Roundtable – Syria and North Korea

The Roundtable is a conversation about the news among Torchlight’s writers and editors. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity, and all citations and links were  added after the fact. The conversation happened April 15. 

Tom Rich

Welcome to the Torchlight Roundtable, where we hash out the week’s news. This week’s topic is the conflict in Syria: the background, last week’s chemical weapon attack and President Trump’s response to it, and what, if anything, might be done going forward. I’m Editor-in-Chief Tom Rich, and with us today are Senior Managing Editor Josh Kyu Saiewitz and Politics Editor Christopher Dahlin.

To start us off, I think there are two lines of questioning at the moment: did the President’s airstrikes on the Syrian base make a substantial difference one way or the other, and, more broadly, what path does the conflict take from here? Is there any road that seems to lead anywhere but more wars?

 

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

Yes, but probably not for Syria; nowhere good; either more wars or the horrible status quo, depending.

 

Christopher Dahlin

War in Syria for the short and medium term seems inevitable.  There are too many sides with too much invested for there to be even a delicate balance of almost peace. The airstrikes I think did basically nothing except give Trump some dangerous validation.

 

Josh

Yeah, I agree with that last part. We have a vain president eager for praise and a media and political establishment in love with military strikes. They’re basically telling Trump that as long as he kills foreigners he’s going to be popular and loved.

 

Christopher

I think the big change factor is that Assad made Putin look ineffectual with the gas attack. Putin staked some international credibility of being a foreign power on being able to reign Assad in, somewhat, and it now seems as if he can do nothing.

 

Tom

The broad-strokes coverage of military actions last week was entirely baffling to me. The strikes in Syria were new and newsworthy, but the movement of the carrier fleet toward North Korea struck me as a lot of column inches spent on a fairly normal event; we move ships up that way in response to saber-rattling with some frequency. And the whole MOAB business was a complete non-story. We’ve been bombing Afghanistan for ages; why is it a story when we use one large bomb instead of several smaller ones? And, of course, the “look at these beautiful shots of missiles launching” thing is an absurdity.

 

Christopher

I think the topic on everyone’s mind is of course the MOAB. The media’s continued fetishization of our military tools continues to be creepy. I think a deeper question is who is actually making these decisions.

The usual decision process is that the intelligence agency gives information on the target, the military gives several options of response, and then the DNI presents all of the choices and outcomes and so on, and the president chooses. However, with President Trump, he probably didn’t pay much attention, and is… somewhat manipulable so the question is who is making the decisions.

 

Josh

All of these normal things are news because of Trump’s unpredictability. When Obama did something normal nobody needed to talk about it because it was clearly part of a sustained, coherent foreign and military policy. When Trump does something normal, it’s either a sign that he’s about to do something crazy, or it’s a sign that he’s not about to do something crazy, both of which are newsworthy.

 

Christopher

The reason NK is news this weekend is simply because no one knows whether Trump is bulshitting, and the reason know one knows that is because most people don’t think he knows what he’s talking about

 

Josh

Also “mother of all bombs” is a stupid yet exciting phrase for news anchors to say so that’s why we heard about that.

 

Tom

Right, but the coverage was all about the fleet movement and the potential conflict, when the story is “holy crap, that guy from The Apprentice is in charge of all of this.” Perhaps I’m being picky, but my impression was that focus was on the ships and bombs, not the guy in charge.

 

Christopher

It’s because “What is the deal with this president?” with Seinfeld.jpg is actually terrible journalism. So news explains what’s going on, and then if they are any good, the context for it.

 

Josh

It is? Crap, now I have to rewrite my next article.

So there’s a reason why we weren’t sure whether to talk about Syria or North Korea today, and I think it’s because these events are bound up together.

 

Christopher

I agree.

 

Josh

The Syrian air strikes were really Trump’s first foray into a complex foreign policy issue, and everybody is trying to figure out what those actions mean in terms of his next foray into a complex foreign policy issue, North Korea.

 

Christopher

Additionally, Trump getting praise for his militarism is an extremely dangerous precedent that has now been set. Whenever he wants the press to say “Truly, he is presidential now” his first instinct will be kinetic

 

Tom  

Dangerous, but not unexpected; Nate Silver had an article earlier on about the “rally-around-the-flag” effect, and whether or not Trump is likely to benefit from it.

 

Christopher

Until eventually something goes wrong, and does something monstrous, or a catastrophic failure happens.

 

Josh

CNN: “I think the destruction of Seoul tonight was when Trump finally became the president”

 

Christopher

It’s not about benefit for Trump, except on a personal, ego-salving level.

 

Josh

I think Trump ultimately gains votes from the “fuck yeah” blow-shit-up crowd and doesn’t lose many from his base, despite their general isolationism, so I think there’s political hay to be made here as well as personal ego-tripping.

 

Christopher

I meant caused by America’s side, but hopefully Trump doesn’t literally call for the destruction of an ally’s capital.

 

Josh

Well, South Korea are the hostages that North Korea holds, and the more Trump presses the issue the more likely they’ll shoot.

 

Christopher

I don’t think that stuff translates to any other sort of benefit, though.  It’s not like people are going to say “Fuck you, we blew shit up. Please take away our healthcare!” And that’s why what Trump is doing is news, Josh.  Does Trump know the limits, or even the game?

 

Josh

Sure it does–Trump’s low approval ratings make it harder for Congress to do what he wants, because those numbers are translating into results at the polls. Listen, Trump gave an interview about the Syria strikes where he remembered with great clarity the delicious Mar-a-lago cake he was eating but forgot which country he’d bombed. Trump’s world is a hazy fog

 

Christopher

But I don’t think his actual approval numbers will improve. The approval of this or that military action may be relatively stable, but not his presidency as a whole. Because him going militaristic is something most people assumed he would do.

I think those numbers were already baked in, and this is basically him just checking off a campaign promise box. So now Trump has given an ultimatum that he probably doesn’t understand except “be tough,” and so now everyone is wondering if the end of the world is coming closer, because Trump doesn’t understand diplomacy, foreign policy, or consequences

 

Tom

I think the cake incident gives us a segue into the second half of the conversation. Trump’s callousness there, and the fact that we find it callous, is a reminder that there’s a tremendous amount of human suffering involved in both Syria and North Korea. Aside from whether or not Donald Trump will do it, do you see any road forward for Syria and/or North Korea to something more stable? We mentioned that the Syrian civil war seems intractable in the near term, but what about North Korea’s situation? And in either case, is there a productive role for the United States to play?

 

Christopher

We could take in some damn refugees.

 

Josh

Syria and North Korea both represent massive humanitarian crises that the global community is utterly failing to solve. And the refugees are, I think, the main reason for that! We could solve North Korea if China decided to work with us, but they’re terrified of having to deal with the millions of NK refugees that would result if that dictatorship toppled.

 

Christopher

North Korea is basically a house of cards on spinning plates.  They have gotten very good at existing on the brink, but it is a brink.

Exactly, [Josh], they know china will support them, somewhat. Although China has stopped taking coal imports.

 

Josh

Syria is more complex, but our ambivalence toward Assad and the suffering he’s caused compared to ISIS and they suffering they’ve caused is what has America propping up both sides of that conflict.

 

Christopher

And [China has] started taking coal imports from the US, for the time being.

 

Josh

There’s more to it than that, but one reason these knots are so Gordian is because America, China, and countries around the world simply don’t want to deal with the human fallout here.

 

Christopher

Exactly. As long as the situation is status quo enough that the situation stays within the borders, that is the goal right now. I think it’s horrible, but there we are.

 

Josh

So for what role the US could play, I think Sean Spicer’s “At least Assad isn’t as bad as Hitler” comments point the way forward. The world also took far too long to react to Hitler and the Holocaust. America turned away Jewish refugees, literally sending them back to die.

 

Christopher

His point was that Assad is actually worse than Hitler, but we aren’t going to do anything about it besides this airstrike. Gods that whole thing was confoundingly offensive and dumb.

 

Josh

Right. If we sincerely believed the mass murder in Syria or the horrible conditions in North Korea were as bad as the Holocaust, we could step up to protect those people. Instead I think we’ll follow the same pattern–holding the situation steady militarily while letting people on the ground suffer until such time as a violent solution presents itself.

 

Christopher

Well, presumably if we actually thought they were worse than Hitler, we would smash them with the might of the American Military Industrial Complex. That’s what it’s for.

 

Josh

The problem with that strategy beyond the strategy is that Trump and his admin is incredibly incompetent. I doubt they’re trying to force a war here (well, who knows, it all depends on the cake) but it seems like that’s what they’re bumbling towards.

 

Christopher

Yes, even if they came up with a decent strategy somehow, the implementation of it would be key.

 

Tom

It seems like we keep circling back to “maybe a different administration could be effective, but this one is almost certain to bungle things.” But the Obama administration couldn’t thread the needle, either. Is it possible we just don’t have a role to play here at all?

 

Christopher

Well that’s the thing.  A civil War will go on as long as the people inside the country want it to. We had finally seemed to learn that after 40 or 50 years. On the other hand, we can do things to help alleviate suffering, and make it easier for the sides to come to the table. But those are not sure things, they are not big things, and they don’t help the people suffering in the immediate sense.

 

Josh

I think the Obama administration did some good. They got Assad to give up a bunch of chemical weapons (not all, we know now, but still a lot), and they were taking in more refugees.

 

Christopher

Agreed, Josh.

 

Josh

The politically acceptable solution to Syria for America is really to destroy ISIS first so that we can fight Assad without fighting a key ally, and Obama was doing that, too. As for North Korea, the only politically acceptable strategy there is to try and maintain status quo while we slowly get China to come around (the politically unacceptable strategy would be to craft a global coalition promising to take in NK refugees), and Obama was doing that. Trump mentioned that while talking with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping that after listening for ten minutes, he realized the situation wasn’t as simple as he thought.

 

Christopher

It seems that China is willing to follow that playbook for the time being, actually. Like I said, they stopped taking in North Korean coal. It’s assumed to be punishment for Malaysia. [Christopher is referring to the murder of Kim Jong-Nam. -Tom]

 

Josh

I think we can all agree these are horrendously difficult problems with few good answers and even fewer within the bounds of possibility.

 

Christopher

Foreign policy is figuring out what all the options are, and discovering they are all terrible.

 

Tom

Definitely. It’s the sort of thorny problem that experienced and professional diplomats will stumble over.

 

Josh

There may be some hope there, you’re right, but overall Trump is gasoline on a trash fire. Might not hurt but certainly not going to help anytime soon.

 

Christopher

It doesn’t help that we have no China Ambassador, no Assistant Sec of State of Asian affairs, or anything like that. No senior diplomatic officials over there at all, basically.

 

Josh

Hilariously Trump claims the Democrats are obstructing him on hundreds of positions he hasn’t nominated anyone for yet. I think the plan is just for Kushner to do everything.

 

Tom

Do you think that the lower-level staff, the non-appointees that is, can be effective in holding the diplomatic line?

 

Josh

They could if Trump was, like, a stuffed animal. But as long as he continues to tweet and turn his policies around on a dime like he did with Syria (a week before the attack, the admin said Assad was Syria’s problem), neither the low level people nor Tillerson can actually succeed at any kind of diplomacy.

 

Christopher

Also, most of those positions are not Senate confirmed.

 

Josh

There’s always going to be that random chance that Trump changes his mind and lobs a rhetorical hand grenade into the conversation.

 

Christopher

He has trouble finding people that want to work there and have also not badmouthed him in the past.

 

Tom

So if I’m a staffer at the embassy in Beijing, even if my Chinese counterpart has confidence in me, personally, he doesn’t dare trust what I say because there’s no way to predict when and how the President will override me.

 

Christopher

Yeah, part of the problem with our foreign policy is there is no strategy behind it, it is essentially the whim of the president.

 

Josh

Not only that, but with Trump’s basic disinterest in (or inability to) staff out his agencies, a lot of the people still in place are Democrats. You can’t assume Trump stands behind them at all.

 

Tom

So, to sum up: we might be able to make progress on some of these things if there was a steady hand at the tiller, but there isn’t, so we probably can’t do much more than hold the status quo, at best.

 

Christopher

Yup.

 

Josh

No.

We might be able to make progress on some of these things if the political will existed to handle refugees, but it doesn’t; we might be able to hold the status quo if there was a steady hand at the tiller, but there isn’t; so these situations will probably continue to degrade.

 

Christopher

I think you guys just agreed. Status quo at best is not exactly a ringing endorsement.

 

Josh

If I can throw one more thing in here at the end… Trump gained popularity among his base in 2016 in part based on both his criticisms of the Iraq war and Middle East adventurism in general AND his anti-refugee stance. Given the inextricable connections we’ve laid out between those policy areas, I think this is another instance of Trump’s base having utterly conflicting desires. That conflict is one reason why the top-level events are ultimately chaotic and dangerous.

 

Christopher

Well the base not being able to comprehend high level foreign policy isn’t exactly their fault.  It’s why we should have experts be dealing with it.

 

Josh

Unfortunately we can’t even get the cake right.

 

Christopher

Think about the consequences of us poisoning President Xi for a moment. At Trump’s personal resort.

 

Tom

On that note, we’re about out of time. Thanks for the lively discussion, all!

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