I am no fan of Obama, although I voted for him twice; each time, there was essentially no competition, as indeed there hasn’t been for my whole adult life, in which I have never voted Republican for President. Just the Supreme Court could tip the scales, but in truth the scales were already way over to the left to begin with. So, like so many of us, I can vote consistently and be consistently rather lukewarm.
But that said, I think Obama is doing pretty much the right thing right now on Syria. Whether he has done the right thing up to now, I’m not sure, since he seems to have painted himself into a corner with his Red Line statements. But even that might be OK. To give a preview of my analysis, I think it might be more important what Obama and the Americans say, rather than what they do.
First of all, let’s distinguish two roles: fighting on the side of the rebels (Role 1), and enforcing the moral and international legal norm of not using chemical weapons (Role 2).
The first issue has been debated for two years, and is complicated by our history of terribly mistaken enmeshing wars in Iraq and Afganistan, by the history of the Middle East and our escalating unpopularity there; and by the lack of cohesion of a rebel side, well known religious extremist growing preponderance therein, and the lack of democratic sensibility in the region as made clear by the Arab Spring and its lack of democratic flowers. As a result of all this and more, the Americans have decided to stay out, citing especially the Law of Unintended Consequences and the lack of immediate American security interests.
The second issue has come up in the Syrian conflict once before under obfuscatory circumstances, but now in the last few weeks much more directly and unavoidably. There is an international treaty, to which I think Syria is not a signatory, against the use of chemical weapons. Even if not a signatory, the internationally recognized norm is that such weapons should not be used. War brings out strange quasi-religious beliefs, it seems, that one kind of death is unlike another – fire bombing of some German cities, Dresden for one, caused much more destruction and loss of life than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but nuclear bombs are verboten and conventional bombing isn’t. It’s OK to kill one kind of human – combatants – but not another – non-combatants. Go figure.
Nonetheless, if there is such a norm, how is it to be enforced? Who shall enforce it? Is there really such a thing as a world-wide consensus? If so, is it represented in the United Nations, or some other supra-national organization? Or can one nation, the United States, claim moral infallibility and be the enforcer?
I said that it might be most important what America says, rather than what it does. Distinguishing these two roles is what I meant. Do we enter the arena at all, and if we do, is it to finally engage in the former conflict as combatants, or is it in the role of enforcer of the international norm?
The Tragedy of American Unexceptionalism
Given the decline of hopes for first the League of Nations and then the UN, some in the “free world” hoped that America would lead. There was at least some surface validity, it seemed, to American exceptionalism, that we were outside the stark geopolitical arena of interests, that we had a sense of human rights and the just society that we would support anywhere as friends of the court. Make the world safe for democracy. The socialists had a competing view but as time went on Stalin did his bit to destroy that myth as geopolitical nationalism became the obvious goal, and as the Soviet Union as a just (and efficient) society became an untenable concept, even to Susan Sontag (far into the Brezhnev era, as I recall – but I digress into a personal bête noir.)
America was given a pass on its claims for a while, despite United Fruit and the oil companies and the Negro Problem, probably because people could come here from throughout the world and be accepted and do well, and it just seemed like a good place to live and grow up. After the depredations of the Dulles brothers, Vietnam accelerated the decline of that view of America, and the Iraq deception and Abu Ghraib and other torture and Guantanamo and now unfettered NSA snooping have put the cap on it. There is no longer any moral high ground left for America in the world’s view.
America is the world’s only military superpower. People have said, don’t underestimate the evil in the world (true), and how much worse it would be if America were not the world’s cop. No doubt true. The problem is, how are you the world’s cop if you have lost the legitimacy you once had? America could once assemble a powerful coalition of the willing – see Iraq I. The neoconservatives put the end to that with chimerical coalitions in Iraq and Afganistan. It appears with Syria all we’re left with is France, the original colonial power there. Not enough.
Making the Distinction
So, we don’t wade into Syria in the first instance. Eventually, after what should be called war crime after war crime, the Assad regime uses chemical weapons. There is skepticism on the evidence, fueled by blowback from Bush-Cheney deception, much of which will not be made public because it rests on surveillance that even Snowden appears not to have revealed, but which I expect to be compelling very soon, nonetheless. How do you believably declare that you are going to intervene in Role 2 (referee), and not in Role 1 (combatant)? How can you intervene in Role 2, but not have an effect on Role 1 – that is, how can you penalize the Syrian government for a low blow but not tilt the outcome of the match?
The answer is, you can say what your motivations are, but you can’t fulfill only Role 2 without weighing in on Role 1 as well. A boxing referee awards points to the opponents for a low blow, which tilts the outcome. If there is more than a low blow – the boxing equivalent of use of nuclear weapons, perhaps doping the opponent – then the match is declared over and the winner anointed. If Assad used a nuke the world would be obligated to step in militarily with whatever we had. With chemical weapons first instance, award points.
This is where I think rhetoric makes the difference, and is the most important thing. Why are we going in and awarding points? As the referee. What kind of points? Bombing the remaining functioning airfields to hamper the Iranian and Russian resupplies. Does it help the rebels? Yes. Is it decisive? No.
It would be nice if we could just declare Bashar a war criminal and turn him over to The Hague. Unfortunately, that is what we have tried to do with Omar al Bashir of Sudan, and look what effect that has had? As I understand it, mostly a travel ban. That’s not enough points to award; ask South Sudan. So, intervention it is for Bashar.
The Usefulness of Consulting Congress
Open discussion and joint decision making is derided by the world that is not used to democracy – interestingly, that derision of “weakness” tells us a lot of what we need to know about the ease of introducing democracy to the world without a parliamentary tradition. But it will be best for us to do so; it is in our national interest.
The discussion will inevitably give a very complicated but descriptive narration to our motivation. McCain and Graham want us to fulfill Role 1. Others want us to fulfill Role 0. It will be up to Obama to give voice to, and the Congress as a whole to endorse, Role 2. Maybe it can be done, maybe it can’t. Maybe it will help others in the world to join us, maybe it won’t. Maybe it will disappoint everyone from the Saudi’s to the Scandinavians (where are they, by the way, those arbiters of decency?). But at least it will be us. This is the way we ought to do things. If Congress fails, so be it. That will lead to further discussion and evolution of our institutions. We need to clarify where we are and how we function, and this whole process should further that need.
It seems everyone wants us in there for their own purposes. Assad probably wants us in there so he can rally support of the anti-Americans; ditto the Iranians and Russians. Even if the declared purpose of America is as referee, few in the non-Western world will see it that way. But at some point you just have to say, WTF. Look and learn.
The Israeli’s are probably disappointed; they, too, want a dictator on their side. The Egyptian military wants us to keep out; they fear the anti-Americanism that will result, and the al Queda predominance of the rebel forces. The rebels want us in, they want the points. I bet the Russians want us out, because it will be hard for them to profit from our entry, and they want to keep Assad on their side – “human rights” and “Russia” cannot be uttered believably in the same sentence. The Chinese probably want us bogged down and they benefit from Anti-Americanism as they buy up African land. No one wishes an empire well, it seems – what did we bring the world except prosperity and human rights? (I exaggerate, but can’t help myself from echoing the great scene in Life of Brian as the opposition sects decry the effect of Pax Romana.)
But to all of this, I think you just have to say to the rest of the world, deal with it. We’re awarding the rebels points, whoever they are. If it becomes clear in the future that we can really make a credible contribution to peace, prosperity, and human rights in Syria, we will. But for right now, we’re just awarding points.