America…goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy…The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. the frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.- John Quincy Adams, 4 July 1821
It’s hard to know what to think about Syria. Polls everywhere ask either/or questions. They ignore nuance. And that is a problem.
Another question, I think, is far easier. It is not hard to know what to think about the U.S. attacking Syria. That’s wrong. And it’s wrong for a number of reasons.
Yes, it is wrong for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons on its citizens. But why are chemical weapons worse than bombs or bullets? Dead is dead. Yes, chemical weapons are horrific. Even Hitler didn’t want to use chemical weapons. That’s saying something.
And yes, its use contravenes the “civilized” rules of warfare (as if there could be such a thing as civilized warfare). If you read any accounts of chemical warfare in the First World War, you will know how horrible such weapons are.
But – and this is a huge ‘but’ – the Syrian government used them against Syrian citizens. Not U.S. citizens. Not French citizens. Not English citizens. Citizens the government calls rebels. People trying to overthrow the Syrian government.
Ask yourself this: if the U.S. government used chemical weapons on American citizens, would we want Russian or Chinese troops to step in and overthrow our government? Would Vladimir Putin have any right?
I have been reading Jerry Toner’s Roman Disasters and he makes a very interesting point about interventionism, one that I think is relevant here:
Disasters showed up human qualities and characteristics in their purest and most exaggerated form. But lest we in the modern world feel smug about our own ‘objective’ assessment of the significance and impact of disasters, we should bear in mind that this too has an ideological slant. ‘Vulnerability’ can itself be seen as a western discourse that helps to keep the rest of the world weak and subordinate. A country that is vulnerable is constructed as a dangerous ‘other’ place, a place needing interference and help. It is a way of rendering the world unsafe. Western disaster discourse then becomes a justification for external, western interference in the affairs of the rest of the world, without attempting to redress the imbalances that have often been the underlying cause of the disasters. The recipients of this aid are portrayed as childlike in their incapacity for self-help. They need the superior skill and wealth of the west to recover, making them seem weak and passive.
It must be realized that there are man-made disasters in our world as well, including war. Including the Syrian use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. Without attempting to speak for Toner, I would argue that the points he makes here still apply.
There is more going on here than what appears to be true on the surface, and more at stake, for the U.S., for Syria, for the Middle East, and for the world.
Few problems, particularly international situations such as this, are ever black and white, and we should resist trying to resolve them with black and white thinking. As an example of such thinking, John McCain said Wednesday on Fox News’ “On the Record,” that not intervening is “crazy” and that “America must lead, and America is not leading.”
Balance McCain’s opinion against what Toner says above. What is McCain NOT saying? Or more specifically, what problems are John McCain ignoring?
Does America have a moral obligation to do something simply because it CAN do something? Will America doing something make things better in the long run, or worse? Or will it make no difference at all?
As liberals we can trust that President Obama will not make a mess of things like Bush did in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Syria represents another opportunity for the United States NOT to lead, but rather (to use the vernacular) piss the world off. There is Russia, which strongly opposes Western intervention, to consider, for one. It is important in the interest of world peace that the U.S. and Russia get along and not re-ignite the Cold War.
Great as the Cold War was to the military industrial complex, it was not so great for everyone else. Much as the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War helped the military industrial complex, it was not so great to young American men and women. It was not so great to all the tens of thousands of innocent citizens of those countries who became casualties, or who lost their homes.
But more importantly, there is the rest of the Islamic world to consider, which has already decided to do nothing.
As the New York Times reported on Tuesday,
The leaders of the Arab world on Tuesday blamed the Syrian government for a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people last week, but declined to back a retaliatory military strike, leaving President Obama without the broad regional support he had for his last military intervention in the Middle East, in Libya in 2011.
The Arab League said Syria is “fully responsible for the ugly crime and demands that all the perpetrators of this heinous crime be presented for international trials.”
But short of toppling the Syrian regime, no such trials are likely to take place. Is it the job of the United States to overthrow the Assad regime? Remember, the world was not too happy when we overthrew the Hussein regime.
McClatchy interprets the 22-member Arab League’s stance as “giving the Obama administration symbolic regional cover to proceed with a punitive offensive” but this seems more on the order of wishful thinking than tacit approval for military intervention.
That is 22 Islamic countries that have chosen to do nothing about one of their own. Can the United States therefore reasonably expect these 22 nations to approve of the United States attacking the Islamic country they themselves have chosen not to attack?
Quagmire is an oft-repeated term, and the quagmire is more than simply military. It is also diplomatic, and it embraces not only what is happening now but the likely outcome of anything the United States decides to do. The reverberations will be felt far into the future and will affect people, for good or ill, who should reasonably be able to expect that foreign countries have no right to interfere in their internal affairs.
To the rest of the world, and it is important that we get through our thick, parochial heads that this is true, the United States is a foreign country. In our eyes, as the U.S. Navy says, we are a “global force for good” but it is essential to recognize that this claim is subjective rather than objective.
If it unilaterally intervenes in the internal affairs of other countries, it is setting a precedent, and an unsustainable precedent at that. We have already chosen to ignore genocide in Africa; morally, we can hardly expect anyone to recognize our claim to a moral high ground if we pick and chose our outrages.
In the end, just as one man’s good is another man’s evil, one man’s hero is another man’s bully, and by intervening in Syria we run the risk of being a George Zimmerman – who saw something he didn’t like in HIS neighborhood and eradicated it – writ large, a George Zimmerman on a global scale.
Is that really what the United States aspires to? John Quincy Adams did not think so. Do you?