Syria Toe-Dipping and Revisiting the Dream

Earlier today Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online to chat about Syria, the commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington and Senator Tom Coburn's comments on impeachment.

Aug. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Earlier today Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online to chat about Syria, the commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington and Senator Tom Coburn's comments on impeachment. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

Margaret: To add to all the reasons I'm glad I cover domestic politics: Syria. Is there a harder foreign policy question? I know a few things: the lower in the chain of command the order to use chemical weapons goes, the more we need to attack Syria, not less. More than 1,000 people were gassed to death and if a rogue general did it, Bashar al-Assad did it.

Are we so spooked by Bush's precipitate attack on Saddam Hussein that we are now going to hem and haw about WMDs that do exist and have been used? No rebel group did that. Secondly, let's not pooh-pooh a limited attack when we have absolutely no one to fill the vacuum that would be created by Assad's removal. Look where regime change has gotten us in Egypt? Democracy does not flower in the sands of the Arab world, no matter how many Arab Springs. And thirdly, could the Obama White House stop telling Assad what they're going to do and not going to do?

Ramesh: Agreed on the telegraphing of the administration's intentions. But just because regime change is not working well in Egypt -- and would not be likely to yield good results at an acceptable cost in Syria -- does not mean that limited intervention makes sense. I just don't see what that limited intervention will accomplish, and can easily see how it could become less and less limited. It is a tragic situation, but I don't think it's actually a hard call to stay out.

Margaret: Along with any rape or Holocaust comments, politicians have to stay away from talk of red lines. Don't threaten your children -- or mass-murderers -- with something they know you don't want to carry out. It's easy to say now coulda, woulda, shoulda, but there's never been a good time to arm the Syrian rebels because there has never been a rebel group good enough to trust -- or strong enough. The few good guys there are too weak. Ramesh, if you don't do anything, is that a message to Assad to keep gassing his people? Doesn't attention have to be paid? Or are you an all-in person?

Ramesh: It says that there are terrible wrongs in the world that it does not make sense for the U.S. government to try to rectify. All-in would make more sense than a symbolic strike. There'd be a real argument for it. But given the absence of a friendly and decent opposition, it doesn't make sense, either. Maybe we could have done more to shape the opposition if we had intervened earlier, as some people argue, but in the current circumstance I don't see that there is anything good for us to do. And I take seriously a point that Peter Galbraith makes in the New Republic: the fact that Syria's persecuted religious minorities don't want this intervention is a good sign that it does not make sense on humanitarian grounds.

Margaret: There's an appropriate fear that if we hit the stockpile of gas, we will wreak horrible devastation without knocking out Assad who, in any event, is going to declare victory if he's still breathing when our pinprick is over. My heart is with Senator John McCain on this one, but I don't see how we deliver a knockout blow to Assad and then have a governing situation in Syria that we can live with. On the other hand (how many hands have I had in this discussion?), even if Obama hadn't mistakenly used the "red line" threat, do we just cast a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons? We started a decade-long war with Iraq when chemical weapons weren't used.

Ramesh: I understand the impulse to do something, Margaret, believe me; I just don't see the logic of it. We want to make a statement, but that statement can't be, "If you use chemical weapons, we'll do something -- probably something ineffectual."

This brings us to the other empty statement of the week: the president's speech on the anniversary of the March on Washington. He faced an impossible occasion to rise to, and didn't. But the eloquence of his mere presence there outweighed the lack of eloquence of his remarks.

Margaret: If you compare Obama's eloquence to that of the finest preacher of our time, you are right: he didn't rise to the soaring oratory of "I Have a Dream," a comparison which every pundit made. He's not a preacher, but a president of everyone. I sympathize with those who want Obama to man the racial barricades but by temperament and mission, he's not going to do that. He showed his solidarity with all Americans when he pivoted to the horrible, crippling income gap in this country. What I liked best was the "she's marching" section of the speech -- his shout-out to all those carrying on the dream in less dramatic ways: the tireless teachers arriving early and staying late who dip into their own pockets to make sure their students have what they need. (He could have mentioned throwing themselves between their students and mad men with guns). That's where he got into the cadence of King and the spirit of the March for Freedom but bridged what it meant to protest then and now: the employer who hires the ex-con, the veteran who helps his fellow warriors. They're marching. I was carried away in that section.

Ramesh: That certainly beat the part where Obama caricatured conservatives and spoke of opposition to big government as a kind of illegitimate plot against civil rights. But then conservatives these days sometimes seem bent on caricaturing themselves. This week, you got Senator Tom Coburn to kind-of sort-of retract his comment about Obama's near-impeachability. But I'm afraid that we're going to see more Republicans go down that hole.

Margaret: I have a weakness of Coburn and his common sense, though I disagree with him on gun control and a bunch of other stuff. About the rabbit hole, the senator worried that Republicans were going down it themselves without Democrats chasing them to it. He's against Obamacare, but when he tells his constituents that defunding it is a useless enterprise, they get mad. They see Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and wonder why Coburn isn't more like them. You got to hand it to him for going against Senator Mike Lee of Utah, his roommate in that Odd Couple townhouse, where a few years ago, Coburn prayed with Senator John Ensign, who ended up resigning over his affair with the wife of a staff member.

Ramesh: Why hasn't anyone done a television show based on that townhouse? Not that you can see Francis Underwood living there. Coburn is an illustration of the liberating power of self-imposed term limits. He always says whatever he feels like saying. My bet, and hope, is that he's going to have something blunt and negative to say about our pending campaign in Syria.

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