I’ve been weighing in against what seems to be a wide consensus that America must bomb Syria in order to “punish” or “send a message” or in some way tell the world that using chemical weapons “won’t be tolerated.” It’s a morally suspect way of thinking, one that mistakenly thinks Clausewitz was referring to speech-making or litigation when he said that war is politics by other means.
There is, however, something fundamental and substantial that this non-crisis has revealed, which is the strategic vision, not just of the Obama administration, but of large portions of our ruling elite. It assumes that nothing important is at stake in Syria.
In all questions of intervention and going to war one must ask oneself: Is the danger of inaction greater than action? This is true for those of us who adhere to just war thinking just as much as it holds for hard-boiled realists. (The principles of proportionality, likelihood of success, and last resort require us to ask that question along with others.) When it comes to Syria, the administration clearly thinks action is far more dangerous than inaction. Hence their desire for an operation that is merely symbolic.
This is a telling judgment. Most commentators point out that it reflects lessons learned in Iraq: Things can go very wrong. Very true. We’re living through a period of post traumatic stress disorder when it comes to substantial foreign interventions. But there’s another side to the question, the side of inaction. Here I think many, perhaps most of us think that aside from atrocities in Syria and countless deaths in the ongoing civil war, very little bad can happen.
Yes, Syria is a strategically important country in the Middle East, a strategically important region of the world. And, yes, this civil war has become a proxy war for powerful forces in that region that are vying to expand their spheres of influence and gain the upper hand. But the consensus is—and this holds true widely and not just in the White House—that no dominoes will fall. The disorder and conflict won’t spread. The global economic and political system is not a risk. China, Russia, even Iran? At end of the day they may angle for an advantage here and there, but they’ll support the global system, because it’s in their self-interest to do so.
That’s why this is being treated as a political carnival rather than a crisis that requires something more than postures, polling, and mock seriousness. The President’s off to St. Petersburg to do the real work of foreign policy, which is to keep up the endless litigation of diplomatic fine points in the global system we all believe in.
This is not a stupid way of thinking, but I worry that it reflects our parochial mentality. To a certain degree both American conservatives and liberals believe that we’re at what Francis Fukuyama called the End of History. Something like democratic capitalism broadly understood is the natural condition of humanity. Less advanced peoples and nations just need a bit of encouragement. The obvious benefits of our globalized economy, the human rights regime that justifies internationalism, and democracy will carry the day, and largely do so simply by virtue of their obvious rightness.
As I said, this assumption is very widespread, especially when it comes to the global economy, which many believe to be an irresistible force that now transcends politics and will bring about, if not the kingdom of God, then at least the kingdom of rational self-interest. And this assumption about the naturalness and inevitability of liberal democratic capitalism is crucial for judging inaction far less costly than action in places like Syria. As progressive prophets of modernity have always preached: History is on our side.
I am a firm believer in the moral advantages of a liberal democratic system of government, and I regard global capitalism as a profoundly dynamic and largely (although certainly not exclusively) benevolent force. But I think it’s naive to think they are natural or inevitable. Which is why I fear the Obama administration is miscalculating (as are many Republicans). Human beings have a remarkable and persistent desire to dominate and capacity to destroy.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.