There are certain places to be, because they’re simply the place to be – where things are happening. There’s something in the air – the future is being formed – the rest of the world will catch up later. In the eighteenth century it was London, the center of everything. As Samuel Johnson said, when a man is tired of London, he’s tired of life. Later it was Paris, from the Belle Époque years at the end of the nineteen century through the twenties, with Hemingway and Fitzgerald hanging around Gertrude Stein’s place, rolling their eyes at Picasso and puzzled by that odd little Irishman, James Joyce. Anyone who was anyone hung out in Paris for a few years, even Cole Porter, because that’s where the zeitgeist was hiding. From the middle of the fifties through the middle of the sixties it might have been Greenwich Village – Bob Dylan wandering the streets and all that – but after that it was California. The Mommas and Papas were California Dreaming and there was the Summer of Love in San Francisco – be sure to wear some flowers in your hair – but this had been building long before that. Ozzie and Harriet lived here, with Ricky and David, as did Gidget, and them, out of the blue, the Beach Boys had all of America singing surfer songs. Surfing USA was not a random title, and everyone wished They All Could be California Girls. It seems the zeitgeist was hiding out here now.
It wasn’t just pop culture. The school system was the best in the world, with pretty much free college for everyone who wanted that, and an amazing freeway system, and extensive social services for all, and all sorts of new and amazing industries. Silicon Valley was the future too. Apple and HP started in suburban California garages, as did quite a few others – but then hardly anyone out here ever parks the family car in the garage anyway, what with the glorious weather. It was politics too. California gave America two iconic presidents – Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Each provided a new way for America to define itself – tightly focused paranoia and then sunny befuddled optimism. Each came from out here first – we knew these guys long before the rest of America did. Zeitgeist has to start somewhere. California was Republican, in the new and modern sense, long before the rest of America was.
And then it wasn’t. Every writer and composer and artist hauled off to Paris in the twenties, chasing down the zeitgeist in the one place it was hiding, but no Republicans are hailing off to California now. We tossed the bums out. They had defunded public education at all levels, leaving is at the bottom of ratings on everything, and let freeways and the rest of the infrastructure crumble, and reduced most social service to next to nothing – all in the name of low taxes and freedom and personal responsibility. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the last straw – he met a role even he couldn’t stumble through by being charming. The state was, finally, bankrupt, so we brought back the brainy and clever Jerry Brown, and elected a Democratic supermajority in both state chambers. Now there’s a budget surplus and the state is rebuilding itself, slowly but surely.
David Dayen has written a long and detailed analysis of how all this happened out here – on how the liberals saved California – so anyone who wants to see the future might want to look to California once again, to get a sense of what’s really going on. It’s what’s happening, baby!
It’s hard to see how the Republicans can do anything about this. It’s hard to fight the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times. America has a black president, and no one but a few old farts have any particular problem with gays, and women don’t much feel like being told they’re weak vessels who need the protection of a dominant man, unless they’re sluts, as they all may be, really. Young folks like science and aren’t impressed by the rich, and Hispanics want a government that works and does good stuff for everyone, as do most other minorities. There’s something in the air that’s uncongenial to Republican notions of small government, with full austerity by cutting everything in sight, no matter what, and freedom for the rich and well-connected to do anything they want, because that’s good for everyone.
No one is buying any of that, no matter how nicely they repackage their notions. There’s something else in the air, and there has been for a few years now. Sooner or later the nation will probably do what California has already done – listen politely to the folks, shrug, and move on.
That leaves the Republicans only one card to play – national security. Democrats are wimps, you see. Republicans know that war, and violence in general, is sometimes necessary – so they will heroically do what must be done. Only Ron Paul and his son, Rand, keep saying going to war over anything that seems wrong, anywhere, is kind of stupid. The rest of the party is betting that Americans love bold and strong men, patriots willing to threaten war, then wage it, not wimps. That’s their reading of the zeitgeist.
That’s why, on Memorial Day this year, John McCain slipped into Syria to meet with some of the rebel leaders – to show, if he had been elected president, we’d have armed those guys and maybe even fought alongside them to overthrow that Assad monster. McCain only met with one rebel faction – the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – not the twenty or so other factions who are aligned with al-Qaeda and want a severe and strict Islamic state there, where infidels are stoned to death daily and all the rest. McCain does tend to oversimplify matters, as he sees war as the answer to most any issue. Doesn’t everyone?
That’s the question, and some of it is cultural. There’s a rumor that George W. Bush’s favorite movie was The Last Starfighter – but that might be something that only seems like it must be true. It’s silly fluff – cartoon heroics. It’s just that McCain’s trip did seem cartoonish, and in a CNN op-ed piece, Rand Paul did point that out:
The United States has a history of often picking sides in Middle East conflicts to its own detriment.
In the 1980s, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with Saddam Hussein to establish a relationship that helped the dictator gain access to American arms during Iraq’s war with Iran. In the 1990s, the U.S. would drive former ally Hussein from Kuwait and impose a decade of sanctions that were devastating for Iraqis, but had little effect on the dictator. In 2003, we went to Iraq, overthrew Hussein, and became part of nation-building effort from which we only recently saw most of our soldiers return home.
Arguably one of the greatest beneficiaries of the Iraq war was Iran, which now enjoys more power and influence with the elimination of its historic enemy. President George H. W. Bush did not pursue Hussein directly during Operation Desert Storm precisely because he feared the destabilizing effects it might have on the region, or as his Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney explained in 1994, “Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place?” Today, Iraq is unstable and its future uncertain.
The lesson is obvious. We don’t want to go there again in Syria. This isn’t a cartoon, but a few days after McCain’s trip, it did turn into one:
Senator John McCain’s office is pushing back against reports that while visiting Syria this week he posed in a photo with rebels who kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shi’ite pilgrims. …
“A number of the Syrians who greeted Senator McCain upon his arrival in Syria asked to take pictures with him, and as always, the Senator complied,” [McCain spokesman Brian] Rogers said. “If the individual photographed with Senator McCain is in fact Mohamed Nour that is regrettable. But it would be ludicrous to suggest that the Senator in any way condones the kidnapping of Lebanese Shia pilgrims or has any communication with those responsible. Senator McCain condemns such heinous actions in the strongest possible terms,” Rogers said.
Playing the last available Republican card got tricky, but CBS News reported here on McCain’s comments following his visit to Syria:
Of the risk that U.S. weapons might fall into the wrong hands, McCain suggested “identifying those people who are on our side.”
Daniel Larison pounces on that:
McCain’s remark sums up a lot of what is wrong with the pro-intervention argument. He starts from the assumption that there is a side in the Syrian conflict that can reasonably be described as “ours,” and then considers it simply to be a problem of locating and identifying the people that are on “our side” before funneling weapons to them. When we recognize that neither side in the conflict is “ours,” suddenly the idea that the U.S. is obliged to arm the weaker side in the conflict makes absolutely no sense.
As for that unfortunate photograph, there’s this:
The episode illustrates how unwise McCain’s overall position on Syria is. McCain went to Syria so that he could vouch for the virtues of the opposition, but at least some of the people he wants the U.S. to arm are already engaged in sectarian and criminal behavior. The standard interventionist line is that U.S. backing for the opposition would enable Washington to discourage and prevent such behavior, but it is far more likely that it would simply make the U.S. complicit in it.
McCain’s reasoning is faulty:
No doubt it’s also true that “no insurgencies are perfect,” as McCain said, but the problem is that the opposition’s “perfection” or lack thereof doesn’t matter to McCain. … The truth is that McCain very much wants the U.S. to be on the Syrian opposition’s side, and so we are told that they are on “ours,” but in the context of Syria’s conflict this claim is meaningless. The U.S. doesn’t have a side in Syria’s conflict, and it shouldn’t try to get one.
Reason’s Steve Chapman puts it a different way:
Aversion therapy is a process used to deter people from engaging in self-destructive habits by subjecting them to painful sensations whenever they do – say, giving them an electric shock when they light a cigarette or take a drink. The idea is that soon they will learn that these once-pleasurable pastimes are something to avoid.
We have all had years of aversion therapy for our addiction to military intervention. But it’s had a strange effect on John McCain: The worse it hurts, the more he wants to keep doing it. The American public may be weary after more than a dozen years of nonstop war, but McCain is eager to wade into a new fight in Syria.
That’s the zeitgeist, but McCain doesn’t see it:
The trip was obviously intended to put pressure on President Barack Obama, who has so far resisted demands from McCain and other Republicans to help the insurgency with air power and weapons.
Why anything McCain does should influence Obama is a mystery. The endorsement of the Syrian rebels comes from the wise mind that thought Sarah Palin should be one heartbeat away from the nuclear codes. It was no secret in 2008 that McCain would be more apt than Obama to launch random invasions of countries Palin couldn’t find on a map. For some reason, the American people opted for Obama.
Yeah, that was a sort of a California thing right there, as you don’t give the car keys to the kid who wrecked it last time:
American military intervention over the past 12 years has been a trail of tears, littered with pulverized buildings, dead bodies and piles of burning cash. We have a reverse Midas touch: Every success turns to failure.
Remember when President George W. Bush mounted a military surge to stave off defeat in Iraq? Foreign policy hawks regard that as his greatest achievement. But today, the country is sliding toward civil war. April was the deadliest month in nearly five years, with 712 people killed, and May has been nearly as bad. Some 66 people died in bombings on Monday, bringing the month’s fatalities to more than 500.
Afghanistan is no place to find reasons for hope. Our allies in the Afghan army are distrustful of us, often hostile and generally substandard in performance. Last year, “insider” attacks by supposedly friendly Afghan security personnel killed 61 troops from the U.S.-led coalition forces.
We have been there since 2001, and there is no happy resolution in sight. The former top commander in Afghanistan – retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen – says that “there’s going to be an international military presence in Afghanistan for a long time.”
Libya looked like the mission that finally changed our luck: We unleashed air power, toppled the regime of Moammar Gadhafi and made a brisk exit. But things haven’t gone quite as swimmingly as we had hoped. Maybe you’ve heard of Benghazi?
That disaster may be the least of our troubles. The Daily Beast reports that the upheaval in Libya has been a boon to al-Qaida: “Libya has now become the main base of the terror group in the region, heightening the instability of what is already a volatile country.”
That’s quite a list, but it seems accurate enough, and instructive:
If we still can’t make these countries right, why do we assume we’ll do better in Syria? It could easily turn out worse. McCain says U.S. ground troops won’t be needed, but what if we take on Assad and he survives? Once we commit to his removal, interventionists will demand that we expand the fight rather than abandon it.
And what if a limited intervention does work? Our reward could be a government worse than the current dictatorship. One of the chief rebel factions is publicly affiliated with al-Qaida — and others are equally extreme in outlook. U.S. intervention may deliver victory to people we wouldn’t dream of letting through a TSA checkpoint.
If we go to war in Syria, it will be without any real assurance of what it will take, how long it will last, how many lives we’ll lose and what the outcome will be.
Yeah, but other than that, it seems like a fine idea. Larison says that if the past is any guide, we’ll do this, and we’ll be sorry we did, but that may be misreading the change in the air, something that started in California. Listen politely – McCain is an honorable man and a war hero – then shrug and move on.
That’s best, as after exhaustively reviewing all the details of McCain’s case for war, Allahpundit offers this:
We’ve spent two years watching Egypt bend towards Islamism and now here’s Maverick attempting to sell the public again on the idea that Syria’s a liberal democracy in the eventual making if we just pick the right people to empower, knowing full well that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood probably constitutes one of the milder expressions of Islamic fundamentalism among the rebel hordes. What Syria really is, is a budding hybrid of Egypt and Libya post-revolution, with some dominant Islamist group at the head of government and even more radical militias roaming the streets. In an implausibly unlikely best-case scenario, you’d end up there with some sort of socialist regime that would keep its boot on the throats of jihadists and keep the country retarded economically. The fact that he can’t sell his interventionism honestly reminds me again that he’s probably, and inadvertently, a better salesman for isolationism at this point than even Rand Paul is.
The New York Times’ Ben Hubbard had earlier mentioned this sort of thing:
The Islamist character of the opposition reflects the main constituency of the rebellion, which has been led since its start by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, mostly in conservative, marginalized areas. The descent into brutal civil war has hardened sectarian differences, and the failure of more mainstream rebel groups to secure regular arms supplies has allowed Islamists to fill the void and win supporters.
The religious agenda of the combatants sets them apart from many civilian activists, protesters and aid workers who had hoped the uprising would create a civil, democratic Syria.
When the armed rebellion began, defectors from the government’s staunchly secular army formed the vanguard. The rebel movement has since grown to include fighters with a wide range of views, including Qaeda-aligned jihadists seeking to establish an Islamic emirate, political Islamists inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and others who want an Islamic-influenced legal code like that found in many Arab states. …
Of most concern to the United States is the Nusra Front, whose leader recently confirmed that the group cooperated with Al Qaeda in Iraq and pledged fealty to Al Qaeda’s top leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s longtime deputy.
McCain met with the small Free Syria Army, which is insignificant now. There is no secular opposition to Bashar al-Assad any longer. Others have taken up the cause and elbowed them out. Of course there never was a secular opposition to Saddam Hussein in Iraq either, just the Shiite majority, who wanted to get rid of that Sunni bastard. Iraq was never going to be a secular Jeffersonian democracy, with a Wal-Mart in every town and a Starbucks on every corner, supporting America, and Israel too. What were we thinking?
We weren’t thinking. We were listening to Republicans talk about manly heroism or something, as we had always listened to them, nodding, vaguely – and then we were uneasy – and then we realized that this made no sense – and then we realized this was damned dangerous stuff. Of course once one wakes up to that realization, the rest of what they’re saying becomes an issue. It seems to be just as dangerous. Now what?
Welcome to California, everyone. We started it out here – there’s really no reason to deal with these folks at all. Trust us – things will work out just fine, or even better, without them. So get with it, as all trends do start out here after all.