"Do or Do not. There is no try."

“The Syria Babble We Don’t Need”: Reducing Complicated Issues To Campaign Style Contests

Our country is about to make the most excruciating kind of decision, the most dire: whether to commence a military campaign whose real costs and ultimate consequences are unknowable.

But let’s by all means discuss the implications for Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Iowa, New Hampshire and 2016. Yea or nay on the bombing: which is the safer roll of the dice for a Republican presidential contender? Reflexively, sadly, we journalists prattle and write about that. We miss the horse race of 2012, not to mention the readership and ratings it brought. The next election can’t come soon enough.

So we pivot to Hillary Clinton. We’re always pivoting to Hillary Clinton. Should she be weighing in on Syria more decisively and expansively? Or does the fact that she authorized the war in Iraq compel restraint and a gentler tone this time around? What’s too gentle, and what’s just right? So goes one strand of commentary, and to follow it is to behold a perverse conflation of foreign policy and the Goldilocks fable.

The media has a wearying tendency — a corrosive tic — to put everything that happens in Washington through the same cynical political grinder, subjecting it to the same cynical checklist of who’s up, who’s down, who’s threading a needle, who’s tangled up in knots, what it all means for control of Congress after the midterms, what it all means for control of the White House two years later.

And we’re doing a bit too much of this with Syria, when we owe this crossroads something more than standard operating procedure, something better than knee-jerk ruminations on the imminent vote in Congress as a test for Nancy Pelosi, as a referendum on John Boehner, as a conundrum for Mitch McConnell, as a defining moment for Barack Obama.

You know whom it’s an even more defining moment for? The Syrians whose country is unraveling beyond all hope; the Israelis, Lebanese and Jordanians next door; the American servicemen and servicewomen whose futures could be forever altered or even snuffed out by the course that the lawmakers and the president chart.

The stakes are huge. Bomb Syria and there’s no telling how many innocent civilians will be killed; if it will be the first chapter in an epic longer and bloodier than we bargained for; what price America will pay, not just on the battlefield but in terms of reprisals elsewhere; and whether we’ll be pouring accelerant on a country and a region already ablaze.

Don’t bomb Syria and there’s no guessing the lesson that the tyrants of the world will glean from our decision not to punish Bashar al-Assad for slaughtering his people on whatever scale he wishes and in whatever manner he sees fit. Will they conclude that a diminished America is retreating from the role it once played? Will they interpret that, dangerously, as a green light? And what will our inaction say about us? About our morality, and about our mettle?

These are the agonizing considerations before our elected leaders and before the rest of us, and in light of them we journalists ought to resist turning the Syria debate into the sort of reality television show that we turn so much of American political life into, a soap opera often dominated by the mouthiest characters rather than the most thoughtful ones.

Last week, in many places, I read what Sarah Palin was saying about Syria, because of course her geopolitical chops are so thoroughly established. A few months back, I read about Donald Trump’s thoughts on possible military intervention, because any debate over strategy in the Middle East naturally calls for his counsel.

They’re both irrelevant, but they’re eyeball bait: ready, reliable clicks. I wonder how long I’ll have to wait before a post on some Web site clues me into Beyoncé’s Syria position. Late Friday, Politico informed the world of Madonna’s. (She’s anti-intervention.)

This type of coverage hasn’t been the dominant one. But plenty of it is creeping in.

Here’s a smattering of headlines, subheads, sentences and phrases from various news organizations last week: “Votes on Syria could have huge ramifications on 2016 contenders”; “Vote puts Republicans mulling 2016 run on the spot”; “Democrats and Republicans are choosing their words carefully, lest they take a hit three years from now”; “the difficult line G.O.P. presidential contenders like Rubio must balance in trying to project a sense of American military might without turning off conservatives skeptical about following Obama’s lead”; “the risk for Paul is if Obama’s prescription for Syria turns out to be a success”; “Mitch McConnell’s muddle”; “Hillary Clinton’s Syria dilemma.”

Some of this rightly illuminates the political dynamics that will influence the final decisions about a military strike that individual members of Congress and the president reach. It’s essential in that regard.

But some merely reflects the penchant that we scribes and pundits have for reducing complicated issues to campaign-style contests and personality-based narratives, especially if those personalities have the stature and thus the marketability of celebrities.

Celebrities get clicks, while the nitty-gritty is a tougher sell. I’ll not soon forget a BuzzFeed post from last February with this headline: “The sequester is terrible for traffic.” It didn’t mean Corollas and Escalades. It meant the number of readers bothering with Web stories on a subject they deemed as dry as they apparently did the federal budget and automatic cuts to spending.

The traffic lament shared the screen with a link to an utterly different style of political feature asking readers to indicate which “presidential hotties” they’d get down and dirty with. The headline on that post? “Sexy U.S. presidents: would you hit it or quit it?” Sex, I guess, brings on rush hour. Maybe presidents do, too. They’re celebrities, even the dead ones.

It’s easy for the media and our consumers to focus on recognizable figures, how they’re faring and what they’re saying (or, better yet, shouting). I even spotted recent reports on what Chris Christie wasn’t saying. They noted that he hasn’t articulated a position on Syria, though that’s unremarkable and appropriate. He isn’t receiving the intelligence that members of Congress are, and he doesn’t get a vote.

He’s not the story, and neither is Paul or Rubio or the rest of them. What matters here are the complicated ethics and unpredictable ripple effects of the profound choice about to be made.

And if we want the men and women making it to be guided by principle, not politics, it surely doesn’t help for journalists to lavish attention on electoral calculations and thereby send our own signal: that we don’t expect, and voters shouldn’t count on, anything nobler. On a question of war and peace, we need nobler. We need the highest ground we can find.


By: Frank Bruni, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 7, 2013

September 9, 2013 Posted by | Media, Syria | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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