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
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
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?
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.