The path of least resistance.
If you’re confused about what America’s military mission in Syria is, or whether the United States intends to see its ill-defined objectives achieved, don’t feel too bad. You are in good company. Even the president and his administration seem conflicted.
“We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon,” President Donald Trump revealed on March 27 in a speech in Ohio. “Let other people take care of it now.” That assertion probably came as a surprise to American defense officials. Only two months prior, U.S. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph Votel had enlisted the world’s help in the urgent effort to rebuild the shattered portions of Syria recently liberated from ISIS control. “The coalition campaign is not over there,” Votel said. “We’re moving into, frankly, what I regard as the more challenging and more difficult part of the campaign.” Although the administration had recently withdrawn $200 million in rebuilding assistance for Syria, State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters she was “unaware” of any plan to withdraw U.S. troops from that theater. Indeed, as recently as Monday, Pentagon officials were engaged in deliberations over whether to increase the U.S. troop presence on the ground in Northern and Eastern Syria.
The confusion did not end there. On Tuesday, President Trump reiterated his administration’s commitment to ensuring that “ISIS is gone” from Syria. When asked to elaborate, though, he insisted that the job was “almost completed” and restated his intention to withdraw U.S. soldiers from Syria as soon as possible (while resurrecting a campaign-trail proposal to have Saudi Arabia fund an extended American deployment). Simultaneously, just one mile away from the White House, Gen. Votel and State Department special envoy Brett McGurk were making a case for a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria, as well as substantial reconstruction investments.
Today, Donald Trump’s administration tried to clean up the confusion. The White House revealed that Trump was convinced of the value of a short-term deployment in Syria. Reportedly, though, he “wasn’t thrilled about it.” The mission in Syria will be coming to a “rapid end,” according to the administration, but no timetable for a full troop withdrawal was revealed. The president has instructed the U.S. military to begin preparations for withdrawal from Syria at some point in the future, which may or may not occur depending on conditions on the ground.
In sum, this administration is of two minds on Syria, and that internal conflict looks increasingly like multiple personality disorder.
The fact is, when it comes to Syria, the mission against ISIS has become a secondary concern for military planners. Raqqa has fallen, the “caliphate” is dissolved, and the terrorist threat is scattered. America’s mission in Syria is now to fill a vacuum in a shattered state and to prevent the various great powers and their proxies vying to rule the rubble from accidentally triggering a broader war.
One year ago, a coalition spokesperson revealed that the U.S. was preparing to deploy Stryker Combat Vehicles to Syria’s northern border, not to combat terrorists, but to deter America’s Turkish allies from executing strikes on America’s Kurdish allies. Deterrence failed; Turkey’s airstrikes on U.S. proxies did not abate and, eventually, Turkish ground forces entered the conflict to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state.
Last month, America’s adversaries in Damascus allowed U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters passage through regime-controlled territory to engage Turkish troops. At the same time, the regime targeted a U.S.-held position in another part of the country where it was joined by potentially hundreds of Russian contractors (most of which were neutralized by dug-in U.S. troops). Syria has become a cauldron of great powers, all shooting at one another and their proxies. Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, and Britain have joined the U.S., Russia, and Turkey in executing military operations in and over Syria. Almost none of this has anything to do with Islamic terrorism and everything to do with the great zero-sum game between nation states seeking power and leverage over one another.
To abandon the territory east of the Euphrates would be to surrender strategic territory and vast oil resources to the Iranian-Russian axis. What’s more, there will be no guarantees that the territory America leaves behind will not host an ISIS resurgence or the revival of another militant Islamist organization. For years, the Assad regime and its allies looked the other way or actively supported the ISIS threat as it allowed them to claim that the Syrian civil war was a conflict between the defenders of civilization and Islamists rather than one between a brutal regime and the civilians it oppresses. Assad still needs a scapegoat, and groups like al-Qaeda and its affiliates are ready to fill that role.
Because Donald Trump inherited a conflict that his predecessor had desperately hoped to avoid, there has never been a coherent strategy or narrowly defined objective for Syria. As a result, the U.S. approach to the conflict is entirely defensive and reactive. That isn’t President Trump’s fault, but nor has he approached the conflict realistically. Today, that likely means codifying Syria’s soft partition and establishing a power-sharing relationship among the nations with interests in preventing the country from collapsing entirely. That isn’t the cleanest solution to the conflict, but it might be a stable one.
It seems, though, that Trump is inclined to disregard material considerations like these. If Trump is unable to make the case to the public as to why America’s mission in Syria is vital, the nation will continue to be understandably skeptical of it. What’s more, Americans will likely welcome withdrawal from the Syrian theater. And when America is compelled to return under conditions far less optimal than they are even today, as was the case when the U.S. re-deployed to Iraq in 2014 after a short absence, the American public will think it an awful waste of lives and treasure. This terrible cycle of mistrust could end tomorrow if someone in the political class dared to make a case for why the U.S. is the only power capable of filling the vacuum in Syria and thereby preventing a broader asymmetric or even, terrifyingly, conventional conflict. But courage, it seems, is in short supply.
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Must-Reads from Magazine
We deserve better.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone active in American politics has lost their minds.
What we’re witnessing is not, however, collective madness. The political class in the United States has adapted to a constant atmosphere of high drama, and they’ve adopted the most theatrical poses possible if only to maintain the attention of their fickle audiences. What might look to dispassionate observers like mass hysteria is just overwrought performance art.
This week was a case study in our national insanity, which began aptly enough on Capitol Hill. There, confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh got underway, but Judge Kavanaugh’s presence was barely noticed. The hearings soon became a platform for some familiar grandstanding by members of the opposition party, but the over-acting to which the nation was privy was uniquely embarrassing.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker chewed the scenery, as is his habit, by declaring himself Spartacus and demanding that he be made a “martyr” via expulsion from the Senate for releasing one of Kavanaugh’s emails to the public, supposedly in violation of Senate confidentiality rules. But there was no violation, said Bill Bruck, the private attorney who led the review of Kavanaugh’s former White House records in the Senate. “We cleared the documents last night shortly after Senator Booker’s staff asked us to,” he said in a statement. Perhaps by engaging in what he called “an act civil disobedience,” Booker was only following the lead of his colleague, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who declared the committee’s process illegitimate, thereby supposedly rendering the rules of the United States Senate unworthy of recognition.
Outside another congressional committee’s chamber, the crazy really ramped up to absurd proportions. Following a hearing on alleged bias in Silicon Valley, Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by the rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which rapidly devolved to the point that both Senator and agitator were soon threatening to fight one another. “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention,” Rubio later told reporters. “We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” He’s right.
The Trump era has provided the press with fertile soil in which a thousand manic flowers have bloomed.
Amplified by the president himself, Jones has become one of the right’s favorite grifters. Unfortunately, he’s in plentiful company. The press has discovered a sudden interest in conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Laura Loomer partly because they make for such compelling television but also because they’re willing to confirm the pro-Trump right’s most paranoid suspicions.
The “Resistance” has been a valuable vehicle for the unscrupulous and under-medicated. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been feted in the press and in apolitical venues such as the MTV Movie Awards not despite but because of her penchant for radicalizing the left and feeding them fantasies about a coming anti-Trump putsch. Former British MP Louise Mensch, “D.C. technocrat” Eric Garland, and Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca spent most of 2017 basking in attention and praise from respectable quarters of the Washington political and media class. Their manifest unfitness for such elevated status somehow evaded drama addicts in mainstream political and media quarters.
And whether you’re pandering to the pro-Trump right or the anti-Trump left, there’s plenty of cash to go around for those who are willing to indoctrinate children or undermine the integrity of apolitical American institutions.
The week’s most hysterical moment belongs to the president and his aides—specifically, their reaction to an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times purportedly revealing the existence of a cabal in the administration dedicated to thwarting the president’s worst impulses. Now, some have expressed perfectly reasonable reservations about the Times’s decision to publish an anonymous op-ed. Others have fretted about the pernicious effects this disclosure might have on the already mercurial president’s approach to governance. But lost in the over-the-top reactions this piece inspired among political observers is the hackneyed nature of the revelations it contained.
In sum, the author disclosed that many members of this Republican administration are movement conservatives dedicated to conservative policy prescriptions that are antithetical to the policies on which Trump campaigned. As such, they have often successfully lobbied the president to adopt their positions over his own preferences.
The admittedly dangerous “two-track presidency” has been observable for some time, and is the frequent subject of reporting and opinion. For example, the op-ed highlighted the discrepancy between Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his administration’s admirably hawkish posture, which has become such a glaringly conspicuous feature of his presidency that Trump has recently begun trumpeting his contradictory record as though it was a unique species of competence. There’s nothing wrong with taking issue with the way in which the obvious was stated in this op-ed, but the statement of the obvious should not itself be a source of special consternation.
But was it ever. The Drudge Report dubbed the author a “saboteur,” despite the op-ed failing to describe even one action that was taken on the part of this so-called “resistance” against the president’s expressed wishes. “Sedition,” former White House Aide Sebastian Gorka echoed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the anonymous columnist as a “coward.” The president himself pondered whether the op-ed constituted “treason” against the United States and demanded the Times “turn over” this “gutless” columnist to the proper authorities, whoever they are. This is certainly one way to refute the charge that Trump’s “impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” but it’s not a good one.
It’s hard to fault politicians and the press for selling drama. Banality doesn’t push papers, drive up advertising rates, or turn out the vote. At a time without an urgent crisis, when the economy is strong, and the fires abroad are relatively well-contained, it serves the political and media classes to turn up the temperature on mundanities and declare all precedents portentous. But radicalizing voters for such purposes is both trite and irresponsible. In America, healthy and productive politics is boring politics. And who would tune in for that?
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An almost Biblical curse.
Modern Western man is dying. I mean that quite literally: Total sperm count among Western men declined nearly 60 percent from 1973 to 2011. That’s according to the first-ever comprehensive meta-analysis of 7,500 studies, by researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The analysis was published last summer, but it seems to have mostly eluded media attention until this year.
The most alarming finding? “When we restricted the analysis to studies after 1995, we found no sign that decline is leveling off,” said the Hebrew University’s Dr. Hegai Levine, one of the lead researchers. “In other words, the decline continues.” The implications for the species and modern Western societies especially are existential. As a GQ essay put it, “the human race is apparently on a trend line toward becoming unable to reproduce itself.”
Lest you think that’s a magazine scribe’s hyperbole, here’s Shanna Swan, another of the paper’s lead scientists: “You can ask, ‘What does it take? When is a species in danger? When is a species threatened?’ And we are definitely on that path.” Absent a dramatic reversal, that path might one day lead us to the opening scene of Children of Men, the 2006 movie based on P.D. James’s dystopian novel, in which a distraught crowd in a coffee shop watches news coverage of the death of the youngest person on earth—age 18.
With global fertility at zero (in the movie), that untimely death brings mankind one grim step closer to total extinction. Then a seemingly miraculous pregnancy does take place, and it falls to our protagonist, Theo (Clive Owen at his scraggly, depressive best), to escort the expectant mother through a post-apocalyptic Britain to a safe place where she might give birth and renew the face of the earth.
To be sure, men and women are still having babies in the real world, though fertility rates among most Western nations are well below replacement. Lower fertility means fewer young workers, which in turn causes all sorts of social problems: slow growth, welfare competition, unmet pension obligations, loneliness, depression. The human race may not go extinct for a long time, but the immediate effects are bad enough that we should make rectifying the male seed deficit an immediate priority.
And that’s where things get complicated. Because scientists can’t seem to reach any sort of agreement about what’s causing men to produce fewer little swimmers. Is it environmental degradation? Is it the chemicals and plastics that saturate modern life? Is it stress? Smoking? Diet and nutrition? All of the above? No one can say for certain. Another point for verisimilitude for Children of Men: In the movie, it is never quite made clear what is behind the global fertility crisis. It’s just there almost like, well, a biblical curse.
The West’s reigning scientism would never permit us to look beyond science for an answer. Scientism—as opposed to science properly understood—says that scientific knowledge is the only kind worthy of the name. It seeks to supplant and indeed vanquish other claimants to truth, especially revealed religion, with its injunctions to “cleave to a wife” and “be fruitful and multiply” (rather than play video games and cavort with sex bots). But the persistent mystery of the missing sperm is another reminder that the scientistic, contraceptive society may not be as durable as its sunniest boosters imagine it to be.
Correction: The Hebrew University meta-analysis found a sperm-count decline of nearly 60% among men who participated in the underlying studies. A previous version of this article misstated the conclusion in terms of the “average male.”
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The long march through institutions.
In June, I reviewed the superb essay collection, Anti-Zionism on Campus. In it, Andrew Pessin and Doron Ben-Atar collect testimonies and reflections from faculty and students who have found themselves denounced, ostracized, and sometimes under investigation because they’ve opposed anti-Israel activity on their campuses.
As Ben-Atar, professor of history at Fordham University, says, anti-Israel radicals “have taken to threats and intimidation in their battle to establish anti-Zionism as the doctrinal orthodoxy.” Few on campus have sharp ideas about Zionism, much less consider Zionism the source of all evil, as the radicals do. But when administrators are pliant and when faculty members don’t stand up to scholar-zealots, the 32 essays in this collection show that a few people can do great damage.
In discussing this disheartening material, though, I didn’t have a chance to mention a heartening and excellent essay by Jeffrey Kopstein, “Loud and Fast versus Slow and Quiet: Responses to Anti-Israel Activism on Campus.” Kopstein is no stranger to anti-Israel politics. As Director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, Kopstein witnessed the “dreary annual ritual of Israel apartheid week.”
Also a fixture on numerous American campuses, Israeli apartheid week is a designated period during which anti-Israel activists put on events and demonstrations with the single purpose of persuading anyone who will listen that Israel is at least as bad, maybe worse, than apartheid-era South Africa. Today, Kopstein is chair and professor of political science at the arguably much more toxic University of California, Irvine, where repeated disruptions of pro-Israel events have compelled administrators to put its chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine on probation for two years.
Thinking the atmosphere at Irvine had cooled down, Kopstein became involved in a program that brought three Israeli Supreme Court justices to visit Irvine in the 2015-16 academic year. The first visitor, former president of the Court Aharon Barak, drew protesters. As such, Kopstein chose to cut his presentation short before the planned question and answer session.
The second, former Justice Dalia Dorner, gave a successful talk to 190 students in one of Kopstein’s introductory courses. But Kopstein announced in advance only that a guest speaker was coming; he hid the speaker’s identity to avoid the kind of trouble Barak had encountered.
Salim Joubran, then an active justice, canceled. He explained that “he had to be extraordinarily careful, as a sitting Supreme Court justice, not to be seen as engaging in politics, something that the campus climate [at Irvine] would not permit.”
But I did say that Kopstein’s essay was heartening. The heartening part concerns Kopstein’s experience at Toronto where he thinks the tide was successfully turned against anti-Israel activism, not by counter-propaganda but by a lot of teaching. Kopstein and his colleagues did the “slow, quiet, thoughtful, and unglamorous work of teaching thousands of students in a range of disciplines.” Eventually, the University of Toronto had “a huge group of students on campus who actually knew something about Israel and understood the true complexity of the situation.” By “cultivating connections with Israeli institutions and by teaching dozens and dozens of courses,” one can put “the vast majority of students and faculty” in a position to recognize anti-Israel propaganda for what it is. I trust that Kopstein is working along the same lines at Irvine.
Kopstein observes that it is “surprising how few universities offer courses on the history of Israel, courses in the social sciences of modern Israel politics and culture, or even courses in the intellectual history and philosophy of Zionism.” Students who take such courses, taught with no particular tilt, “will not necessarily become Zionists.” But “their presence influences the broader campus in ways that the screaming matches of campus activism do not.” The Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, through its Summer Institute, does excellent work to prepare interested faculty to teach such courses.
There is no question that a rapid response to the boycott efforts that take place every year on our campuses is important. Students who do the difficult work of defending Israel against slander need and deserve support. But the kind of slow and quiet work Kopstein praises is more likely to transform campuses in the long term. It is also work suitable for those professors who don’t care to mix academic and political work. Even those who can’t teach an Israel Studies course can contribute to an atmosphere in which students and faculty scorn the kinds of gross simplifications and distortions that propagandists, whether they are peddling anti-Zionism or another brand of poison, rely on.
In such an atmosphere, anti-Zionism wouldn’t disappear. But it won’t thrive either.
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Is America going off the rails? Sure feels like it this week. We break it down and end at a summer camp in Ontario. Give a listen.
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Government is the problem.
An enormous cultural tragedy unfolded Sunday night when Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro was gutted by fire and largely destroyed. Its priceless collections ranged from paintings and ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts, to anthropological collections and mineral specimens. The gallery housed one of the oldest skeletons ever found in the Americas. It was also home to a 470,000-volume scientific library, one of the largest in Brazil. Much of it was lost.
Happily, no one was injured. It is, however, thought that no more than 10 percent of the 20 million items in the collection were spared. Fortunately, one of them is the Bendegó meteorite, a nearly six-ton iron meteorite that was found in 1784.
What could have caused this catastrophe? The answer, simply, is borderline criminal neglect by the government. To be sure, Brazil has been engulfed now for several years in both recession and a financial corruption scandal that makes Tea Pot Dome look like penny-ante. One president has been impeached and removed; another is in jail. The museum budget has been cut time and again until there was not enough to even maintain the building, which featured peeling paint, exposed electrical wiring, and plumbing leaks. But the maintenance budget of the museum was only 520,000 reals, not even a rounding error in a total federal budget that is well north of a trillion reals.
There was no fire suppression (i.e., sprinkler) system in place, nor, apparently, smoke alarms. Only four guards were on duty in the vast building. When the fire department arrived, the two nearest hydrants had no water, and it had to be trucked in from a nearby lake.
Just further proof, as if any were needed, that governments should not be allowed to run anything they do not absolutely have to run.