During the Dec. 19 Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News generally steered the candidates toward hawkish positions on foreign policy. She appeared to accept the premise that the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also called ISIS) is both necessary and urgent. But one position advanced by former Secretary of State and current frontrunner Hillary Clinton was so hawkish, so cavalier, that even Raddatz felt compelled to push back. After Clinton said she supported a no-fly zone in Syria in the context of fighting ISIL, Raddatz skeptically followed up:
Raddatz moved on, but this exchange illustrates the absurdity of Clinton’s support for a “no-fly zone.” A no-fly zone over Syria, as all parties understand, is a tacit declaration of war not only against Syria, but also against their longtime ally Russia, whose air force is currently flying over Syria to defend the government of Bashar al-Assad against both ISIL and various rebel groups, some overtly or covertly backed by the United States.
But most Americans don’t know what a no-fly zone is, because the media almost never explains what it would entail. Indeed, one has to look to paragraph 19 of an article in The New York Times from 2013 to get some specifics:
That was written before Russia entered the war in September 2015. The total number of U.S. servicemen needed to enforce a no-fly zone is likely now much higher, and the stakes for shooting down a Russian jet, intentionally or not, are much greater than for a Syrian one. Yet none of these inconvenient details are brought up in presidential debates.
That’s why Raddatz was so confused by the idea that Russia would “share” a no-fly zone. There’s little reason to believe Russia would sell out their only ally in the Middle East, and they’re certainly not going to assist the U.S. in bombing this ally’s air defense and warplanes. The reason Clinton described a fantasy no-fly zone where Russia joins the U.S. is because a real one could potentially require the U.S. to shoot down Russian jets, and starting World War III doesn’t square with the wishes of most Democrats, let alone most Americans. Even voters who don’t follow foreign policy debates closely can see that it’s not the Syrian Army shooting up cafes and concert calls in Paris; it’s their sworn enemy, ISIL.
Even The Atlantic’s typically hawkish Jeffrey Goldberg was confused, tweeting, “Still trying to understand Hillary’s point re: no-fly zone shared with Russia, which supports Assad’s air force. Not getting it.” It’s understandable why he doesn’t get it: It makes no sense. Either Clinton is calling for an actual no-fly zone that would involve de facto war against Russia and Syria, or she’s calling for a fantasy one where Russia reverses its entire foreign policy and becomes a client state of the U.S. She’s either being wildly reckless or willfully obtuse.
No other major Democrat supports Clinton’s tortured position. President Barack Obama himself has dismissed the idea, including when Clinton pushed for it while serving in his administration. But Clinton isn’t alone. She has lots of company on the other side of aisle, including from GOP establishment favorite Sen. Marco Rubio (with whom she shares a foreign policy consultant, Beacon Strategies), who has repeatedly called for a no-fly zone in similarly vague terms. In the Republican debates, the moderators haven’t even gone as far as Raddatz tried to in clarifying what this means.
The term “no-fly zone” is casually thrown around in the debates unchallenged, either because the moderators themselves don’t know what exactly it means or because they assume their audience doesn’t. Either way, “no-fly zone” has become the most effective way of calling for regime change in Syria without appearing to do so. It’s a neocon dog-whistle designed to appeal to hawks without offending a war-weary public. As George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language,” “such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”
If Clinton and the GOP want to spark a war with Syria, and by extension Russia, they should be honest about that and what it would entail. Right now all we have is tough-on-Assad bromides and virtually no realistic assessment of how such a plan would be carried out.
This type of bellicose language form Clinton wouldn’t be so troubling if she wasn’t both Obama’s former secretary of state and his likeliest successor. As Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama attempt to negotiate an end to the Syrian conflict, having just adopted a very tenuous framework at the U.N. Security Council, the specter of a de facto declaration of war against Russia in January 2017 is hardly helpful. Perhaps the Russians assume it’s just election-year bluster, but perhaps they don’t. Or perhaps the Iranians don’t. Or perhaps, above all, Assad does not.
Is this a risk worth taking to score political points in an election? Clinton’s grandstanding may focus-group well and make her look “tough,” but it can only undermine efforts to bring Syria’s devastating civil war to an end. Clinton might not care that her position is unworkable and reckless. But shouldn’t the media?