800px-Azaz_Syria_during_the_Syrian_Civil_War_Wide_Angel_of_Damage

I continue to be troubled by the President’s approach to military strikes against Syria. He speaks of making sure the chemical attacks in Syria are properly “punished.”


This way of talking is morally sloppy. Yes, people can be punished, and should be when they do wicked things. But nations cannot be, and should not be. (Nor, I will add, should races or ethnic groups or any other kind of collective identity be targeted for “punishment.”) When it comes to war-making, what makes sense morally is to restrain , contain , or defeat . These are actual military and on-the-ground political goals, not deadly moral gestures.


Perhaps, however, my worries are misplaced and the White House won’t do anything. The administration’s plan may be to draw out the drama for as long as possible, sabre-rattling while constitutional lawyers and diplomats work to come up with complications, road blocks, and alternatives (Geneva II negotiations!). This generates day-after-day of headlines and pictures of the President looking serious. He’s ready to act—-but his great respect for international law and our constitutional principles forces him to be deliberate. All this creates among voters the impression of resolve, without requiring any action.


This is a cynical view, but I must admit that I think Barack Obama and his team focus on what they do best, which is winning elections, and that they conduct foreign policy accordingly. Thus my despair over the moral cogency of any action in Syria: it will be motivated, planned, and carried out almost solely in accord with and for the sake of domestic political calculations.



I fear that the President is being counseled (and seeks counsel) about when, how, and under what circumstances to kill people in Damascus—-for that’s what “punishment” means—-largely with the following question in mind: How can Democrats look strong without risking the disasters that befell the Bush administration and continue to be a political liability for Republicans?

When it comes to war-making, political calculations are always part of the mix, especially in a democracy. But “part of” is not the same as “dominate,” which I think may be happening. What other conclusion is reasonable? The President has said over and over again that he does not think it wise to intervene in Syria, which strongly suggests that he has reasons other than strategic ones to be pushing forward with this notion of “limited” action. Those other reasons are to “send a message” and look strong. That’s suspiciously close to what political consultants advise candidates to do.


It could be, indeed probably is, the case that the President is surrounded by advisers who think of foreign policy as American political campaigns writ large, and they earnestly believe that we can somehow transcend power politics with electoral theatrics, as if America was engaged in something akin to a televised debate with Iran moderated by Jim Lehrer, showing resolve and “sending messages” in a way that will sway “global opinion.”

If this is so, then my cynicism is not misplaced—-it is much too mild.

Articles by R. R. Reno

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