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“Let Allah sort it out”: Alan Grayson’s curious callousness on Syria

September 10, 2013
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Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, is probably best known for two things: being stridently anti-war (he first made a name for himself suing defense contractors during the Iraq War) and having … how to put this delicately … something of an assholish streak (think “die quickly” or “Taliban Dan”).

Neither of these is, in the context of American politics, necessarily a bad thing. As the last decade has amply demonstrated, politicians who don’t piss themselves at the mere mention of “national security” are too often in short supply, and the U.S. Congress is no place for shrinking violets, especially if you want to stand out amid the shrill chorus of demagogues and know-nothings. Still, few people on the national stage marry these two particular qualities with such aplomb.

And so it wasn’t surprising to see Grayson take a vociferous lead against President Obama’s call to bomb Syria in retaliation for the regime’s alleged use of sarin gas to kill some 1,400 civilians, including hundreds of children—and sometimes do so like an asshole. This is, after all, right in his wheelhouse: Grayson is the self-styled “congressman with guts,” and battling his own party’s president on behalf of his principles only feeds that image.

Over the last few weeks, Grayson has penned an op-ed in the New York Times claiming Obama hasn’t made the case for military action; sharply questioned Secretaries Kerry and Hagel in congressional hearings; cited stories from the right-wing Daily Caller website to allege that intelligence related to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb has been manipulated; set up a website, dontattacksyria.com, that asks people to sign a petition that says “nobody wants U.S. intervention in Syria except the military-industrial complex” (you can also donate to his campaign there); forged a strange-bedfellows coalition of reflexively anti-Obama conservatives, isolationist libertarians and dovish progressives into a potent legislative force; and been touted by both the Miami Herald and The Atlantic as the congressman who could almost single-handedly stop a war.

I’ve no problem with any of that. A default toward peace, rather than war, is good. Skepticism of administration claims is good. Bipartisan coalition building is good. Appealing to democratic action is good (especially in a policy arena so dominated by elites). And I’d imagine we can all agree that, on balance, the military-industrial complex has been a net negative these last 60 years, though I may quibble with the blanket assertion that anyone who wants to use targeted strikes to avert future massacres is somehow in thrall to Halliburton.

Here, however, is where I jump off: Not Grayson’s opposition to intervention in Syria—an opinion most everyone shares, according to polls—but his seeming indifference to the bloodshed, to the 100,000 dead and 2 million refugees (and counting), to his willingness to look the other way as a dictator gasses his own people because, as he put it, “We have our own problems to deal with.”

On Sept. 3, Grayson went on Ed Shultz’s radio show, where he offered this callous-sounding take:

I don’t think we have a dog in that fight. I think this is one of those extraordinarily rare occasions when I think I’m in agreement with Sarah Palin. She said, “Let Allah sort it out.”

Let Allah sort it out.

The next night, Grayson went on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes and reiterated, “Most people know this is simply not our problem.” When Hayes—himself quite anti-engagement in Syria—challenged him, Grayson dismissed concerns about the moral obtuseness of disinterest with a “sorry” and the cacophonous laugh and wide grin of a man who’s enjoying his moment in the lights a little too much.

As I’ve written before, there are many, many legitimate arguments that going to war will exacerbate an already awful and deteriorating situation. But shrugging off—laughing off—this incredible human suffering as none of our business because doing otherwise might require getting our hands dirty and those people way over there just aren’t worth it? That, to my mind, strikes a deeply discordant note.

We can’t be the world’s policeman, as Grayson is fond of saying, but that doesn’t mean we should turn the other way and pretend not to notice the death and rot and despair in the globe’s most turbulent region.

I spent the last few days trying to get Grayson’s office to tell me what he thinks our best non-military options are in Syria. They got back to me late last night with a short statement on Syria agreeing to surrender its chemical weapons to the international community (more on that in a second). (Grayson has refused to speak with me—me personally, not Orlando Weekly—since 2008, dating back to a grudge over perceived unfavorable coverage.)

He did, however, offer this answer to The Atlantic on the question of humanitarian intervention:

That’s a nice sentiment, one which I often share. But the fact is, no one has been able to come up with a game plan here that makes any sense. If we could end suffering in Syria through a military strike, that would be a decision worth thinking about. But no one is suggesting that’s going to happen here. No one is suggesting this will end the dictatorship. No one is suggesting this will defeat the al-Nusra rebels who want sharia law and no rights for women. No one is suggesting this will actually prevent a gas attack in the future. No one is suggesting this will do much of anything except give a slap on the wrist to Assad in hopes that maybe something good will come out of that. I actually would support humanitarian aid to the refugees. There are 2 million of them in Jordan and Turkey right now, and I think they could use our help. My concept of humanitarian aid is food, medicine, shelter, clothing, not bombs. The concept of a humanitarian war, humanitarian bombs, humanitarian missiles, is bizarre to me. I don’t support it.

That is, at least, more nuanced (and less dickish) than “let Allah sort it out.” He went on to say that he would support humanitarian military intervention in the case of genocide, just not another country’s civil war.

That’s a reasonable enough position—and he’s certainly not wrong that Syria is basically the Kobayashi Maru of foreign policy—though it elides the cold, brutal fact that chemical weapons are set apart for a reason: They are singularly designed to kill indiscriminately, to viciously and painfully murder noncombatants en masse, to instill mass terror among populations. As Steve Coll, a seminal writer on national security issues, explained in the New Yorker:

Gas weapons cannot be aimed in order to spare children or other noncombatants. They cause fear and prolonged suffering in victims, and cripple some survivors. They can contaminate the environment with poisons that last beyond a war’s end. And, because gases travel unpredictably on the wind, the weapons’ utility on a battlefield is limited.

Fortunately, the threat of strikes—and John Kerry’s recent extemporaneous comments—opened the door to a possible, albeit half-measured, solution. Syria has reportedly agreed to allow the UN to confiscate and destroy its stockpiles of chemical weapons and precursors to avert an American attack. (This is, it should be said, a massive stroke of luck for a president who’s war plans were about to be shot down by Congress for the first time since World War II. Kerry’s accidental diplomacy is akin to drawing an inside straight.)

Grayson’s office sent me a statement last night praising the proposed deal:

The proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control has a great deal of merit, and unlike the planned strikes, actually would prevent chemical warfare attacks in the future. Placing Syrian chemical weapons under international control would be constructive. U.S. military intervention in the Syrian civil war would be destructive.

Of course, one wouldn’t have happened without the possibility of the other.

In any event, minus a permanent diplomatic solution, this civil war will rage on, and thousands upon thousands more will die from conventional bullets and bombs and missiles, while millions more crowd into packed refugee camps in Jordan and elsewhere, where many of them may become radicalized in their destitution and hopelessness.

This is, contra Grayson, very much our problem, not something to leave to the whims of fate, not if we want to stake a claim to being a world leader in the 21st century. In a globalized world, there’s no way to entirely disentangle ourselves from others’ tribulations, and like it or not, we are affected—if not today, then a decade or two down the road.

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  • http://www.BR-549.com Junior Samples

    Admit it, you’re just ticked off that he agreed with Governor Sarah Palin!

  • Tom Baxter

    Regardless of whether or not Obama joins Israel and drops a few kilotons of bombs on Syria, his creating, training, supplying and arming the ‘Free Syrian Army’ along with our Free World democratic allies Saudi Arabia, France. Qatar, Turkey, and Jordan have turned Syria into a destroyed state, just as he and his predecessors, destroyed Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Somilia. Israel will be able to extend it’s annexation of the Golan indefinitely and maintain control over the headwaters of the Jordan. Also, effective resistance to Israel’s reconquest of Lebanon will be greatly reduced.