I am certainly on a particular side of the debate. But to posit Emile as some kind of balanced, disinterested analyst is exceedingly problematic for Times readers (same would go if it was done for me). Emile has been a constant critic from the right of the Obama Admin and a proponent of some of the most aggressive policy recs out of the Beltway for more than a decade. Either way – he is the ONLY analyst cited in a piece whose headline feeds into exactly what the Obama admin’s opponents have been saying for sometime – a line of attack devoid of alternative, effective solutions, devoid of context (such as why accelerating violence is a really really bad short and long term “idea” that does not work and has never worked in any comparable situation…) and which narrowly cherry picks some of the administrations mistakes only (mistakes which I would criticize too, albeit from an opposite policy prescription stance that seeks conflict mitigation rather than conflict acceleration).
2) Anne paints a false choice between Emile’s barely concealed preferred strategy (a wide war against Bashar and ISIS…. and hopefully against Hizbullah and Iran as well) and what she mysteriously calls the approach of “Supporters of Mr. Assad.” Angry Arab criticized her rightly for this unhelpful, anon sort of journalism. For me the far deeper problem is her construction of a false choice.
Anne is well aware that the other alternative is NOT ONLY (as she posits): “that the United States should ally with [Assad] and his main backer, Iran. They note that Iran’s proxies have already worked indirectly with American-backed forces to fight ISIS in Iraq, and that in Syria, those forces appear far better organized than Mr. Obama’s putative allies, mainstream Syrian insurgents opposed to the Islamic State.”
— This makes it seem as though you are either with bombing Bashar and widely arming nice guy rebels OR you are with the baby-killing Bashar regime. This formulation is of course absurd and Anne knows that the UN’s de Mistura and many others have proposed alternatives which do NOT involve allying with Bashar or fighting in concert with him but do involve coming to a political settlement with a regime still led by him, settling on de facto stabilization/cease fire lines… ending the killing on all sides (though originally sparked of course by Bashar’s regime), and then better focusing regional energy on the fight against ISIS by being able to stabilize the rebel-Assad front for an extended period of conflict mitigation.
Many of us have argued that this approach – a third way of several which Anne ignores – is the best approach for a variety of actors – but especially for ending the misery of war, which has a large moral and strategic benefit for many, especially at this point in the conflict. Many have and are trying to fill in the policy and political blanks here – led by de Mistura of course. But none of this is posed in the piece which instead goes for the “with good or with evil” maxim, thus giving Obama’s critics more ammunition to pursue their preferred (likely disasterous) approach and giving readers less insight into the real possibilities that are emerging and that have, in fact, been evident very early on as I argued here in the NY times almost three years ago.